In the debut TV performance of her new single “Green Light” on Saturday Night Live in March, Lorde danced her heart out. In quick, punchy bursts, she bounced around the stage, jutting her arms and legs gleefully outwards, and knocking over her mic stand. One of the most impactful shots, towards the end of her performance, showed her slack-jawed and holding the mic over her head, gazing with total awe at something that no one but Lorde could see. Some commenters were less than flattering, comparing her dancing to the comedy moves of Tina from Bob’s Burgers and Elaine from Seinfeld. “I love and appreciate how goddamn bad she is at dancing,” concluded Refinery29.
The 20-year-old Kiwi pop star’s unpolished dancing has drawn this mixture of criticism and backhanded praise from the public and press throughout her career. After her Grammys performance in 2014, BuzzFeed declared that her movement “continues to freak people out.” In the same year, they referred to her “zombie dance.” Vulture, when Lorde was 17, created a tongue-in-cheek guide to her moves, giving her gestures names like “The Acid Flashback” and “The Cousin It.”
Most of these reactions assume that Lorde is aiming for a certain kind of movement, and not getting it right. They claim that they’re into her “wild, ungraceful,” “DGAF” style — but this kind of framing rests on the idea that something is going wrong, and Lorde has let go of caring. Perhaps it’s more accurate — and less patronizing — to view the way she uses her body as a very deliberate choice.
Lorde isn’t trying to dance like Beyoncé and failing; she’s dancing like Lorde. From “Rhythm Nation” to “...Baby One More Time,” so much of Western Top 40 pop (and particularly pop made by women) has centred on pristine choreography. What Lorde does with her body is more freeform and spontaneous, and it speaks an entirely different expressive language. As she put it on Facebook, after trolls made fun of her SNL performance online, “One day I will do a normal dance choreographed by a nice person and I will look more like your other favorite performers but we have not yet reached that day ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”
Sara Houston is a British dance academic at the University of Roehampton and chair of the community dance foundation People Dancing. In an email to The FADER, she explained why she finds Lorde’s stage presence more impactful than the average pop performance. Lorde’s dancing, she wrote, “comes across as uncontrived, unchoreographed, as if she was the girl at a club really into the music. The slightly wild movement, the way she bends her body over so we can't really see her, lends a sense of freedom. She's certainly sexy, but in a way that says, ‘I don't care what you think because you have to take me as I am.’ It's tremendously powerful.”
This uninhibited style perfectly suits the character that Lorde is developing around her new album, Melodrama, due out on June 16. In an April New York Times profile, she explained that album tells the story of a house party. Elaborating on the story of “Green Light” in an interview with Beats 1, she said: “This is that drunk girl at the party dancing around crying about her ex-boyfriend who everyone thinks is a mess. That’s her tonight, and tomorrow she starts to rebuild.” In the free-wheeling “Green Light” video, Lorde wears headphones to signify — like Grimes in the “Oblivion” video — that her dancing is for her pleasure alone. She embodies her loose-limbed character, hunching over as she plays air-piano, crawling on all fours across the roof of a car, and thrashing her hair over her face in almost every other shot.
“[Lorde’s dancing] feels kind of luxurious, a bit excessive, in that she is taking delight in it. It’s important to see a woman enjoying the expansive ways her body can move.” —Alexandrina Hemsley
Lorde’s dancing also sometimes recalls the taut, jagged movements of Robyn in her “Dancing On My Own” video — as seen in the moments of quiet tension in the Kiwi artist's SNL performance. Reached by email, dancer Alexandrina Hemsley — one half of the provocative performance duo Project O — also drew a comparison with Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” and Ciara’s freeform, fun dancing on top of a car in her video for “Oh.”
To Hemsley, Lorde’s every movement, big or small, communicates a sudden impulse. “I read that her movements are very sensation-based, rather than the result of laboring over an external form to copy (from a choreographer),” she wrote. “Sometimes it seems as though the sensations are fleeting, and other times, she rides them until they reach their end. Her movements openly display more idiosyncrasy than is usually afforded a major pop star. Often there’s a predictable quality to mainstream choreography — you kind of know where the weight shifts are going to happen.”
It’s not just the spontaneity of Lorde’s movement — suggesting a kind of in-the-moment authenticity — that makes her so thrilling to watch. It’s also the spectacle of a woman moving in this way, so outlandishly, on some of the world’s biggest stages and screens. “I love a bit of female pop stars striding across the stage, really taking their space,” noted Hemsley. “I see a lot of moshing [in Lorde’s performances] too, it feels kind of luxurious, a bit excessive, in that she is taking delight in it. It’s important to see a woman enjoying the expansive ways her body can move.”
When Lorde dances, it’s like she’s visibly, forcibly shaking off the invisible bonds that are tied to women in pop. The first is choreography: the idea that her movement should be predictable and polished. Secondly, she resists the male gaze, or really, gaze of any kind. Her shuffling feet, her flailing arms, her bending knees, and flipping hair don’t fall easily into the media’s stereotypical idea of what women performers, who are constantly sexualized, should do with their bodies to lure the viewer in.
Equally as impactful as Lorde’s headbanging and kicking are her moments of stillness. Though it’s not what most critics choose to focus on in her performances, the way she uses her eyes is captivating. From her earliest TV appearances, like “Team” at the 2014 Grammys, she has displayed the same intense stare, anchoring her loose moves with a calmly confrontational look. It gives her focus, as well as reminding the viewer that Lorde is not to be gazed at; that she is firmly in control. When she sang the stark piano ballad "Liability" at Coachella in April, her performance was almost entirely in her face. She sat on the front of the stage, using one hand to clasp at the air, and her eyes to scan the enormous crowd slowly. As they watched her, it was as though she could see every single one of them.