Dance choreography is an individualized practice that consists of constant exploration, openness, adaptation, revision, and reflection. Unlike other learned skills, being a great choreographer is not the result of a methodical system of tasks that produces the same product over and over. It takes years of trial and error, the cultivation of deep-rooted creative skills, and working through a mess to find the magic. So what’s an aspiring choreographer to do if there’s no real method to the madness? Where should you begin?
While there’s no perfect formula, choreographing a dance is a lot like writing a paper. You learn the framework of an essay: your introduction, thesis, supporting arguments, and conclusion. Once you become comfortable with that framework, you can “break the rules.” You eventually experiment with phrasing, word choice, punctuation, and other literary tools such as imagery, allusion, and juxtaposition. The process stays somewhat the same, but how exactly you put that plan into action can be an art all its own. The same is true for creating a dance.
There’s no shame in needing that “standard essay format” to get the ball rolling. The important thing is that you start. If you’re feeling stuck, try following these steps:
- Find music or a sequence of movement that inspires you.
- Brainstorm a concept, such as a story, a theme, or an abstract idea (steps one and two can be swapped).
- Listen to the music over and over (and over).
- Plan out the arc of the piece—the beginning, middle, and end.
- Start grooving and moving in ways that the music or theme inspire you and build short phrases (small series of linked movements that make up the whole piece).
- Craft the transitions that connect the individual phrases together.
- Watch a recording of yourself doing the choreography, or teach it to a peer to perform.
- Review and revise—but set a deadline to motivate yourself and get your work up on its feet with dancers.
While these seemingly simple steps can help break you out of your “writer’s block,” it’s helpful to hear that even the most esteemed choreographers started somewhere. And just like in dance, you can always learn from the best. Here’s some advice from leading choreographers whose dances have graced Broadway stages, film screens, hit television series, fashion shows, national commercials, and concert performances.
Many great choreographers start with a specific technique that guides every movement and dance choice: Martha Graham created the Graham technique, based on the breathing cycle and the opposition between contraction and release; Justin Peck relies on a technique that combines traditional ballet with the spontaneity of the every day; Alvin Ailey’s technique blended elements of all dance styles; and Bob Fosse played up contrast and explosiveness.
From your own experience as a dance student, you might be drawn to a particular genre like tap or hip-hop. Or you may borrow from several styles, playing with those elements that best serve your vision. If you’re new or feeling overwhelmed, sticking to a particular genre can provide you with a lexicon that doesn’t feel so endless.
Though the dancers performing your choreography may initially feel the groove differently, offering a core concept can unite your choreography on a deeper level. According to choreographer, Broadway performer and former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater principal dancer Abdur-Rahim Jackson, “No matter what project I’m working on, everything emanates from the same place,” thanks to his technique AB-RA Groove. “I imagine there is a crystal ball in the center of the body. It catches the soul, energy, and passion and rolls along your shoulder, arms, and hands.”
Often, music inspires us to move. “If I hear a song I really love, I often put it on repeat for days,” says Emily Bufferd, a contemporary choreographer and producer of the Young Choreographer’s Festival. “I listen for nuance and informed intentions to play with—first in my mind, and then in my body. I am very visual in that way [and] can see the movement idea in my mind’s eye. Then [I’ll] want to tweak it when I actually go and do it in my body.”
Allowing the music to inform and assist with building your movement takes the pressure off creating “steps.” Give yourself permission to improv and, especially if your music is your inspiration or core part of the job at hand, keep listening to it over and over until it becomes second nature to you.
Choreography doesn’t always start with the music, though. Sometimes a clear concept or phrase of movement comes first. In that case, let your core inspiration be your guide. Utilize online apps and resources to find a song that fits your vision. Or collaborate with another artist to create music specifically for your piece.
With an idea and a song to inspire, sometimes the best place to start is by hitting “play.” Allowing yourself to improv may be all you need to break the “writer’s block” and get the creative juices flowing. Jackson lets the music dictate his movements: “I just record myself on my iPhone,” he says, adding that filming improvisational movement will free you up to think less and live more. Without the pressure to remember steps or pause to write something down, you can just groove and experiment, then watch the video to analyze steps and start to put something together. Getting out of your head and into your body allows you to understand the music or vision on a visceral level.
Some choreographers prefer to work with an assistant or skeleton crew to start; bodies can help you see ideas visually. Others, such as Broadway legend Shannon Lewis, like to work alone with just a pad of paper.
“I write down ideas and allow myself the safe space to get [them all] out and start fine-tuning,” she says. Whether she’s working on film, television, or theater projects; coming up with class combinations for Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center; or brainstorming social media dance shorts, Lewis values this sacred time. “Once I have some phrases under my belt, I’ll bring in some trusted peers to view or provide feedback. But I always start by myself.”
No matter the genre, choreographers with strong points of view leave lasting impressions. “I think of myself as a writer,” Lewis says. “I’m working off my own inspiration and experience to create a world. When it comes to really linking together steps, I have to have a reason. It has to be a story or an idea that is personal to me and very vibrant.”
Just think of some of the greats: Loïe Fuller, Coles and Atkins, Agnes de Mille, Bob Fosse, and Twyla Tharp. Without any words at all, you immediately recognize not just their individual style as choreographers, but also the story their movements are telling, the emotions they convey.
