Authentic Facial Expression: It's About Doing, Not Being

Friday, January 15, 2010

Authentic Facial Expression: It's About Doing, Not Being!

I was a child actor. Not the kind of child actor who robs a 7-11 in their 20s. Just the kind that does a lot of plays and makes a little money, but never gets even locally famous.

One of my most valuable lessons came not from my professional work, but from my high school acting teacher. While we were rehearsing for Steel Magnolias, she told the cast to try to "be sleepy". We stretched, we yawned, and, frankly, we overdid it.

But when she told us to try to stay awake, it was a very different story. As I watched my cast-mates shifting in their seats and fighting to keep keep their eyelids from drooping, I didn't doubt their sleepiness for a second, even though it was mid-morning on a Saturday.

So where did that authenticity come from?

Expressive Is As Expressive Does

What we are is, very simply, the result of what we do. A friendly person is someone who does friendly things: says hi, asks if your cold is getting better, etc.

Similarly, when we discuss stage presence, we tend to talk about states of being, rather than actions. We say that we want to "be expressive" or "look intense", and so we focus on the concept of an emotion, like happiness, sadness, etc., rather than on the actions a happy or sad person might take.

But just like we can't authentically make ourselves "be sleepy", we can't make ourselves "be heartbroken" or "be entranced by the clarinet". When we try, it comes out looking awkward and cartoonish. (You've seen quite a few "Dina faces" and "sultry faces", haven't you?)

It's obvious to the audience that we are intentionally putting on a facial expression, rather than letting our faces reflect our authentic feelings. And that is a violation of their trust.

Why Is the Face So Important?

When you dance, your facial expression is what the audience relates to first. Most don't have any belly dance experience, so the movements themselves don't give you any common ground.

Facial expressions, on the other hand, are nearly universal in the human family. So your face is what draws the audience in and convinces them to follow you on the emotional roller coaster of your performance.

But that connection is based on trust. Before they put themselves in your hands, they have to believe that what's on your face is really in your heart.

How Do I Make My Expressions Authentic?

There is a remarkably easy and straight-forward way to maintain an authentic expression: silently "talk" to the audience in your head.

This sounds silly and almost trivial. But carrying on a silent conversation with your audience is a powerful tool for creating believable expression.

When you motivate your dance with that internal conversation, your face follows along automatically. It will authentically reflect what's going on in your body and in your heart, rather than what you think you should display to the audience. And the audience will believe you.

But I Don't Know What to Say!

Almost any statement will create an authentic expression, as long as you direct it to a member of your audience. However, you'll get the most authentic results from statements that are related to your performance, and that you make in your own words.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

You can talk about the audience:
- Hey, it's you! (this works even if you've never met them before)
- I'm so glad you came!
- You two make a lovely couple!

You can talk about yourself:
- I am the best dancer you've ever seen
- I am an elegant princess
- I am a nice girl from the village

You can about what you're doing:
- Look at that shimmy go!
- My hands are just fascinating
- Wasn't that last move cool?

You can talk about the music:
- The rhythm is so yummy
- I love the sound of the clarinet!
- This song is about lost love


In order to be authentically expressive, we need to focus on "doing", rather than "being". Focusing on states of being encourages us to paste on a false expression, which alienates our audience.

"Speaking" to the audience silently is the most effective way to create an authentic expression that will foster a genuine connection. So take some time to compose your own list of statements in your own voice. Then put on some music, and give it a try!

With a little practice, you'll master it so thoroughly that even my acting coach would believe that you're a nice girl from the village.

Need more hand-holding?

A guided version of this exercise is featured on the bonus DVD "Nerves and Expression", which comes with the premium version of my DVD Improvisation Toolkit Volume 1: Movement Recall. Click here to order.

Already have Volume 1? You can also get "Nerves and Expression" with a premium pre-order of Improvisation Toolkit Vol. 2: Structure, which will be released on February 24th. Click here to pre-order.


Cahira said...


Reading your article made me think about something I've had my troupe do.

There's one part where we are doing a slow (big) hip circle with our backs to the audience, and then at the end we look at the audience in shock at what we've just done.

Watching my troupe, it wasn't very convincing...until I told them to actually gasp as if they've just realized that they did something wrong.

But I hadn't thought to put it in all aspects of my dancing.

I will DEFINITELY try that! :-D


Nadira said...

I'm glad you like it! I've been using this technique for years, but only realized it in the last year or two.

They say that hearing other voices in your head is a bad sign. Is not noticing your own voice a problem? ;)

Cahira said...

Lol!! Quite possibly. :-D

Núriah said...

You are such a font of wisdom, Nadira! So glad you share it, thanQ!

Nadira said...

Aw, thanks, Núriah!

Nepenthe said...

Wow I use this trick for photo shoots...not the only one it seems! Also, a child actor. Hmmmm..

Out of Mind said...

I love you! Cant believe how simply shyness can dissipate. This is a major comfort for me. Love your work!


Out of Mind said...

I love you! Cant believe how simply shyness can dissipate. This is a major comfort for me. Love your work!


Nadira said...

Thanks, Sarita. I'm glad it helps!

Design by: Searchopedia convertido para o Blogger por TNB