Prior to becoming an actor, I was a professional dancer in New York City and with the NBA. Though they’re both in the performing arts, when it comes to training, acting requires much more than dancing in my opinion.
Often, dancers assume they’re also actors and while I’ve known many who easily transitioned into commercial acting and musical theater, it’s rare to see dancers transition to theater and film acting.
Since making the move to acting and continuing my studies and work in theater and film, I’ve found these 10 things to be incredibly important when transitioning from dancing to acting, professionally.
1. Pay attention to breathing.
As a dancer, I always breathed from my chest rather than my diaphragm. It helped me access my breath quickly when performing and also kept my belly from expanding and looking bloated. When I transitioned to acting, this became an issue—I needed fuller breaths from my diaphragm to support a strong voice and to be able to relax on stage (or on camera).
While breathing seems like it should be easy, it’s one of the most important tools as an actor. I’ve found (and been told by professionals) that daily breathing exercises are needed, especially at the beginning of your training.
2. Save your tricks.
Dance is a great skill to have as an actor. The discipline required for the former is one that will help you in the work required for the latter. You’ll also find that a background in dance will help with movement and comfort as you’re already very connected to your body. However, keep in mind that your job as an actor is to be a human first and foremost, and most humans can’t do a triple pirouette into a split. If your character calls for some flexibility or movement, use your dance skills. Otherwise, save the leaps for dance class.
3. Determine your goals.
As you begin your acting career, it’s important to think about what your goals are. Be real with yourself and chase what you’re most passionate about; time is essential in this field, so don’t waste is with things that won’t progress your goals. Think about what type of acting you’re interested in: You’ll find commercial work is great for dancers as we usually have the right character, features, and expressiveness.
If you want to do more serious work in theater and/or film, take the time to find a good school. It’s important to be knowledgeable about the history and field of theater and film if you want to be respected as an actor, and not a dancer who acts.
4. Go back to basics.
Even the greatest dancers still do their barre exercises. Same applies to acting. You must continue to go back to the basics like daily vocal exercises, Alexander technique, cold readings, etc.
5. Improv is to acting what freestyle is to dancing.
Freestyling may be your best dance skill or worst nightmare. Improv will be the same in acting. It’s a useful tool for most successful actors.
6. Get used to hearing your own voice.
You know when someone records you speaking and you’re questioning if that’s what you actually sound like? Get used to it, embrace it, and let go of it. As a dancer, we don’t need our voices (unless you’re in a musical); it’s all about using our bodies and faces to express ourselves which means that getting used to using your voice is a must.
My favorite way to get into the swing of using and hearing my voice? Reading out loud. You’ll get a chance to hear your own voice and practice cold reading simultaneously. I also like to make loud noises every day. Scream, grunt, sing...anything that makes you uncomfortable. One day you will be asked to make these noises for a role and you’ll be comfortable with it. But always remember to go back to basics with vocal exercises that ensure you’re using your voice correctly and safely.
7. Your ego isn’t your amigo.
Maybe you’re the best dancer in your field/on your team/on YouTube, etc., but now you’re an actor. Accept and embrace your beginning stage. Be patient with yourself and remember that you were a new dancer once, too, and that great work takes time. Don’t come in thinking that because you have an impressive dance resume that you’ll achieve the same level as an actor without putting in the work. Will a casting director be impressed you danced on tour with Madonna? Of course. Will it land you the role as Ophelia in “Hamlet”? No.
8. Take care of your body.
I’ve found that most dancers and athletes, myself included, are so tense and tight that it’s more difficult for them to relax into their bodies, an essential part of making truthful actions. Take the time to foam roll or practice yoga. Be sure to release tension in the face and jaw.
9. Find stillness.
This was a hard concept for me to grasp. As a dancer, my first instinct is to create movement. When one of my coaches told me I should be still until there’s motivation to move, it all clicked. There is beauty in stillness. You may find stillness feels awkward and unnatural, but your work will be much more truthful when you only have motivated movements.
10. Relationships are the foundation of acting.
No matter what school or coach you decide to work with, they would all agree on the importance of relationship. Depending on what style of dance you’re used to, you might have no or tons of experience with a partner. A lot of dancers tend to focus on their own performance. That won’t do you any good as you transition—acting will challenge you to focus on your partner and your relationship to them. Think about the facts of the characters and your emotional relationship to each of them. Be specific; there’s no such thing as the actor who is too specific. Find the love and play positive choices. Creating relationships is your job as an actor.
I have found many advantages of being a dancer when becoming an actor. If you decide to transition, be sure you’re willing to put in the work. Respect the profession and respect yourself. Whether you’re an actor, dancer, or both, you’re a storyteller and it’s a wonderful job to have.
Jessica Davis moved to NYC as a professional dancer four years ago from Ohio, where she danced for the NBA and transitioned into acting while living here, continuing to study at the Tom Todoroff Conservatory. Since being here, she's performed in Off-Broadway plays, musicals, and local theater. She would like to thank her dramaturgy professor, Meron Langsner, for encouraging her to publish this article, her coach, Tom Todoroff for this insight and knowledge, and her parents, for teaching her to be fearless and to follow her dreams.
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