Suggestions for Choreographing a Dance
Richard Powers

The big picture

  • Choreography is not just stringing together steps and figures.  That's boring.

  • First, ask yourself why the audience is there.  What do they want to see?  What would interest them?  Why should they like your piece?  Or even if they don't like it, how will it impact them?  (Art doesn't have to please.)  What will hold their attention at each moment?  Keep your audience in mind during every step of your design.

    Why?  This helps prevent one of the most common mistakes in choreography — self-indulgence.  Many beginning choreographers approach their choreography as simply "I love to do this!," assuming that viewers will enjoy watching, as much as dancers enjoy dancing.  That's assuming too much, and your audience may quickly lose interest unless you know how to hold their attention and make it meaningful for them.

    Another form of self-indulgence is a choreographer who thinks, "This work has meaning for me.  Too bad the audience doesn't understand it, but at least I'm satisfied."  The choreographer just wasted the audience's time.  But I'm sure this isn't you, or else you wouldn't be reading a page on how to be a more effective choreographer, so let's move on.

  • Think big.  You may have to settle on some compromises down the road, but begin your creative process with the highest ideals.  Even plan on revolutionizing the field.  Make history.  If you don't succeed in revolutionizing the field, that's fine, but your piece will be better for aiming high.

    Avoid the opposite attitude:  "Yikes, I have only a month until the show! I hope I come up with something decent before then."  That's a self-pressured attitude of avoiding failure, which is the opposite of an optimistic attitude of making history.  Either attitude will be apparent in your final work.

  • None of these suggestions are necessarily true, and neither are the following specifics.  All arts are highly individual, so every suggestion on this page will have exceptions.  The guidelines on this page are not rules, but merely suggestions to help you design a more engaging, entertaining, artistic and/or meaningful choreography.

    The specifics

  • A good place to start is by asking yourself what's the unique character of the dance form you're choreographing.  Which qualities distinguish it from other dance forms?  Highlight and expand those qualities.

  • Utilize contrast to keep the audience interested.  Otherwise they tend to acclimate and zone out soon.
  • You will want to develop contrast within the piece and also contrast between the different dances.  Contrasting elements include angular vs. curvilinear, gentle vs. strong, slow vs. fast, consonance vs. dissonance, order vs. chaos.  If you're doing a partnered dance, vary dance positions — waltz, skaters, open, akimbo, solo, etc.  Contrast the numbers of dancers onstage.  Use tension/resolution dynamics.  Use space, silence, freeze-frames and voids for contrast.

    That's just the short list.  You can think of many other qualities to contrast.

  • If your piece is more than three minutes long, follow the Golden Mean suggestion:  Create a major change of level (an especially noticeable contrast) 60 to 70 percent through your piece.

  • Give special consideration to floor patterns.  Break up line-of-direction.  Use the entire stage.  Design visual patterns formed by dancers.  Use contrast in arranging different patterns.

  • However don't let the quest for contrast destroy the unique character of a dance.  Novice choreographers often make the mistake of throwing every trick they know into a piece, resulting in a choppy mess which is hard for an audience to follow.  As mentioned above, it's important to select one characteristic motif for a dance and develop it fully, so that the audience comes to understand and appreciate the quality which differentiates this dance from the others in your concert.

  • Don't neglect the less interesting passages of a dance form.  Simple choruses between fancier figures provide a useful contrast.  Choreographers often make the mistake of editing out the slow parts of a traditional dance form until all they have left is the shouting.  The pacing of dances often breathes... don't forget to inhale before shouting.

  • Musicality
    Janice Garrett, a Stanford Dance Division guest choreographer, was asked for the secret of her success.  She replied that she closely listens to the music so many times that she becomes intimately familiar with every phrase and nuance, before she begins choreographing.  Then it's just a matter of expressing in motion what the music is saying at each moment.  Of course her genius with arranging bodies in motion is more than that, but it's significant that she places the music first in her process, and the musicality of her work is indeed striking.

    On the larger macro scale, match musical breaks, accents, lyrics and crescendos / diminuendos with physical versions of the same.  On the more subtle micro scale, see if instrumental changes, melodic lines and counterpoint can be expressed in motion.  I'm not saying that a choreography needs to be programmatic, but audiences find it satisfying to feel correlations with the music as they're watching your piece.  This is primal and universal.

