Do Great Choreographers Have To Be Great Dancers?

I received a great question from a reader and I just had to share it and my response, and see what you readers think.

She asks:

I just started taking dance seriously last year but I’ve always choreographed. I feel like my passion lies more in choreography and production than it does in dance and I was wondering: is it possible to be a good dancer but a great choreographer? If you’re, like, an 8 in dancing, is it possible to be a 10 in choreography and still have people’s respect?

Here’s what I think:

Yes! I think it’s possible to be a great choreographer yet less-than-stellar dancer. In fact, throughout history it’s certainly happened.

But… (you knew there would be a ‘but’).

Great choreographers (particularly the ones we recognize by name) in this category still work very hard to be great dancers.

Even though they are relatively average dancers among professionals, before gaining recognition as a choreographer, most achieve and reach heights in their careers as performers that are still above the norm for all dancers or dance students.

I believe there are two primary reasons for this:

  1. Experiences gained through work and study as a dancer help to shape who you become as a choreographer.

    (Working with great choreographers is an excellent way to study great choreography and learn from it.)

  2. Working among accomplished dancers and choreographers leads to opportunities and invitations to choreograph.

    (Who you know and have worked with does matter.)

Mia Michaels talking SYTYCD with the press

Mia Michaels talking SYTYCD || Photo courtesy Kristin Dos Santos — In Mia’s own words: “I never was a performer”, says Mia. “I was always a big girl and because of that I never got the opportunity to dance professionally. I was born into a dance family and I was a very good dancer, a very strong dancer, but I was very ‘thick’. I just had so much passion to dance but after a while, after the rejections, I was like ‘you know I’m going to take all this passion and love that I have for dance and make my own’.

Your definition of greatness

Not all great choreographers are widely known or remembered throughout history.

I know several who are not famous at all. They receive little recognition and few rewards. They are great for other reasons, usually having to do with passion for their craft, commitment to originality and excellence, and perseverance to get their work made whether they are recognized and rewarded or not.

No matter how you define greatness, though, my point is the same:

Even if you think choreography or the production side of things is your goal or life’s work, work just as hard, if not harder, on becoming the very best dancer you can be.

It is an investment in your future as a choreographer.

Readers, what do YOU think?

Can you name some great choreographers who were/are so-so dancers?

What does it mean to be a great choreographer?

How would your response differ from mine?

There are always exceptions. Who are they?

Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world.
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)

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  1. Agree with you completely Nichelle. We should always be striving to be well rounded in all forms of dance, choreography, and teaching to make one successful in this business. Some of the greatest choreographers can’t do their own movement but can visualize it in their mind. I think of my self as a GOOD choreographer but GREAT choreographers just see, hear, imagine, and create dance differently because they are wired that way. Now many great choreographers, however, can’t teach. And I don’t mean a master class of their own choreography. I mean EDUCATE in dance. I have a friend whom is a brilliant dancer and extremely successful choreographer that is just a bad teacher I believe because he doesn’t know how to dumb down his intricate movement or how to inspire sub-par dancers. He can only work with advanced level professionals and that to me means his teaching skills need work.

  2. Sheri Leblanc says:

    Can a good choreographer be a mediocre dancer? I would say yes. I remember a teacher who didn’t have the best technique or the “it” factor when she danced, but was extremely effective at teaching technique and creating dances. My teacher was a dancer, as opposed to a performer(who shines onstage)

    To me, it takes special skills to be a choreographer that dancers don’t neccesarily need. My teacher was a wonderful visualizer when it came to putting moves and music together. She also had a great sense pf music and rhythm.

    And she was a good director. A choreographer works with a whole team, thus s/he needs to know the skills needed to work with a group. Keeping the group intact and satisfied is one big challenge since at some point every dancer will ultimately plan to move out to have his or her own group. Finally, she had great knowledge of different genres, making her dances more multifaceted, along with knowledge of costume, lights, props, etc to help the choreography.

    A choreographer needs certain talents to develop which are different than a dancer. You may be terrific at both, but that’s just icing on the cake. A great choreographer is defined (and different people have different opinions)by his/her work, not on his/her skill at performing that work.

  3. Margie Ryan says:

    The question is what defines a great dancer – lines?, degree of turnout?, energy?, technical abilities? Projection? Fluidity? Stage presence? Precision? Body proportions? musicality? All? some? One more than another? Hard to say since each style is unique and great dancers are from so many different styles. So it seems that what great dancershave in common is that they all hard work, relentless and distinctly unique as are great choreographers. An immense amount of physicality, vision, ambition and passion is common in both to make one great. What is amazing about art of any kind is that it comes from an unrelenting drive/passion for being one’s absolute best and a need to express one’s personal voice no matter whether it pleases others which for some is somewhere above the clouds and makes us feel something surreal bigger than life.

