Choreography: a piece of cake in 10 easy steps

Many dancers and teachers are natural choreographers, but just as many are not. If you aren’t, it’s enough to make your mouth go dry and give you side-stage shakes. Will people like it? What will people say? Will it look good? Will my dancers like it?

Everybody approaches choreography differently; it’s a very personal process. Whether they realise it or not, choreographers have been influenced by a variety of people, resulting in their own individual style. We are the product of our environment, the sum of our experiences. Each new teacher, choreographer and mentor you come across influences you in some way, and inevitably you add something from their kit bag to yours. Even if it’s put in the ‘what not to do’ side pocket.

Many people choreograph organically. This means that they start choreographing without much thought to the end-product in mind. Usually they are highly experienced, extremely creative and they probably have the bigger picture in mind sub-consciously – not even realising it themselves. This way of doing things can be very inspiring and lots of fun, but it’s not for everyone and doesn’t really work when you have to choreograph to competition requirements.

For those who never know where to start or aren’t confident of their choreography process, the following tips may help you to slice up the choreography cake:

  1. Map the routine out from beginning to end. This may be driven by the piece of music you have chosen, or the theme or key message. Identify the climax – is the climax where the message of the piece hits home? Or is it the powerful part of the music where a spectacular movement sequence can be created? It’s totally up to you. During the mapping process, you may also be able to identify where a partner, canon, travelling or repetition sequence fits, or where a formation change would seem necessary or useful – it might be driven by a change in music tempo, key or mood, or to suit your message or choreographic devices.
  2. Know your end goal. Have a reasonable idea how you want the item to end (on stage, or off? Sudden/dramatic, or fadeout? Blackout or lights on?) If you choreograph with this in mind, you won’t run out of music before you’re ready to finish the piece. If you don’t plan for it, the ending won’t leave a lasting impression (let’s face it, we’ve all watched a piece in the past and thought ‘is that it?’)
  3. Work out how many rehearsals until performance. Divide the music length by the number, this is how much of the routine needs to be taught each week. If you want extra time to polish and perfect, teach larger chunks. Plan each lesson so that you don’t fall behind and need to call extra rehearsals.

    Choreography Notes
    Map out your Choreography and Plan how to teach it
  4. Turn up prepared. Make up the choreography before the lesson in which you will be teaching it. Even if you are confident with choreography, you will waste valuable time making things up while your students wait around. That being said, be open to change – your choreography may need to change to reflect abilities. You may also want your dancers’ input in a certain section, or need to experiment – this is okay as long as you have built in extra time to do this.
  5. Write it down or film it. Once you have choreographed, record it in some way. The pressure of 8+ dancers’ eyes watching you in anticipation of the next move is enough for your mind to go blank at class. Re-record the choreography at class if it changes.
  6. Pick the right music for the dancers and the genre. Tempo, age-appropriateness, strength of beat (for rhythm development) and light and shade (‘interest’) all need to be considered. It takes great strength not to go with your favourite piece because you know it is not right for this particular group of dancers.
  7. Choreograph to the right level. You need to provide choreography that is achievable for your least-able dancer, but challenging for the rest. Your dance association’s syllabus is one of the best starting guides – don’t stray too far from it in your under 9s unless you have a bunch of Maddie Ziegler’s and Chloe Lukasiak’s in your class. Using the syllabus as a base, add interest to your choreography by using tempo, direction and level changes as well as additional body parts and interaction – but only once the basics have been mastered. To extend those more able, you can include solo parts, ask them to come up with some choreography (this is good for the bits where you are having a creator’s block!) or get them to do the more complex movements while the others stick close to the syllabus versions.
  8. Use terminology when teaching the choreography. This helps enormously in picking up future choreography and helps your students come exam time. If there is no particular name for a movement, name it and claim it, or call it something fun, so it becomes unforgettable (‘pick your sock up and throw it away!’). Or call it ‘the Hayley, that sounds good 😆
  9. Pick up on technical issues straight away. Instruct and provide feedback as you teach, otherwise they will continue to do the movement incorrectly. If you don’t fix it now, a) it’s harder to fix down the track when you are polishing for performance and b) you may not pick up early enough that the movement or sequence is in fact unachievable for the group. Better to change it sooner than later.
  10. Evaluate. Step back and ask yourself – are they enjoying themselves? Is it challenging, but achievable? Is it balanced with light and shade, simplicity and complexity? Is the message coming across? Are the competition requirements fulfilled? If the routine is too challenging, if so, how will I address this? Are there a variety of choreographic elements present? Are they using body parts/sides evenly? Is their technique upheld when they perform? How is the dance going to be received by the judges (or if no judges, the parents/audience). Better still, ask another coach! Going back to my first paragraph, we all learn from one another and a fresh perspective can be just what your choreography needs.

There it is, 10 parts pieces of a choreography cake to be consumed. (Note: freezes well if unable to be consumed right away).

Let me know if you have any other tips, and we’ll bake another!

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