Dance Choreography – Dance Advantage Solutions For All Stages Of Your Dance Life Fri, 12 Jan 2018 12:02:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Stage Lighting Basics for Dancers and Choreographers Mon, 07 Nov 2016 14:30:42 +0000 Present your dance in the best light possible! What choreographers need to know and do before working with a lighting designer.]]>

Lighting design is an essential part of choreography because it allows the choreographer to control how the audience sees and experiences a work. Despite this, it is easy for choreographers to ignore this aspect: leaving the design to the tech crew. In particular, younger choreographers tend to shy away from lighting design because they simply don’t know anything about it.

However, a choreographer does not need to be an expert in lighting design to create an effective concept for his/her work. The process of lighting design is necessarily a collaborative effort between the choreographer and the theater’s lighting designer. With a cursory knowledge of the concepts discussed below, the choreographer can enhance his/her work through creating lighting design that compliments the choreography.


"Ballet Stage Lighting" by zaimoku_woodpile is licensed CC BY 2.0
Ballet Stage Lighting” by zaimoku_woodpile is licensed CC BY 2.0


Know Your Objective

The primary objective of lighting is visibility. What do you want your audience to see? For example, to emphasize a soloist, a choreographer my chose to light her with a single pool of down light (a circle of light surrounding a dancer) with the remainder of the stage dark. Most theaters have at least nine pools of down light, arranged in a grid.

It is also possible to light a path (a strip of light running from upstage to downstage), a plane (a strip of light running from stage left to stage right), or a diagonal (a strip of light running from downstage left to upstage right, or visa versa). These various strips of light can emphasize dancers where they are in a corresponding formation.

In addition to being used to emphasize an element of a work you want the audience to see, these lighting techniques can also be used to hide an element of the work you do not want the audience to see. Lighting is often used to hide formation changes, entrances, and exists. For example, while a dancer is lit in a pool of down light, other dancers can change formation unseen in the surrounding dark area.


Select Your Backdrop

Most often, a choreographer will have two options for the curtain that hangs in the back of the stage.

The first option, a cyc, is a white curtain that can be lit with many different colors. Choreographers should select a cyc where they want their piece to be brightly lit and colorful. The lighting scheme on the cyc can change throughout the piece.

The second option, a traveler, is a black curtain. When the traveler is down, the lighting will necessarily be darker than with a cyc. Use of the traveler creates a more natural effect, and is often used with white lights from above (down lights) and from the side (side lights).


Consider Color

If you decide to use colored light, consider what colors will compliment your work. Consider the color of your costumes, and what mood you would like to strike with the audience. In general, warm colors (yellow, red, and orange) can be used to evoke feelings of excitement, warmth, and even anger. In contrast, cool colors (blue, green, and purple) are considered to be more soothing, and can evoke feelings of sadness or romance.


Be Prepared

There is never enough time for tech rehearsals. When you arrive at the lighting booth, it is vital to have your lighting cues prepared.

The first cue you will be asked for is the order of sound and light (i.e. when does the music begin in relation to the lights turning on). These may occur simultaneously, or one after the other.

Number the remainder of your cues, and note the place in the music that each cue should occur (for example, Cue 2 – 1:32). For each cue, write in plain terms what you want. Write your cues in clear, unambiguous language. Use stage directions (i.e. stage left, stage right, downstage, upstage).


While this is by no means a complete guide to lighting design, I hope that these tips aid and encourage young choreographers to tackle this important aspect of choreography. When lighting design is brought the forefront of the choreographic process, it allows the choreographer to present a truly finished work.


More on Lighting Dance

The following books and resources include more information and tips on lighting design for dance. Continue to educate yourself whether you are a new or seasoned choreographer.

Dance Production: Design & Technology by Jeromy Hopgood includes over 20 very useful pages on lighting (with images) plus much more on the many elements of dance and choreography production.



An Introduction to Dance Lighting at On Stage Lighting

Stage Lighting Basics at On Stage Lighting (lots of links!)

Stage Lighting for Students at

Glossary of Theatrical Lighting Terminology 


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3 Ways To Find Unique Music For Dance Tue, 27 Sep 2016 15:02:29 +0000 Choreographers often find music for dances in the same place: from other dancers, making it tough to use something unique. Avoid overused composers and songs with these 3 tips.]]>

I once went to an emerging choreography showcase where almost half of the choreographers used the same composer: completely by coincidence. While there are a multitude of reasons why this may have occurred, it nevertheless demonstrated the importance of careful  — and varied — musical selection for choreography.

How many times have you been to a dance competition or performance and thought, I want to check out that song or composer for my next work or dance number?

Find unique music for choreography
Headphones” by Nickolai Kasherin is licensed CC BY 2.0 ; modified with text overlay


Musical selection is often hindered because choreographers consistently look for music in the same place. Following are some ideas to shake up your musical selection routine.


Original Music is an Option

You can’t get more original than original music! If you are looking for an original composition for your choreography, you will need to find a composer. The task is not as difficult or unaffordable as you think. A quick Google search will reveal a wealth of freelance composers who are available for hire. To get a more personal experience, consider inquiring with local art schools or colleges or holding a composer competition like Houston’s Frame Dance Productions does annually. Many colleges have composition courses with talented students who would be willing to compose a piece of music for free or at a reduced cost.


It’s All Relative

If you are looking for something pre-recorded and you have an idea of what you want it to sound like, head over to Spotify. I often ask my choreography students to try this when they get “stuck” on a popular composer. If you create a playlist, Spotify will automatically generate a list of “related songs” right below it. This is a great way to discover new artists in a particular genre.

Of course, there are other places to find related music. Tell us your favorite methods and services in the comments!


Licensed for More Than Listening

An important and often overlooked consideration is copyright. Copyright protections cover both the recording of the song, as well as a song itself. If you are creating work in a situation where you will need to get the legal rights to use your musical selection, you may find this is more difficult, or more expensive, than you had imagined.

The internet has a wealth of sites on which you can download and license music for free. These web sites, such as Beatpick, often contain the work of new, experimental artists, and simply ask that you credit the artist wherever the work is used.

There are also web sites like PublicDomain4U and Musopen that house music that is in the public domain, meaning that the works no longer have property rights attached to them. Always check which rights attach to a particular piece of music. It is common that a composition is in the public domain, but a particular recording of that composition is not.


Share your tips for avoiding overused music for choreography in the comments!



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Cleaning Dances 101 Fri, 27 May 2016 14:30:39 +0000 Four useful techniques for cleaning choreography. Try them in your next dance rehearsal to get your students ready for performance or competition.]]>


Competition and performance season seems to have a way on sneaking up on us all. Inevitably, there is at least one dance that is just not ready to hit the stage. Here are some tools useful in cleaning dances. Try them during your next dance rehearsal.


Cleaning Dance Choreography
Photo by snickclunk is licensed CC BY 2.0, text added


Know the Counts

In many group pieces, the counts are the glue that holds the piece together. Solidifying the counts in the dancers’ brains should be the first step in cleaning a piece, as it creates a framework for the rest of the cleaning. In order to make sure all dancers are in unison, or on the same count, take the piece one section (say 32 counts) at a time. Have the dancers perform the choreography while counting out-loud, and listen  for dancers who are off or unsure.


Break it Down

Performing a choreographed dance requires the coordination of many different elements. To solidify each, run the piece a few times, each time focusing on a different element. For example, do one run with only arms, do a second run with only formations and focus. Breaking the piece down like this will allow you to fine-tune these elements with less distraction.


Take Notes

Always watch a piece with a pencil and paper. Don’t yell notes at your dancers: often, this just causes confusion. Instead, write down corrections. Draw a line in the middle of your page. On the left side, write down individual notes and quick fixes (i.e. an incorrect arm position on a single dancer). On the right side, write more “big picture” issues, such as a messy unison section.

Begin your critique by addressing the notes on the left side. Have dancers show you the corrected movement to ensure they understand. Then, move to the notes on the right side. Start by addressing the most problematic ones. For example, if dancers are lacking focus, go through the dance and explain where focus should be at all times. These notes are necessarily more time consuming. If you do not have time to address these in your dance rehearsal, save your notes for next time. Address them at the beginning of your next rehearsal so that they can be corrected immediately.


Talk it Out

The suggestions above deal with the technical side of a piece, but what about the artistry? I like to have at least one “sit down” conversation with my dancers about each piece. I give them a framework of why I choreographed the piece, what my inspiration was, and what I want them to portray. I then allow them to engage in a discussion with one another about what the piece means to them, and what they feel they portray. This facilitates a more personal connection between the dancers and the piece.

Remember that cleaning dance, like helping young dancers feel confident on stage, takes time and patience. Rather than getting frustrated that a part is “still not clean,” acknowledge the progress that the dancers are making. If there is a rehearsal where you are particularly hard on the dancers, remind them that you are being hard on them because you know how much potential they have to perform the piece well. Always end on a positive note.

Have a great show!


