Now that a number of my students are moving on to the choreography phase of their dancer lives (yay!), I wanted to take the opportunity to share the top 10 tips and tricks I’ve accumulated over the years on how to create choreographies. Even if you've heard these before, they can serve as a good reminder, whether you’re setting off to try improv or create a choreographed piece:
1. What’s your point?
What do you want your audience to experience? Maybe it’s because of my background in theatre or just my overactive imagination, but I always want to tell a story with the dances I create. Now, I’m not talking about acting out a novel (though that’s on my to-do list). It's about having an intention. What are you trying to embody? What is the idea/emotion/narrative you are trying to evoke? Give that some thought and let it guide your movements.
That’s what Youtube, Pinterest, and going to live shows is for! Check out those dancers you admire and look at what they do. Ask yourself what you like about them, what elements of those movements or those attitudes can you try to embody a little bit in your own style? It’s not so much about “copying” others as it is about letting yourself be inspired by the works of those you love! (Of course, while your piece should try to remain original, if ever you want to use moves from other people’s choreographies, don’t be afraid to ask, most people will be flattered. If you can't ask directly, given credit where it is due!)
3. Improv… kinda.
If you’re doing improv, feel free to set out little combinations or linked moves beforehand. Few dancers who improv do “whatever” on the spot. Improv comes from hours of practice to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Also, if you ever get stuck, you’ll have little set pieces to turn to that you can always link together. I also find it important to work on both your choreography and your improv. They work different parts of the brain, and they definitely contribute to one another.
4. Use contrast.
(Use contrast! It's the cutest!)
Whether it’s using levels, mixing slow and fast moves, pop and lock vs. flow, contrast makes your piece more interesting. Don’t ignore that simple, dragged out movements can be strong and beautiful, and that they are made even cooler if punctuated or accented by sharper, more rapid movements. Similarly, use your space (unless it’s a specific artistic choice that keeps you more rooted to one spot of course); work different lines and angles and feel free to repeat patterns for emphasis. Of course, don’t overdo patterns and move through space to the point of chaos (unless that’s your point).
5.Don’t forget your face (and your hands while you’re at).
Faces can range from the “I’m so bored, please kill me” face, to the psycho-grin, to the classic resting b**** face if you’re not careful. Command the emotion you are going for from head to toe… face to toe? If you’re thinking “am I doing this right?" Your audience will notice bcause it will show on your face. The more comfortable you are with your dance, the more you can also let your face express. Want to throw in a more commanding expression, something more cheeky, more sweet? Go for it. Similarly, your hands should also be an extension of your body. They should always be energized, to avoid things like claw hands or limp hands, while avoiding the alternative over-active flappy/noodle/jazz hands.
A good choreography has intention. Always have a good reason to do what you just did. When we start dancing, we think about each move as a sequence, rather than something we should flow through. The moments between your moves are just as important as the "moves" themselves. Even if you mess up on the day of, make it look like you totally did that on purpose. Own every moment. Pro tip: Video is a great tool for this. Regardless of how painful it is. It'll make you notice everything from a sloppy transition, to a move you thought looked huge but isn't as clear, to if your eyes are wandering all over the place
7.Be ambitious but not too ambitious.
Especially if this is still one of your first or second choreographies, there’s always a tendency to want to try to pack everything that you ever saw, tried, or can think of into your dance. Rein that in. Some ideas will have to scrapped. My tip would be to stick with what you can nail for 90-95% of your choreography. Save your ambitious wow moves to about 5-10% (think flutters, dramatic drops or impressive flexible moves). Minimizing moves with big risk will also make the moment you showcase that 5% that much more awesome. Otherwise, you run the risk of looking messy or less polished, or like you're trying to hard to string ALL of your accomplishments (until you do get that good, and then just go for it!!).
8. Know your music.
Many contemporary dancers will actually create movement and sequences without music first and then let the music inform the moves. This is a really cool skill set that I definitely recommend you play around with. But if you are using music from the get go, you will unfortunately have to listen to that sucker until you hate it. Your song choice should become your new lover, learn its moments, its nuances, its timing. Listen to that song even when you aren't practicing. Listen to it on the bus, on your walk home, when you're cooking, different environments will help you discover something new about it.
9.Don’t compare yourself!
This is so important when you are dancing in a group or for after a show. While constructive self-criticism is useful to make you a better and stronger dancer, love that you are being YOU. We each have our own unique strengths. Thinking “ X does that sooo much better" or “I wish I could have done this like Y"” is never that useful. Do take what you admire in others or want to work on personally and help that make you a better dancer, but make that a constructive use of your time.
And finally, my most important tip:
10. Feel first, train more.
As "artists" a lot of us tend to forget this one, because we think we can just power through everything with our drama. However, this is hands-down my number one piece of advice: If you want to be a great dancer (professional or not), you have to practice. “Feeling the music/your emotions/energy” is great to spark ideas, it is wonderful to infuse into your dance to give it that je ne sais quoi that makes audiences go “wow”... BUT it’s practice, dedication to your craft, and always seeking to expand your technique that will truly make you shine. (To all my fellow teachers out there: This applies to us too! We should never stop learning! Dancing is a journey, not a destination.)