Focus. I talk about that word often with my students. As teachers, we are constantly asking students to focus on different things, any other engaging performance – the speaker, the board, a book, a test – generally meaning that we want the students to put their eyes and their attention on those things. But the focus is just as important in dance or any performing art as it is in the general education classroom.
When I first started to dance, I studied ballet and Irish step dancing. None of my teachers ever talked about focus or intention. It was simply about the clean execution of the movements and proper technique. In ballet, we did learn about spotting or keeping one’s eyes on a particular point in space as one turned but that was purely pragmatic (to keep you turning in a straight line and to keep from getting dizzy) and did not take into account any intention behind the movement.
One summer, I attended a drama program at my local library and I very distinctly remember an exercise one teacher had us try. First, he had some actors just stand in front of the audience with no direction. Then he asked the actors to count the ceiling tiles and asked the audience to note any differences in the experience as an audience member. I was so struck by how instantly more interesting it was to watch these actors because they had a clear focal point and intention. Suddenly I was more engaged and willing to stick with the actors to see what would come next.
A few years later, my ballet teacher taught my class a contemporary piece. She asked us to imagine something we really wanted, to see it off in the distance and to reach for it as we performed a series of movements. That experience brought it all together for me. It was combining acting and dancing at the same time. The dance had meaning – I was telling a story. I had a focus and an intention. I was hooked. And if we’d had an audience, they would likely have been hooked too.
That’s what having a clear focus and intention can do for any performer – it engages the performer and in turn engages the audience. Many times, classroom teachers who are integrating the arts are not working alongside a teaching artist or art teacher. When it comes to giving pointers about the actual engaging performance, they may feel at a loss as to how to raise the quality of the engaging performance. My one big tip is focus and intention. If the students know where to look and why they are looking there and make sure their movements and thoughts stay aligned, the quality of the engaging performance will improve instantly.
The focus could be an inward focus – something the actor is thinking about that keeps the focus close to him or herself – or it could be an outward focus – something or someone in the distance that is pulling the performer or the performer’s attention. A performer might also have another performer as their focus. Eye contact is a very powerful means of non-verbal communication that can be used intentionally in a performance with two performers keeping contact with the eyes of the other performer.
This idea of focus and intention is explored in the National Core Arts Standards of Dance Performance #DA:4.1 if you want to read more about it. But trust me that if you have your students perform a dance and then give them or ask them to determine a focal point and/or an intention and perform the dance again, if the students are able to maintain that focus with their eyes, minds and movements, the quality of the performance will be immediately elevated. For, as we know as educators, focus keeps learners engaged. The same is true for performers and their audience. Maintain a focus and you’ve got them hooked!