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How I use acting to teach dance - Part 1/2

What does acting have to do with dance?

"What is true about one art form is true to another" - Sanford Meisner

This understanding really leveled me up. If I grow practicing one art form, my lessons and experiences will transfer to the other forms I practice.

My teacher Shabba-Doo taught me the use of Meisner's acting techniques in dance, and the results changed the way I dance forever.

This article - part 1 - contains a brief history of modern acting, and a survey of the Meisner technique.

The ways it can be used to improve dance will start to be apparent here, but part 2 will go into detail and explain how I implement them in solo dance, partner dance, and "Dance is a language" workshops. I will also include a special exercise video.

So let's go!



"Acting is the ability to behave absolutely truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

What if the circumstances aren't imaginary?

You could learn how to act...but with the character actually being the real you.

Modern acting methods help you express yourself more truthfully and authentically. You can use those acting techniques to "play yourself".

There are a lot of acting techniques out there, but we will focus on the Meisner technique, and shortly review the two techniques that helped spawn it: The System and The Method.

In older times (19th century and back), acting was extravagant and theatrical, exaggerated with big gestures, and basically - not very natural or similar to actual human behavior.

The revolution came in the early 1900s, starting in Russia and spreading to the USA.

Stanislavsky, a person who wasn't a professional actor, but a person who was fascinated with the nuances and patterns of human nature, had created an acting style (the "System") that encouraged actors to take an intellectual approach for bringing characters to life.

Lee Strasberg’s "Method" was built on the "System". Its actors mimic characters’ experiences, taking advantage of their own (real) lives, using a tool called "emotional recall".

"The System"

At its most simplistic definition, the System is about actually doing something instead of pretending to do something.

Stanislavsky and his students found that if they focused on answering certain questions (what does the character want to do, and why?) in every single moment of acting—not only would the actors portray their characters more realistically but, funnily enough, the actors stopped pandering to the audience.

In short, the actors were too focused on the inner life of the character to be overly “theatrical.”

"The Method" and emotional recall

The Method is the American mutation of the System.

The idea of emotional recall was taken from the System, but the System, later on, moved away from this idea. Strasberg and his Method stuck with it.

Both styles simply imply that an actor behaves realistically under imaginary circumstances. However, the Method gets complicated and controversial about the notion of emotional recall.

Emotional recall encourages actors to utilize remembered emotions but is often confused as encouraging actors to relive emotional traumas onstage for the sake of their performance.

Some famous actors have merged their personal lives with those of their characters’ lives in psychologically (and physically) unhealthy ways:

(This is Christian Bale and some of the crazy body transformations he's done in the name of getting into characters)

There are levels of intensity to the Method - a Method practitioner doesn't have to live the life of the character outside of rehearsals, it's a choice (and an extreme one).

Emotional recall doesn't encourage reliving experienced emotional events (or traumas) onstage. It promotes training to identify and consistently replicating stimuli that could induce a similar experience to that memory.

Simply, it doesn't mean you have to remember the time someone close to you died to cry, but you observe your emotional past and recognize what stimuli could create a similar emotion.

With time, a few leading actors around Strasberg shifted focus away from emotional recall to put a new emphasis on “given circumstances” - the situation the character is in, and how it influences their behavior.


In the following section, you're welcome to change the words "act" and "actor" with "dance" and "dancer", and start seeing the similarities between Meisner's approach and social dancing.


The Meisner Technique

Meisner felt that activating emotional recall in scenes removed the actor from the live moment. He believed in being present. and also that "you can't act and watch yourself act."

Meisner teaches actors to “live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances.” The work emphasizes openness, honesty, and listening above all.

The Meisner technique has three main components that all work hand in hand:

  • Emotional preparation

  • Repetition

  • Improvisation

Emotional preparation

Meisner felt that a mental approach was too internal. Instead, he insisted, an actor must have their creativity provoked by fierce attention to their fellow actor—which creates a tension the audience can observe.

Choices, inspirations, and provocations must be inspired by a relationship with another person.

This is part of what he called “emotional preparation.”

Meisner created a system of routines designed to discover authentic acting choices from organic impulses that were provoked by one’s scene partner.

(Sounds familiar to partner dance, eh?)

In this way, Meisner encouraged an ecosystem in a scene where each actor must build off one another.


Repetition gets actors out of their heads so they can rely on their instincts. Truthfulness could be found by digging into unconscious instincts through repetition exercises.

It is these authentic instincts, as provoked by another person in the live moment, that capture realistic human behavior.

Repetition is used to ensure the actors' attention is off of themselves and that they’re fully listening and answering.

"...over three months, what began as, “your shirt is blue,” “your shirt is blue,” transforms into a moment-to-moment connection between two world-class listening machines."

This results in the actor being able to freely respond unselfconsciously.

Repetition is not for the easily frustrated - we must be patient with the technique.

It’s only by pushing through perceptions of the exercises’ awkwardness or meaninglessness that we become aware of instincts that convey emotion and represent clear universal reactions to the human experience.

Would you like to try?

Example exercise:

Two people face each other. One starts by saying something about the other (for example, “you’re pale”). The other responds by repeating the words (“you’re pale”). The two repeat the line over and over back and forth, as if it were a ping-pong game.

The trick is to resist artificially changing the intonation to make the line sound interesting. By listening to each other, the actors take the focus off themselves.

Of course, over time the repetition exercises become more and more complex.

You can find another example in the exercises video down below!


"Don't move until something makes you move"

Meisner preached that no choices should be made until a force provokes the choice, thereby justifying it. If an actor only responds to justified and organic stimuli, they must be fully present for that meaningful stimuli.

"The Meisner technique can be helpful to actors who overcomplicate emotions or choices with overly-intellectual analysis or scene prep."


How about using it to help dancers who dance in their heads too much?

Improvisation exercise

One person picks an activity that is difficult and requires all their attention (for example, doing taxes).

The other comes into the scene charged with given circumstances he invented (for example, the person imagines they just got their dream job). The two do a word repetition game, taking their cue off each other’s behavior, coming in each one with their own circumstance.


As you can read, a lot of the Meisner technique is about being present, and getting us out of our heads and into our instincts and emotions - which can be very useful for social dancing.

That's it for part 1! Part 2 will discuss how the Meisner technique is implemented into solo dance, partner dance, and my "Dance is a language" workshops - including a special video with emotional preparation, repetition, and improvisation exercises.



"On Acting" by Sanford Meisner

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