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How to Make Your Choreography More Creative
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We’ve all seen boring choreography. No matter how perfectly it’s executed, the dance just leaves you thinking, “Okay… next!”
Maybe you’ve even felt that about your own work, as you rewatched the rehearsal videos, wondering why your piece didn’t get picked for the student concert. You’ve seen videos of incredible choreography on YouTube and all those talent shows on TV, and you might wonder how those choreographers are so creative. How do they come up with the vision and work with the dancers to create something that makes everyone go “wow”?
This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I won’t say I’m a “bad choreographer,” but it doesn’t come naturally to me at all. Anything “cool” or “creative” I’ve made only happened because I dragged it out of myself in an exhausting process that felt like forcing a square peg through a round hole.
It’s a good problem, though, because it’s forced me to discover and create a few “hacks” to make my choreography more creative. (Read how I did the same for improv) Give these a try next time you’re feeling stuck, whether you’re starting a new piece, revising a finished one, or somewhere in the middle.
The YouTube Method
It’s actually embarrassing how much I use YouTube when I’m choreographing. It almost feels like cheating, because this method is so easy and helpful. Here’s how it works:
- Watch videos of other dances using the same music as yours. (It doesn’t have to be YouTube.) Every time you see something you like, pause and write it down. It could be as simple as a new arm for step-touches, or as complex as a formation change.
- Try not to write down whole phrases. Write each step individually, so you’re not copying someone else’s work.
- If you can’t find a dance video with your music, look for something similar, like a song from the same time period, or with the same theme.
- Keep watching until you’ve got 20-30 items on your list.
- Start coming up with phrases for your own dance, using the moves on your list in any order that makes sense.
- You don’t need to stick to the list exactly. In fact, it may look choppy if you do. Add your own flair by creating transitions, making modifications, and spicing it up with a move or two of your own.
While I use this method mostly for jazz and musical theatre (because that’s what I teach), it works for any style of dance. If your sound score is a little more abstract – think atmospheric noise, silence, or minimalistic instrumental without a clear beat – don’t worry about finding a dance to the same music. Just watch videos of dances in the same genre.
The Improv Method
You guys know how much I struggle with improv, but it’s worth mentioning here, as it’s a valuable tool for movement generation. My college professors highly recommended using improv to create dance phrases, and many of our guest choreographers used that method as well.
If you’re just improvising by yourself, the steps are simple. Put on some music that inspires you (it doesn’t need to be the music of the piece, but it could be) and record yourself dancing. Then watch the video and write down anything that strikes you. Do this several times, maybe with different prompts, until you have something to work with.
You could also have your cast improvise, using the same process. Give them a prompt and take some videos, and you’ll have plenty of material to choreograph from before the next rehearsal.
Having the cast improv, rather than just yourself, has a nice side benefit. Your choreography will be influenced by how they like to move. The dance will feel more natural to them than it would if you choreographed based solely on how you like to move.
Take note: I only recommend using the dancers to help choreograph the piece if they’re teenagers or adults. Kids need the structure of being told exactly what to do on every count. The improv method is great for advanced studio classes and college choreography projects, but not for young kids.
The 15 Steps Method
15 is an arbitrary number. You can use any number of steps for this choreography method. It was inspired by a teacher of mine who had a movement vocabulary of about, well, 15 steps. Every dance she choreographed was composed of the same steps, just in different orders and groupings, with the occasional unique arm thrown in there. That’s not a good way to choreograph, because it makes all your dances look the same, but it gave me an idea.
Having a limited movement vocabulary isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the vocabulary is different for each dance you create. I remember a student piece I saw in college, a solo, where the girl created a movement to represent every letter of the alphabet. (It wasn’t a literal imitation of the letters.) From those 26 movements, she spelled out words that had to do with the theme of her piece. It created an interesting and cohesive dance, with some really creative choreography that happened by accident when combinations of letters forced her to put different movements together.