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How to Create a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign Thu, 18 Feb 2016 16:00:23 +0000 Creating crowdsourced campaigns for dance project funding is easy, but simply posting a project online and waiting for the donations to roll in is not enough. Find out what works.]]>


Sometimes there are creative ideas that are too inviting to pass up simply because we lack the resources. When you think about the opportunity, you light up from within. The hair on your arms stands up, and your eyes sparkle with enthusiasm. A chance to collaborate with a group in another state. A new piece that involves mixing other mediums with dance. A children’s creative movement program in homeless shelters.

…Whatever the concept is, it’s got a hold of your heart and soul. While bake sales, auctions and dance marathons are tried and true ways to raise money, periodically a more scalable method is required. In these situations, many consider crowdfunding their project.


What is Crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is an approach to raising money through a large number of individuals and is often enabled by the Internet and social media platforms.  It’s a popular and growing phenomenon that essentially turns the traditional financial investment model upside down. Rather than soliciting sizable investments from a handful of donors, crowdfunding targets smaller investments from a large group.

Crowdfunding is appealing to dance companies (and organizations of all sizes and types) in part because it is relatively easy to organize and execute. Although crowdfunding is not without challenges and uncertainty, there are low barriers to entry and little risk. That said, the crowdfunding space is, well, crowded.

How can you ensure that you raise the money needed to see your vision come to fruition?  

To gain better insight into the characteristics of a successful crowdfunding campaign, we analyzed data from 50 different dance projects. Here are our findings. The key points are summarized in the Infographic below.

Crowdfunding dance infographic

Key Finding Number 1:

56% of Dance Crowdfunding Projects Are Successful

Just over half of the projects we investigated met or exceeded their fundraising goals. The average amount raised was just over $5000.

The takeaway? Set a realistic target. It may be tempting to reach for the stars (particularly if there is no penalty for missing the goal), but donors want to be a part of projects that are likely to succeed.  They want to believe the goals are attainable before opening their wallets.


Key Finding Number 2:

The Average Backer Pledges $98

Crowdfunding is built on the premise of collaboration. The model requires your fans and supporters to come together for a common cause. Namely, your idea. This begs the question:  How many backers do you need?

In this study, the average successful project had 76 donors, each contributing about $98 to the campaign. This might feel like a herculean effort as a solo task, but the collaborative premise applies not only to your donor base, but also to your execution. For example, if you have a company of 10 dancers, they should each strive to bring 7 – 8 backers on board.


Key Finding Number 3:

Performances and Innovative Experiences are More Likely to Reach Their Goals

When we analyzed the projects by their primary objective, interesting trends emerged. Although the sample is small, the data suggests that crowdfunding campaigns for producing shows or creating unique, out-of-the-box experiences were more likely to reach their fundraising goals than those aimed specifically at developing a new work or supporting studios.

Backers appreciate the opportunity to participate in the creation of something special and tangible. They want to share the journey with you all the way through until the curtain falls and the lights come up.


Lessons Learned

When it comes to crowdfunding, for most small dance companies and studios, the “build it and they will come” philosophy will not fly.

Simply posting a project online and waiting for the donations to roll in will not suffice; you have to get the word out there.  


Following are a few actions to consider as you move ahead with your crowdfunding plans:

Prime the pump. Reach out to a few key individual supporters prior to launching your campaign. Explain what you are trying to do and ask if they will help generate some early momentum. In addition, be sure to promote the campaign to all of your fans through a variety of vehicles. Social media and email newsletters are sharable and scalable, but don’t forget to make a short, heartfelt announcement at your performances, classes, rehearsals or events. The importance of the personal element and connection cannot be overstated.

Engage with your backers and fans. Strengthen relationships with your supporters and audience by providing regular updates not only on the campaign, but on the project itself. For instance, produce a behind-the-scenes rehearsal video so they can see the performance in its early stages. Interview choreographers about their process. Invite your fans to share their feedback, suggestions and questions. This is a great way to build awareness and maintain the buzz throughout the campaign without being overly aggressive or pushy.

Keep your promises. Reaching your fundraising goal is just one of several milestones in your crowdfunding campaign. Be sure to follow through on your project rewards and deliverables for your backers. Failure to do so jeopardizes the trust you worked so hard to build. Donors had confidence in you and your dream; honor that faith.



The data for this study was aggregated from publicly available information at and  All projects included were launched between 2014 and 2015.



JessicaGoepfertJessica Goepfert has been choreographing, teaching and performing professionally for over 15 years throughout New England.  She is the co-founder and director of Cambridge Dance Company and currently runs the Suffolk University Dance Company.  Prior to founding Cambridge Dance Company, Jessica worked as the managing director and treasurer for Rainbow Tribe, Inc. She was also the assistant coach for the Boston College Dance Team.  Jessica has an MBA from Babson College and a BA in Dance from Connecticut College.  Follow Cambridge Dance Company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @CambridgeDance.



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Boost Your Dance Rehearsal Efficiency Mon, 29 Jun 2015 14:45:06 +0000 Choreographers, avoid the frustration of unproductive dance rehearsals so that you can focus on the creative heart of dancing. These tips will give you more control and help you make the most of your practice time.]]>
Photograph by Paul Marotta.
Photograph by Paul Marotta.

Directors and choreographers can easily get overwhelmed with and distracted by all we hope to accomplish in a single practice. Yes, adding an extra rehearsal here and there would likely help, but we often don’t have the luxury due to schedule conflicts or lack of resources. Instead, we must make the best use of the precious time that we have.

Over-scheduled, over-committed and over-stretched – it’s no wonder that frustration levels soar when we feel unproductive in rehearsal. We’ve all been there: the dance instructor or choreographer seems woefully unprepared; the awkward, pregnant pauses while dancers exchange knowing glances; and the miscellaneous fidgeting from reviewing choreography to surreptitiously checking messages in a futile attempt to at least get something done.

It’s not a fun situation for anyone in that studio – least of all the choreographer.

To help you minimize panic, here are ten tips that will not only boost rehearsal efficiency, but also reduce anxiety and deliver a sense of control. Most importantly, by approaching rehearsal in an organized and thoughtful manner, your mind will be free and clear to focus on the heart of dancing: the creativity.

1. Determine Your Goals

Although most seasoned directors can probably wing a decent class or rehearsal, set your heart on a particular goal or set of goals to truly maximize time. Building a plan for rehearsal and allotting a certain amount of time for each agenda item is a good way to keep objectives in check.

2. Communicate the Plan

Once you have your heart set, it’s time to let it sing. Communicating the rehearsal goals and agenda to your dancers helps them prepare mentally and physically, and enables everyone to work together to meet the common objectives. It will also show that their time in rehearsal will be well spent.

3. Start on Time

Demonstrate regard for your dancers by starting rehearsal right on time. Even if only a fraction of the group is present, this custom is a surefire way to strike a chord in their hearts. It conveys appreciation to those who are punctual and encourages others to do the same. If you respect your dancers’ time, they will respect yours.

If you respect your dancers’ time, they will respect yours. #dancerehearsal
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4. Practice Purposeful Repetition

Chances are, we all have a few stalwart warm-up exercises in our repertoire that will not only get the job done, but get it done well. Purposeful repetition builds neural pathways, allowing the technique to become more autonomous. When we know an exercise by heart, dancers have the opportunity to focus on technique without thinking too much about the steps or the sequence. And it is also a surprising time saver. Rather than spending precious minutes on a detailed explanation of the exercise, directors can instead pause to provide meaningful feedback and critique. All that said, too much repetition can backfire; dancers may lose attention as they go out for a “mental vanilla chai latte”. Try switching up the exercises once a month and adjust the cadence as needed.

5. Use Purposeful Multitasking

To make your heart beat a little faster during technique exercises, combine closely related movements into a single exercise. Footwork, tendus and dégagés, for example, can all be mixed and matched. Consider working in sun salutations to not only generate heat throughout, but also to elongate the spine, stretch the hamstrings, and strengthen the core, chest and whole upper body.

6. Divide and Conquer

Do your heart some good by splitting a hefty agenda item into sub-parts. For instance, if a trio section is rehearsing, ask the remaining dancers to work together to review or clean other parts. Or, if there is a considerable amount of choreography to learn, see if you can enlist the help of another dancer to pre-teach her the choreography before rehearsal. Have her lead one group while you work with the others. You can fine tune anything that gets lost in translation later in rehearsal.

7. Prioritize

Recognize that despite your well-laid plans, it may be impossible to get through everything on the list. When a change of heart is in order, identify your priorities and decide where to invest the time. Have a show coming up? Concentrate on cleaning and rehearsing the pieces for the gig and perhaps shelve new choreography until the following rehearsal. Have a limited amount of time with a guest choreographer? Focus on “getting the choreography out” and then create some opportunities and tools, such as online videos, to help the dancers digest the material.

8. Acknowledge, Apologize, Abort

Periodically, no matter how much we prepare, things will go awry in rehearsal. Avoid complete derailment by having a heart to heart with the group. First, acknowledge that the practice is not going as planned. Letting the dancers know you are aware of the situation will instantly alleviate some of the frustration. While it makes sense to spend some time attempting to right the train, there are occasions where it is best just to apologize, abort and move on to other work.