    Of course once something is identified as primal and universal, there will be minds that rebel against the "obvious."  When Walt Disney created the ultimate visual expression of music for its time, Fantasia in 1940, some choreographers decided it was more sophisticated to go in the opposite direction, divorcing their movement from the emotional impulses of the music.  But that backlash was in the 1950s.  We've gotten over that by now.  There is nothing unsophisticated about acknowledging universal responses to music, and it may even be a key to your success.

  • Dance, as any art form, can be used to express emotions.  What emotions do you want to convey with your piece?  Keep these in mind as you're designing your work.  Revisit the emotional aspect as you develop your piece.

  • Do you want to develop any relationships and interpersonal dynamics?  A simple romance?  Competition or one-upmanship?  Cat and mouse game?  Jealousy?  Manage à trois?  Relationship to someone in the past?  Fatal relationship?  Someone wanting to belong or feeling left out?  Other group dynamics?

  • Have all motion evoke a natural motivation, if you can.  Make it clear that the dancer went there, and did that, for some reason, rather than merely being directed by the choreographer.  For instance, they respond to the movements of another dancer, or a space opens up and they go for it, or the music suggests the movement, or their momentum carries them there, etc.

    You want your dancers to appear to move in a natural, musical, artless manner so that every motion moves naturally or logically from the previous one, unselfconsciously, but still executed with great precision and confidence.  The art of choreographing is concealing the artifice of choreography.

  • Our life, or rather our memory of our life, is composed of moments.  Many of these moments are as brief as snapshots.  Similarly, a choreography may likely be remembered for its notable moments.  Achieving a mood for an hour is good, but will likely not be noticed or remembered as much as vivid moments are.
    Choreograph for the moments you want — a few startling, strong or memorable moments.  Work hard to make those few focused moments spectacular, even if they're difficult and take a lot of time to perfect.  Spend more of your time on the most memorable moments.  Then surround them with phrases to highlight those key moments/movements, using contrast and continuity, pacing, etc.

    Good stage scenic design puts the work where it's noticed, highlighted, not hidden in a dark corner.  It's the same with choreography.  Highlight the most significant moments, placing them where they can be clearly seen, not obscured in a flurry of busy movement.  Be aware that the rest of the material is used wisely to set up these key moments, so make the other material efficient, easy for your dancers to memorize and master quickly.

    Similarly, keep in mind that a well-designed dance will never hide its best features.  Make sure the audience has the clearest view and the best viewing angle of your more important steps and figures.

  • If you have different dancers doing different things at the same time, draw the audience's eye to the part you want to highlight.  A stage is large, and viewers hate it when they miss something good because they're looking at someone on the opposite side of the stage.  Therefore have the soloists (or whoever you want the audience to watch) do something to draw attention to themselves before their highlight.  Or have the key dance movement dive into an "active area" which the audience is already watching.

    This is choreographing "filmically", knowing who you want the "camera" focused on, for each moment.  Then once you've chosen your key moments, do what you can to draw the audience's eye to that person or couple before they're "on camera".  Large movements or lateral travel always work, or making a noise.  Or quieting down everyone else.

  • Don't bore your audience.
  • Re-think your decisions, in order to spot clichés, old habits and standard conventions to avoid.

  • Think of your choreographic process as your participation in a conversation:
    Imagine you're at a quiet party... just you and your friends sitting around talking.
    A thought occurs to you.  You consider speaking, but then you think better of it when you realize that this particular thought probably wouldn't very interesting to your friends, especially if it's just a "me too" story about yourself.
    So you hold off saying anything for now, until you have something sufficiently interesting to contribute.  Right?  Intelligent people self-edit their conversation.
    But you probably know people who can't self-edit.  They blurt out every thought which pops into their mind.  They're boring and annoying.

    Choreography is the same.  If you have something which your friends in the audience will benefit from, then contribute it.  But if it's no more interesting than "look at me!" then hold off on wasting their time.

  • In addition to your responsibilities to your audience, you also have responsibilities to your dancers.
  • Be efficient with your dancers' rehearsal time.  This includes running efficient rehearsals, of course, but there are also choreographic considerations.  Try to get the maximum theatrical effect from the minimum of difficulties for your dancers.