  4. I think this is fundamentally flawed. To be a great choreographer you first of all have to be a great musician. Choreography is a musical skill not a physical skill.

    You are matching movements to music, whether you yourself can carry out the movements is not important.

    Definitions of what make a great dancer vary with the form, as does what makes a great musician.

    It should be a matter of technical skilled combined with artistic creativity – to often emphasis is put on one or the other without though for the overall artistic impact.

  5. Respectfully, I disagree, Andrew. This would be true if dance only existed to serve the music, but it doesn’t; at least not always or in all circumstances. In most cases, dancers and choreographers are expected to respond to music in a way that serves the dance/choreography/idea/expression, not necessarily in a way that serves the song. For this, and other reasons, matching movements to music is not the whole of what a choreographer does. Sometimes there is no music, but a sound score or even silence – does this disqualify these as being dance and/or choreography?

    I don’t want to downplay the importance of musical awareness or of creating movements that are musical (in silence or otherwise). But dancers need not “be musicians” any more than musicians need to be dancers. I could argue that a musician uses his body and that his musicianship would benefit from a significantly better understanding of the body and how he uses it. In fact, I would argue that …but to say in order to compose a decent song or score, he must first be a great dancer??

  6. Thanks for disagreeing with me. It’s actually helped clarify my thoughts on the subject. I think what I am saying is that the body is vehicle for artist experession – like a musical instrument

    If you want to play that instrumentl well, as an individual or someone wrting choreography, you have to be aware of rhythm, music and structure.

    Let’s move a away from dance and talk about writing. It too has rhythm, structure, and changes of emphasis and accent. A good writer immediately recognises good writing and starts to look at the structure, to see how it works. Like the opening sentence, the following sentence, and the third sentence in the first paragraph of your reply. Structure, accent, emphasis and rhythm. (see how I just reversed your structure :-), I knew it was there so I could play with it)

    Now you can have the largest vocabulary in the world, the finest grasp of grammar. the ability to win a spelling bee – but doesn’t give you flow, rhythm or structure. Without that sense of rhythm or flow your writing will read like a legal document.

    A choreographer has to have that sense of rhythm and flow, and intuitive sense structure. too.

    Choreography, like writing, is weaving a stronger artistic thread from smaller ones, if one of the threads is missing, like musical skill, is will never be as strong as one which has all the threads.

    • Thanks for clarifying, Andrew. I can get behind the idea of musical understanding being a very important thread in the twine of choreography! I have more actual musical training than a good many dancers/choreographers, but I wouldn’t call myself a musician… I have too much respect for musicians! lol

      I do apply what I know both intuitively and from past musical experience to my work as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. It’s not unlike the way I apply my dance training and experiences to choreography, which is why having mastery and experience in the physical art of dancing is also an important ‘thread.’ A choreographer doesn’t necessarily need to be at performance level, and perhaps may not, even at their peak, be able to deliver the type of performance they expect from their dancers, however, their physical understanding of movement is as crucial as their musicality, their vision, their ability to manage others, their drive, their passion, their work ethic, and other threads.

      As others have mentioned this crucial physical understanding of movement is broader than just the technical aspects. However, understanding of the most basic technical elements of human movement can certainly keep a choreographer’s dancers healthy to continue dancing, no matter what genre or style of dance we’re talking about. This makes technique another important thread in my opinion.

      • Which explains why musicians have such difficulty with Choreography – they have a vision of what they want to achieve, but not the physical discipline or skill to achieve it.

        This still doesn’t explain the effortless improvisation skills of someone like Melissa Rutz or Kyle Redd.

        Melissa Rutz is noticeablly a poorer dancer doing set choreography then when she is improvising – where does that come from?

        And different dance forms have different musical requirements, in Argentine Tango it is polyrythm, in Swing syncopation. How does that fit in?

        • Yes, Rachel makes excellent observations regarding the point where technique leaves off and personal expression begins. I’ll add that improvisation involves movement that is generated by and for the dancer improvising. This is very different from recreating movement generated by someone else. Both are skills that are needed by working/performing dancers and choreographers but the development of these skills are a different process.

  7. Rachel Avery says:

    The choreographer needs to open to inspiration and use his/her creative skills in shaping the dance to allow the dancers to dance. Due to physical limitations perhaps from injuries etc. the dancer may not be able to “go flying through the air” but can certainly direct a competent dancer. In as much a performer must have the ability to interact with an audience not simply execute flawless technique. Flawless technique without expression is boring.

  8. Rachel Avery says:

    Thank-you for identifying the different processes and skills involved in creating dance. As teachers we must address these skills with our students so they reach their potential and all must have a chance to experiment with their own choreography. A director told me once, this is hard of you because you have an established technique, put that aside and take a risk! Magic happens!