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.


    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.

    How Do You Like Your Articles?

    In the last 15 months, I've been laid up with two serious injuries in a row. I'm still recovering from the second one, and I want to perform so badly that I'm practically crawling the walls!

    But on the plus side, that leaves me a lot more time to spend in front of the computer. And I haven't wasted it on computer games!

    I've built up a whole stash of articles about improv, stage presence, teaching, video and video podcast production, the business of belly dance, etc.

    I'm really excited to share these topics with you, but I want to make sure that you get them in the format you'd enjoy.

    So please let me know: do you like to read your articles in print, or would you rather watch them in an online video?

    What Format Do You Want Your Articles In?
    Video with a Written Transcript
    Free polls from

    Improvisation Toolkit Volume 2 Pre-Order + Give-Away

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Improvisation Toolkit Volume 2: Structure will be released on February 25th, 2010, and is now available to pre-order!

    You can buy just the DVD, or my special premium package, which includes a bonus DVD on expression in improv, plus a personal video critique worth $125.

    Pre-Order Volume 2

    If you're new to the series, be sure to start with Volume 1: Movement Recall. It's tempting to skip ahead, but resist that urge! This series is sequential, so you won't get the full benefit out of the material in Volume 2 until you have developed strong movement recall skills.

    You won't miss out on anything by starting at the beginning. I'm offering the same bonuses in a premium package with Volume 1:

    Order Volume 1

    DVD Giveaway

    Since it was so much fun last time, I'll be doing another giveaway to celebrate the release of Volume 2.

    At 5pm EST on February 25th (i.e., right before I go to the post office to ship the pre-orders), I'll choose a winner at random from among the members of the Taktaba mailing list.

    The winner will receive the premium package of their choice. (i.e., Improv. Toolkit Vol 1 or Vol 2, plus the premium bonuses.)

    However, I don't want this giveaway to discourage anyone from taking advantage of the private sale. If you pre-order and then win the drawing, I'll send you a full refund, so your videos will be free.

    If you're already on my mailing list, you're already entered. If not, you can join here:

    Email Address:

    Taktaba Podcast News

    This list is only used for announcements related to the Taktaba video podcast and Improvisation Toolkit series. Your information will never be shared, I won't flood you with emails, and you can remove yourself at any time. (Well, you do need to be on the list on February 25th in order to win.)

    The Improvisation Toolkit Series is Expanding!

    It's been just over a year since I released Volume 1 of the Improvisation Toolkit. In that time, my vision for this project has evolved.

    As I've delved deeper into this program, and hear from you about your improv challenges, I've realized that there's much more I want to share with you about improvisation than can fit into three disks.

    I tried revising my scripts to squeeze it all in, but every time I cut a concept or exercise, I felt like I was short-changing you.

    So I took a look at this project with the eyes of a teacher, and imagined that I was developing a curriculum for my local classes.

    After a lot of thought, I've decided to expand the program to include five volumes:
    1) Movement Recall (Now Available)
    2) Structure (February 25th, 2010 - Pre-order now!)
    3) Transitions
    4) Dimension (previously called "Variety")
    5) Musical Analysis

    I'm not setting a date for the next three volumes just yet. I've learned from experience that the best way to miss a deadline is to announce it too early! But you can expect a new volume to be released every 9-15 months.

    How Opening Your Teeth Brightens Your Stage Presence

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    I can't wake up in the dark. Rising before dawn is impossible, but even just waking up with the blinds closed feels like pulling teeth. And since I can't sleep with the bright streetlights outside my window, that makes for some zombie-like mornings. The only way I can feel even remotely human is to open the blinds at dawn, so the rising sunshine can wake me up.

    A closed expression may be shuttering your stage presence, and preventing it from shining on your audience.

    Why Is An Open Expression So Important?

    Belly dance is personal. You aren't playing the snow queen or a body moving in space. You are a real person with a relationship to the audience. An important part of the belly dance esthetic is to share the joy and inner light that bursts out of you.

