Inspiring Excellence through Arts Education

What makes a dancer not good, but great?

By Terri Miller

I recently had the privilege of watching my favorite dance company perform live. This is the same company that inspired me to become a dancer when, at around eight years old, I saw them perform on television while I sat cross-legged, wide-eyed and open-mouthed on my living room floor. Watching them today still makes my heart fly, and I become that little girl again feeling my spirit awaken and every muscle longing to join those artists on stage. 

What is it that turns a dancer into something more; into an artist? What is it that creates a memorable and moving performance? How can a dancer transition from being good to becoming great? I have discovered over many years of performing, teaching, and observing that the best dancers and the best performances have the following things in common:

1 – Technique is a tool, not a talent. Good, solid technique is very important for the dancer, and just like a tool in a toolbox, it should be kept sharp, clean, and ready. That is done by the constant repetition of exercises and combinations to keep both mind and body in top condition. There should also be the constant quest for improvement, because the better quality the tool, the better the job will be done. However, a great technique is not the end goal. The technique is simply what allows the dancer to fully express the dance. It is the paintbrush to the master. It is the pen to the poet. It is the instrument to the music. It is what frees the dancer to let their talent shine through.

2 – A good dancer dances; a great dancer becomes the dance. Whether the dance tells a story or whether it is simply music interpreted through movement, a great dancer takes you on their journey. Every look, every line, every gesture, every turn is purposeful and has meaning. A good dancer can impress you with their countless pirouettes or their legs up to their ears. A great dancer can do that too, but they can also bring you to tears with a simple reach of the hand, keep you spellbound with the glance of an eye, or lift your spirit with a beautiful suspended breath. It is the difference between just performing the steps and becoming the full embodiment of the dance that creates an artist.

3 – Finally, a dancer must be vulnerable enough to give part of themselves to their audience. They must be willing to leave a bit of their soul on the stage for everyone to see. If they are dancing a comic role, they must be willing to commit to that comedy even if they feel silly or foolish. If they are dancing a dramatic piece, they must be willing to portray that story without fear or anxiety. If there is no story or character, then the dancer must become the living, breathing, movement of the music. For the dancer who is willing to give of themselves the very best of their spirit, they will receive so much more in return. There is no feeling quite like knowing you have given of yourself honestly and completely during a performance, and the sweet applause is the audible appreciation of those who have received your valued gift.

When technique, talent, artistry, and commitment blend together in harmony, that is when art is created. That is when spirits are uplifted, and hearts and minds are opened. And that is truly when the “good” becomes the “great.”