  • Only have your dancers learn something difficult if they will be seen or featured doing it.  I've seen many new choreographers make the mistake of choreographing difficult-to-execute footwork and figures, resulting in overly long rehearsals and frustrated dancers, only to have the footwork lost in a swirl of motion.  Or belaboring a difficult figure that is no more effective than an easy one.

    An unnecessarily difficult choreography not only creates stressful and fatiguing rehearsals, but it impairs the final performance as well, as your performers' faces show concentration and concern.  If your choreography is a little easier, your dancers can focus on performance flair, with a confident air, instead of hoping that they can get through it without screwing up.

  • Design especially logical phrases and timing patterns which will be easier for your dancers to remember than random steps and timings.

  • Use the individual talents of your dancers.  Ask them what special skills and talents they have.

  • Ideally your dance should be physically and musically enjoyable (or in some other way rewarding) for your dancers to perform.

  • These suggestions are especially important if working with amateur dancers, or professional actors who are new to dance.  Seasoned professional dancers probably won't mind a few (but not too many) of the above-mentioned difficulties.

  • How to arrange the dances in your concert:
  • When arranging a suite of dances into a concert, consider placing your best one last, as the finale, and your second-best first.  Or maybe vice-versa, first and last.  First impressions are important.  You don't want to spend the rest of the concert trying to change your audience's mind from a weak first impression.  Beyond that, the dance order is up to you.  Maybe you want to place your next best in the middle, or as your second dance, to reinforce your audience's impression that they like your work.

  • If a single choreography is long, ten minutes or more, you can use this same guideline within one piece, starting and finishing with your most impressive material.

  • This next one concerns a specific niche:  You'll have a special challenge in staging 19th century social dances.  The problem is that 19th social demeanor was intended to be modest, not drawing any attention to the dancer.  Stage performances are the opposite.
    19th century dance masters suggested that "on entering an assembly-room, all thought of self should be forgotten. The petty ambition of endeavoring to create a sensation either by dress, loud talking or unusual behavior is to be condemned."  In terms of dancing style, "dance with modesty, neither affect to make a parade of your knowledge; refrain from great leaps and ridiculous jumps, which would attract attention toward yourself."  150 years ago the ideal social dancer was almost invisible.  The obvious problem in staging these dances is that historically accurate humble, understated dancing tends to bore audiences, who have acclimated to broad theatrical movements and virtuoso footwork.

    So there is a spectrum between exact authenticity and theatrical effect.  Modern audiences are not the same as period audiences, so if you want to convey the effect that a dance had 150 years ago, you may have to exaggerate some aspects of the dance to achieve that effect.  The film "Moulon Rouge" is effectively impressionistic, not focusing on the details of how it looked and sounded, but how it felt to be living then.

    You have to make your own choices on this broad spectrum between understated authenticity and theatricality.  There are no right or wrong choices — your choices are yours.  Everyone is different in this balance.

    Or keep the original understated style and find other ways to be interesting onstage.

  • Other considerations:
  • Give thought to your entrances... anything except standing onstage waiting for the music to begin.  Perhaps use a different kind of entrance for each dance.

  • Consider the many ways in which specific costuming might enhance your piece.  Maybe integrate costume colors into the color palette of the stage.  Use costume colors to enhance the emotions you want to express.  Consider how the flow of fabrics can enhance the movements you're creating. 

  • Ask yourself whether special lighting is necessary, or how lighting will help highlight the important aspects of your work.  Use lighting colors to enhance emotions.  When looking for ways to add contrast to your work, consider the role lighting can play.
    These are not minor considerations tacked on to the bottom of this page.  Entire books have been written about the costuming and lighting of stage productions. 
  • Consider noises or sounds made by your dancers, ranging from small exhalations of effort or surprise, stamps/slaps/etc., to speaking or singing.

  • Consider how you might use props.

  • Consider integrating other media, projections and effects.

  • Enjoy the process of making a piece.  You'll be tempted to focus only on the final result, so don't miss the satisfaction of the creative process, and the joy of dance, along the way.

    © 2002, 2011 Richard Powers

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