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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Facial Expressions for Performers


By Saqra


Table of Contents




This tip does not contain everything I would suggest about facial expressions or every drill I would recommend! Also, I have a completely different approach to charming / engaging an audience, or getting genuine emotion and facial communication into my dancing. That said....

We all know that, at minimum, we have to give a non-distracting face. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how well we dance.

Whew.... that sentence took a lot of writing and rewriting. I tried "pleasant", but there are now parts of our genre that regularly feature blank, neutral, or occasionally somewhat hostile faces. I tried "inoffensive" and that one is in the eye of the beholder. I tried "attractive"... same problem as the others.

Different dance styles do feature different general facial presentations. Many are grounded on the status and role of female dancers in a given culture; others are based on the imagination of the performer. Here I am talking about an attractive face for the solo Western audience-focused oriental dance performer. Got that? <grin>

When we are dancing, we are usually thinking hard. Doing a choreography, playing cymbals, "are we at the second boop-boop or did I miss it?," "what is the drummer doing?!"

Facial positioning on stage is a skill that is executed while doing something else... just like a good hip drop, playing cymbals, handling props....

Your goal is not to communicate your own inner feelings, but to communicate the feelings appropriate to your dance. If the two happen to be the same thing, well yay! But this is a performance for other people, not an encounter group session.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




The Basics

New performers should have one presentation goal: the rictus smile while not looking at the floor. The ability to make a dreadful, big, fake, inappropriate smile at all times while not looking at the floor is Step #1 in getting control over your wayward face.

The problem is that, if you hold the glued-on smile long enough, your lips fasten themselves to your teeth (no matter how much Vaseline you put on them beforehand) and you're going to need to lick them.

If you lick your teeth and/or lips where the audience can see you do it, you destroy the illusion that the smile could possibly be real. You want the audience to subconsciously think you need medication, not to consciously and absolutely know you are intentionally faking your smile. So lick your lips when you are facing away from your audience, or when you bring your arm up in front of you on a diagonal and hide your mouth in your armpit behind your shoulder. Do not ever lick your lips when you are looking at your audience.

Right there is the best reason to watch every video of yourself that exists. People often have no idea of what facial expressions or strange tics they may be displaying in performance: random flippy hands, bizarre expression, no expression, crazy licking behavior... We are too busy dancing to actually pay attention to every other detail!

It is very possible to have naturally strange expressions. I'm going to repeat this again in a moment. It is better to have an unnatural smile than:

  • The dreaded "Elvis" one-lip corner-up concentration expression
  • The "slack jawed yokel" mouth (just dangling open completely forgotten and perhaps waiting to catch flies)
  • The "unintentionally angry belly dancer" face
  • The chin dropped, eyes forward, mouth making a perfectly round O expression (all the women getting engagement rings on a jewelry company's commercials made this face for numerous years. This is especially bizarre when combined with biting your lips as if "you are a naughty girl." .....and if you don't get what I mean by my interpretation of this expression you are welcome to email or message me and I will explain privately).

You really want to KNOW what faces you are making.

One trick that worked well for me was occasionally mouthing the word "Martini" when doing faster work. I actually said "Martini", it's not exaggerated like "say cheese for the camera". This wets the teeth by closing the mouth and goes through a progression of attractive expressions, ending in what looks like an attractive genuine-looking smile. It might even be a genuine smile if you are looking forward to drinking one when you get done with your performance!

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




The Introspective Expression

The next expression to add to your facial repertoire is a good quality "introspective face" for slow or emotional pieces.

You can only get away with "grinning unhinged belly dancer" during more introspective musical pieces for the first six months of performance or so. Then people begin to think you aren't progressing, and you can't overshadow it with how well your steps are coming along.

It is very, very possible to have strange expressions in this segment of the dance. So many dancers' introspective expressions are unfortunate, so it is essential to spend time with this one making faces at a mirror or looking at your video. Or, take a few photos and ask your friends what they think!

