Choreography. It’s my arch nemesis when it comes to creating a new act. I have never been good at it, nor wanted to become good at it—that was the problem.
Growing up, I never had the desire to create choreography for me to execute, let alone others. It has always been a tough part of act creation for me since the beginning—even as long ago as creating pieces to audition for principal dancer every six months at Jubilee! (I actually tried seven times and have seven separate acts that I created for those opportunities.)
Some fellow performers have told me that I’m quite good at the whole choreography thing, but I don’t always believe it when I am mired in the process. There is a block there, and I should just take my own damn advice and let go and let it flow, but it’s hard. I’m a work in progress…
I have taken a couple burlesque choreography classes and set my mind to becoming better at creating choreography. Since I have started producing mini-productions to full scale productions, I have developed a nice little process that (usually) works for overcoming choreographer’s block.
When it comes to choreographing for others, this can also work for you to be prepared before a rehearsal to teach it rather than set it organically, which is another way pros have done it in the past. I prefer to be done and ready to test it out, then adjust from there.
Allow me to share the process I used recently to choreograph my recent success, Bossa Dorado and I’ve Got a New Baby by La Pompe Jazz for our live band collab a couple months ago.
When you are feeling stuck, try this exercise to block out your act:
Map out act:
After listening to your track a million and a half times, and then some, copy and paste the lyrics to a word doc or notes on your phone. Or, if it is instrumental, map out the time codes in a list, like I show below. The time codes are when the music changes, or different instruments are used.
An example of my recent creation:
Fill in with story:
This is more surface visioning, like what is going through your head? What are you trying to communicate to the audience? Sometimes some music inspires you at certain moments to be a storyteller, rather than a performer. For example, before the music, you are a certain character and the start of the music signals a change, things like that. Make those notes next to the time codes.
Fill in with specific movements for the lyrics:
If you are inspired by a certain song to follow the lyrics and show a literal movement like blowing a kiss when the singer sings “kiss”, don’t choreograph a literal movement to every single lyric. I repeat: DO NOT CHOREOGRAPH A LITERAL MOVEMENT TO EVERY SINGLE LYRIC. Unless you want to bore the audience, just don’t. It comes off as cheesy, amateurish and lazy. If that’s what you want for the act, then by all means, go for it. But if you really want to entertain that audience, limit the literal movements to a minimum—no more than 3-4 lyric driven choreography bits in the entire act. Take the time to really dig in and make the movements more abstract if you really feel compelled to use the lyrics to dictate your choreography. An example of this is to change a basic walk when the lyric is “walk” into a grapevine or other intricate looking step to keep it interesting.
Fill in with staging/blocking:
This is especially important for new choreographers. Where onstage do movements happen? Don’t just stand in the middle and do all the things right there. The audience needs movement spacially, to keep their interest. Unless the act is an intensely captivating act that would be better presented by not moving at all, make sure you are using the entire stage for your act. Examples: changes of direction, moving upstage or downstage swiftly or slowly, work the stage from diagonals, etc.
Another thing to keep in mind is that changing levels in choreography is always a good idea. This means doing some things high, (arms raised, legs high jumps etc.) and some things low (deep lunges, floor work when on a proper stage, etc.)
Fill in with removals/punctuation:
Sometimes when we hear a song, we just know that the crescendo is perfect for a high kick or some other big choreographic movement. Fill in the time codes with those things next. If this is a burlesque act, fill in which removals happen when.
Punctuate that act so that it’s not a string of boring.
Do this by surprising the audience. Do something they definitely wouldn’t expect you to do next. An example for me is in my seaside act when I remove my drab (yeah, I know they didn’t have Rhinestones, but this is a burlesque costume, not a period costume,) 20s flapper swimming costume behind my parasol and reveal a chartreuse cute two-piece bikini underneath, complete with assels attached which they see when I first turn around. That transformation usually gets an audible response of surprise and delight.
Fill in the rest:
I took a class from burlesque legend, Rita Alexander, and she taught us her choreography process that I use in this process. She said she used to take pictures from old dance magazines, lay them all out in front of her, then sequence them in the order she wanted. She would then fill in the space between each “pose” with movements to get to the next “pose” and in the end she would have a choreographed routine. This process is similar.
See what’s left to choreograph. Sometimes you want to do a certain thing at a certain time, but are not sure how to lead up to that. Use either photos or your imagination as you block out your act on paper first to lay out the concrete things, and then fill with simple movements like walks, grapevines, turns, reveals, etc.
Clean it up:
Trim out unnecessary movements/spacing so you don’t feel rushed. Really take the time to rehearse, in costume (hair, shoes etc.) so that you are confident the first time you debut that act onstage. Make sure you are being honest with yourself that that act is in fact ready for the show and you will come offstage feeling triumphant and fulfilled.
I hope this process helps you move through your choreographer’s blocks and gets you up on that stage confidently and proudly!!
Questions? Tips to add? Comment below!
Athena, aka Gazella