NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Alek Paliński, Dancer, McDonald Selznick Associates. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
From the beginning of my dance and teaching career in my native Poland, I’ve been working in the commercial dance industry. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in 2015 that I realized the full scope of opportunities for dance on television and film. In Poland, dance on camera was limited to shows like SYTYCD, Dancing With The Stars, or X Factor. In contrast, the U.S. has a plethora of dance genres for scripted TV and film. Ultimately, I’ve utilized this knowledge in performing and choreographing for several platforms, which I’ve also implemented into my teaching.
Within the independent work sector of Los Angeles, I observed the evolution of the commercial dance industry: the changing trends and timeless best practices. I’ve met dancers pursuing their careers in Hollywood who lacked the right tools to succeed. Many had stellar technique from years of studio training and competitions, but knew very little on how to adapt concerning live stage work, reality television, and scripted programming. Moreover, they didn’t have essential tools to deal with rejection, stemming from the lack of education.
The awareness of versatile dance training has grown tremendously. Specializing in one dance style isn’t enough to ensure longevity in the entertainment industry. But there is another level to versatility – it’s knowing how to execute each style, each choreography, depending on the platform/medium used. A dancer should know how to adjust their performance for a theater show, a live stage concert, reality TV, scripted TV, or a film. When advising dancers on their commercial industry careers, teachers should give insightful tools, like teaching the differences in execution and how to discern adjustments needed for each environment. This makes a performer truly versatile from a commercial dance industry perspective: proficient not only in multiple styles but multiple ways of executing them. One of my favorite ways of teaching this is having students perform the same piece of choreography for different scenarios:
- Live stage (e.g., theater stage, festival stage, arena or stadium stage; with/without a recording artist)
- On-camera (e.g., music video, reality TV/talent show, scripted TV show, or film; live vs pre-taped performance)
Differences in performance based on the medium
As dance and technology continues to evolve, I think it is extremely important to prepare students for each possible scenario they may find themselves performing in. Such agility sets them up for success in multiple mediums, ensuring longevity if they pursue a dance career. What are some of those qualities and different ways of executing choreography that can be explored in dance education? Here is a base-level breakdown I’ve developed in my practice that could be used as a foundation for deeper analysis of each specific project:
A. Physical execution
Live stage: Size and intensity should be as large as possible, especially on a stadium or arena stage. The audience in the far back needs to experience the dance as well as those in the front row. On a theater stage with smaller audiences, there could be more room for subtleties.
On-screen: More room for variety. A scene may require subtle, delicate, and detail-oriented execution versus an explosive performance. This could vary between different takes of the same scene (e.g., switching between close-up, medium, drone shots, or a shot focusing on dancers’ feet). Dancers need to keep details and performance choices precisely the same to ensure continuity in the final edit, which is pieced together from multiple takes.
Live stage: On a stadium/arena stage, building a connection with the entire audience as a collective is important. Dancers should express emotions outwardly with the theme in mind. The energy should be inclusive, inviting viewers to share the experience with the performers. Connecting with single audience members may work better in a theater setting, as the audience is more able to observe and appreciate the dancer's interaction with a single viewer.
On-screen: Camera separates dancers from their audience, with no opportunity for a direct energy exchange, therefore highlighting the narrative. On-screen projects, especially for scripted programming, come with a story, which is a great guide for dancers. Knowing what happens in the script before and after the scene can help channel the right energy. Additionally, dancers will rarely perform straight to the camera. Rather, they’ll share energy with other characters in the scene, creating a world to be watched “from the outside”.
Live stage: Portraying a character in dance is essential, regardless of the platform. However, with large live audiences, there’s less room for intricate character work. It’s often about a single-word prompt: “joyful”, “sexy”, “quirky”. It could be about the chemistry with a dance partner or that between dancers and the recording artist. Regardless, it should be executed in the largest way possible - similar to physical execution.
On-screen: Camera work allows for more intricacies in character. Ideas for building character can include: what’s the scene about, where are we in the larger story of the show, what era are we in, what’s the relationship between the characters, etc. Dancers able to act can be very successful here, as the camera demands this skill, especially for scripted programming.
Lastly, I want to touch on one more missing piece for those pursuing a commercial dance career – dealing with failure and rejection. I think there’s an important conversation to be had about the tendency to overly reward efforts, rather than results. The fact that “gold” is the lowest award given at many dance competitions and the general popularity of “participation trophies” is worrisome. This prevents dancers from getting used to failure, making rejection a taboo. It’s detached from reality, especially that of a professional dancer. One of the most valuable lessons to offer dance students is normalizing failures as lessons and pushing through rejection as part of the journey, regardless of talent. This deserves a separate article, but the truth is that there’s no progress or greatness without failure.
Alek Paliński is a professional dancer and choreographer born and raised in Poland. He received a Jazz Dance Instruction and Choreography degree under Kielecki Dance Theatre from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland. After a successful dance career in Europe, in 2015 he moved to Los Angeles. With 15 years of experience as a dancer, choreographer and educator, Alek is an active member of exclusive industry organizations: Television Academy, SAG/AFTRA, National Dance Education Organization, Dance/USA and Dance Studies Association. He is also a Founding Member of the Choreographers Guild. In 2023, Alek was nominated for the National Dance Education Organization “Outstanding Leadership in the Independent Sector” National Award. He is committed to staying an in-demand dancer, choreographer, and educator, with deep roots and expertise in the dance community and the entertainment industry. Some of Alek’s professional credits include: Celine Dion, Pharrell, Jessie J, Karol G, Kehlani, Camila Cabello, Finneas, Kim Petras, Christian Louboutin and Dita Von Teese. He regularly performs on TV/Film and live stage. Some of his screen credits include: SYTYCD, X Factor, NBC The Voice, CBS The Talk, “Don't Worry Darling” Motion Picture, "Sitting in Bars with Cake” Motion Picture, FOX “Monarch", Paramount + “1923" and Dancing With The Stars. Alek's love for writing started with his mother, a high school Polish teacher. Before dance, he considered journalism as a possible future career. He fulfills this passion by authoring scholarly articles focused in the field of dance and entertainment industry.
Photo credits in order from top to bottom: Felipe Orvi, Phraa, Alek Palinski, and Matt Lee Morgan