How to Become a Choreographer

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From the high-energy dance moves of a BTS music video to the ethereal leaps in “Swan Lake,” choreography captures the elegance of the human body and the myriad ways it can move. Choreographers are the artists who concept, craft, and coach dance and movement sequences. Keep reading to learn more about the art of choreography and the path to becoming a choreographer.

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What is choreography?

Scene from 'So You Think You Can Dance'“So You Think You Can Dance” Credit: Adam Rose/Fox

Choreography, also known as “dance writing,” is the art and technique of designing specific steps, movements, and dance sequences for performances and shows.

A choreographer designs and directs movements and motions for dance routines. These dance sequences display tone and mood through gestures, jumps, and bodily formations in performances including: 

  • Musicals
  • Operas
  • Plays
  • Music videos
  • Dance company performances
  • Cheerleading routines
  • Marching band shows
  • Figure skating competitions

What does a choreographer do?

Young ballet dancer with instructorLightField Studios/Shutterstock

A choreographer works with the creative team and guides dancers. Choreographers may work solo to create a routine based on their artistic vision, or they might be hired early in the creative process to help bring a director’s or production team’s vision to life. On any given day, they might:

Research

To ensure that dances are always performance-appropriate and engaging, choreographers conduct research by attending dance shows and events, watching videos, and practicing or reading about the intricacies of different techniques.  

Create and teach dances

The crux of the choreographer position is dance design. Choreographers notate dance movements that best represent the narrative, characters, and artistic vision. They teach these movements to performers by using written maps, using a more experienced performer as a guide, or performing the dance themselves. More specifically, the creative and technical process behind choreographing a dance entails: 

  • Collecting movement material: Depending on the dance type, the choreographer will either craft interpretations of existing styles of movements or create a new style of movement and notation. For example, ballet choreographer George Balanchine took movement standards from the Imperial Ballet School and fused them with the more contemporary movements he learned in Hollywood to create his neoclassical style. “Father of Hip-Hop” DJ Kool Herc used his turntable prowess and Jamaican dance knowledge to create the breakbeat, which paved the way for breakdancing as a new form of dance.
  • Creating phrases out of movements: A dance phrase is created when a series of movements are tethered together by a clear line of energy. Instead of wild, unconnected movements, phrases create connected, rhythmic sequences. Like a full sentence, a dance phrase conveys meaning in a way isolated words or movements do not. For a simplified example, think of the grapevine used in the Electric Slide.
  • Building onto phrases: To build out the rest of a dance, choreographers can choose to strictly repeat phrases, repeat a phrase with new phrases added on, or add in separate dance phrases according to a set pattern. Phrases can also be altered in terms of style and mood. 
  • Structuring the dance: Once all movements and phrases are established, choreographers structure the dance itself according to its intended purpose. For example, a dance choreographed for a musical needs to follow the narrative and mood of the storyline, while one choreographed for a cheerleading routine might need to follow competition standards. The dance structure should match with its musical accompaniment and dance tradition form.
  • Notating the dance: Finally, the choreographer records dance movements in the form of dance notation. Historically, choreographers either wrote down dance movements with symbolic notations or visual records. Many contemporary choreographers use a mix of written and video recordings for their notations to try and best capture their dance vision. Once the dance is fully notated, the choreographer uses these written and video recordings to teach dancers. 

Cast performances

While directors usually make the final decision about dancer casting, choreographers provide input on which dancers they feel should be cast.

Work with directors

Choreographers must work closely with music directors to align movement with music.

Conduct rehearsals

Rehearsals help ensure that dancers understand a sequence. Choreographers run rehearsals to make sure that dancers are performance-ready.

Direct performances

Finally, choreographers may also direct and stage live dance performances.

Steps to become a choreographer

Scene from 'Peacemaker'“Peacemaker” Courtesy of HBO

Choreographer job requirements entail a mix of education, experience, and skills.

