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Getting 'Un-stuck' - Advice for Choreographers

Check out our podcast episode on this topic!

If you are a dance teacher, chances are you fall into one of two categories - you are either the dance teacher with a seemingly endless supply of choreographic ideas, costume designs, and song choices, or, more likely, you sometimes find yourself stuck for an original concept, passing on every costume you see, and hoping that Dance Teacher Network will come through with a song suggestion you haven’t thought of yet! The IDA judges interviewed for this article are also choreographers and teachers, and will share some of their favorite methods for getting “un-stuck” and creating inspired, exciting choreography for competition, concert, and recital!

The beauty of creating dance is that it can be done well in many different ways. There is no hard and fast rule about how the creative process should manifest. Jacqueline Baligian, IDA judge and dance teacher from New York City, says, “For me, it’s all about the music. If I am inspired by a piece of music, it’s on. I definitely can’t choreograph just to choreograph. So, I do turn down gigs if I’m not feeling the music. I’ve done gigs before where I wasn’t really feeling the music but thought, “Why not, you need to pay the rent, it will be fine.” And, I was miserable. And, the work wasn’t great either. Which then made me feel awful about myself. So for me, a lesson is: don’t just do it for the money. You really have to be inspired.” Spotify, Pandora, and Amazon Music are just a few of the online services that help many dance teachers find unique and interesting music for choreography. Don’t be afraid to dive into the “Related Artists” section to really find some gems!

Music is often the first thing talked about when generating choreography, but Jessica Olinik, IDA judge and dance teacher from Pennsylvania, takes a different approach. “Before I can come up with any concept, song, or costume idea, I need to think about my cast. Depending on what dancers I have in my routine, [that] certainly inspires the entire construction of the piece. For instance, if I select a group of 5 dancers that are full of power and strength, it’s essential to find a concept and music that will highlight, enhance and deliver that strength.” She also adds, “The dancers are your “salespeople”- if they don’t like it, they’re not going to “sell it” on stage. Everyone has to be believe in the routine to make it truly come to life.” When you as the teacher are able to select a cast, this approach can really be beneficial! But what about the times when you are working with group of dancers that you don’t know or are confined to a certain theme for recital?

Many choreographers travel to set pieces on dancers they don’t know very well. In this situation, it’s important to be flexible with your expectations and your choreographic vision. Maddie Kurtz, IDA judge and MFA candidate at SUNY Brockport, offers this perspective: “I am a huge advocate of creating movement for the dancers in the room. Yes, my creative vision is important, but I feel that it is my job to make the dancers look good by playing to their strengths. For example, if I am working with a group of seven dancers and only two of them can execute a clean triple pirouette, I’m not going to insert a unison turn sequence into the dance, no matter how well I think it might suit the piece.”

Christina Yoder, IDA judge and tap teacher and choreographer from Indiana, agrees that you have to be willing and able to change course on the spot if choreography is not being executed the way you expected. “I walk into the studio with a fully prepared piece of choreography, cut music, and fully developed theme. In these situations [guest choreography], I do not often have the time to give the dancers much creative input. I am, however, always fully prepared to completely walk away from whatever is written in the notebook and go somewhere else if what I have isn't working!” The ability to be flexible with your ideas definitely comes in handy when choreographing for new students, and might even yield better results than what you had in the first place!

If you are part of a studio that adheres to a theme for recital, chances are you might have a hard time being inspired. It’s at this point when taking a more textbook approach to choreography might be helpful. Ashley Marinelli, IDA judge and professional dancer and choreographer, likes to create a blueprint of the song to help her process. “I listen to the music multiple times and map out sections (and I find that it helps me to write it down in a physical notebook, where I can make charts, sketches, and doodles). I set my beginning, middle, and end based on musical phrasing, and I think about the arc of my piece, indicating where the introduction is, where the build is, where the emotional peak is, and where the denouement is (just like you would map out a novel). I also make special note of any recurring motifs or changes in musical tone (which will usually indicate a change in emotional state for my characters).” This process can be time consuming, but is absolutely effective to create clarity in a piece for yourself and your students.

Every choreographer has said to themselves at one time or another, while laying on the studio floor, “That’s it. There’s nothing left in there, the ideas are gone, it’s all crap.” (We dancers are a dramatic bunch). Jessica relates, “There are times, like in the deep, dark, cold, middle of January, when you HAVE to finish and you just want to be done, but you still have 35 seconds left... in those moments, I watch. I take classes and watch the other teachers’ styles and quirks. I watch people in the grocery store or doing the awkward run across the street. I watch videos of dance of all kinds. I read. I do things that give me a respite from the daily grind.” Taking breaks and doing other activities besides dance can be a refreshing change of pace that also can inform your work.

Brandon Cournay, IDA judge and Executive Artistic Director of Dance Device Lab, which produces in-studio events nationwide, says, “I take inspiration from everything — music, movement, architecture, design, travel. I am constantly challenging myself to invent interesting movement. Using outside sources as inspiration takes the pressure off feeling like you have to choreograph every single step yourself. Watch Elisabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Creative Genius. I highly recommend it for any creative person!” The creative block happens to everyone at one point or another - taking a step back, doing something different, and gaining a new perspective will undoubtedly help move past the block and onto new paths.

Christina offers this last bit of advice to the floundering choreographer: “If you are struggling to create, you are in a wonderful place!! I have found that sometimes the most interesting choreography comes from the struggle of not knowing what to do next! Stick with it. Keep flushing out your ideas and your movement vocabulary. Good luck! Remember, you are stuck, but you are fully equipped to pull yourself out!”

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