9. Document and Review Corrections

A foolproof way to the choreographer’s heart is to retain and recall the countless notes and corrections delivered in rehearsal. Write down the key changes and adjustments during practice. At the next rehearsal, test for retention prior to running the piece by asking the dancers what changes they remember and then fill in the gaps.

10. End on a High Note

After a particularly grueling rehearsal, sometimes we need to remind ourselves why we take the time out of our day and push our bodies to the brink. Give your dancers a shot in the arm by ending rehearsal with a piece the group knows well. You know the one. The one that just feels good. The one no one has to think about. The one they nail every time. The studio will be teeming with that magical, electric energy that can be created in no other way. In other words, let them dance their hearts out.

Photograph by EPL Photography.
Photograph by EPL Photography.

JessicaGoepfertJessica Goepfert has been choreographing, teaching and performing professionally for over 15 years throughout New England. She is the co-founder and director of Cambridge Dance Company and currently runs the Suffolk University Dance Company. Jessica has an MBA from Babson College and a BA in Dance from Connecticut College. Follow Cambridge Dance Company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @CambridgeDance.

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Create a Recital Routine Your Teen Beginners Want to Dance Mon, 09 Feb 2015 15:00:44 +0000 It's a challenge to choreograph for teen dancers with limited experience and insecurities. Try this approach to create a dance routine you can all be proud of.]]>

A dancer’s first time on the dance recital stage can be terrifying, especially for a teen beginner but, if you teach dancers brave enough to set foot on stage with limited experience, you owe them a performance piece that allows them to shine.

Creating a recital dance that allows beginners a first-time performance experience can be especially challenging when working with teens—try some of the tips below to create a dance that everyone can be proud of.

Four teen dancers lift their arms
Photo by Johnson d is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

The piece should make them –and you– look good!

Play to their strengths. Give them movement that they are comfortable doing – typically movement that is slightly easier than the material you are presenting them in class. Now is not the moment to show off how many unique progressions you can think of.

On stage, everything changes. People get nervous. Beginning dancers (yes, even teens) get confused about where the front is. Costumes malfunction. Clean and simple material that showcases what they do well helps your dancers to feel confident enough to deal with all the other unknowns, which is less headache for you, too.

Give them a gimmick

No one can resist a good gimmick. Get the audience to buy into your piece before your teens even start dancing. This could be as simple as choosing an extremely popular song with a well known music video and using some similar movements.

Consider using a prop to draw in the crowd. I’ve seen beginning classes use hoops, stretchy bands and ribbon wands to create interest and depth for dancers who aren’t comfortable stringing complex steps together. I used glowsticks for a teen beginning ballet piece. The audience loved it, and it raised the dancers’ confidence to have the audience applauding as soon as they entered the stage.

Dancers love to feel like they are a part of something unique and exciting, but teen beginners don’t have the technical vocabulary to follow out of the box choreography. Use something with a little schtick to draw them in.

A dancer in red spreads arms on a yellow stage
Photo by Johnson d is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

Get dancer buy-in

Teen beginners are taking a big risk, so I consider their likes, dislikes, and get their input.

I often ask my dancers to brainstorm what they would love to do in a recital piece. I ask for costume ideas, music choices and  general themes. I also ask them to let me know (privately if they want) what they would be embarrassed to wear. If wearing a leotard and tights will cause them major anxiety, choose a different costume.

I use a lot of instrumental arrangements of popular songs for my teen beginning ballet dancers, and songs from well known musicals for those just starting out in Jazz. If they can get excited about their performance, and can relate to what they are dancing, they are more likely to feel comfortable onstage.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Do not a fear a great repetitive phrase. This will not only give dancers a lifeboat if they get lost in the choreography, but will tie your piece together and give the audience something to expect. Using repetitive footwork also allows you to be more creative with your staging and movement. You can have your dancers repeat the phrase facing different ways, in different formations, and with different arms to keep it from getting boring.

Most of the audience will be excited to see first-time teen dancers on stage at all, much less moving in unison with each other. There is no reason to get too fancy.

Start Early

It’s never too early to start planning your recital dances but, if you aren’t ready to introduce your song and all its trappings to your dancers early, don’t worry. Plan a phrase or specific steps you’d like to use in your choreography and start using them in class. Put that awesome leap progression your kids have been working on into their recital dance. Take the combination they do in their warm up, add some arms and use it.

How to choreograph dances for teen beginners (that they'll want to dance)Your dancers will thank you for using material with which they are comfortable when they step onstage, and will be impressed with your forethought. No beginning dancer has every said she was over-prepared for her performance. Feel free to start months in advance.

Teen beginning dancers don’t always feel super-comfortable in their skin. They are more worried than other age-groups about what they will look like in front of all those people, and the recital experience is unknown to them. Giving your teen beginners something they are confident in, comfortable doing and excited about performing, not to mention the opportunity to succeed at something that takes courage, is a gift for which they’ll be thanking you for years to come.

Your teen beginners will thank you for a dance about which they feel confident and excited.
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Carlye CunniffCarlye Cunniff is a professional dancer and dance educator based in Seattle, Washington. She currently co-directs and dances in the Seattle Irish Dance Company, teaches all around the city and writes about all things dance.


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How To Work Well With Others Mon, 26 Jan 2015 15:28:21 +0000 When dancers work well together it's a beautiful thing. Here are four (or more) ways to ensure effective collaboration in choreography, even when a ballet choreographer and a modern-based dance theatre company come together for a "zombie ballet."]]>

Dance history is filled with memorable collaborations, whether it’s choreographer and composer – Merce Cunningham and John Cage come to mind – or choreographer and dancer – Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov, anyone? – or choreographer and company – Jerome Robbins and New York City Ballet. The products of these successful pairings last years beyond their original compositions, leaving indelible impressions on generations of dancers, musicians, and audiences.

But collaboration can be fraught with peril for the uninitiated. If you’re not careful, toes get stepped upon, egos get crushed, and worst of all, the original idea, which might have been amazing, gets lost in the shuffle. On the other hand, if you understand what you’re getting into and approach it with caution and a great deal of open-mindedness, you can find your singular seed of an idea blossom into an entire field of beautiful blooms.

For several years I have been working on a project titled, Sweet Sorrow, which others have fondly referred to as my “zombie ballet.” It is based on a young adult novel I am writing which is a sequel to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Both the original ballet score by Prokofiev and the play are among my very favorite and I have longed to create a full-length ballet that utilizes both the intense score and my own unique story.

Enter Nancy Evans Dance Theatre, a six year old modern dance company based in Pasadena, California. The six-member company is helmed by Nancy Evans Doede, an accomplished dancer, teacher and choreographer whose work has inspired so many. I was familiar with Nancy and her dancers and had long admired their work. The “theatre” of their company name is not hyperbole: they are master storytellers. Nancy’s work is meaningful and personal but not without humor and spectacle, often through the use of props and costumes.

Photo courtesy Shana Skelton
Photo courtesy Shana Skelton

More importantly, though, I knew her dancers to be terrific collaborators and expressive in their feedback. They come from a place of character and look for motivation within. I knew if I were to work with them, they would bring my story idea and two-dimensional characters into full 3-D.

We began work in October 2014 with the intent of presenting a short section at the end of January as part of their annual show. The basic storyline: Romeo is raised from the grave, bites the arm of a plague victim who in turn is raised from the plague pit and goes on to gather an army of undead.

My first obstacle was the fact that I am a ballet dancer, with a cursory knowledge of modern dance. NEDT’s dancers are primarily modern dancers with strong ballet technique.

#1: Release your preconceived notions

I had to let go of certain classical ideas I had because they simply did not serve the story. I had planned to use classical ballet for the “living” characters and more contemporary/modern material for the “undead.” But I found that in setting steps on NEDT’s dancers, they were able to dig deeper and give me more than mere phrasing. Even for the more classical steps, they wanted to know the meaning behind an arm or a head gesture. My experience with classical ballet had been that dancers simply went with the accepted arm and head positions, with questions along the lines of, “Is this a third or first position arabesque?”

#2: Don’t fear questions

When a dancer asks a question, many newbie choreographers take it as a challenge. While there can certainly be that aspect to a relationship between choreographer and dancer, I had to remember that answering a question provides clarity for movement and purpose. An intelligent dancer wants to know the why of things, not simply the what. And while having a ready response to a question can be of great benefit to everyone, it can be equally effective to not have an answer for everything…

#3: Allow alterations and embrace change

Photo Leigh Purtill
Photo Leigh Purtill

…because new and wonderful things can develop. During this process, I was excited to see small mistakes become big changes. A dancer might ask about her interaction with another dancer and voila! A new relationship is born; one that I would not have anticipated if I had every single thing worked out in advance. One of the most thrilling developments for me was how my original novel was affected. In my original work, the Zombie Queen was a minor character but as I spent more time with the dancers of NEDT, I discovered her importance to the story and that has changed (and will change further) her character in the novel and now, in the rest of the ballet.

#4: Be firm when it counts

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t remain consistent with my story. The characters must serve it as must the movement. Even with the increased importance of the Zombie Queen, I still ultimately have a love story and the romance is crucial. As fun and cool as zombies are, the love story of Romeo and Juliet must remain intact.

