Let me start by saying I am a beginning, amateur choreographer. I have only created one full-length piece that was performed. I don’t mean to downplay this accomplishment, because it was truly one of the most difficult, self-esteem shaking things I have ever done. I have never put my “insides” out there for all to see in the same way before, and in the end it was scary but also immensely satisfying once all was said and done. I just want to give some context for what I am going to share in this post: I do not have formal training and I have not read much on the subject of dance composition. What I do know is based on my own experiences and I hope it will be of use and of interest to some of my readers.

The piece I mentioned above was created during a choreography and composition class. I walked into the class thinking that the instructor would give me a step-by-step process by which I would create my piece. We did a lot of exercises to get our creative juices going, and read a lot of stuff about the creative process (we used Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit quite a bit, which is wonderful and every artist should own). We had to come in each week with new material that we created; the prospect of this completely shut me down with a sort of deer in the headlights feeling. Ultimately I completed the piece, performed it, and learned a great deal about myself in the process.

I am now embarking on a second project that is destined for performance and am looking back to my process from the first time to understand how to best get myself going this go-around and avoid some of the pitfalls of last time. Whenever I’ve asked others about their own choreographic process, they seem to be really vague about it. Is this because they’re trying to guard their secret magic formula or because it just kind of happens for them? Regardless, it’s not helpful for a budding choreographer such as myself who is just looking for a place to start. I’m going to do my part to put things out in the open.

Earliest beginnings: It starts with the music

I’m no Merce Cunningham (who I hear created the movement completely separately from the music. Sometimes the dancers would not even know what the music was until opening night!). My piece always starts with the music. It’s a waste of time for me to go searching for the song– the song will find me. One day, I’ll be listening to something and all of a sudden I’ll see people dancing in my head or be inspired to do a movement to a phrase or note. If there was a way to videorecord the people in my head perhaps I would be done. Alas, my next step is to somehow get it down on paper or video or something.

Getting it down

Thus far (I say that because I’m still working out the kinks in this part), I’ve been using a combination of videotaping spontaneous movement and writing down the movements in my head. These are two very distinct things and different results come out of them.

Videotape

Pretty simple to explain– I turn on the camera, turn on the song, and dance. This is where I test out specific movements I’ve thought about or written down to see how it looks and feels together with the music. It’s also my hope that I’ll make something up on the spot that I can use. Then I review the video, tweak some things, and tape it again. It definitely helps to do multiple takes in a single session. I get mixed results from this process. I don’t have a very good video camera and the space in my apartment is limited, so perhaps with better facilities there would be more potential for this technique. For now, it is a good way to try out movements I have already come up with during the writing process.

Writing

Strangely enough, I have come up with my most copious and creative movements when confined to an immobile position, and with limited time. In other words, on the metro. My train ride to and from work is just under 30 minutes. Armed with my iPod and a notebook, I am given the opportunity to focus only on what those dancers in my head are doing. The iPod is great because I can quickly go back to a certain part of the song as many times as I need as I refine the movements in my head. I then get a description of the movement, aligned with some reference to the timing and music, down on paper as best I can.

Notation

I am vaguely aware that there are codified ways of getting choreography on paper, a style of notation similar perhaps to musical composition; however, I have never had the opportunity to learn them, and am told that these notation methods all have their own adequacies. My study of modern and ballet have certainly made my writing more efficient. Instead of saying “move right leg to front, then sweep it around in a clockwise direction to the back, then lift leg to back in a bent position,” I can say “RL rond de jambe into back attitude.” I just discovered the ABT Ballet Dictionary which is going to be a tremendous resource. Salsa also has its own vocabulary, which helps in being concise. Finally, I’ve made up a lot of my own terms that will cue me into the meaning (for example the “diag leg stand” which I mention below actually means a side degage, which was a term I did not know at the time).
Rhythm is very important to my dancing so I need a way to neatly make a note of where precisely in the music a movement is going to go. I devised a table to line these things up. The first column, ‘Time,” has the minutes and seconds of the song. The second column, “Movement” has the movement description along with some key references from the song (such as lyrics or notes). The third column, “Song Reference,” provides additional space for references to the counts or the song. This is an actual example from the first 40 seconds of my solo piece :

Time

Movement

Song Reference

0:00

· Back to audience, starting w/ R leg back, sweep it along w/R arm forward to back left corner.

· Bring L arm to meet right, contracting back, then straighten back

· Sweep L leg to R back diag along w/ L arm

· Bring R arm to meet left, contract

· Repeat

Ven (123)

(5678)

Tu (123)

Goza

0:13

· Turn to face audience

· Roll shoulders and elbows forward, then 90 deg. arms at “tu”

· arms circle up then along head into contraction

· roll up, contract forward again, body roll up with head thrown back

· drop knees, then circle right, then left arms to knees, following arm motion with head

· melt into diag leg stand, arms in 5th

(2nd) ven

0:27

· swing arms L then R, then L turn; pas de burre, then opposite diag/arms/turn, then pas de burre

Knowing myself

One important lesson I learned when I hit a wall during composition was that I had to go with what came naturally to me. This manifested itself in two ways.

Know your body

One, and this assumes that I am dancing in the piece, is that a movement felt naturally to me. When I attempted things that I did not have the technique/flexibility/balance for, no wonder it fell flat or looked awkward! I think that all dancers must be concerned about looking foolish before an audience, and I am convinced that they are more likely to say “she looked awkward/ridiculous dancing that” than “Her movements were not advanced enough.” It’s better to nail something basic perfectly than to fail at something more complex any day.

There are no “rules”– If it works, it works!

One day not so far away from the performance, we were to come to class with our finished piece. There was a fairly long section towards the end that I was absolutely not able to come up with anything. I had been reduced to tears several times over trying to get something down on paper that fit. So when my turn came to share, I did what anyone in my situation would have done: I faked it. I just made something up on the spot to fill the gaps that I had not been able to fill.

When it came time to critique my piece, everyone said something to the effect of “Wow, that part near the end was really great… just so exuberant and joyous… my favorite part of the piece!” Of course, they were talking about the part that I had improvised on the spot.

What I had forgotten was that as a salsera, I am really good at improvising (otherwise known in the club as a “shine”). I have fun with it and I feel pretty secure about my abilities. My classmates encouraged me to leave in those improvised sections as is. For some reason, since what I was composing was not a pure salsa, I thought that I had to play by some imaginary rules about choreography.

New Challenges

Last time, it was just me– a solo piece. This time, there is a dance partner involved, and it’s challenging for me to come up with material without him there. I am excited about involving my partner in the creative process and my lesson about improvisation has taught me that I have nothing to be afraid of if everything is not already planned out.

What about you?

If you have made it to the end of this post, I would like to get your thoughts. If you have ever choreographed anything, what was your process? What have you learned about yourself in the process? I’m sure that the same things that make us each unique as dancers also makes us unique as choreographers. Certainly, my same process would not be the most successful approach for everyone.

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