Your expressions need to stand alone without any context. Your audience doesn't know you as a whole person.

Pulling your brows together can make you look angry or very upset. Pressing your lips together can make you look closed or judgmental. Puckering your lips can give a pruney or prissy kind of look, and if you never (appear to) look at the audience at all it can shut them out of the experience completely and put them off.

Try finding milder forms of an expression of peace, of longing, love, joy that touch your eyes more than your forehead and mouth. Stay away from strong yearning and desperation expressions. Let your body communicate part of the emotion instead of using your face at its fullest ability.

If you find your lips pressing together during slow work, try blowing out a light puff of air. This softens your facial expressions tremendously.

Knowing where to look makes some dancers crazy, especially since looking at the floor isn't good at all, yet that is what everyone naturally wants to do. There is tons of advice out there on that: look out over the audience's heads, look at the audience's foreheads and not in their eyes, etc.

My own rules include:

  • Look out over the top
  • Look at the imaginary audience you have practiced to,
  • Really look at, actually see, and acknowledge a live audience member at least occasionally. If you are dancing for video tape with no audience you should still do the same, but then all the people are imaginary, including the person you are acknowledging.

Remember: When you smile (even the rictus psycho smile) people smile back, and when you really smile directly at someone, all the people in the audience feel as though you're directing your smile to them.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




Adding Effects & Complexity

Once you have practiced baseline expressions and incorporated them into your dance, it is appropriate to start experimenting with directing attention with your eyes, genuine complex expression, sudden smiles and other interesting effects. However, effects and complexity just don't work until the dancer stops forgetting her face or being unable to leave it on a quality automatic expression.

Before anyone starts yelling at me about genuineness of expression and the power of expressing something like "sadness on stage over a dead relative", let me say that there are times when genuineness of expression can be very, very powerful. However, this is usually when it is done by a performer who already has control of her/his expressions. There are also times when you don't feel as sad/happy/whatever as the situation and music require. Control and awareness are important.

A last thought from my own experience.... I once came in second in a competition because my general upbeat expression was considered too over the top. I had been in a very serious auto accident several days before and was completely shocked and delighted to have walked out of it just banged up a little. I was hugging anyone I saw, I made numerous huge life-changing decisions, I revised my five-year plans, and I was experiencing extreme honest joy in life.

And I looked a bit too happy for the judges. <giggle>

Well-expressed honest emotion may not be the most appropriate thing for a show.

But channeled honest emotion often is.

As always, your mileage may vary and this is only in my opinion.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Ian Cartlidge, Leeds, United Kingdom.




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About the Author

Saqra (Seattle, Washington, USA) is a powerful dance artist and a master instructor. Her fluidity, grace, and technical skill is highlighted by her friendly demeanor and clear joy of the dance. She did not inherit the diva gene.

Saqra won titles in Belly Dance USA (Oregon), Belly Dancer of the Year (California), Belly Dancer of the Universe (California), Wiggles of the West (Nevada), and many other competitions. She was voted "Best Kept Secret of 2005" and "Instructor of the Year 2008" by readers of Zaghareet Magazine.

Saqra's journey in this dance form began in 1977 and has led her to study with many of the best dancers in the world, including in America, Canada, Turkey and Egypt. Saqra continues to travel and study both in the USA and abroad and prides herself on proper research for anything she teaches. Folklore, fakelore, and stage creativity: all three are valuable, and Saqra clearly presents for each what they actually are. Saqra is constantly expanding her expertise in the traditional ethnic forms of the dance, the modern stage variants, and the continuing evolving fusion techniques, all these areas combined keep her material fresh and current.

Saqra is widely known as an event promoter, musician, music and instructional video producer, and a registered hypnotherapist in the state of Washington. That is enough stuff to start explaining what she has been doing in belly dance since 1977. Visit her at

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California. In the photo, Saqra is holding her Teacher of the Year 2008 Award from Zaghareet Magazine.

Saqra with Award




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