Who’s Smiling?

What’s the role of facial expression in dance?

Tap dancers seem to smile automatically. No question that they’re having fun and they want you to know it!



Belly dancers smile seductively .


Indian dancers smile mysteriously.  Do they know something we haven’t figured out?


Children who dance are encouraged to smile, no matter the inner terror  being onstage is likely to provoke.  The mandate to smile is the sine qua non of children’s  dance performances.  Many remain stubbornly oblivious to this, but they will not win the hearts of the audience.  They’re just not AS adorable as the smilers.


When I was a child performing in recitals, the same message was drummed into me, Smile!  I still remember the discomfort and sense of weirdness that came with having an artificial smile plastered on my face that I had to maintain as I performed. I was assured that audiences loved it.  Now when I watch other people’s children dance, if they are looking remotely unhappy, I have to restrain myself  from hollering, “Smile!”

When I was performing in graduate school, the department chair, who had choreographed the solo I was doing, was apparently bothered by my facial expression as I danced. I was firmly instructed  not to show any emotion. That was as unnatural for me as holding a smile on my face for minutes at a time. I have one of those faces that people can “read,” knowing my feelings often before I verbalize them. But wanting to please her, I tried to make my face a blank canvas. That non-face was the influence of post-modernism.

At the other end of the facial possibility spectrum lies giving attitude. I imagine this is supposed to reflect the ferocity and intense passion of the performer, but from my point of view it  looks ridiculous and exaggerated and is distracting. I wonder if they make faces at themselves in the mirror. To bolster my point, I have a few splendid examples taken recently of ice dancing at the Vancouver Olympics!

US' Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto." (Saeed Khan / AFP/Getty Images)

US' Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto." (Saeed Khan / AFP/Getty Images

France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder. (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP/Getty Images)

France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder. (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP/Getty Images)


US' Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto." (Saeed Khan / AFP/Getty Images)

About Dianne Vapnek

Born and raised in Holyoke, Mass. and studied dance for years and years and years! Ballet training with Anatole Bourman in Springfield, Mass. and then studied contemporary with Margaret Jenkins and Bill Evans among others. Founded SUMMERDANCE Santa Barbara in 1997 as a 3-4 week contemporary dance festival. In 2010, began a creative residency program in partnership with the Lobero Theatre, called DANCEworks as an ongoing project of SUMMERDANCE..
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5 Responses to Who’s Smiling?

  1. Laura says:

    Great entry…I usually totally dislike the “deadpan” modern dance look. ESPECIALLY when it come to bows! Lighten up, for crying out loud!

    Unfortunately, some VERY good professional dancers can’t smile and dance at the same time convincingly…it seems to be a special skill set. It is wonderful when a dancer can do both because the joy radiates across the stage and the audience responds in kind.

  2. megan says:

    I don’t like too much smiling. Dancers on the stage that is. I, myself, am very into it. :)))

  3. Julie McLeod says:

    Dance makes us all smile…inside and out. Whatever is being expressed from the inside out must show in the face! Just no mugging.

  4. Larry Keigwin says:

    I love that you are bringing up topics we all think about but vey rarely discuss. Right on. I hope I give good face onstage.

  5. Maybe skaters are just angrier than dancers! Not having as much fun?

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