Creating A Character In Dance

October 30, 2014 Caroleeena DancehoopdancehoopdanceHoopdancePerformance

Revolva Puts A Ring On It In Her Single Ladies Number

Revolva Puts A Ring On It In Her Single Ladies Number

Characterization is a writing concept that can also be applied to creating a character in dance. It refers to the little details an author uses to convey information about a character’s personality, mood, and/or story. In writing, these details can be described. (“Sarah was grumpy.”) but in dance, they must be shown. “Show, Don’t Tell” is important in writing but it’s essential in dance.

Some elements we use to convey both character and story are:
– appearance: clothing, makeup, accessories, degree of tidiness or dishevelment,
– actions: what the character does and how they do it,
– energy,
– mannerisms and gestures,
– gaze,
– posture and the way they carry themselves, and
– facial expressions.
– In group pieces, we can use other’s reactions to convey things about a character.
– Finally, many dancers also use pantomime — creating things that aren’t there (sliding doors, windows, pulling out a pocket watch) using only gestures, like the parlor game Charades.

Characterization is often the most under-developed part of a dancer’s performance. In the rush to develop technique or remember choreography, we often forget to ask ourselves, “Who is this person and why are they doing this?” Dances are stories and characters are the very heart of stories. Understanding who your character is and what their motivation is essential to conveying those things to others.

THE STORYonce upon a time

The first step toward developing a character is cultivating a deep understanding of the story! If you are dancing to a song that has lyrics, the story is right there, written out for you. Read it, listen to it, study it line by line so that you understand the ebbs and flows, peaks and nadirs, climax and denouement. Each line is a story within the story. Look at the piece as a whole but also look at the individual pieces, the building blocks, and consider how to convey them too. (I recommend listening the the lyrics and writing them down rather than googling them. Let them come in your ears, through your brain, down your arm, and out your fingers to develop a deeper understanding of each and every word and to allow you to create line breaks and pauses that make sense to you.) Some words in the story may give you ideas for actions that can be represented in your dance. Circle those for your notes. For example, “When the moon’s in the sky like a big pizza pie” has the words “moon”, “sky” and “pizza pie” — all of which could be represented in dance. These could be visually interpreted by holding the hoop in the air to represent a rising moon or with a vertical pizza toss to represent tossing a “pizza pie”. You don’t have to use every hook. Choose the ones that move the story forward or fit the flow of your story-telling.

If the song does not have lyrics, and to some extent even if it does, the story will be told by the music — specifically, the melody, the rhythm and underlying beat structure, the instruments, individually and together, including the way they come together and/or solo, and any other sound effects that are included. Listen closely and take note of the feel, the ebbs and flow, peaks and nadirs, any punctuating sounds, and the pacing. Consider how these things can be represented through movement — through starts and stops, highs and lows, expansion and contraction, changes in speed, levels or other transitions. The genre of the music conveys information too, providing hints about the background culture, era, costuming, associated dance styles, and more.

Prepare yourself to tell the story by thoroughly knowing the story.


Ask yourself: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How?

“Who is the person experiencing this story?”,”What are they experiencing?”, “Where is the setting?”, “Why is this happening?” and “How do they feel about it?”

More specifically, ask yourself: Actor with maks in a funny theater concept

– who is this character? (age, gender, species, life experience, skills, educational level, personality, attitude and disposition, failings and foibles, quirks, obsessions, wounds, and finest qualities)
– why are they acting now? What is their motivation?
– what emotions are they experiencing and how do those change over the arc of the story?
– how are those emotions reflected in your energy, facial expressions, mannerisms and actions?
– do the clothes you are wearing fit the feel of the piece?
– do the clothes you are wearing reflect the true nature of your character?

Once you have answered these questions, make sure the story you are actually telling aligns with the story you are trying to tell. If the story is a sad one, don’t tell it with a big smile on your face. If the story is a happy one, don’t tell it with a frown of concentration.

Creating a character is an acting exercise. We draw from our experiences to convey the experiences of another. It is an exercise in empathy as well as sign language.

Allow yourself to be possessed by the character. Characterization is not “and now Caroleeena is playing Sally Bowles”. Nothing exists but Sally Bowles. Sally Bowles is on that stage, with her attitude and courage and vulnerabilities and unique mannerisms. Or perhaps it’s Sophie the Cat with all her catness and coyness, playfulness and demanding nature. Actress Megan Mullally, who played Karen Walker on ‘Will and Grace’, is often asked to play characters who are “like Karen Walker”. She refuses. “Karen Walker” exists only in the context of that role…nowhere else…but when Karen Walker exists, Megan Mullally ceases to exist. To see Megan Mullally outside of that role is almost shocking. They are two completely different people. There are aspects of Megan in Karen but Karen is not Megan.

Dancer Charlotte D’Amboise says of developing her character in ‘Parade’, “Create out of the physical. Find a walk. A stance. A way of carrying yourself. Be present with the character. Who are they without the dialogue? How do they hold themselves and carry themselves? Do they mess with their clothing or fiddle with their hair? Do you, as the dancer, believe the story you’re telling? The character you are creating, do they feel real to you? You have to live with this person and get to know them before you can tell their story.”


We draw from a palette to create a character. We make choices about costuming, makeup, expressions, gestures, movements, dance moves, mannerisms and energy.

