"She needs to learn to look up more. Looking down like that shows that she is concentrating on her technique." -- Tracy Wilson, commenting on a performance at the 2011 Canadian Figure Skating Championship.
I took a movement for theater class in college. I did not have much dance experience and had to concentrate on remembering the steps when we crossed the floor in the studio. I can remember my instructor telling me, "Bruce, look up, the choreography is not written on the floor."
Why do people tend to look down when concentrating? I think in part it is to block out distractions. Whatever the reason, it tells people that you have withdrawn mentally. (There are other physical traits that people do when concentrating.) The audience may not be conscious of it, but it prevents them from feeling connected to you. Also, if you have to think about your technique, you can't be thinking of other things. You have to master the technique, becoming comfortable with it and confident in your ability, before you can move to the next level of being artistic and connecting with your audience.
Jamie Shaheen is a pianist who performs in the lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel at the Disney Resort in Anaheim, CA. Watching her is amazing because she has mastered what she does so well that she does not have to look at sheet music or the keyboard while she plays. That frees her to look at people and interact with them. I have seen her recognize somebody approaching and surprise them by switching to a song she remembered they had requested earlier in the day. She can carry on conversations while playing a song flawlessly. She is particularly adept at establishing a rapport with young children by talking with them about what she is doing and asking questions about their day. Because she does not have to look at the piano keyboard, she can make eye contact with them.
Eye contact is an important part of communicating with others. At a minimum, it lets them know that you are aware of them. At its best, it forms a connection. You can see this in action while watching figure skaters working with a partner, either in pairs or dance competitions. Those who are concentrating on their technique don't look at each other. They concentrate on their timing, but they fail to achieve true synchronization. Their skating together seems mechanical. Those who have confidence in their technique make eye contact frequently. They are concentrating on their relationship which is what transforms their performance from the mechanical to the artistic. The relationship is what endears them to the audience. Kurt Browning commented that technique is just one way to win over the audience. He said your personality is another way to get the audience rooting for you. Your relationship with those you work with is an expression of your personality.
I believe that your most important partner in a performance is the audience. You can form a connection to them by making eye contact. "Working high" is a circus term meaning that you include those people sitting in the highest seats by looking at them and making eye contact. If you watch a figure skating competition, observe how the performers use their eyes. Many skaters will start by striking a pose looking directly into the TV camera to form a connection with the viewers at home. Just before starting a footwork sequence, skaters will often pose briefly at the end of the rink and look up at the audience. That eye connection to the audience combined with technical skill often brings sustained applause that lasts for the duration of the sequence. Audience response to a spiral sequence is stronger if the skater looks up and makes eye contact with the audience while gliding along the ice. That is why Michelle Kwan got much better response than other skaters who hit the same position during the spiral. She became famous for her spiral because of the way she connected with the audience through eye contact and emotion, not because she did anything physically different. She was so secure in her technique that she was able to feel the joy of skating, and that emotion spread to the audience.
What do you tend to do when concentrating? How can you guard against doing that during a performance? Do you know your technique well enough that you don't have to think about it? Where do you look during a performance? If you work with a partner or assistant, do you make eye contact? How can you express your relationship to your partner so the audience understands it? How can you see your audience more clearly and react to them? Are there moments in your performance when you can consciously make eye contact with the audience? How can you make sure that you work high and not exclude any section of your audience?