Updated: Jan 5, 2019
According to Google Dictionary, stage presence is "the ability to command the attention of a theater audience by the impressiveness of one's manner or appearance."
I think the biggest and most important word there is 'command'. Stage presence pulls the audience in and hooks them to your story.
Stage presence comes from a mix of several aspects of dance. It comes from our posture and gait, from our facial expressions, and from the accents we apply. Let's break these down.
First, posture and gait. I will never forget one of my all-time favorite dance teachers (Beth Megill, IG @dancingpoetess) explaining the 'Dancer's Face'. It starts at the chin, stretches to each shoulder, and angles down to the nipples and connects across the breast bone. This is a huge factor in communicating your emotion to the audience. For example, when joyful, the chin is high, shoulders are back, chest is open to the world. When miserable, the chin sinks down, shoulders slump forward, and the chest caves in. When angry, the chin slides forward, shoulders raise to the ears, and the chest caves back while widening with the movement of the shoulders. You could express all three of these without ever moving a limb.
Second, our facial expressions. We have so much expression in our lips, eyes, eyebrows, chin position, even positioning of the face to the audience. Think about the difference between a neutral face with eyebrows raised in surprise versus angrily pulled together and down versus a sassy single-eyebrow raise. Think about the difference between a joyous, full teeth smile versus an uncomfortable lip stretch imitating a smile. A lip-closed frown versus a mouth gaping open in misery. Think about the difference between eyes open in shock versus shyly looking down at the floor. Of a gaze that is powerfully looking up and out to something special no one can see or direct, insane eye contact with the audience. I could go on for ages but you get the point. Put simply, facial expression makes or breaks a performance.
Take time in front of a mirror and practice emoting through your face. Play with all the emotions, not just the common ones. Surprise, rage, flirtatious, shy, crazy, sick, tired, awkward, and whatever else comes to mind. A great exercise is writing these down on individual pieces of paper and putting them in a hat, then pulling them out one-by-one to act them out.
Finally, accents. Things like arm and leg movement, control of timing, dynamics of rising and falling all complete the picture we're trying to embody. Arms crossed over the chest and stomach communicates misery. A strong, wide stance communicates power. Slowly rising to touch a prop or apparatus and pulling back quickly communicates fear or pain of a physical thing. Climbing to the top slowly and diving back down can communicate different feelings.
When you combine things together the same movement can portray different stories and it's important to know what you're telling the audience. A student of mine recently performed a piece on the pole where she told about how she lost her baby. The joy on her face, focus on her stomach, and accents of her hands and gaze communicated her pregnancy perfectly. About two-thirds of the way through the whole feeling changed. She was devastated. She threw her face into her hands and collapsed. The sudden change gave me chills as I watched. By the end we all knew what had happened. It is to this day the most emotional piece I have ever seen and I've watched a lot of performances... Heck, I'm crying as I write this. This woman is still fairly beginner to both pole and aerial, and to be honest I don't remember all the moves she performed, but I will feel that piece forever.
Tl;dr*: The same choreography can inspire an audience or leave them feeling dry and dull. Similarly, technically proficient and advanced choreography can be blown away by simple choreography done beautifully with stage presence. Get in front of the mirror and practice.
*Too long; didn't read: