The video above of Reggie Watts at TED is almost 10 minutes long, and I’m going to ask you to watch it twice. Twice, because it deserves to be watched the first time with wonder and pleasure, without analysis.
The second time because I think this performance is a spectacular example of stage presence, pacing, and the manipulation of audience anticipation.
Watts spends almost the first full minute speaking in languages that he must assume the majority of his English-speaking audience doesn’t understand. I, watching, spent that entire minute in a state of sharpened attention, wondering what was coming next.
Minute two he spends slowly, getting his audience warmed up and feeling connected. We develop a sense of his rhythm as a performer. It’s not until about 3:40 that he settles in and gets down to business. That’s when things become suddenly very technical and layered. It’s impressive. But imagine if he’d start right off the bat with that, with a cold audience.
Often new dance performers worry about the time spent standing in the wings while the music plays, letting the audience’s anticipation build. The time spent walking around the stage, greeting the audience and doing a few hip drops during a set’s opening number. But really – by the time Watts pulls out the stops at 3:40, he has us on the edge of our seats, in the palm of his hand.
There are additional parallels to a well-done dance set. No one piece is too long. The middle section of his performance is once again slower-paced, and rich with repetition and variation on a theme. He uses dramatic pauses to good effect. His finale is high-energy and leaves his audience wanting more. Then he takes his time to bow appreciatively to his audience without rushing off the stage.
There’s no question that pacing a performance this way requires confidence and faith, two things that come with experience. But allow yourself to move in this direction as you develop as a performer, and eventually you, too, will hold your audience in the palm of your hand.