Performance Ritual

Preparing one’s self to perform can be an involved process. Most performers have a particular ritual they go through to ready the body both mentally and physically. I’ve found that these little rituals vary greatly from person to person and range from being minor things to very elaborate routines. Some people have to eat certain things or have certain little charms with them. And of course there are those that have lucky clothing. Being in the dance world I’ve run into plenty of people with lucky leotards. Although dance costumes are often a little skimpy, so it’s hard to incorporate wearing a lucky piece of clothing and not have it be seen from the stage.

I myself have different performance rituals I do depending on the performance. I prepare quite differently if I’m doing a major dancing role, have a small part, am not dancing but acting, or if I’m the artistic director/choreographer.

If I’m dancing a particularly challenging role then I have to spend some time preparing. This starts with the warm-up, where you get your body physically ready to dance. For a big performance this usually happens in a big group onstage or in the studio. Although most dancers also have certain exercises and stretches they add so they personally address the particular warm-up needs of their bodies. Immediately after warm-up I run through the dance (or dances) on stage, but without music.

Weaving alongside the warm-up is the make-up and hair transformation. I usually do my hair before warm-up but have to wait on the make-up. I’m a sweater, so I’ll mess up my face in warm-up if I do it beforehand.

Doing hair and make-up are an important part of the mental preparation and play a major role in the ritual. Make-up, hair, and costume are key to the performance magic as they provide the most visible transformation from your everyday self to your performance persona.

I have found there are two general schools of thought on the make-up/dressing room. Some people like to play loud music and get their energy pumped up. Others like it to be calm and quiet and are quite particular on what, if any, music is playing. For me it depends on what I’m dancing. If I’m about to go out there and perform a Martha Graham piece I keep it pretty somber backstage. If the material is more upbeat and calls for high energy I’ll take the loud music.

My dance company tends to like the more upbeat scene. We actually had a laugh at a dance festival we did awhile ago. In the dressing room and before the performance the dancers were happy, active, giggly, and dancing around to hip-hop. But in a matter of minutes they transformed and did a very still, solemn piece where they portray animals through the whole thing. We laughed afterward because it was so incongruous to be the most upbeat people backstage then go out and perform one of the most mellow pieces in the entire festival.

But back to me… Back in the day when I had major dance roles I had to go through my own private energy ritual. I would stand in a corner, away from everyone and breathe and light up my chakras. Then I imagined a radiant beam coming from my front, my back, and the top of my head. Once I got the beams going I told myself I’ve got it, and it’s time to rock. Then I would neurotically run the entire dance one more time in whatever little space I could find.

And if the dance was en pointe (dancing on toe) then a whole nother set of rituals was added, from how the shoes are prepared to the ritual of putting them on my feet. But that is a different story… I could write a whole blog on the ritual aspects of dancing en pointe.

I don’t really perform much anymore so I rarely go to that level of performance ritual. But I have developed rituals that I take the entire cast through before a performance. This ritual is very important to me and I think it’s critical to making the magic happen onstage. It also gives the performers a chance to be together and feel each others energy.

With my company we huddle and usually put one foot in the center of the huddle. Then I tell them how awesome they are and how much I love them and anoint them with what I call holy oil. It’s a little concoction of essential oils I blended that’s good for luck and energy clearing. Sometimes I cry…depends on the show….sometimes they add their two cents. Then we put a hand in the middle, say eat ’em up Kats (most of us met at Sam Houston State University and that’s a school slogan, and it’s also fitting since we are ChinaCat Dance) raise our hands in the air and hiss as we claw the air bringing our hand down. If possible they get sage smudged. We have to be able to go outside to do that, and I have to remember to bring the sage.

I make the student company also go through a similar ritual where we stand in a circle and I tell them how awesome they are. For that one, after going through a semester with the students in the company, I usually cry. We go through a lot together, and I really do love those students. But those circles usually end with wild dancing.

Recently I’ve been doing a duet with one of the ChinaCats. I don’t dance, instead I play an acting role. It’s a comedic role and the costume, make-up, and hair provide a pretty instant transformation. I play a child’s beauty pageant director, and an adult dancer plays the kid. She wears the full cupcake pageant dress complete with glitz hair and make-up so she can’t get dressed alone. To prepare for that piece we just start vamping on the characters as we’re get ready. It’s pretty fun for us but woe to whoever we’re sharing the dressing room with.

I think every company and individual performer has their own particular performance ritual. I’ve been involved with them since my first performance as a child and they all share some aspects while taking on their own unique qualities. Performers almost always do something together in a circle and more often than not do the exercise where you hold hands and pass the squeeze along.

I love that this basically Pagan ritual exists in the performance world. But it makes sense. Performers know that performing is all about energy and magic. A good show should transport the audience and take them on a journey. To do that the performers have to get in a particular head space. The most magical performances happen when everything comes together. That is, the performers have just the right energy and they are feeling the right energy from the audience. And when everything clicks like that the feeling you get is incredible. It’s that feeling that performers live for.

But before I leave, here’s one last performer tidbit. Most people know that dancers and actors never say good luck before a performance. I believe actors say break a leg, or a phrase particular to their group. And what do dancers say? Merde- which means shit in French.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Catherine Louise Nysveen
    Aug 11, 2012 @ 07:03:38

    i love you maggie, meow!!! grrrr. hisss go cats!!! merde on all your adventures!!!


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