Here is an example of some artistic choices I made for a number:

“Everybody Wants To Be A Cat”
– Story: This story comes from the Disney film “The Aristocats”. It happens in a bar where a lot of cats are catting around late at night, making music, and bragging about how life is awesome.
– Costume: I chose to wear ears, whiskers, a tail, and a sparkly pink collar. My base costume was black pants and a black shirt.
– Mannerisms: I watched how cats move and tried to move like them. They glide elegantly and swish their behinds. Their eyes are often half-lidded and they almost look bored…unless they are playing. When they are not moving, they are very still, like a statue. I tried to keep my mouth closed because unlike dogs and people, cats don’t let their mouths hang open very much.
394615_2792114976302_1371047826_n– Gestures: I picked these up from my cats — the way they lick their paw and then wash behind their ears or along their whiskers; the way they languidly stretch their front legs, extend their claws (often while yawning), then tuck their paws underneath when they relax; the way they stretch when they get up, from front to back, shaking a back leg last before languidly strolling away; the way they leap on things wide-eyed with excitement; the way they stare, unblinking and fearless; the way they wiggle their behinds before pouncing; the way they bat at each other and get distracted by hanging things. These things don’t have to actually be on the stage. You can pantomime them. In my performance, I had a friend roll a ball of yarn onto the stage that completely interrupted my dance so that I pounced on it, rolled around, then noticed everybody looking and casually rolled to sitting, licked my paw, wiped behind my ear, languidly got up and then returned to the song like nothing had ever happened.
– Energy: Languid for the slow beginning part, Excited for the tearing it up second half.
– Movement: Shoulders back, head high, leading from the chest and full of confidence. Tilting the head to the side to indicate moments of confusion or inquisitiveness (the difference between them indicated by facial expression).

Those things worked. Sometimes your choices don’t work though and I will give an example of that after I make this next point.


Once you have made a character, stay in character. No matter what happens.

When our state was preparing to vote on Amendment One, a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage and domestic partnerships, I did a number called, “One” at a ‘Get Out The Vote’ function. The very first line of the song is, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know.” I chose loneliness and melancholy for the energy of this piece. I dressed in gray. I moved slowly with head down, gaze down, shoulders drooped. My face was sad. I made one big error though that I think pretty much ruined the feel of the piece. I had the audience. I could feel it. It was dead silence and the energy was intent. Everyone was feeling what I was feeling but then … as I worked my way down some steps at the front of the stage, I tripped and almost fell off the stage. I recovered, physically, but I did the unthinkable at a time of such melancholy … I laughed. It was only a moment but in that moment a spell was broken and there was no fixing it. I tried to get back in character but I could feel it. It was broken.

When things go wrong, which they do sometimes, the most important step in recovering is to stay in character. If you’re sad already, be more sad! Drop to the floor like, “Of course I fell off the stage. Of course that happened. Damn.” But keep going! Do not stop!

I saw a performance once where the lights on the stage blew and the entire theater was plunged into darkness and silence. The dancer, who was doing an led performance, stopped. Granted they had no music but they had the only light in the whole place! Instead of stopping, consider that your number has just changed and keep going, either until things get fixed or until you choose to bring your dance to an end. Get creative. The audience is on your side. Unless someone is dead or dying, stay in character and keep performing. The show much go on.

I promised you an example of how a characterization choice can totally not work. I did that number, “One”, another time also, at our fire theater retreat Interdependence. I was glad to get to revisit it because I felt I’d messed it up the first time so I did it again, this time with fire, with a small hoop with a single wick on the inside — One. That choice worked great. My gestures and expression and movement also went great. What didn’t go great was I didn’t have time for a costume change before performing … and I was in a bright pink outfit. That outfit screamed sunny and happy. I managed to overcome it to some extent but it was a hurtle and it affected people’s “willing suspension of disbelief”. It messed up the mood I was trying to set. That outfit made it harder to convey the feeling I was trying to convey. Don’t create hurtles for yourself.


If something goes wrong, don’t ask yourself, “What would I do?” Ask yourself, “What would this character do?” Then do that.

Once during a saucy duo with my friend Mark to the Bette Midler song, “You’re Moving Out Today”, I had just systematically kicked out my loser boyfriend, one item at a time, and then picked up my hoop to celebrate getting rid of that deadbeat when I lost the hoop and it rolled off the side of the stage, down the stairs, and into a storage room where there was no one to rescue it and get it back to me. Oh man! I thought fast. Earlier in the number, as I was kicking him out, I was picking up his things and throwing them at him and, when we got to the line about throwing out “your funny cigarettes” I snagged a joint from behind his ear like I was going to throw it away…only I tucked it in my bra. It was a gag but here I had that joint in my bra and I was up on that stage all by myself and the song was almost over so I pulled that joint out of my bra, sat down in the chair I had thrown him out of and pretended to light it up. End of song.

The audience loved it.


Pictured above is one of my favorite hoopdancers, Kari Revolva. Revolva is one of the best when it comes to creating characters. She finds her hook, knows her story, and makes artistic choices that move that story forward…then complements it with kick-ass hooping. I really recommend watching her dances for inspiration. She is the total package.

Musical theater is full of wonderful examples of characters who tell their story through dance but you don’t have to be a professional dancer to do this. Ellen Degeneres shared one of the finest and most moving examples of interpretive dance and story-telling I’ve ever seen in her comedy routine, “The Beginning”. This was her first time returning to the stage after having been eviscerated for coming out as a lesbian. I have included it so you can be inspired by, and learn from, it too. Notice her costume choice, her pantomime from the very beginning, her expressions and mannerisms, her energy, gaze and posture, how she dances the arc of the story and how it ebbs and flows, the expansion and contraction in her movement and the expression of a range of emotions on her face and posture. This dance is moving and masterful.

Characterizationcreate character in dancedancedance character

One response to “Creating A Character In Dance”

  • Jenn says:

    Some good advice I have received when creating a character, is it’s all in the feet. Look at what it did for Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp! Again, great advice and food for thought for act creation.

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