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Choreography @ Competition

Check out our podcast episode on this topic!

Choreography can make or break a competition routine. No matter how precisely a dancer executes a technical step, or how well a group dances in unison, if the choreography is uninspiring or confusing, chances are the routine will not score the top award. Featured on the IDA Blog this week are IDA judges Kelly, Patch, KT, and James, chiming in with their opinions and thoughts about choreography for competitions.

The vote was unanimous among these judges - the top three elements that are necessary to good choreography are musicality, dynamics, and intention. Kelly says,

“In my opinion, there is nothing better than excellent musicality, and it is amazing to see stylized choreography enhanced by the music and vice versa. The way movement relates to the accents and textures in the music can be so effective.”

“When the music swells and seems to be the motivation for a big leap or explosion of energy, or if the movement becomes more internalized with a decrescendo in the music [...] that kind of attention to detail is so special and can set the piece apart.” Judges see hundreds of dances every weekend, and the ability to make a routine stand out can come from something as simple as a synchronized movement placed at a precise point in the song.

Similarly, the judges agree that dynamics, like musicality, play a big part in making choreography interesting and unique. Showcasing “bold choreographic choices and stillness [will] allow a piece to grow and develop differently than just counting straight eights the entire time,” suggests James. When chatting with the IDA judges, the element of stillness came up multiple times. According to Patch,

“A dance is a conversation with words. As humans, we don't usually talk at each other for two minutes straight.”

Utilizing a moment of stillness can be visually effective, as well as necessary to give the dancer a chance to catch their breath!

Intention is perhaps the ultimate requirement for good choreography. If a story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, you can “fully finish the statement you are presenting,” says James. When asked for ideas on how to make the intention behind a piece clear, Kelly suggests that dancers and choreographers ask these questions: “What [does] the dancer experience the moment before the music start[s]? How is the dancer different when the piece ends? How do the dancers relate to each other in a group?” Students, don’t be afraid to take matters into your own hands when it comes to your routines. Patch says, “Research five photos or words that inspire you to perform this piece and put them on the wall as you're learning it to always reference back to.” All four judges were adamant: don’t be afraid to ask questions and dig deep into your story! KT also mentions the need for dancers to be present throughout the learning process, all the way to the last performance. If you focus and commit to being in the moment from the beginning, it will be easier to stay engaged for the entirety of competition season.

Another key element to presenting a well-choreographed piece requires a good understanding from the choreographer of the dancers’ strengths and weaknesses.

“Choreographing with the dancers’ technical abilities in mind can definitely help to make them more comfortable during the performance,”

says KT, which will, in turn, allow them to focus on the storytelling aspects of the routine. Patch agrees that “showing off the dancers' technique rather than tricks provides [them] with confidence and, therefore, leads to a cleaner performance.” No doubt, with the prevalence of shows like “Dance Moms” and “So You Think You Can Dance”, younger and more inexperienced dancers want to try all the fun turns, leaps, and jumps, but in a competitive setting, these judges prefer that choreographers err on the side of presenting clean, well-thought-out work as opposed to a routine full of “flash”.

Many competitions offer a student choreography category, which allows young choreographers to stretch their creativity and present their own work. James weighs in with his thoughts:

“I encourage younger choreographers to do your research, allow yourself to feel influenced or mentored by brilliance that came before you. Don’t allow social media or current popularities to influence your choreographic voice.”

Judges will always take note of that one stand out routine that pays homage to a dancer or dance style of the past. Kelly also stresses that “there is nothing like seeing a personal connection to music and movement, and this can be shown through choreography, so sticking to concepts that you can relate to on a personal level is a great place to start.” KT reminds young choreographers not to be afraid of any choreographic idea, or hindered by others’ thoughts of your vision.

A well-choreographed competition routine does not go unappreciated by the IDA judges. By using clear intentions, dynamics, musicality, and attention to each dancer’s unique qualities, a choreographer has all the tools to present a memorable and special routine. As dancers, we are given the gift of communication through movement, and put simply by the great Martha Graham, “The body says what words cannot.”

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