“As a choreographer, you’re given the script and your job is to drive the story,” explains three-time Emmy-winning choreographer Marguerite Derricks. This could be a literal script for a film or musical, or it could be the storyboard for a commercial or the vision statement of a live event. “I need to know the logistics—the music, how long the piece is, and what the director is looking for,” Derricks says. Whether she’s on a television set for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” prepping for Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” music video, or in rehearsals for a Broadway show, the script serves as Derricks’ bedrock.
“Your work may not always be a literal story,” Jackson adds, “but ‘storytelling’ is vital in the sense that an audience should arrive at the theater feeling one way and leave feeling inspired. No matter if it’s a musical, a ballet, or an industrial, you need to establish the piece (the ‘who’), define a climax (where are we going?), and settle on a conclusion (even if the goal is to leave it open-ended).”
Be a student of your craft. Take classes—as many styles as you can—and don’t limit yourself to just dance class. Explore music, martial arts, voice, and visual art. Study by doing, but also by watching performances, reading, researching, and having a dialogue with others. If you have the opportunity, ask to shadow or apprentice a choreographer you admire. Even the most established choreographers never stop learning, asking questions, and getting inspired by new ideas.
It’s also common for choreographers to teach classes and workshops. Use this as a safe opportunity free from critics, budgets, deadlines, and big creative teams to work through your process. Of course, class should be focused on students’ growth and training. But don’t pass up the chance to branch out of your own creative comfort zone, to continue making tweaks to your combinations and be inspired by the dancers in the room.
Bufferd, who also teaches at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway, advocates for solid technical training: “I make choices designed for my students to work on their technical proficiency while simultaneously finding their own purpose and interpretations of the class material.”
According to Lewis, class is a great time to play with something that isn’t perfect. “Revisit a combo in six months, try something new, push yourself out of your comfort zone,” she says. Class is certainly about training dancers (and, often, helping to finance a choreographer’s outside creative pursuits), but reframing it as an opportunity for exploration and inspiration can breathe new energy into the in-studio experience.
If a script or storyboard doesn’t articulate the role of dance in the project, don’t be afraid to ask smart questions. “Sometimes the creatives you’re working with won’t have a dance background,” Derricks says. “They have to see something before they ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ it. Dance is visual. You can talk about it until you’re blue in the face, but you won’t really know it until you see it.” That may mean having to go back to the drawing board several times—but don’t take it personally. Be open, quick to change, and excited for each opportunity to revise a new version.
That willingness to change applies to non-professional choreography work as well. “When I first started,” Jackson recalls, “I used to choreograph as a dancer. I choreographed because I thought the dancer should be challenged and feel good in the movement. Now I look back on my early work and think, ‘What was that?!’ ” Choreography is an ever-changing process, and that fluidity should be embraced.
Five-time Tony-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman gives young performers the following advice: If you want to be a better artist, don’t just train in your art. Travel the world, read, learn to play an instrument, visit a museum, meet new people, try different cuisines. All of these things add color to your experiences and inform your craft.
For Jackson, literally expanding his horizons helped broaden his perspective. “In America, dance is fast, flashy, ‘watch me!’ ” he says. While in Europe, he recognized a deep reverence for stillness, repetition, abstraction, and dedicating ample time and space to the creative process. “I’ve come to approach partnering in a more complex and organic way,” he adds. “Instead of big tilts, lifts, and arabesques, it’s more from within—wrapping hands, connecting fingers, falling into each other.”
Art is a collaborative process. As a choreographer, you may be working with an entire team of creatives—directors, designers, orchestrators, and producers. Everyone’s job is to serve the story. It’s important not to get stuck on one idea.
“That’s the difference between a job and a career as a choreographer,” says Derricks. “On the set of ‘Austin Powers,’ Mike Myers told me, ‘You come in with a million ideas and are attached to none!’ Honestly, sometimes the changes you’re frustrated to try, end up making the final version so much better. It’s all about stepping up to the challenge.”
Art is synergistic. Keep exploring together and working with your team to best facilitate the story of the project.
As a former Broadway performer, Lewis jokingly calls herself a “recovering perfectionist.”
“Early in my choreography career I would judge my ideas before they even came out of my head,” she recalls. While “getting it right” can serve you well as a dancer, that type of focus can thwart a creator. As a perfectionist, nothing is ever perfect and nothing is ever done. Some of the most memorable works of choreography would never exist if an artist hadn’t asked, “What if?”
Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance in “Royal Wedding,” Gap’s iconic khaki swing commercial, the newspaper choreography in “Newsies,” and the flash mob phenomenon are a few examples: These were all just ideas. Not everything will be brilliant (in fact, most won’t), but taking some of the pressure off will help you find your groove. “There’s a flow,” says Lewis. “You have to get through the not-great stuff in order to get to the great stuff.”
Feeling overwhelmed? That’s understandable. All these experts have felt the same way: frustrated, stuck, insecure in their abilities. But that’s all part of the process. Continuing to put in the work will make you a better choreographer. The more you learn, explore, assert, collaborate, revise, and reconsider, the more your own process will begin to take shape and you’ll be the one sharing your insight with the next generation of up-and-coming choreographers.