I thought it would be interesting to get Nancy’s input on the collaborative process. Her background is impressive and extensive. She danced for modern dance pioneer Hanya Holm and with the Nancy Hauser Dance Company. She has been choreographing in both the concert and musical genres for 30 years, and her choreography has been included in many dance festivals in the United States, and commissioned by colleges. She is a master teacher of modern technique, dance composition and improvisation, and has given master classes nationally and internationally, including at the Hamburg Ballet School. She is also an original member of the world-renowned Steppenwolf Theatre.

Leigh: Hi Nancy! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. The nature of your company is collaborative, with the dancers offering input and  feedback on material you give them. Is this typical of modern dance?

Nancy: CollaboratiNancy Evans Doede head shoton with dancers and the choreographer is, I believe, specific to each company. There are modern dance companies that are highly collaborative, as ours is, and those where there is no collaboration whatsoever. In my opinion, it is dependent
upon the nature of the Artistic Director, and how much she/he wants to develop the vision of each dance with more than one voice in the mix. Some choreographers need to have autonomy in order to flesh out a conception, and others encourage dancer input in order to bring ideas to fruition.

Leigh: Do you find dancer feedback helpful or distracting?

Nancy:  It can go either way. Mostly, I find feedback helpful, because the dancer is incorporating not only the movement, but the perception of the character of the piece –sometimes a literal character, and sometimes as part of an overall theme. Feedback only gets distracting for me when I need to sort out my options and try out ideas. When dancers offer feedback in a group, the energy in the room goes way up, and sometimes my brain needs to catch up and decipher how, or if that feedback helps to define what I’m striving to communicate in the choreography. Ideally, there is a merging of ideas in movement.

Leigh: This project is outside both of our comfort zones – mine for working with modern dancers and you for working with an outside choreographer. How will this help your dancers or your company?

Nancy: Actually, this project is a natural progression for our company. We worked with an inside/outside choreographer two summers ago. My son, Nikoloas, is a dancer in Germany, and he set a skeleton of a piece on the company during a summer break. He had six rehearsals, and then I became his rehearsal director, helping to flesh out the choreography with him through Skype, Youtube and phone calls.The main difference in working with you is that we all needed to get to know one another in a working relationship, and get a sense of how fluid the collaboration would be. It’s like looking at a map of where you want to go, and then setting out to get there. To quote what is becoming my “mantra” — “the map is not the territory.” The territory is the process. It’s where the creativity expresses itself. The more willing the participants are to cutting the path, the more room there is to travel.

“the map is not the territory.”

Leigh: What are some of the best traits a visiting choreographer can bring to a company?

Nancy: Openness. Honesty. To be bold, a sense of reverence — not for the company, but for the environment being created by the collaboration. The rehearsal space is a sacred place in that it is a place where we come together to explore, to fail, to struggle, to succeed. It takes a lot of trust on everyone’s part to make it work. A visiting choreographer would, first of all, have had to have made some kind of connection with one of us prior to the collaboration. There would need to be a sense of mutual respect and desire to share our ideas and talents. We are going to spend valuable time and energy together.

Leigh: What has it been like to watch a choreographer work with your dancers?

Nancy: I love to watch people work. It’s like watching a lightning storm — energy shooting between people, excitement in discovering mutual understanding, emergence of the creative act. I love watching dancers take mental or emotional ideas and transfigure them into movement. I’m witnessing communication in its best sense — the effort being made on all parts to be understood and to understand. What comes out of that process is kind of miraculous. It’s like harmony in music — two distinctly different notes played simultaneously to create a third “note” that couldn’t be there without the others. It’s true integration. I love it.

Leigh: What do you see as the future of NEDT’s collaborative work? Composers? Artists? Multimedia?

Photo courtesy Kathee Miller
Photo courtesy Kathee Miller

Nancy: I am open to any and all modalities. We collaborated with composer Blake Colie in 2011 on our one-act piece, “SHIFT”, which involved him watching early rehearsals based on ideas for each section of the piece, his workshopping that into a percussion score, us working with the score and tweaking movement and music to complete each section, finally arriving at our 45 minute piece. We have displayed artwork by local artist Cathy Stearns, who painted a mural-sized piece reflecting her ideas of Hanya Holm in collaboration with a solo I choreographed and danced in 2013. We are collaborating at present with Richard Logan, an architect in Florida, who is designing a modal set piece for our spring season. Also, we love your idea of a zombie ballet based on what happens “next” after the end of Romeo and Juliet. It is bringing our company’s ballet technique into performance, infused with our modernity. It’s proving so far to be a great fusion. We have been talking about working with film, and that is definitely on the horizon. We are limited primarily by needing funds to accomplish our ideas.

NEDT’s Friends/Family/Dance/Festival is being presented on January 31 and February 1 in Pasadena, CA. I’m excited to be debuting a new nine-minute section at this show. For more information about the show, Nancy and her company, please visit her website,

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Dance Auditions for Actors: What to Include Tue, 13 Jan 2015 06:00:00 +0000 The dance portion of musical auditions are usually dreaded by actors and singers not fluent in the language of movement. Still, it's possible to sort out the stronger movers without a lot of intimidating choreography. We'll tell you how.]]>

I have frequently choreographed community theater musicals in my career as a dance teacher. Some choreographers seem scary in dance auditions but I’ve never been accused of having an intimidating presence.

Comedy/Tragedy2 by Mihai Corneanu is licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

Still, when amateur theater hopefuls walk into my portion of their audition I can see fear and apprehension in their eyes.

The dreaded dance audition – tenth circle of hell.

Why is everyone so afraid?

Well, there are a few who aren’t. The “real dancers” walk in with an easy confidence (it’s the talking and singing parts that usually give dancers the heebie-jeebies). But among non-professional actors, movers are in the minority.

Dance just isn’t their native language.

They grew up singing. They’ve done their share of skits, sketches, and high school musical theater productions. But ballet? Quit at 7 years old. Last “attempt” at dancing? Last year’s musical. And when that was over, ‘whew!,’ never looked back.

The dance part of an audition is often the bane of even professional actors.

I know to expect the smorgasbord of skills, experiences, and movement comfort-levels of amateur performers. Knowing this, I play the student. I set out to learn everything I can about the movement strengths and potential of the individuals who come to audition. Discovering which candidates can most accurately and most quickly execute, interpret, recall, and perform a series of steps or phrases are only small portions of what I hope to gather.

My audition usually includes:

A quick chat.

I simply ask the performers to tell me about their movement (not necessarily dance) history. Formal training? Karate? Yoga? Gymnastics? Do you like to dance socially? Do you tap your foot when a good song comes on? Dance neophytes appreciate recognition that their non-dance movement experience counts for something.

A ‘speechless’ theater game.

An acting exercise that requires the players to convey meaning or emotion in movement or pantomime alone is very helpful. This can be quick: place a handful of emotions, actions, scenes, or scenarios on cards and have each person draw one to act out simultaneously. Make note of those who presented their action with clarity.

A bit of improvisation.

This could be outright jamming to music – free dancing.

Improvisation can take a bit of introduction to get participants to feel uninhibited so, after taking the improvisational ‘temperature’ of the group, I’ll usually introduce more or less specific limits and guidelines. I may ask movement novices to simply walk, or gallop, or ‘creep’, or ‘twist’, or ‘glide’ or ‘attack’ for 8 and freeze for 8 while music is playing. (This is also great for determining if the actor can hear and count the beat while moving).

A short, manageable phrase of actual dance steps and choreography.

Performing set choreography is typical in most dance auditions. I usually try to select something that is dynamic but that won’t take long to learn, practice, and perform. This tells me how quickly and accurately the actors pick up choreography. It’s the easiest for “real dancers” and hard for those with little to no formal dance training. That’s why a more multifaceted approach to auditioning community players is most effective for me.

If choreography is the only thing you’ll have time for in your audition, worry less about choreographing a series of “dance moves” and more about creating something that asks the actors to accent parts of the music, show some kind of emotion, and execute changes in movement quality. Honestly, within 32 counts, you can usually tell which of the auditioning actors will be the stronger movers and ready to rock the choreography you have planned.

What do you include in your dance audition for actors?

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3 Keys to Creating a Successful Dance Film Tue, 25 Mar 2014 15:55:49 +0000 Planning a big project? Boston choreographer Anna Reyes shares the tips she wishes she knew before embarking on her debut dance film, "the good parts of being alive." ]]>

How to Survive Your First Dance Film ProjectYou’ve been choreographing for the stage for some time, but something inside you says it’s time to make a film.  But how?

Boston choreographer Anna Reyes is currently editing her debut film, “the good parts of being alive“.  Inspired by the portraits of painter Egon Schiele, the film explores how relationships are molded by time and space.

The Good Parts of Being AliveReflecting on the production process now, Reyes shares three tips for choreographers embarking on their first film.

1.  Plan as much as you can.

By planning ahead, you can avoid most last-minute adjustments and emergencies, which were the cause of the most stress for Reyes.  “There’s nothing wrong with thinking you might have to shoot in a year or a year and a half, if that means you already have the funds for your dancers and you’ve already secured the location where you’re going to shoot,” she says.  While details like film locations may be difficult to envision when you’ve only just started choreographing, lock down as many arrangements as you can.  When you do start to film, you’ll be glad that you can focus on the dance.