1. Study dance

A secondary degree isn’t necessary to become a choreographer, but many choreographers earn their B.A., BFA, M.A., or MFA. Colleges that offer choreography programs include: 

  • Boston Conservatory at Berklee
  • Florida State University
  • Fordham University and the Ailey School
  • The Juilliard School
  • New York University
  • Oklahoma City University
  • Pace University
  • Temple University
  • University of North Carolina School of the Arts
  • Virginia Commonwealth University

Many programs also offer shorter certifications in choreography, dance, dance performance, dance making, and commercial dance. Dance certification programs are offered by: 

  • National Dance Teachers Association of America
  • American Tap Dance Foundation
  • American Ballet Theatre
  • Royal Academy of Dance
  • International Dance Teaching Standards
  • Dance Teacher University

2. Build dance experience

While education provides the theoretical foundation needed to work as a choreographer, experience with dance is essential. A professional choreographer needs years of dance training under their belt both as a dancer and as a dance designer. They may take dance classes and then test their training by attending performances, expos, and auditions for dance companies and productions. Upon developing a strong foundation as a dancer, they may apply to earn their certification to teach at a dance studio or work under another choreographer. These roles entail collaboration on beginner routines and introductory classes and provide valuable mentorship. From there, they work their way up to associate choreographer or dance director, and finally to full choreographer. 

3. Hone your technique and conceptualization skills

The following skills are needed to become a choreographer: 

  • Dance technique: Knowledge of different types of dance techniques as well as dance concepts such as rhythm, emotion, and musicality allow choreographers to direct their dancers toward the best performances. 
  • Choreographic conceptualizing: Choreographers visualize the movements, gestures, and formations that allow music to become narrative through dance. They must be able to conceptualize dance in sections, design routines within these sections, and then refine until the choreography presents a polished, cohesive story. 
  • Choreographic writing: Writing choreography includes the ability to record stage directions, describe dance formations, and make notes about movements, steps, counts, and lyrics. 
  • Creativity: Since choreographers must constantly imagine and create dance routines, a creative mindset and flexible artistic approach are imperative.
  • Agility: Fitness and agility are not only beneficial but also necessary to help lead dancers through movements.
  • Leadership: As the head of the dance team, choreographers must have strong leadership skills, including the ability to inspire collaboration and communication. 
  • Passion: A keen interest in the art of dancing and the science of movement encourages better performances—and helps keep the job interesting.

How much do choreographers make?

Dancer working with an instructorNarint Asawaphisith/Shutterstock

According to ZipRecruiter, the average choreographer's salary is $44,175 per year or approximately $21 an hour, with a general range of $20,000 to $69,500. Pay may vary further depending on location, performance size and scope, and experience.

Famous choreographers

Katherine Dunham, Wade Robson, and Shane SparksEugene Powers/Everett Collection/Shutterstock/Library of Congress

These dancers helped shape the dance world as we know it today:

  • Alvin Ailey: The founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey created  the famous “Revelations,” a fusion of several types of dance meant to reflect the Black American experience.
  • George Balanchine: Famed for his neoclassical ballet choreography, Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet and was choreographer for the New York City Ballet. 
  • Agnes de Mille: De Mille did the choreography for many significant works, including “Rodeo,” “Fall River Legend,” “Oklahoma!,” “Bloomer Girl,” and “Brigadoon”—the last of which earned her a Tony. She founded the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre, which would later become the Heritage Dance Theatre. 
  • Katherine Dunham: The award-winning woman deemed “dancer Katherine the Great” choreographed more than 90 dances throughout her career. She created the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, known as the nation’s first self-supported Black dance troupe, as well as the Dunham Technique, a codified methodology for modern dance training. Her works include “The Emperor Jones,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Casbah.”
  • Bob Fosse: Fosse’s signature jazz dance style introduced the world to “jazz hands,” now a necessary component of show choir. It also earned him multiple awards, including a whopping nine Tonys. He choreographed dance numbers for musicals including “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Pippin,” and “Chicago,” and for films that he directed including “Cabaret” and “All That Jazz.”
  • Wade Robson: After impressing Michael Jackson with a rendition of one of his dance routines, Robson gained enough fame to choreograph dances for Britney Spears, Nsync, and Disney. His show “The Wade Robson Project” showcased his choreographic skills.
  • Shane Sparks: Sparks began his career as a dancer before becoming a dance assistant and finally a choreographer for the American Music Awards and the hit show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
  • Paul Taylor: Taylor’s modern, highly physical dance routines led to collaborations with some of the world’s top dance companies, as well as an Emmy Award. All 147 of his works—which include “Aureole,” “Esplanade,” and “Private Domain”—are performed by the Paul Taylor Dance Company.