No experience required, just curiosity.

How to Watch Dance: Q&A with Professor Michelle Heffner-Hayes, Dance

Q: When should students plan to arrive when attending a dance concert?

A: If you’re going to a dance concert, you can expect to arrive a little bit early, so that you can get your tickets and find your seats, the same way you would at a movie. It’s not something you can arrive five minutes late to – in fact, the ushers will not let you in during a performance, depending on the theater that you’re in.

Q: What kind of clothes should students wear to a dance performance?

A: These days, most theaters don’t expect you to be in formal wear for a performance, especially in Lawrence. You can pretty much wear jeans or whatever you’re comfortable wearing. That said, it really depends on the event itself. If there’s a fundraising gala event in a really fancy theater, you’re probably going to want to dress up. If it’s just a regular performance at a theater, you can probably get away with jeans, but don’t be surprised to see people more formally dressed.

Q: How long do performances usually last?

A: The length of a dance concert varies. The standard is about an hour and a half; you will occasionally find a two-hour or a one-hour performance. Occasionally you can go to the website for an event and get the running time of the show – the same way you can look at a film and see what its running time is.

Q: Is there any special etiquette that students should know about for a dance performance?

A: When you get to your seats, you’re going to want to turn off your cell phone, even for texting purposes. The etiquette in the theater is slightly different from other events, mainly because the lighting of your phone is distracting to other people in the dark as they’re viewing what’s going on on stage. So turn off your cell phone, even if it’s on silent, and don’t text, because that’s going to be distracting to other people.

Q: When do you usually clap?

A: It really depends on the dance form. If you’re watching classical dance, you won’t clap between the movements, you’ll wait until the entire piece is over. However, there are more contemporary dance forms like hip hop or flamenco, where when a dancer does something extraordinary, you’re actually encouraged to yell at the dancer to encourage them. But it has to be part of the sort of cultural context of the dance piece. So, it really depends on the performance and on the art form, but a classical dance performance will follow the same etiquette as a classical music performance. If you’re seeing a dance performance in a different venue, you have to just pay attention to what’s going on with the audience members around you.

Reflecting on the Performance

Q: Do you have any advice about how to view the performance?

A: What I would recommend is: let yourself experience what you’re experiencing. Take notes during the intermission if there is one, and then right after the show, before you lose your impressions, write down some notes. I would also recommend keeping your program. Your program is going to tell you information about the sections of the dance, or the individual dances: their choreographers, the composer, the costumer, how many dancers are in it. So if you get confused, you can remember that it was the second piece in the first half, and it had twelve dancers. Sometimes the program will also provide a context for the performance, which can be helpful when constructing an interpretation. So your program can be your friend.

Q: Are there any particular things that students should watch for during the performance?

A: There are two main ways to view a dance. The first is physical: some dances are meant to be appreciated purely for the physical ability of the bodies on stage. There are no stories being told, it’s just about those bodies in movement and the splendor of their training and their capabilities. The other is story-based: the dancers are trying to construct a narrative of some kind. Occasionally you’ll see a story ballet, which is all about telling a fairy tale. For example, Sleeping Beauty is a story ballet; you know that story before you come in the door, and they’re acting it out. More contemporary work may tell a story, but it’s not so direct as something like Sleeping Beauty. You aren’t meant to have just one interpretation. So it’s an open narrative, where you can say something like, “There are two groups of dancers on stage. One group’s in red, and one group’s in black, and they appear to be in conflict with each other, but I’m not sure why. It looks like the red group is supplanting the black group...” There are narratives like that, where they’re not quite as direct in terms of their interpretation, but clearly something is happening that the audience member is left to construct as a viewer. At their most abstract, you can get narratives that are just about emotional tones, like vulnerability, or happiness, or loneliness. And it’s not up to you to say, “The wicked witch put a spell on the maiden,” it’s just about an emotional tone that’s being established. I consider that within that narrative realm.

Q: What kinds of things should people write down when taking notes?

A: Ask yourself: what am I seeing? Start with adjectives: sparkling, dull, violent, tender. Something that describes the movement. Once you’ve got a few adjectives, try to think of action verbs: running, prancing, gliding, smashing, spinning. What describes the action? If you can think of adjectives and then action verbs, that will capture what your impressions are in a really robust kind of way.

Pay attention to the moments where you find your comfort zone challenged. Try to recognize those moments and then reflect on them. For example, you might realize, “I didn’t realize I have some really strong ideas about what dance is and what dance isn’t.” Or, “I have some really strong ideas about women and their bodies and what bodies are appropriate to look at on stage and which ones are not. I did not expect to see the 200-pound woman doing hula.” In a traditional hula environment, a 200-pound woman would be regarded as beautiful, but at a ballet concert, you know, they are incredibly lithe and thin. So, those are two really different idealized notions of female beauty. So, reflect on why it’s challenging, and be ready to say, “Oh, wow, I have some really specific ideas about X, and I didn’t realize I did.”

Once you’re done listing the adjectives and action verbs, think: what about this looks familiar and what about it looks strange? And what does that say about those categories of familiar or strange? Whether it’s about female beauty, masculine athleticism, gender, culture, religion, etc. What we tend to do is we naturalize the familiar – we assume that everybody sees the world the same way we do. You might think, “I love the color blue and everybody loves the color blue!” Well, for certain people, the color blue has certain emotional or cultural connotations that are not always positive, and then you realize that your own perceptions of blue as a universally positive color might not hold true for everyone. There are all these different associations out there, and then suddenly, that which was familiar becomes strange. You get an outsider’s perspective on what is natural to you, which I think is really valuable.

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