That being said…

2.  Be flexible with what’s available to you.

“It occurred to me that making a film is a lot more ‘control freak’ than making live performance.”  Nevertheless, there were many times when Reyes’ control “flew out the window” – from unexpected rain to conflicting schedules to adjusting choreography to accommodate fit the dancers who were available, Reyes met a number of unpredictable troubles head-on.

“As much as you plan, there are going to be things that are totally unexpected that come up, and you’ll have to make a split-second decision.”  Knowing that things might not go according to plan will prepare you to make those decisions.

3.  Be nice to yourself. 

“The process is going to be really hard, and if you’re beating yourself up while you’re doing it, it’ll make it a lot worse.”  Inner criticisms and self-doubts plague us all, but you can’t afford to disparage yourself for every little imperfection.  If you mess up, or if something doesn’t go the way you thought it would, remember that you are doing the absolute best you can, and cut yourself some slack!

For Reyes, film is the future of dance – most audience members spend more time with YouTube and DVDs than at live performances.  Though she has starred in a handful of films, “the good parts of being alive” is the first production that she has produced herself.

So would she do it again?  Absolutely.

“The majority of my life that I have choreographed, it has all been for stage, and I love that, but for me, film is really exciting.  As much as it can be stress-inducing, I really love it.”

Rachel Elizabeth MaleyRachel Elizabeth Maley is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Chicago.  She writes being human today and collaborates with artists to tell their unique stories.  Connect with Rachel on Twitter.

Choreographer, Anna ReyesAnna Reyes is a dancer and choreographer based in Boston. She began her dance training in Austin, Texas, and studied at the Boston Conservatory, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BFA in Dance Performance. Reyes has presented her choreography in both New York City and Boston, where she also founded Synesthetic – a cross-disciplinary improvisation project – with jazz musician Jordan Maley. She has starred in films by Tamara Al-Mashouk and Hubbard/Birchler, and her debut film, “the good parts of being alive”, will be released in Autumn of 2014. Reach out to Anna on Twitter.

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Exploring Limitations With Your Students Thu, 14 Mar 2013 13:45:34 +0000 Heather's middle school dance students research limitations in dance by mapping phrases, making observations, and finally working within set limitations.]]>

In my middle school classes for the last few weeks we have been conducting “research” and comparing our process to that of the 5-step scientific method.

Photo by Roxanna Salceda
Photo by Roxanna Salceda

I started by posing the question, “Are there limitations in dance?”.

  • Through discussion, we realized we needed to define dance.We finally resolved to use two contexts: dance (as in the personal interactions we have with dance situations such as classwork in all its different forms, concert preparation, performance, and reflection) and Dance (the broader scope of the field of dance that contains people, companies, organizations, and jobs which also can be really difficult for middle school students to wrap their brains around).
  • Next, we needed some movement.To get us going, I taught a lengthy movement phrase that drew from the technical concepts we’ve been working in the last few weeks. Now we started to make observations about the work. They were easily able to identify the familiar concepts and technical requirements. But we took it further- we “mapped” the phrase to make further objective observations.
  • The first map was done by placing pencil to paper and “drawing” the action from a bird’s eye view.I modeled and when I finished, I asked what they saw. “A mess,” they answered. They were right. But then we started to talk about the lines making up the mess and we agreed that there were only circles or straight lines- no wavy lines, no zig zags. We decided that one attribute of this phrase that we wouldn’t have noticed from a close up view was circles and straight lines.
  • The second map was done with arrows and marked the directions of weight shift.We had to decide first if the arrows were indicating stage directions or directions based on the body and we selected the latter. We ended with side to side, clockwise and counter-clockwise, and diagonals. There was no forward and back.
  • With these two observations in tow, or “findings” we applied them to new movement.The kids created phrases limiting themselves to these ideas and they were shocked at how full their creations were even though they had such narrow parameters in which to create. So our discussion relating to limitations now started to include discussions of freedom. A “T” chart keeping track of the comparisons was now necessary.
  • We assembled formal phrases representing these findings, so now we have 3- the original phrase, the circles/straight lines phrase, and the weight shift directional phrase.I had to attend a conference for two days and during that time, the kids reversed the phrases and continued to track their observations in subjective terms- things that relate to themselves as performers, choreographers, students. We saved one of the reversed phrases, bringing us to 4.
  • The fifth and final phrase was developed of an a new idea that emerged as a result of our research.We had been so direct in how we were applying our observations in new contexts, we started thinking about the indirect ways we could approach them- as if there was an external limitation that our pathways needed to negotiate: over, under, around, and through.

stretching fabric


At this point, we started also talking about dance in critical, yet constructive terms with the following prompts: I notice…., I wonder….., I might…..

I notice allows them to think and comment objectively without value statements such as “I like this, that was good,….” and we can thoughtfully answer “why” to whatever they have said.

I wonder allows them to ask questions and this has been the most profound portion for me as a teacher as I witness how they think and we list options for future research.

I might puts them in the shoes of the choreographer and gives them the task of thinking about what they would try differently next time, which leads to their next movement experience.

  • Now the kids are really set free. With 5 phrases in their bodies and in their minds, they are now ready to “reimagine” what the potential dance could look like. Editing is no longer scary, it is no longer a battle of my movement versus their movement, and their choreography is no longer so precious it can’t be changed. Best yet, it is actually their choreography and not steps ripped out of music videos.

For more strategies to get your students creating, check out 12 Devices for Developing Contemporary Choreography.

Where next?

Probably the counter concept: freedom, followed by how movement can support narratives based on these themes.

How could we create dances for (instead of about) freed slaves or other liberated people?

What other social contexts relate to this theme? How do these impact students lives currently?

How could we put this work into social action? How could we use dance to bring awareness to our collective social concerns and how can we make a difference in the world.

We’ll decide our journey as we proceed together.

How are you working with the limits in your classroom?

Add Internet Crowdsourcing to the Choreographer’s Toolbox Mon, 18 Feb 2013 16:43:47 +0000 Crowdsourced Ballet? Diablo Ballet is creating The Web Ballet from suggestions submitted on Twitter. Choreographer, Robert Dekkers talks to Dance Advantage about the project and his development as a choreographer.]]>

Hundreds of submissions are being considered.

If you used the Twitter hashtag #DiabloWebBallet to suggest your choreographic ideas before Valentine’s Day, yours is among them and could be one of seven used to create Diablo Ballet’s new “Web Ballet.”

Throughout my 5 years as a dance writer and blogger, I’ve witnessed plenty of choreographer experimentation with the social medium. This is the first time I’ve encountered an Internet audience collaboration which will result in a fully-staged ballet work. Not surprisingly, this project comes from Diablo Ballet, a small, California-based ballet company that’s taking big strides in step with a big mission: to make dance more accessible to everyone, including the online audience.

Diablo Ballet -  Robert Dekker and Hiromi Yamazaki
Diablo Ballet – Robert Dekkers and Hiromi Yamazaki; Photo by Ashraf

Diablo dancer and founder of San Francisco’s Post:Ballet dance company, Robert Dekkers, will choreograph the ballet in time for its March 1st premiere, less than two weeks away. Still, Robert took some time this weekend to talk with us about The Web Ballet project and his development and process as a choreographer.

Dance Advantage: How was the idea of doing a “web ballet” presented to you? And what was your initial reaction?

Robert Dekkers: The concept started with an activity Diablo Ballet regularly does during outreach performances where audiences are asked to choose a setting, character, and title for a new ballet. The piece is quickly constructed and, using live music, the two dancers act out the new ballet — always to the audience’s amusement!

Dan [Meagher, Diablo Ballet’s marketing director] thought it would be fun to recreate the experience online, and so Lauren [Jonas, co-founder and Artistic Director] approached me and asked if I’d be interested in participating. I was immediately interested in the project, but wanted to discuss it further before committing.

I was eager for people to submit choreographic limitations that would define my creative path as the choreographer, and after we met to brainstorm about the project we decided to blend these two ideas together and solicit suggestions of any type; mood, specific steps, thematic concept, rules for the dancers to follow. We suggested emotional state, mood and dance moves to get people’s gears turning. I look forward to selecting a final group of seven ideas to incorporate into the new piece.

DA: Do the ‘question marks’ scare you just a little bit?

RD: Honestly, I am more scared that people won’t submit enough out-of-the-box ideas, which is what I’m looking for. I want dance aficionados and novices alike to be a part of this process, so even if someone isn’t knowledgeable about dance, I want their idea! I’ve had lots of non-dance friends tell me their ideas for a dance piece. We wanted anyone who has ever thought “they should do this!” during a dance performance to speak up.

DA: Are you able to do any choreographic or mental preparation, or will the starter gun just go off in your head when the winning submissions are selected?

RD: I am trying not to do too much prep work so as not to steer the piece in a particular direction before submissions are selected. However, I am definitely thinking a lot about limitations, both self and externally imposed, and think that this concept will probably be present in one way or another in the work since it’s so integral to the entire process. Limitations can restrict us, but they can also provide direction and the opportunity to look at things in a different light.

