The Artist’s Way – Hands

In developing your dancing technique, how often do you think about your hands? Probably not a lot. The hands are such a beautiful expression of line. They are the artistic exclamation point of the arms.

It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. The eyes reveal your feelings. You can smile with your face, but your eyes tell us if something else is going on inside. However, it is the hands which either expose your inner tension or reveal your level of freedom and relaxation. They are an important indication of body language and make a strong statement about yourself as a complete dancer.

Unfortunately, the hands are often neglected in the effort to perfect overall technique. While the legs are meant to be like steel, the arms must look like silk. If the focus is predominantly on the legs, it is very easy for the arms and hands to take on too much tension.

How to cultivate harmony of the wrist, the palm, the fingers, even the nails? Study your hands, your fingers. Enjoy their feel, appreciate their sensitivity. Have you ever seen “The Dying Swan” performed? The first time I saw Maya Plisetskya dance this ballet I was moved beyond words. It was the defining moment in my young career. My passion for ballet was unleashed. I knew my destiny was intertwined with dance. My desire to look like that, to feel like that, to be like that, was ignited. Plisetskya appeared to transform her arms and her hands into real wings. From the centre of the ‘wings’ to the tips of her ‘feathers’ there was pure magic. The aliveness of that moment will always remain in my mind.

At the time, I had the privilege of watching Plisetskya dance I was only fourteen years old. I had been selected to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet Company. Did I fully comprehend the magnitude and honour of the whole experience? Like most teenagers, I pretty much took it all in stride. The year was 1968. The place, the grand old Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The company performed “the Ballet School” under the direction of Asaf Messerer. The ballet traces the level of the Russian ballet system through each grade. My role was one of the ‘young and promising’ students in the Russian tradition. The huge bonus was the opportunity to view, up close, a legendary ballerina. My eyes were opened to the possibilities which I enjoy sharing with you.

The arms, the hands, the fingers, are all extensions of the heart. Dancing is about opening your heart and sharing your deepest self. You do it for yourself and for your audience. It is both a selfish and selfless art. If you are striving to capture your audience you must be willing to share your essence, to give every fibre of your being. You may channel your energy through a character (in a story ballet) or through a neo classical piece where the music and movement create their own reality. However, you cannot present a total package without including your hands. They are not static lumps of clay. The hands are part of a living and breathing sculpture which release your power into the infinite universe.

How to begin? First recognise the life and beauty of your hands. They are part of the equipment as a dancer. By simply giving them attention something new will start to happen. Next, feel the electricity flowing through your hands which connect a circuit between your centre, your body and your space.

Here are some exercises to help you get in touch with your hands:

  1. Place a silk scarf on the floor and experiment picking it up with the utmost grace and sensitivity.
  2. Sit in a bathtub or a swimming pool and feel your hands moving through the water – study their fluidity, ease and relaxation.
  3. While using your arms in class work, imagine that each finger has an aura of colour radiating out beyond the physical movement.
  4. Examine a sculpture of a hand. Some of the great artists, like the Degas drawings, have captured the sensitivity of the hands.

The Artist’s Way – Imagery

You use imagery everyday of your life. Mental images are like the blueprints of your hopes and dreams and fears. Have you ever wondered what might be lurking below your feet while swimming in deep water? When you stand at the edge of a high cliff do you wish you could fly like a bird? Images trigger your imagination, and imagination is a very powerful force for driving either constructive or destructive actions.

What you image is what you become. It is easy to fall into the trap of being controlled by images that undermine your talent. If you constantly entertain negative attitude thoughts (NATS) you sabotage your abilities and, gradually, develop a poor self-image. Low self-esteem, a lack of confidence and repetitive failure are all a part of the negative imaging cycle. The trick is to consciously and deliberately turn your NATS into PATS (positive attitude thoughts).

An artist is someone who has trained their ‘imaging faculty’ to refine their craft. It is an art in itself. The creative and disciplined application of imagery is what distinguishes an artist from a ‘wannabe’. Imagination is allowed to soar, but it is always channelled by an active exercise of imagery. Any image begins as a mind picture that flickers in and out of your field of awareness. You have the front seat at an ever changing picture show in which you are the producer, the director and the actor. The key to mastering the full potential of imagery is to transfer the picture into a feeling. It then becomes an integral part of you and is an automatic response. You no longer have to think the image. You are the image. Technique and creative expression go hand in hand. Technique is the structure of imagery. Creative expression is the flower of imagination.

Great ballet teachers guide their students with clear word pictures that build the foundation and life of movement. These pictures, drawn from sense and emotional memories, are miraculous tools for the aspiring artist. Young students can feel the dynamics of dance and, thereby, progress in transcending the mechanics of technique. Although I studied hard and long on technique, it was the application of imagery that gave me permission to find my own reality and create my individual style. When your movements are real and authentic it helps the audience believe and embrace your performance.

I will continue to provide you with specific imagery for improving technique and artistic expression. In this overview of the subject, however, I am including a sample of general ‘thought prints’ to help stimulate your imagination. If you resonate with any of the following images, I recommend you put them on and wear them for awhile until they are embedded in your consciousness and can be expressed through your physicality. I have personally found this collection to be wonderful helper images:

  • Think of yourself as a river with the shape of a human body.
  • Imagine yourself standing amongst silky, soft curtains. Feel the curtains brush against your body.
  • The ground is alive.
  • Keep the movement flow going, like a thread going through a needle
  • Have a ghost leg, imagine you are still standing equally on your two legs.
  • Allow facial muscles to respond and become alive as a reaction to the music.
  • Imagine yourself in newness. Imagine you have never seen objects or people around you.
  • Visualisation is a way to power – If your arms are short, imagine them long. If your feet don’t point, imagine perfect feet. Think of yourself as having the power contained in Aladdin’s lamp!
  • Take a walk down the beach, imagine you can see 360 degrees behind you and dance as though you have eyes in the back of your head.
  • Sing with your feet.
  • Imagine the floor as a bed of hot coals.
  • Attack a pique before it attacks you.
  • Imagine a crown on your head,describe what it looks like, what colour gems. Think of wearing a beautiful Elizabeth Taylor style diamond necklace. How would you stand? Display your pride and honour.
  • Feel a helium balloon lifting you from the top of your head.
  • Get those blow dryers under each elbow when your arms are placed in seconde position.
  • Arms should come out of the back like wings.
  • Think up to go down and down to go up.
  • Push yourself tall.
  • Fill your body with a rainbow of colours. See them with your mind’s eye. Feel their vibrancy and allow the glow of colours to flow outward from your centre. With every movement feel them radiating outward.
  • Music flows through your body like electric currents.
  • Shape the space, sculpt it, form it.
  • Take your space and own it.
  • Build all rhythm into your muscles. Work the muscles in unity with the music.
  • In port de bras prepare from diaphragm and the back. Think of a bird’s wings.
  • The end of one step is motivation for the next.