How “Up and Over” Eye Contact Can Improve Your Stage Presence

Friday, December 11, 2009

When Jillina swept onto the stage and winked at me, I almost jumped out of my seat. I have mixed feelings about the Belly Dance Superstars, but in that moment, I felt like a star-struck fan: the Jillina just winked at me!

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that she couldn’t possibly have singled me out. I danced on that very stage three years earlier; you can’t see any faces in the crowd when the stage lights are on.

And then it hit me; she must have been using “up & over” eye contact.


What is Up and Over Eye Contact?

Up & over eye contact is a technique I learned from my mentor, Amira Jamal. Instead of making direct eye contact with your audience for most of the show, you look up and just over their heads, and focus your attention on an imaginary back row.


Why Isn’t Regular Eye Contact Enough?

Eye contact is an important part of belly dance and stage presence. It establishes a personal connection with your audience, and makes them feel included in the show.

But direct eye contact has some gotchas:

  • It’s easy to focus too much on the front rows & make the rest of the audience feel left out.

  • If, like me, you get a lot of energy and confidence from connecting with the audience, you may use eye contact like a crutch, and end up focusing all your attention on the one or two people who are most responsive.

  • Few of our venues have sloped seating, so the audience’s eye level is usually lower than yours. To make direct eye contact, you have to look down slightly, which leaves out the other rows, and gives you a double chin.

  • If you’re dancing in a theatrical setting, you may not be able to see with the lights in your eyes. So you have to be able to give the impression of eye contact without being able to see your audience.




  • How Do I Make Up & Over Eye Contact?

    Look to the Back of the Room
    To make up & over eye contact, gaze just over the audience’s heads. If it’s a large space like a theater or function hall, you can look at the back rows. But if it’s a more typical small venue like a restaurant, you’ll actually have to go over their heads.

    Focus Your Gaze
    Now focus your attention on a particular spot. We need to give the impression that we’re making eye contact with someone back there. An unfocused gaze is a dead give-away. It helps to imagine an actual person there.

    Spread it Around
    As you dance, change your focus to different areas in the back of the room: pay attention to the left and right corners, as well as to the center. I like to imagine that my gaze is sprinkling glitter over the audience, and I have to “sparkle up” the whole group by the end of the first song.

    Throw In a Little Real Eye Contact
    Keep your gaze in the up & over position for about two thirds of your show, but be sure to make occasional, brief eye contact with individual people in different parts of the room.


    But Won’t Fake Eye Contact Alienate the Audience?

    Strangely, no! Up & over eye contact spreads your attention across a wider area and makes your presence seem larger than life. It’s like giving the whole audience a group hug: you don’t have to touch each person individually to share the love with the whole group.

    And because your gaze is focused, the audience members in that part of the room will believe that you are making individual eye contact with them.


    Dos & Don’ts

    Do: make up & over your default gaze.
    Don’t: forget to focus. Imagining an actual person there helps.
    Do: make occasional direct eye contact with real people.
    Don’t: let yourself focus on just one person (a friend or particularly supportive audience member) or section of the audience for too long.
    Do: pay some attention to the front section of the audience.
    Don’t: let your chin drop for more than a moment.


    Summary

    Eye contact enhances your stage presence and builds a connection with your audience. But direct eye contact used ineffectively can make the other audience members feel left out.

    Up & over eye contact gives your audience the impression of direct eye contact, while still making the whole room feel included.

    The key is to look up and over your audience’s head. Focus your gaze, as if you were looking at a real person. Be sure to move your gaze to different areas of the back of the room, and make direct eye contact occasionally.


    What You Can Do Right Now

    Practice the up & over technique during your next class or practice session. You don’t need an actual audience; just look up and over where their heads would be. If you master up & over in an empty room, using it on a real audience will be a snap.

    All you'll be able to make each one of them feel just as special and as Jillina did to me.

    2 comments:

    Linda Hinds said...

    I had the very same Jillina experience when I went to see the BDSS!!
    Thanks for this article, it really makes sense and I'll be sure to use it

    Jess said...

    Linda: I didn't realize it until you posted that, but I had been holding on to a TINY vestige of hope that she really had singled me out. Oh well. :)

    - Nadira

     
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