I also know that the piece will include seven dancers and will be set to one of three pieces of music, so that helps my thought process. Regarding the musical selections, I selected these three pieces of music because I choreographed to each of them when I first started creating work.

When I was younger, my choreography was very balletic, I didn’t stray far from the classical movement vocabulary or musical selections, but over the years my work has developed into what some would call “modern ballet.” I still work with classically trained dancers and utilize this technique, but my movement sensibilities and conceptual creative approach is more closely aligned with modern dance. I’m interested to see how I reuse one of these pieces of classical music to create something entirely different!

Crowdsourcing BalletDA: It’s been said that audience expectations of creators have changed; that they expect conversation, or its equivalent, not lecture. What do you think?

RD: It’s true, we are no longer content to be simple observers, we want to participate! A recent exhibit at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art featured Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s 2003 work “Frequency and Volume,” which actively engaged viewers to create the artwork using their own bodies. The piece was a great example of how artists are actively engaging their audiences to make work that is relevant and relatable.

DA: You regularly create new work for your company Post:Ballet. I’m inferring that the company’s name has some relationship to the term postmodern. What does “postballet” mean to you?

RD: You are totally right on with your inference. As a classically trained dancer and choreographer who’s fascinated with modern art, I have been questioning more and more the direction that ballet is going. Neoclassical ballet and contemporary ballet are both terms that now define a specific aesthetic and time period, and I’m really interested in what’s happening today, right now. Post is what comes after, and that’s where I want my company and my work to be. On the cutting edge, never complacent and always eager to challenge the status quo and express the voice of today.

DA: From where does your inspiration for new work typically come?

RD: My inspiration to create is never the same twice. Sometimes I’m inspired by a mathematical principle or scientific theory, sometimes I want to make an observation about a particular social situation or topic, and sometimes it’s the dancers and collaborators who initially inspire me. Wherever the inspiration comes from for a particular piece, I find that my work always ends up evolving into something very personal and connected to my own life and experiences.

DA: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a choreographer?

RD: [Laughing] I made up dance routines for my neighbors and myself all the time when I was a kid — true confession — and started making dance pieces for the stage when I was 16. About five years ago, I feel like my choreography began to shift from “making pieces” to actually creating work that had glimmers of originality and substance. Every time I create a new work I learn and grow from the experience, so maybe in another decade I’ll be able to call myself a choreographer!

DA: Throughout your early experimentation with choreography, what were the experiences that most helped you develop your skills or craft?

RD: Having so many opportunities to work on my craft of choreography over the years has really helped me strengthen my skills. I started by creating works on pre-professional students and then began to choreograph short pieces for professional dancers to perform at ballet competitions or festivals.

After I was given an opportunity to present a work at the Ballet Builders Showcase in NYC using Ballet Arizona dancers — I was dancing in the company there at the time — I was invited to create a new work on Novaballet, a contemporary company based in Phoenix. The following year they invited me to create two more new works for the company as Resident Choreographer, and the year after, I decided to start Post:Ballet so that I could push myself further as an artist and work with a diverse group of collaborators on the development of new and innovative work.

There have been many incredible opportunities along the way, and so many wise and gracious mentors who have taught me so much. I look forward to continuing to develop my skills and grow as a choreographer for decades and decades to come.

DA: How does your role as a choreographer affect your process as a dancer, and visa versa?

RD: My natural movement qualities certainly influence my work as a choreographer, but I try to provide opportunities for the dancers to be creative as well, so that their own movement sensibilities are incorporated into a work. This gives the dancers a sense of ownership and allows each piece to develop a uniqueness inspired by the particular dancers involved.

As a dancer, my choreographic viewpoint definitely has a clear influence on my movement, but I always try to be respectful when working with another choreographer as I want them create the work that they are envisioning, not one that I might be seeing!

Some choreographers encourage dancers to explore their movement and interpret it in their own way, while others have a very clear idea of what they are looking for aesthetically and prefer for dancers to perform the choreography exactly as it’s given. Every choreographer’s stance on this matter is slightly different.

I find that I am somewhere in the middle; I want the dancers to maintain the specifics of my work while exploring the in between moments and finding ways to express the movement organically. As I gradually shift from a dancer to a choreographer, I will be interested to see how my work continues to develop and change. I hope that I’ll be able to maintain my unique sense of movement while collaborating with the dancers in an ever greater capacity.

The Web Ballet will be performed March 1 and 2, 2013 as part of Diablo Ballet’s Inside The Dancer’s Studio. Diablo Ballet will announce the seven winning submissions tomorrow, so stay tuned to their Twitter or Facebook page for the news!

As an audience member, have you ever been a participant in the choreographic process?

What are some other ways choreographers could use the Internet or technology to make dances?

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Choreographing For Musical Theatre – Making Moves Mon, 26 Nov 2012 19:54:26 +0000 Need hints and ideas for creating musical theater choreography? You've already got a toolbox of composition tools, now learn how to use and adapt these for choreographing in a way that supports your production's characters and story.]]>

Is choreographing for musical theatre any different than making dances in other situations?

Yes and no.

You will need all the usual choreographic tools in your toolbox.

BUT you’ll need to make adjustments to creatively use and adapt these tools for choreographing movement in a musical.

I’ll give you some hints and ideas, but first, a bit about the choreographic process and your toolbox:

Actors in the musical Legally Blonde perform a production number.
Photo courtesy Eva Rinaldi
Got Skills?

No matter what you are choreographing, original movement will come out of improvising, experimenting, and exploring a concept. From there, the choreography is ‘set’, sometimes before rehearsals, sometimes during, and sometimes both. We call this the choreographic process. Everyone’s process is slightly different.

My 5-year old “choreographs”. When a song literally moves him, he finds movements he likes and then repeats or plays with them. He hears a change in the music (like from verse to chorus) and his movement changes. Often he remembers a movement he’s done and goes back to it when he hears the corresponding music. Sometimes when he hears the song again later, he can recall some or all of his special dance.

It’s choreography at its most basic, but the process isn’t all that different for you or I.

YOUR box of composition tools is developed over time and will be rooted in your knowledge and prior experience as a dancer, a performer, and choreographer. Such devices generally have to do with manipulating movement. Repetition, direction, and tempo mutations are among my son’s favorites, but in the tips that follow, I’m going to assume your skill and experience in making, setting, and arranging movement is greater than a Kindergartener’s.

Additional skills/experience you need to make musical theatre choreography:

  • A working knowledge of the crafts of acting, staging, and singing (first-hand experience is a big plus).
  • A regular intake of LIVE theatre and musicals… see a lot of them. Movie musicals are great but so very different in scope and limitation from the stage.

Make Your Moves

You’ve already got skills. Now adapt these to musical theatre choreography. The following considerations aren’t necessarily absent in other dance works, ballet, or recital and competition routines, they’re just super important when making movement for theatrical productions.

Get inspired

As mentioned above, see the live show, rent the movie version, watch video, choreography or documentaries on related themes. Research cultural or period dances and lifestyles. This will prepare and inspire you as you begin your process.

Remember, drawing inspiration for your work from others can be beneficial but copying entire sections of choreography (unless they are provided with the license and script of a musical) is taking someone’s work as your own.

Not to mention, what has been designed for professional dancers and actors will probably not suffice if your actors are less-experienced amateurs.

Let character drive

Keep character in mind when you create or collaborate on the movement.

Every actor portrays a very specific character (or characters) in a musical. Every action and choice made on stage is ideally developed with this character in mind. As choreographer, you are part of the process of character development. With communication, your vision should align with the director’s and the actor’s vision for a character.

Sometimes movement or movement quality for a character is self-evident. Animals, toys, and children, for example, move a certain way. The Whos, Horton, and Mayzie LaBird in Suessical; the well-known characters of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown; The Wolf in Into the Woods; the Brothers in Wind in the Willows; all these characters will have specific and inherent ways of moving.

Other characters may have a movement style that is a little more open to interpretation. Still, a Rizzo shakes her hips differently than a Frenchy; a Roxie Hart lifts her arms overhead in a way Eliza Doolittle never would, or could in that corset!

To come up with character-driven movement, first try some improvisation and get into character yourself. If you can make time in the rehearsal schedule, have actors explore movement that works on their own bodies, too.

Find music that matches the character you are working on (it need not come from the show). You could use the music for which the choreography is being set but this can be limiting. It’s often better to be free of this when generating ideas.

Encourage the actors to move or improvise like their characters. Acting-class games can usually be adapted and applied in movement sessions too.

Once you have a vocabulary of movements for the character and see what your actors’ strengths are, you can draw from that vocabulary to create the dance.

When a group of characters are dancing together, you might take the same basic movements but have each dancer modify the movement to fit their character, individualizing arm and hand movements or varying dynamics or qualities in the movement.

Let story lead

Big, “dancey” choreography doesn’t always make sense in the context of a scene or a production. Many musicals require a decidedly pedestrian movement palette (walking, everyday gestures, pantomime, etc.).

Even when the number calls for full-out dancing by some or all of the cast, it’s still on you to suspend the disbelief of the audience, making it perfectly acceptable that office workers barrel leap to their desks, or gang members pirouette before delivering a punch.