    A closed face shutters your light. And yet many of us wear closed expressions, even when we’re smiling.

    How Do I Open My Expression?

    Cracking the blinds on your light is shockingly simple: separate your teeth.

    Really. Just open up your jaw enough to fit the tip of your thumb between your front teeth.

    But I Don't Want to Smile Through My Whole Show

    This technique is not just for smiling. Separating your teeth will make any of your expressions more accessible and inviting to your audience:

    • Your smiles will seem happier and more welcoming

    • Mysterious or smoky expressions will be more enthralling; it invites them to guess your secret

    • Sad expressions will lay your heart bare and invite them to share in your heartbreak

    But It'll Look Fake!

    Separating your teeth may feel awkward or fake at first, especially if you usually keep your teeth clamped together in your day-to-day life.

    But remember that being a performer means being larger than life. Your costume, the music, and even just standing on the stage or dance floor creates a larger scale. Scaling your expression up to performance proportions is fitting, not fake. Your audience is more likely to notice an expression that is too small, rather than one that is too big.

    Dos and Don'ts

    Here are a few tips to help you make this technique work for you:

    • Do: Breathe

    • It keeps the expression alive.

    • Don't: Freeze your expression.

    • It's common to tense up while you get used to the mechanics of holding your teeth apart.
    • Do: Try laughing.

    • That instantly relaxes and opens up your face. And you can't say "ha ha ha" with your teeth clamped together.
    • Don't: Be a cartoon.

    • We're not making faces; we're just opening up your natural expressions.


    An open face makes your stage presence shine. This makes any type of expression - happy, sad, mysterious - more inviting and accessible to your audience.

    You can accomplish this just by separating your teeth. Relaxing, breathing, and laughing can make this feel more natural. Just beware of making faces; you want to open up your natural expressions, not create false new ones.

    How To Get Started

    Make separated teeth a new requirement for your practice routine. Resolve to keep your teeth apart during classroom and video drills. If you make it part of your practice routine, it will become second nature, so you won't have to think about it during performance.

    With that habit, you'll throw open the shutters on your stage presence, so the audience can bask in your light.

    Belly Dance Class on Dead Air Live

    Thursday, May 21, 2009

    My on-air class on Dead Air Live is now available online, courtesy of the Somerville Producers Group. You'll see a short interview, followed by a beginner-level class with a practice choreography to the song Zeina by Mohammed Abdul Wahab.

    Special thanks to my lovely students Michelle, Heather, Jasmine, Valerie, Marianne, and Ellen!

    Nadira Teaching on Dead Air Live Tonight

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009

    For those of you who are local:

    Hi everybody,

    I'll be teaching a class tonight on Dead Air Live, the longest-running live
    cable broadcast in the US. I'll be joined by a few of my lovely students.

    If you have RCN cable in Somerville, check us out live on channel 3 (Somerville Community Access TV)
    at 8pm tonight (Tuesday, April 28th)!

    Dead Air Live is also re-broadcast on other channels:

    - Cambridge Community TV channel 10 (Comcast?): Wednesday afternoons at 4 PM and
    Thursday nights at 9 PM

    - Boston Neighborhood Network channel 23 (Comcast): Monday mornings at 3 AM,
    Wednesday nights at 11 PM, and Thursday mornings at 7 AM.

    I assume my show will be re-aired this week, but I'm not sure.


    Happy Half-Birthday to the Toolkit, Plus a Giveaway

    Friday, April 03, 2009

    The Improv Toolkit Volume 1 had its half-birthday last week, and what a half-year it has been!  

    The only statistic I've found on belly dance videos says that an independent belly dance instructional with really good word-of-mouth can expect to sell 300 copies in its first year.  

    As of its half birthday (the 26th), TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY NINE copies of Volume 1 have been sold.  

    That must have been some pretty fantastic word-of-mouth!

    I owe a great big thank you to everyone for your support on this project: for your emails, your reviews, and for recommending it to your friends and message board buddies.  Not only does your support mean a lot to me personally, but that's two hundred and forty nine dancers improving their improv skills, thanks to you.

