As dance educators, we often are faced with the arduous task of successfully choreographing solos. Some years, it's only a few, while other years, it's dozens! How do we keep things fresh and help our students succeed? How do we make the structure of our solo score well and help us get our dancers set up for a successful solo season?
After years of coaching, teaching and choreographing solos, I recommend a quick checklist to ensure you start on the right track with your soloists.
1. IT'S ABOUT THEM
Keep the individual student as the focus of the solo. Whether they are beginner, intermediate, or advanced, the student must shine! It's not time for you to experiment with choreography so that you will receive an award - it is about them!
Keep the choreography at a level that will bring out their best qualities. Push them, but don't give them fouetté turns when they are still striving for a clean double pirouette. Show off what they CAN do!
Play to their strengths and show off their uniqueness. Are they a great mover but may be lacking in other areas? Are they great storytellers? Choose a lyrical piece that shows off their movement across the stage, or give them a musical theater piece that allows their personality to shine through.
2. SONG SELECTION
One of the most, if not the most, important part of preparing your dancer's solo is the song selection.
Sit down with your dancer and talk through the meanings of two or three songs. Which song speaks to them the most? Which song excites them? Remember, you BOTH have to live with this song selection for an entire season. It has to resonate with both the student and the choreographer.
As judges, we often talk about overused songs. Remember, we hear hundreds of songs during any given weekend and inevitably, there is one or two each season that are terribly overused (For an in-depth read on music at competition, visit IDA's previous blog on this topic here. If there is a song I'd like to use for a student, I often search online to see if there is another version that might work better. Is there a remake, acoustic version, or new mix available? Do your research and it could spark some creative avenues to explore in the solo!
Age-appropriate music selection is SO IMPORTANT! One season, I judged at least 10-15 solos, all choreographed to 'Jar of Hearts'. Great song, but almost all of them were in the junior division. I repeatedly had to give critiques questioning how a 9 year old could possibly identify with the mature themes of the song. How could they have experienced the loss of romantic love that the singer was expressing? As coaches and choreographers, we must fight the urge to use a song because 'we' like it. Remember #1? It's all about them!
Congratulations! You've selected a style and a song! Now comes the real work. Begin with movement that you know your dancer has a good grasp on. Use those movements to begin putting short phrases together and that usually sparks another movement...and then another....and then another.
Remember levels! Don't let the solo finish without having your dancer engaged in floor work, mid-level work (bent in pile or one knee on floor), standing work, work in relevé (with either one or both legs) and finally, work in the air (jumps, leaps...).
Reach! Don't forget the use of your arms. If the song and choreography warrant a sharp movement, make it extra sharp! If it is more lyrical in nature, stretch the arms and reach. When coaching, I often talk about 'reaching past yourself' to exaggerate the movement, making it large enough to be seen by those in the back of the auditorium.
Finish your movements! I often provide critiques that involve dancers cutting movements short. That battement should finish completely with a lengthened knee and stretched foot all the way through the toes....don't cut it short. This correction can also be given with reaches in the arms and leg extensions.
4. TELL THE STORY
How many times have you seen a dance and wondered what the dance was about? Think about the dances that have remained in your memory. Most likely, those dances told a story....they impacted you on an emotional level. What emotions does your dance need to convey?
Don't forget to tell the story! As educators, we have a responsibility to cultivate our students into artists. Art is communication. As artists, our dances should tell a story, whether through our character development, movement quality, or both! Take your audience on a journey - tell them a story.
Costuming can make or break a piece of choreography. It can enhance a piece or take away and distract from a piece.
Back to #1 - It's about them! Select costuming that will flatter your dancer. If they are not comfortable with a two-piece costume, don't put them in one! Talk through costuming options with your dancer and make sure that as the adult, you provide guidance in costume selection. If they want to wear a costume that does not flatter them and does not enhance the piece, then make another selection.
Remember that costumes do not have to cost a fortune. There are multiple used costume resources online, as well as local clothing stores that carry options that can easily convert into a dance costume. Costuming is meant to enhance the piece, not be the sole focus of the piece. Do not let the costume overpower the good work being done by your dancer.
Practice in your costume! It is so important to practice for several weeks in the costume leading up to the first performance. Often times, you'll see that the costume may prove to be challenging with certain parts of the choreography or floor work. Practicing in your costume also allows time to make any alterations, adjustments, or realizations that more body tape is needed!
Congratulations, dance teacher! You are well on your way to a successful solo season. Remember, the solo experience is an incredible right of passage for many students. Encourage your dancer to soak in every moment on the stage and to use every opportunity to learn and grow as an artist. Don't forget to tell them you are proud of them! Best wishes for the season ahead!
Daniel Tardibono is a state-certified dance educator with over twenty years of experience as a teacher, coach, choreographer and director. He has judged for more than a decade and currently works as the Managing Director of Schools for a Ballet Company in the central US.