It’s easier said than done, but your job as choreographer is to convert familiar or everyday movements into something musically and visually appropriate in the context of the show.

This is where I bluntly tell you that…

If your musical theatre numbers look similar to your recital choreography… you’re doing it wrong.
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Still, musical numbers shouldn’t just be “walking around” or singing and waving arms, either.

There are two main steps to making movement that really fits the story.

1. Reflect on the scene that your musical number resides within. How does it move the plot from point A to point B?

Sometimes musical numbers don’t move the story much at all but, even if just gets your characters through the cleanup of their clambake, all your movement choices and direction should make sense in that context.

Pay close attention to the scene after the song. Usually something important happens here, so find ways to help set-up the moment or emotional tone in the choreography if you can.

2. Exaggerate the everyday.

Experiment with abstraction when getting down to creating movement. The 5 Degrees of Abstraction exercise described in this article is perfect for developing movement based on character and story.

Take any “image” (an everyday movement) and manipulate it five times (make it bigger or smaller, use a different body part, imagine you’re doing it in zero-gravity… don’t think too much). Each of the five movements is more abstract, or further from the original, than the last. The fifth may not be easily recognized as related but the essence of the original is still there, no matter how small the connection.

You may use all five abstractions in one piece of choreography. Those big, “dancey” numbers may use the fourth and fifth abstractions. The pedestrian numbers may use only the first or second-level mutation. You might use less abstracted movements for certain characters or for actors with less dance experience.

Speaking of inexperienced movers:

Dance feels like a native language to those who have been “speaking” it since a young age. For “non-dancers” with limited training or experience, moving to music can look and feel completely foreign.

When working with this group, the following is key.

Time! You’ll need more of it in the rehearsal schedule to both experiment with and learn choreography.

Flexibility! Be ready to change or adapt anything you’ve planned in advance.

Patience! You’ll need a ton of it but you’ll need to temper it with authority and discipline to get things done.

So, those are my essentials for adapting the choreographic process to a musical production.

What would you add?

What are your questions or challenges when creating movement for actors or for musicals?

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Revitalize Choreography By Playing Games With Your Dancers Tue, 31 Jul 2012 18:52:39 +0000 Next time you're feeling bored with your choreography, try these classic "games" with your dancers. They'll enliven a stale choreographic process, give your dancers ownership of the movement material, and provide some important learning experiences, too!]]>

Frequent Dance Advantage guest, Melanie Doskocil is back with a fantastic list of some classic choreographic devices, or “games” for you and your students to play with. The collaborative dance-making process with which she used them is one of my favorite ways to choreograph because it gives students some ownership of the movement material. Enjoy using these with your dancers and let us know how they work for you!

I was beginning to feel like all my contemporary choreography was just cheap imitation of choreographers I’d worked with or respected.

I was lacking my own original voice. Or was maybe just afraid of it.

So, for our annual recital this past May, I decided that I wanted to approach the choreography for my advanced students a little differently.

I called my students together for a 3 day workshop over MLK Jr weekend and came with no movement prepared. Just lots of choreographic games.

I let the students create plenty of movement and then, like a jig-saw puzzle master, I put the pieces together, made them cohesive, tweaked them, and filled in the gaps with other movement ideas.

While this is not a new way of doing things, it was for me and the students. The kids had a great time and the piece was unusual for them and for me. To my pleasure and horror, my boss, the Executive Director of our organization, LOVED the piece and now wants us to do MORE work like that (uh oh-choreographic panic!).

It’s summer now, the days are long and warm, and it’s a great time to let inspiration flow. I usually wait until January to start thinking about what I’m going to do for the May show, but this year, my Modern dance guru, Adrianna Thompson, and I sat down and started to brainstorm about choreographic devices.

12 Classic Devices For Developing Contemporary Choreography

Here are some great games we remembered from our days as students.

Unfortunately, we can’t remember which teachers gave us which devices and which ones we just came up with ourselves. We’d like to thank all our teachers for passing on this inspiration to us: Eiko and Koma, Viola Faber, Margaret Jenkins, Robert Johnson, Alonzo King, Mark Morris, Daniel Nagrin, Anna Sokolow, Jeff Slayton, Elizabeth Streb.

1. First Dance:

This is a great one if you are in a situation where you don’t know the students very well. Ask students what was the first style of dance they ever did and to do a step or short movement phrase that best represents that style of dance.

2. Name Game:

Have students write their name in the air. After everyone has done this ask them to do it with their non-dominant hand. Then assign each student a body part to write their name with and have the rest of the group try to guess.

Then ask students to change the level of their writing. If they did it standing up, try sitting down, try to stretch it across the whole room or do it in place without traveling.

3. Gesture Game:

Don't Walk sign in NYCPart A:

Talk with students about gesture and how some gestures could be understood by someone speaking any language.

How would they communicate their needs if they had crash landed on an alien planet? Ask each student to get up and demonstrate a universal gesture.

Part B:

Talk to students about  a common activity they are all familiar with, like sitting in the classroom at school (or driving in a car, or going on a picnic).

Ask students to come up with 4 gestures that they would normally do during that activity. (IE, at school, sitting at their desks, standing in the lunch line, at their locker, in the classroom, etc.)

Ask students to put the 4 gestures together into one phrase of movement. Then make those gestures larger than life. Partner up the students and have each teach their partner their phrase, then put the two phrases together.

4. Adjective Game:

Before going into the studio, do the following 2 things:

  1. Come up with a short movement phrase of about 8 or 16 or 32 counts.
  2. Write down on individual pieces of paper several adjectives: hot, tired, excited, blue, tenacious (it’s ok if students have to look up the word).

Teach students the movement phrase and then have each student draw one of the pieces of paper out of a hat. The student must then do the movement phrase with that word in mind. Have the other students try to guess the word.

5. Props Games:

There are many games using props. Here are two that are a lot of fun:

The contents of a dance bag1. Ask your students what they have brought with them. What’s in their dance bag?

Grab something and use it to create a short movement phrase.

2. The teacher/choreographer brings a bagful of goodies. Cards, chapstick, candles, food bars, those little sugar in the raw packets, postcards, whatever. I like to find items with writing on them, it gives another dimension for the students’ creativity.

Ask students to each draw one out of the bag and create a movement phrase based on the item. There are no rules, so students can use the words, the item, the smell, the ideas the item represents… just let their creativity flow.

6. Parameters:

Give the students a set of parameters and ask them to come up with a 16-count phrase.

Example: The phrase must start with a classical ballet waltz turn (arms of choice), have one turn (pique, pirouette, tour, spin, swivel, axle, anything), change levels from floor to standing and standing to floor at least once, have at least one non-classical movement (but can have more) and at least one classical movement. Go.

7. Phrasing:

Once a teacher or student has created a phrase, retrograde is a great tool to creatively add to the phrase. Ask students to completely reverse, not just the order of the steps, but to rewind the steps as if they were rewinding a video.

Here’s another phrasing tool: Teach 4 simple moves: A, B, C, D and play with putting those moves together. Examples would be A, B, A, C, D, C or A, B, C, D, D, C, B, A or any other combination.

As students get comfortable the simple moves can be turned into phrases and the phrases can be put together as ABA, CDC etc.

8. Alternate Facing:

Create a short 8-16 count phrase.

Ask students to observe each other from the front, back, and sides. How does what we see change depending on vantage point?

Ask students to imagine the floor is clear glass or plastic and covered in sand and that the audience is sitting below this floor. How would they create movement that would be interesting if seen from below?

9. Follow the Leader:

A school of barracuda follow the leaderThis round-robin game helps students think quickly while moving in a group.

Rather than stand in a line, ask students to clump up with one person in the front. The front person is the leader and initiates movement or a phrase of movement (set a limit so they don’t get caught up in their own choreographic process).

When the movement turns to the side or back, the instructor calls out the name of the person now in the front and that person takes over as leader until the movement turns again and a new person is in front.

As students progress in this exercise see if they can choose a new leader organically, without the teacher having to name someone. Even if part of the group ends up following one leader and part of the group another, it can be interesting!

10. Sleep Game:

This is a great spatial awareness game and gives students a very slow, safe way to interact with other bodies moving through space.

Have students lie on the floor on one side of the room, or in one corner, and imagine a sleep conscious, dream-like state. With their eyes closed ask them to slither, roll, move across the floor all the way to the opposite side in this ultra slow trance-like state.

Keep the eyes closed! They can rise and stand but it must retain that super slow dream quality. How do they interact when they meet another student? A wall or other obstacle?

Pencil line drawing by Shangri-La
Pencil line drawing by Shangri-La

11. Pathway Patterns:

Another great spatial awareness game is this patterns game. It also teaches students how to interact with an unexpected foreign body in their space.

First ask each student to come up with a simple, short traveling movement phrase.

Then, either draw several floor patterns yourself and have the students select them randomly or ask the students to draw a simple pathway on a piece of paper.

Students will then apply their movement phrase to the pattern they drew on the paper.

After they are comfortable with their phrase and repeating the phrase within their drawn pathway, pair students up and have them repeat their phrases with their patterns overlapping on the floor.

