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  • Shachi Phene

How to Be a Great Storyteller

"We are storytellers in motion"


This is the tagline that I created for Noor, back when we launched. Storytelling is at the heart of everything we do with our dance. Our style of dance is special because it goes beyond raw movement to convey stories, emotions, and themes to our audience. Here are some of my best tips on how to show emotion and better connect with your audience:

"Oh, Krishna. Why do you tell me these lies? Won't you just stay with me?"

Get comfortable with your own face

Spend time staring in the mirror. Really! I'm not encouraging vanity, but I am encouraging getting to know, love, and trust your own facial expressions. We are often our own worst critics so it can be very challenging to look at your own face for too long, especially when trying out different emotions. But, showing expression is a vulnerable thing, so who better to do it with than yourself or with a trusted friend? The more seriously you can take your own expressions, the more seriously the audience will take them, too. Explore the navarasa (nine basic emotions) and find different shades to each feeling.

Expressions and emotions shouldn't be restricted to just the face – let them take over your whole body!

Step into someone else's shoes

Storytelling in our style of dance is method-acting. You're going beyond just "saying the lines" and showing the expression – you're stepping into a role and becoming that character. One of the most challenging things is feeling one emotion in your own life and having to express another on stage. How do you show happiness when you're feeling hurt? How do you show anger when you're excited? For the moments of that piece, you need to leave yourself behind and become someone else.

Thinking of a similar life experience can help make your expressions feel more real and help the audience connect better with your dance.

Dig deep, and draw from experience

Experience comes from everywhere – your own life, stories from family or friends, and things you read in books or saw on TV. Combine that experience with your imagination and you can form a vivid story. When you want to express a story, think deeply about that emotion. Why are you showing that emotion? Are there shades or levels to what you are showing? Have you or anyone you know ever felt anything like it? Think about how your whole body needs to change, not just your face. Put your mind in that scenario – this will make it easier to show what you are trying to express.

Seeing how someone else expresses an emotion can give you ideas on how to express it yourself.

Watch and learn

Watch dancers you admire and notice how they show their emotions. Can you recognize what they are portraying? Do you just recognize it or can you feel it, too? Humans are funny – we show emotions in different ways – some people cry when they laugh or laugh when they're nervous – but you can usually still tell what they're feeling. Our job as dancers goes beyond that – we don't just want the audience to know what we're feeling – we want them to feel it, too.

Can I make a confession? I've gotten so obsessed with drawing inspiration from people I see that I've developed a weird habit... When I watch TV, I often find myself mimicking the expressions of the characters I see in the episode!

Incorporating some facial expression in pure dance can give it color, enhance the movements, and make it more enthralling for the audience

"Pure dance" is not pure dance

There are many dancers that believe that "pure dance" or "nritta" should not incorporate emotion. They teach that jatis, swarams, korvais, and adavus shouldn't require anything more than a smile or even a neutral expression. However, I disagree. I believe emotion is what draws an audience in. It's useful to be able to change up your smile, or add subtle shades of pride, sweetness, anger, or power to your pure dance segments to add color to the piece and keep it interesting. It's also important to connect the audience with your hand and foot movements by incorporating your head and eyes. Remember this classic verse –

Yato hastaa, stato drishti Where the hand goes, the eyes follow Yato drishti, stato manaha Where the eyes go, the mind follows Yato manaha, stato bhaava Where the mind goes, the expression follows Yato bhaava, stato rasa Where the expressions go, the emotional atmosphere follows


What are your thoughts on emotional expression? How do you get your mind in the mood of a piece? Who are dancers (in any genre!) whose expressions you admire?

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