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Friday, June 10, 2011

Creating Choreography

Many dancers go through years of training without ever learning to choreograph. It is important to practice learning others' choreography, but there is nothing quite like building your own piece from scratch. Some believe that it is much more important to be able to improvise, and while I agree that it is an important skill to develop, being able to choreograph enables you to create piece that you love from beginning to end. I have also found that choreographing has improved my ability to improvise. Choreographing can be very time-consuming (especially when you are first starting out), but it is worth every second when you and your audience get to experience something that you have poured so much of yourself into. Now that we have covered the why, let's move on to the how. Everyone has their own method of creating choreography, so don't be afraid to jump into it however you fancy, but here is some advice for those who are looking for a little more guidance.

Music is usually a good place to start, but finding the right piece can be a major challenge. Don't wait until you think you are actually ready to put together a piece; start creating a list of songs that really make you feel something (even if that feeling is just a desire to move). If you don't know where to find interesting music, try playing around with Pandora. You can create a station based on a song, artist, or genre and then guide the songs on your stations play by selecting whether or not you like the songs that the stations play. Beats Antique is a fabulous group, but don't be afraid to branch out from what you think tribal fusion music sounds like. Another way to find music is to browse YouTube videos of other dancers. When you hear something intriguing, look through the video description and comments to find the song or artist name, and then use iTunes or Amazon to find other songs by the same artist.

Once you have a song, find yourself somewhere comfortable to sit down and listen to your music. Put your song on repeat and listen to it with your eyes closed until you know the music so well that you could have written it yourself. The reason I recommend keeping you eyes closed is that it will help you get inside the music. You may even find yourself dancing in your head just like you might sing in your head. If any ideas about movements to use come to you while listening, make sure to write them down (I know from experience that they can slip away all too easily). Try to pinpoint exactly how the music makes you feel. Does it remind you of anything? You may find it useful to write down any associations that come to mind when you hear the song because they make come in handy when you are trying to come up with creative movements or costuming.

Now that the music really belongs to you, it's time to start dancing. However, you're going to need to break out your video camera. Many dancers are uncomfortable in front of a camera, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to record yourself dancing! A blessed few can remember large blocks of choreography after one go, but us mere humans will forget even the most inspired moves. Set up whatever recording device you can get your hands on, and start improvising to your music. I recommend recording yourself dancing to the song at least twice through before going back and watching your improvisation. Take note of the moves, transitions, and combination that you like, and then press record and dance some more, trying to incorporate the elements you took note of. Don't worry if you can't fully remember what you did during you last improvisation... that's why you recorded it. Just keep dancing and re-watching until you have a collection of movements large enough to start piecing together.

Here is where things can start to get messy, so it is important to be patient with yourself. Keeping your set of moves in mind, listen to your song without dancing a few times. As you listen, visualize the movements and write them down (by names, descriptions, or simple drawings) in an order that looks good in your head. It doesn't need to be perfect; this is still a rough draft. Remember that repetition is your friend. If a specific move or combination stands out, consider using it throughout the song to tie the choreography together. If you are worried about too much repetition, you can always create variations of the move or combination to add interest.

Once you have choreography of a reasonable length written down, start blocking it out. You will discover that some combinations that looked amazing in your head don't quite work, so don't be afraid to shift things around as you see fit. During this time you should also be working on your transitions between the moves you came up with. The best choreography doesn't look like a collection of moves; it shifts and flows so that you aren't sure where one move ends and another begins. However, don't be concerned if you have trouble achieving this flow. It is something even the most experienced choreographers struggle with, and not-so-stunning transitions can be polished up later.

While you are adjusting your choreography,you should also be figuring out the counts. If you are unfamiliar with counting for dance, it is fairly simple. Just count to the beat of the music, starting at one, and when you get to eight, start over. "And counts" are used for double-time (e.g. "one and two and three and four...") to allow you to count out things that go in between beats. Think of the counts as landmarks for your moves. For example, you may choose to do a hip drop on each of the first four counts, some clever combination of your own creation that will take up the next two counts, and then finish off your eight counts with a slow chest circle. Don't forget to write down the counts that you decide on, and once you have counts, make sure to count them out loud when you record yourself so that you don't forget the timing for later.

At this point you should be getting very familiar with your choreography. If your music is fast, you may need to pick a slower song to practice to while you're still memorizing your piece. You can also dance without music in the beginning if you are having trouble keeping up with the tempo. Once you know the order of your moves quite well, dance them to the actual song and re-adjust your choreography when it seems to be working against the music. Now film yourself dancing to the song again and pay careful attention to the places that need improvement and the transitions that are too choppy. If you have access to a large mirror, this is an especially good time to use it for making adjustments to your choreography. By now you may be feeling very burned out and sick of you choreography. If so, film yourself dancing the latest version and go do something else. You're the boss, so come back to the piece whenever you're ready. Sometimes what a piece of choreography really needs from you is to be forgotten about. Let it sit for a while, maybe even start another choreography, and when the time comes that you remember your piece, press play and jump back in.

You don't have to think your choreography is your greatest masterpiece to share it with others. Whether it is still a work-in-progress or you don't really know how to improve it anymore, dancing it for someone else almost always serves as a great reminder of why you choreographed your own piece in the first place. Teaching your choreography to other dancers can also be extraordinarily rewarding. I am always surprised at how teaching my choreography to others improves my own ability to perform it. Then again, creating choreography that no one else will ever see is just as worthwhile. The beauty of choreography is that it is such a flexible piece of art. Keep it and cherish it privately, let others glimpse its beauty, teach it to others who will carry it with them, or let it proudly gather dust in the back of your head. It belongs to you.


  1. Great article. Check out my post on Hilde Canoodt dancing to Djelem Djelem!

  2. This is an incredibly important topic in the world of dance!

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