When you’re feeling stuck on choreography, you might consider creating a “vocabulary” for your piece. Not phrases, just individual movements. Each one could represent something, or it could be completely arbitrary. You could have each member of the cast come up with a movement or two that represents them. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination!
What Would Definitely Not Happen Next?
This one is a writing prompt turned into a choreography tool. Like choreographers, fiction writers often get to a certain point in their story where they just don’t know what should happen next. (That’s what outlines are for, but I digress…) Sometimes, a good way to get yourself out of that rut is to ask, “Well, what wouldn’t happen next?” and make that happen.
You can do the same with dance. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been creating a phrase and said to myself, “Well, now I’m on the floor in this awkward position. Where on Earth do I go from here?”
When you don’t know where to go next, ask yourself what definitely wouldn’t come next. Maybe you wouldn’t do something with your right foot because your left foot’s free and your right foot has all the weight. Doing something with the left foot would be predictable, but you can make your choreography more creative by finding a way to do something with that right foot. A jump, a catch step, a relevé… see what you can come up with!
This won’t always work. Your phrase could end up looking awkward if you do the unpredictable too much. But when it does work, it’s a great way to think outside of the box.
Read the Room
“Room reading” is a movement generation technique that I learned in my first dance composition class. It’s a fun, creative way to generate a dance phrase that forces you out of your old habits. Here’s how to do it:
- This works in any room, whether it’s a dance studio or your kitchen. Start by observing the objects and structures around you. Try to notice parts of the room that you may have skimmed over before.
- Focus in on an object and think of an action that you could do with that object. For a wall outlet, the action could be plugging or unplugging. For a ceiling fan, the action could be grabbing and swinging on one of the blades (it doesn’t need to be realistic!). There’s no right or wrong, and no one will ever know the action you picked, so just go with your instincts!
- Create a movement, more literal than abstract, that represents the action you thought of.
- Repeat with different objects until you have 8-10 movements. Put them together in a sequence, any order.
- “Dance-ify” the phrase, making the literal movements more abstract, and incorporating the whole body. For example, reaching forward with your hand to plug something into the outlet could become a big lunge step with the hand extended.
- Don’t be afraid to leave some of the movements more literal, especially if you’re choreographing modern or contemporary. Pedestrian movement adds a level of reality to a piece that might be just what you need!
What to do Instead of Unison
Unison is great for young kids’ recital dances, but if you’re choreographing something more complex, unison gets boring pretty quickly. Here are some quick ideas for how to break up a unison phrase:
- Do it in a cannon.
- Break the phrase into two parts, A and B. Have half the group do A first, then B, and have the other half do B first, then A.
- Pull out a solo or duet to do something in the corner while the rest of the group does the unison.
- Have everyone face different directions.
- Have part the group do the right side and part the group do the left side.
- Have everyone pause for 4 counts at some point during the phrase, but everyone pauses at different times.
- Have part of the group do a modified version of the phrase that stays on the floor.
- Have part of the group do the phrase half time, part of the group do the phrase double time.
- Do the phrase relay-style, where one group does the first 8-count, another group does the second 8-count, and so on.
Play with Contrast
Contrast is the arguably the key to interesting art. Visual artists use contrasting colors, photographers balance lightness and darkness, composers create harmony and dissonance by blending and contrasting pitches. What can we contrast in dance?
- Tempo – moving fast, medium, slow
- Energy – sharpness vs. smoothness
- Levels – from ground-level movement to high leaps
- Relationship to the music – you can match it or oppose it
- Costume – all dancers the same, one standing out, or distinct groups?
- Groupings – unison, solo, duet/trio, cannon, call-and-response
Playing with contrast can really make your choreography more creative. Even if you don’t change a step of choreography, simply changing the groupings, making some parts faster or slower, clarifying the energy of each movement, and taking something to a higher or lower level can make a huge difference.
I hope these tips help you with your next choreography project! If you try one out, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear how it goes!