“Just feel it.” It’s a phrase meant to be a catch-all for expression in dance. It’s supposed to speak to an intrinsically natural sensation of being ‘in-tune’ with the music and dance.

But, what exactly are we supposed to ‘feel’, and how do we use our ‘feelings’ in dance?

More than a ‘Feeling’

Most of the time, the word ‘feeling’ gets conflated with the idea of ’emotion’. You feel happy, sad or angry. But, a ‘feeling’ isn’t limited to an emotion. It can also encompass a state of being, or a texture.

For example, being tired is a ‘state’ of being – as is being ‘in pain’ or ‘well rested’. You may feel tired, but it’s not an emotion.

Similarly, you can ‘feel’ smoothness, sharpness, or other ‘textures’. These textures are not limited to physical items; it can include musical texture. For example, is a song smooth or sharp? Does it have ‘hard’ hits, or is it ‘soft’ and ‘flowing’?

Your expression of the music is how you interpret the feeling the music generates in you.

When we’re talking about ‘feeling’ the music, we’re talking about a combination of these different types of feelings. Yes, a song can make you feel ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ (an emotion). But, you can also feel like a song is energetic (a state) or smooth (a texture).

These feelings are then transcribed into expression.

Expressing the Music

Your expression of the music is how you interpret the feeling the music generates in you.

‘Expression’ doesn’t have to be an ’emotion’. It can be any feeling. You can express the music through dancing to display a texture – like smooth or sharp. You can also express music by dancing to display the emotion the song inspires in you – like happiness or sadness. Or, you can express music by displaying a particular ‘state’ – like ‘being romantic’ or ‘intensity’.

The best expressive dancers include facets of all types of expression, and they vary the expression within a single song.

For example, they may switch from smooth or sharp movements, depending on the sound of the music. Or, they may vary between small, intimate movements and larger, demonstrative steps based on the ‘size’ of the sound.

They may also include an ’emotional’ journey that mimics the emotions of the song. For example, if it is a song about love, they may favour soft, gentle touches. Or, an intense song may utilize a lot of counterbalance and power.

Extroverted vs. Introverted Expression

There’s a misconception that expression must be extroverted, like in a performance. This is false.

Expression can be shared with only a partner (or yourself), or shared with a room. You can express by how you move your wrist, or by how you hold your partner.

If you are creating a visual representation of the feeling, it’s extroverted expression. You are displaying it outwards. The size of the expression doesn’t matter; it’s still externally perceived.

This can include how you choose to execute your steps or styling. This is the type of expression that is visible to outsiders, like during a performance.

If you are creating a connection based representation of the feeling, it’s introverted expression. Your partner generally will feel it, and an observant outsider may pick up on what you’re doing. But, the expression is more based on creating a moment with your partner.

This can include the amount of tension you use in your movements, how you breathe, and how you choose to touch a partner. For example, a dancer who never leaves close hold can still be expressing the music – it’s simply a more private form of expression.

Musicality vs. Expression

Musicality differs from expression. Whereas expression is the interpretation of a feeling the music gives you, musicality is the interpretation of the song’s structure. It’s deciding what to accent, instead of how to accent it.

Good musicality typically features a strong grasp of expression, and vice versa. It’s hard to be musical without expression, and it’s hard to be expressive without understanding the music. Because these two skills are so linked, they’re frequently conflated as the same thing.

Why Expression is Important

Expression is what gives depth to your dancing. It’s what allows a dancer to use simple movements, but create an unforgettable experience.

No matter how technically proficient you are, a lack of expression will create a ‘flat’ dance. It doesn’t mean the dance will be bad – but it won’t be memorable, either. It can be ‘nice’, but not groundbreaking.

As a result, expression is typically a feature of a ‘good dance’. Additionally, the stronger your expression on multiple levels, the more partners you will have who ‘connect’ with your dance style.

Some people denounce expression because they don’t feel comfortable using ’emotion’ while dancing. They see emotion and feeling as the same thing – even though emotion is merely a subset of feeling. While emotion can be used to heighten the quality of expression, it’s not mandatory for an expressive dance.

Finding Your Expression

Even if you are not comfortable with emotion in your dancing, you can still dance ‘with feeling’. You can still choose to emphasize things like smoothness, flow, sharpness, or intensity – even if it’s not specifically linked to a feeling.

Spend the time to learn how you ‘feel’ music. What are you drawn to most? What do you struggle with? For me, I enjoy smoothness – and struggle with sharpness. Lyrical emotions speak to me, while the intensity of hip-hop is more difficult. Other dancers are the complete opposite.

Start thinking about how you want to do a step, rather than what step you want to do.

When you’re starting on the expression journey, first figure out how you want to interpret music that already ‘speaks’ to you. It’s easier to find the feeling when you like the song.

Once you’ve accomplished that, push towards genres or sounds that may not be your favourite. Can you find something to work with? What feeling can you apply? Is it an emotion, state, or texture?

From there, figure out if your default expression is extroverted or introverted. Do you ‘go deep’ with only your partner? Or, do you prefer open, visual movements? Do you prefer to communicate your expression through touch, or visual cues? Challenge yourself to use both, for the best results.

You can begin developing your own ‘voice’ at any time. Start thinking about how you want to do a step, rather than what step you want to do. How do you want the basic to flow? How do you want to hold your partner?

The sooner you start, the faster your expression will grow.