    I think this calls for some free stuff!  

    Let's run with the word-of-mouth theme.  Tell me what you think of the Improv Toolkit DVD in this survey*, and enter to win your choice of:

    • The Improv Toolkit Volume 1 DVD (a $29.95 value)

    • The Improv Toolkit Volume 2 DVD (a $29.95 value), to be shipped when it's released early this summer*

    • Episodes 1-3 of my Taktaba podcast on DVD (a $45 value)

    • A copy of Belly Dancing for Fortune and Fame, the CD with all the music from the podcast and Toolkit (an $18 value)

    *You do NOT have to have seen the Toolkit in order to enter.

    This is a random drawing, so the content of your feedback has no bearing whatsoever on your chances of winning.  Please be completely honest; I want the next volumes to be the best they can be, so I need to know what you don't like, as well as what you do!

    The Fine Print: All entries must be submitted by noon eastern time on Friday, April 10th, 2009.  To be eligible for the drawing, you must enter a valid email address so I can notify you. One entry per person.  THREE lucky winners will be selected at random from among all eligible entries and notified by email at the addresses entered on the survey.   Each winner must respond within 14 days of notification, or their prize will be forfeited, and an alternate winner will be chosen.

    It's sort of like a PBS Tote Bag...

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009

    It took three months of wrestling with disk art, but the Taktaba podcast is finally ready for a "real" release.

    Up until now, if you wanted the podcast on DVD, I'd burn and print it myself. But since my most important work is producing more content, not shipping it, it's now being made by a proper manufacturer.

    The podcast is, and will remain, available for free online, but it's now available for purchase:

    You can buy a copy there if you want to watch the program on your DVD player, or if you just want to support the Taktaba project.

    Sort of like the tote bag you get when you make a donation to PBS. :)

    While I'm at it, now is a good time to mention that The Improvisation Toolkit Volume 1: Movement Recall is now available in PAL format for those of you in Europe and the other great big chunk of the world that uses that format. You can buy it directly from the manufacturer, CreateSpace. (Viewers in the Americas, Japan, South Korea, etc. should still get the NTSC version.)

    Old Giveaway, New Winner

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009

    So, way back in October, I ran a DVD giveaway for a copy of The Improvisation Toolkit Vol. 1: Movement Recall. On the day the DVD was released, I picked a winner at random from the members of the Taktaba mailing list. However, I've tried to contact her several times over the last five months, and never got a response. The messages didn't bounce; I just never got a reply.

    So today, I gave up waiting and drew a "runner up".

    To make it fair, I did my best to reproduce the conditions of the original drawing. I used the same random number generator as in the first drawing, and selected the runner up from among the members of my mailing list who joined on or before the DVD release date. (Luckily, my list software records the date people joined.)

    So the new winner is:


    Najla Halem of Austin, TX

    Her copy of Vol. 1 went out in the mail today.


    Sunday, January 18, 2009


    I just discovered that Taktaba is currently featured not once but THREE TIMES in the iTunes Music Store:

    1- Taktaba In Low-Res (the new, smaller-resolution version of the podcast) is on the "New and Notable" list in it's category, Performing Arts Video Podcasts.

    2- Taktaba (the full-res version) is currently on the featured podcasts list in its category.

    3- Taktaba (the regular version) is number 19 in its category: ahead of the Tony Awards and Jersey Boys!

    I don't know how long these rankings will last, but, for as long as they do, you can check them out in the Performing Arts video podcasts section of the iTunes Music store.

    And, to capture the moment (and prove to myself tomorrow that I wasn't dreaming), I even took screen shots:

    (The text is pretty small, so click on the photos to see the larger versions)

    The "New and Notable" listing and the "Featured Listing":

    The "Featured Listing" (again) and the #19 in "Top Video Podcasts" listing:

    This would not be the case if all of you out there downloading it and watching it, so thank you so much!


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