Appreciating the Thrill of Performing

As a designer, I make it a point to understand different disciplines to stretch my ability to empathize and navigate new media to work with. I want to tell you a story about how I’ve recently reached a whole new level of empathy for those who consider themselves serious artists who love to entertain and express themselves through theatrics.

I’m not a dancer by nature. I started taking hip hop dance classes 4 months ago because I wanted a fun workout. People who know me well understand that this is completely outside of my comfort zone. Yesterday marked the height of my journey thus far: I finally experienced the thrill of performing on stage.

For the past 8 weeks, I’ve been studying choreographies for two Black Eyed Peas pieces (“I Gotta Feeling” and “Boom Boom Pow”). This required an intimate understanding of a variety of rapid, aggressive, sharp yet groovy movements that live within the framework of 12 different stage positions. Through dance, I had to articulate the story of two gangs having fun in a club and then battling it out in a dance off.

When I spoke to people who identify themselves as performers about my dance showcase, they all used the word “thrill” in their encouragement. I’ve experienced the thrill of a roller coaster ride. I’ve experienced thrill when I watch suspenseful scenes in movies. But I never tasted this specific flavor of thrill until yesterday. And it’s unlike any emotional state that I’ve experienced, especially as someone whose craft is usually behind the scenes.

The last week of rehearsal was brutal, but immensely enlightening for me. On a typical class week, I usually just go through the motions of dancing: I’m already sweating profusely that I’m not paying attention to the artistry one bit. However, this week was different. On the last official class night, our teacher kept us at least an hour longer and pushed us to be sharper and more fluent than ever before. She stressed the importance of storytelling and evoking the mood through facial expressions and general attitude. “Show more energy!” she’d yell every few minutes. It occurred to me that using up all of my energy is not the same thing as showing more energy. The audience doesn’t care if you’re tired: you have to be 100%, 100% of the time.

We practiced in the theatre for the first time on Friday, when my class discovered how very foreign the stage was. We were scolded for being sloppy on the first try. We weren’t accustomed to the geometry of the stage and in very intricate choreographies, knowing your relative positioning and alignments is critical to a clean performance. Otherwise, the audience has no focal point to understand and enjoy, and furthermore the lighting experts needed us to be centered accordingly to capture the best aesthetic. Also, I didn’t understand the perimeter of a stage until then. My particular entry act was to hype up the crowd. Now, I have insight into the bravery and emotional precision to do this: not only did I have to learn to overcome the basics of nailing my own moves and positioning, but I had to learn to smile on demand and engage an audience I was too intimated to make eye contact with. This is a level of grace and energy I’m still wrapping my head around.

It’s a blur to me now as to what happened with the remaining 11 positions on the stage, but I recall thinking: “This is it!” It was a dance that technically lasted 3 minutes, but to me it felt like 1 second and 1 hour at the same time. I have a fresh impression of “being in the moment”: you can’t think too far ahead or else your current move will be jeopardized; you can’t dwell on any mistakes or else your current attitude will be exposed to an eager audience. If there’s something I’m learning about this new flavor of thrill, it’s something that needs to be completely savored with all of your mental and physical strength. When you become an actor on stage, you do take on a new identity, free of bias from your ordinary self.

The discipline of dance is still alien to me, although my confidence increases every week I practice and my admiration deepens for this form of art I recently picked up. I’m still processing what kind of specific user experience design insights I’m gaining from this, which I’m sure exist in abundance and would like to write about, but as of now I’m quite enjoying the act of becoming a dancer (at least just for fun’s sake!).

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