Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Choreography Cure

I have made it fairly well-known that I do not construct choreography for myself, nor do I retain it well (my own or others), or base workshops on it either.  I will create choreography for my students to dance to*, and occasionally may remember most of it, but I make no guarantees. Instead, for performance, I prefer to set a few "anchors" where I have specific ideas for a recorded piece of music - and in class, focus on combinations connected to musicality in short sections for my students to grasp and practice.

And for the most part, I also tend to avoid taking workshops that base the entire set-up of the class on a choreography. I AVOID THEM LIKE THE PLAGUE.


Me and my beautiful RIstudents at a Steampunk Festival,
doing the 1 choreography I have managed to remember.

I have heard all of the arguments for the virtues of learning and performing choreography. That it can help give a dancer a clear idea of how a specific ethnic piece may look/feel and connect with the music.  That if you get it into your system, then you can allow feeling to take over. And so forth - good points, indeed.

Except, what if your brain doesn't work that way?

We are all wired a bit differently, and that means that we also learn differently and have different ways of absorbing the material before us.

I thought for a while, maybe it's an issue because I'm not coming from a formal dance background.  Then I thought back to when I did horseback riding - particularly dressage and hunter/jumper.  I could finely execute all of the movements that make up a dressage pattern or successfully lead a horse over series of jumps/obstacles I was familiar with , but if presented with a new pattern to do, especially with a short amount of time of preparation (such as only looking at a map and needing to remember it for the next round), I was lost, my brain would refuse to retain it. And walking a course is not the same visual perspective as riding it.  It was the same way in school - I discovered that I had different ways of relating to the problems to solve - I would arrive at the correct answer, but usually via a completely dissimilar route to everyone else.  I inwardly would worry about this phenomenon, seeing that everyone else was going about a different way - yet, I was a straight-A did it really matter?

I have had numerous people confess to me that they can't do choreography, and they felt they were lacking something because of it.  I know exactly what they mean, because I have been there.  Now that I've been dancing nearly 15 years, I've come to a few conclusions that I would like to share with you:

1. Some people have a knack for memorizing choreography quickly. That doesn't make them a better dancer than you, it just means they learn differently. You excel at improv? More often than not, they don't. Different brains. They work better in a concrete system versus abstractly.

2. If you're focusing on getting the movements executed correctly, and therefore are behind on learning the next 20 parts, it's OK.  In fact, it's more than OK, you're DOING IT RIGHT. I believe it's far better to learn how to do a few moves properly in a workshop and get a feel for what the teacher is trying to share with you, than to try and cram in 3-6 minutes of choreography done poorly - which you probably won't remember well either. (And this is the primary reason I teach core movements and combinations in workshops - students retain more information, and still get a good idea of how/why I dance, without trying to remember a whole song).

3. Maybe you start off great learning a choreography in a workshop, and then say 2.5 minutes into the dance/music, you can't seem to hold anymore.  This is actually fairly common. Think about it like you're running out of RAM. It's not the end of the world. If it was a 6 week class series, you'll probably be really exceptional at it, as you cover each section, and give your brain time to absorb just enough and refresh.

4. Anyone can create a choreography to a song.  That doesn't mean it's successful.  And by successful I mean, truly works with the music, rather than top of it.  There is a lot of choreography out there that beats the crap out of the music, or pretty much ignores it all together in favor of "symmetry" or perhaps the need to fill up every second with movement. If you are musically-inclined and are being presented with material that really doesn't make sense, it's going to not flow for you.

5. Choreography is a tool. It is only one of many at your feet. It can help you gain insight into someone else's dance - how they put things together, how to they hear the music.  It can challenge you to really think about how you can do the same and why.  It also is handy for getting multiple people on the same step when performing together, to create a vision, etc.  It's also a bit like a magic wand, a la Harry Potter. Just because a choreography works for one person, doesn't mean it works for everybody.

6. Muscle memory and physical technique is exactly that: muscle memory and physical technique - whether it's being used for improv or for choreography.  If you understand the movements, how they work with music, how to transition in-between, then you're doing pretty damn fine.  Being told you have to learn a choreography inside-and-out, and THEN you will be able to just "turn on the dance" once you have it down - well, it may not be the best thing for you. If you're already strong at improv, know the music, and express naturally, doing that is a bit like translating a poem into another language, and then back again. For me, improv is like having a direction connection to the divine.  When I have to filter it through choreography, even my own, it's like adding a middle man to the equation.

7. You will always feel like a dork in someone's else's class/workshop, especially if it's your first time with them.  In fact, if you don't feel even a bit like a dork in an unfamiliar class, you may want to check your ego. (Meaning, you may not really be getting the material, or maybe you're not being challenged enough).  It's not your material, it's not what's familiar to you, so of course you're not going to be instantly awesome.  But the more you study with someone else, the more you will become comfortable with what they present, if they are a good teacher. And so while you may not that choreography completely in that first workshop, the second or third or twentieth time you take with them, you will get it more, and then you will learn even more.  That's how it goes.

(*When needing to create a choreography for a student group piece, I like to work directly with my students to create it, versus me dictating everything - their input is key for it work.  They learn about how movements and music come together, and get to have a creative say as well.)


  1. Choreography and I have a love-hate relationship.

    I do not have any formal dance training outside of belly dance either, and many of your points here ring absolutely true for me.

    I've experienced many moments of ACK! during a class or workshop where I've felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of choreography being presented or the pace it's been presented at. I understand that I'm not going to emerge a superstar after 2 hours with an instructor, but there have been plenty of times where it seems like everyone else around me is progressing and I'm still struggling with the opening moves. I feel like a belly dance impostor. If you ask me to shimmy, I'll shimmy. If you ask me to potte-bar-whatsit into a spin kick WHILE shimmying, I may stare at you blankly for a while before I give it a try.

    The teacher that I have studied with consistently in my dance journey so far places a strong emphasis on structured choreography, and I feel that my learning style has been influenced by her teaching style.

    However, when it comes to my own dances, I've found that being less structured with the choreography has worked the best. I've been using a basic framework and letting the "flavor" of the moment fill in the blanks when I perform. In my earlier attempts, I felt compelled to count and choreograph every second of music...which was stressful, but it worked. Not so much now, which has pleasantly surprised ME most of all.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your conclusions! It makes me feel like less of a dance spaz ;)

  2. "You will always feel like a dork in someone's else's class/workshop, especially if it's your first time with them."

    Ha ha, yes! Workshops are much less stressful now that I've accepted this!

    I do OK with learning choreography for the troupe I'm in, but like you I avoid choreo-based workshops. There's no way I'm going to remember a choreography that I learned over the course of a single workshop, and even if I did, I wouldn't want to perform it, because it's someone else's dance. I am also a structured-improv kind of girl when it comes to my solos.