Do they intersect? What happens when the two phrases and patterns intersect? What interesting new thing happens when the pathways and phrases overlap?

Now assign each student a color and ask them to repeat the phrase with that color in mind. What changes? Now swap colors. Any more changes?

12. Musical CD’s:

Create a short phrase 16-32 counts long and make sure students are comfortable with it.

Then give students some parameters to alter the phrase on their own: retrograde the whole thing, or certain sections, repeat certain sections, or use any of the above choreographic devices to allow students to play and make the phrase their own.

Three at a time, ask students to perform their new phrase (they will all be different now because of the playing) without music, just to their own timing.

After everyone has had an opportunity to do their phrase, start again with the first group. This time the teacher selects random music from their collection (have a great variety of music from all genres prepared!) and the students now dance to that selection of music.

When they are done ask them to face a different direction and do it again, with no music. Then choose a completely different type of music and have them perform their phrases with the new facing and new music. Do this three times with each group, changing facing 3 times and music three times.

It’s important to let them do the phrase with their new facing at least once before throwing the new music at them. This gives their brains a chance to reset in the new direction. At the very end, choose one piece of music for each group and ask them to put their 3 facings together into one long piece.

What choreographic games can you add to the list?
What do you do when your compositions start to feel stale?
Share in the comments!
IMAGE Melanie Doskocil, director of school at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet IMAGEMelanie Doskocil directs the School of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet with over 20 years of professional dance and teaching experience. She began her professional dance career in 1989 with Ballet Arizona and continued on to dance with Oakland Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theater, City Ballet of San Diego, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Mia Michaels RAW, and Odyssey Dance Theatre in Utah. Ms. Doskocil began teaching in 1995, for City Ballet of San Diego, under the mentorship of Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich. She continued teaching and began directing at Center Stage Performing Arts Studios in Utah, where she created their pre-professional ballet program. Melanie has mentored with master teachers Jean-Philippe Malaty, Tom Mossbrucker, Hilary Cartwright and the excellent faculty of Marcia Dale Weary’s Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. She shares her teaching stories, ideas, and some favorite ballet classes on her blog at
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FAQ: Why Don’t You Play Music With Lyrics? Thu, 14 Jun 2012 13:30:43 +0000 Without a doubt, one of my most commonly asked questions by students of all ages is, “why don’t you play music with lyrics?” It isn’t that I refuse to play music with lyrics but for so many reasons, I find music without lyrics better supports my teaching philosophy, my mission, and my lesson plans. Here’s [...]]]>
IMAGE Music Visualizations, Synchoric Orchestra IMAGE
Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

Without a doubt, one of my most commonly asked questions by students of all ages is, “why don’t you play music with lyrics?”

It isn’t that I refuse to play music with lyrics but for so many reasons, I find music without lyrics better supports my teaching philosophy, my mission, and my lesson plans. Here’s how and why:
The Job
I am a teacher of dance. I am a teacher of dance who believes in the tempo, duration, rhythm, and phrasing of movement first and foremost.

Yes, often the music that the dance is set to informs these qualities but in some ways that places music higher in the pecking order. My concern is in making the dance do the work of expressing clearly the intent of the piece whether it be a story or a visual demonstration of all that dance entails- including time as experienced in musical ways such as tempo, duration, rhythm, and phrasing.

As a teacher of dance, it is my responsibility to expose dancers to many ways of working with and against music, and that of many musical genres. This experimentation begins in technique classes but leads directly to choreography and performance and ultimately the dances that my students create as well.

A high school principal once told me, “we may not all be professional artists but we are all part of this arts community. It is our job to contribute to the aesthetic of the group and to challenge what we already know.”

How does this lead to the inclusion or exclusion of music with lyrics?

The Training

My goal is to inspire my students to be thinking of technical details while they are dancing. In this, I have found lyrics often get in the way and serve more as a distraction than a tool. It is hard to be thinking about completing a weight shift or aligning the spine when you are singing away to the current hits.

Since most students are really asking, “why don’t you use pop songs?” when they inquire about my music selections, I use the question (or sometimes pose the question) to spark a conversation about the relationship of dance and music.

The Guiding
In choreography, the number one trap is miming the lyrics. While commercial dance may benefit from some direct relationship of lyrics and movement, in concert dance it is a grave mistake.

Eliminating that temptation immediately places early choreographers further ahead in developing their concepts to be expressed in movement.

The choreography critique then begins at what qualities the dance has and how they relate to the music, rather than stopping at the all too common defense, “but it goes with the music.”

It can be difficult to get a 13 or 15 year old (or older) to understand that not every “great” song makes for great dance. Let’s face it, it can be hard to get a 13 or 15 year old to understand that they themselves have something worth “saying” and should trust themselves to find a way to do that without borrowing the words of someone else.

By using instrumental music we also avoid the battle of what is school appropriate. Nothing side- tracks the creative process faster than arguing over words assembled by an absent third party. It gets especially tricky when young students don’t understand the double language often used in pop music and want clear explanations as to why their choice can’t be used.

The Exception
When working on performance skills, specifically in developing how movement and dance do relate, using music that is familiar can be a great tool. Once the foundation has already been laid, adding popular music that students would commonly know allows for their attention to be directed on how they are applying musical tools to their performance.

Exploring how their movement can compliment, contrast, or co-exist with the musical score becomes the point of the investigation and is the more advanced version of their technical work. In this sense, they are dancing with the music and not to it as would have been done in the beginning.

The End of the Day
At the end of the day, I don’t want the lyrics stuck in my head.
At the end of the day, I view my music library as an investment. Very simply, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on music that I won’t want to listen to in 6 months let alone 5 years. I find what I view to be “classics” and buy those. I find the artists that consistently speak to me and follow them. I figure out what, other than pop music, speaks to my students and I keep track.

There are also GREAT musicians working in the field of dance- Making music specifically for dance!

Unsure of where to start in finding instrumental music great for dance?
Here is a brief list of artists to get you moving, some are artists working in the field of dance and others are not: Christian Matjias, Albert Mathias, Michael Wall (, Michael Price, Yoko Kanno, Moby, Kodo, John Scofield, Yo-Yo Ma, Lullatone, Daniel Bernard Roumain,…..

How do you choose music for class and/or performance?

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John Jacobson Shares Tips For Staging Your Own Flashmob Sun, 20 May 2012 13:27:47 +0000 Music educator, composer, philanthropist, and youtube sensation, John Jacobson has choreographed for "mobs" of dancers, including the staff and crew of the Ellen DeGeneres show. Get John's tips on how to stage your own flashmob and learn more about his true life's work and positive message.]]>

Long before being a Gleek was (kind of) cool

…and even longer before that term was lovingly coined, John Jacobson was moving and shaking up music education.

If you grew up as a music student in American public schools or if you’ve ever danced atop a metal riser in a show choir (or glee club), you’ve probably performed John Jacobson’s music and dances.

He is known throughout the world for his genuine enthusiasm for music and movement. His efforts to share these passions with young people go beyond composing music and making instructional choreography videos. For years, John has been improving the lives of children through his obesity-fighting fitness program, positive message, philanthropic service, and by inspiring youth to discover joy in all of the above.

John Jacobson leads Double Dream Hands choreography on Ellen.

John has plenty of experience in “mob” choreography both large and ginormous.

In a treat for Ellen DeGeneres on her birthday, he got her whole staff, producers, and crew to break out in a fun, wholesome, choreographed dance that even had Ellen grooving from the sidelines.

He brings the same “Double Dream Hands” flare annually to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when an enormous crowd of young America Sings! vocalists perform and represent the organization he founded.

Is it any wonder, then, that John would embrace the ever-popular flash mob, encouraging individuals of all ages (YOU!) to get involved in this fun and spontaneous form of exercise?

Don’t worry, if you’re feeling a bit intimidated by the whole flash mob process, borrow some of John’s tips below:

Pick appropriate music

– best if its royalty free, or you can get the rights for your video.

Make your choreography large

– so, when done in a big group looks exciting and fun!  The best thing about big group choreography is that even a small move can look great when performed by a lot of people. Find the balance between making it challenging enough not to be boring for your more experienced dancers and not too hard to frustrate your novices.

Create your teaching video

– make it sound fun, explain the moves in detail but not so slow it drives you and everyone crazy. They can always slow it down or go back and look at it again. I know it’s goofy, but record your choreographer from behind (not his or her behind) but from a reverse angle so the dancer’s don’t have to mirror them.

Use the space to your advantage

– use everything around you for spacing and blocking, for instance stair cases, balconies, and so on. Just make sure whoseever property it is gives you the go ahead in advance.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and have fun doing so.

It’s dance ….not life or death!

John JacobsonJohn Jacobson, a YouTube Sensation with millions of views under his belt, is on a mission to make dancing accessible to everyone (not everyone is the Zumba type!)

With a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, John has written and composed many musicals and choral works that have been performed by millions of children worldwide, as well as countless educational videos that have been incorporated into music teaching curriculums.

Committed to touching lives around the world, John is also the author of the new book Double Dreams: Living a Life of Glee, Harmony, and Oh Yes….JAZZ HANDS! and its DVD companion.

Learn more about John at

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