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What makes a good choreographer?

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Earlier this year, a fellow dancer on the Tribal Bellydance tribe asked about the skills it takes to be a strong choreographer, and asked some really key questions. Here is the majority of her post:

“I’m wondering how those of you who do a lot of choreographing set yourselves up for it. I don’t know if there are training programs out there, but the good, great, and wonderful choreographers I’ve worked with over the years all seem to have a few things in common:

*a steady sense of “the big picture”: the ability to know how the audience is going to view, and react, to the whole dance as seen not from onstage or from within the troupe;

*lyrical sense: familiarity with the music that allows the choreographer to convey meaning to the audience through the dancer(s) without beating them over the head with it, so to speak;

*a good understanding of their dancer(s) ability and potential;

*a prodigious movement vocabulary.

Thing is…how do you GET that? Is it an ability that you have to have an affinity for, like drawing or music or math? Is it something you can learn–and if so, how? Does it come more easily with experience?

And what are some other qualities a good choreographer needs?”

My take:
What makes a good artist a good artist? Impossible to answer. It is the convergence of interest, training, and natural propensities.

I am of the strong belief that not everything is for everyone in this life. I know that is not a popular belief, particularly among my generation where we were told we could be anything we wanted. I think it’s important to pursue our passions, but that doesn’t always mean we will excel at it. I think the most important message is that even if we are not great at that which we love, we continue to do it for the love…what brings us joy, we must honor….but I digress.

I know for myself, I was ALWAYS choreographing dances, from the time I was a little girl. From when my brother and I would make up dance and acro-balance routines together in our living room, to when I was writing plays in elementary school and staging them for school productions with my friends. Making up floor and balance beam routines with my friends on my gymnastics team,  high school when I was choreographing dances for my cheer squad or dance/drill teams,  learning dance in drama productions in high school and college, making playful choreographies with my friends in a public park just because we felt like it, up to college when I skipped out on registering for classes toward my major so I could take ballet, jazz, and modern.  Which brings us well beyond into my adult life in various dance classes eventually culminating in a love of Middle Eastern Dance… Even without always being in formal classes, I was always dancing, always thinking of ways to compose movement to music or characters. And when I couldn’t find outlets for these instincts, I was frustrated.

Frankly, I wish my Mom had put me in more formal dance classes throughout my life, because in retrospect, I was ALWAYS DANCING, even when I wasn’t officially dancing… But even without always having formal training in it, something in me was always calling me back, and I found I had a natural knack for hearing music (I did casually play some instruments, as well as choir and musical theater throughout as well), and for understanding how music could drive movement.

Not everyone has these same experiences and memories, but I think it is through this constant exposure to music dance in various forms it simultaneously seeped into my being, and was welcomed heartily by my natural tendencies for dance and music.

I think some people have to try a lot harder and train their instincts more diligently. And I think some people are far more skilled than I am with less formal experience than I have had. Frankly, there is no one formula for success in any field, and certainly this is true for art.

But if you are asking how someone who is just starting out might begin to hone this instincts much later in life, that might be another approach to the discussion entirely…

I would add that the best choreographers I have ever experienced in all fields of dance were not necessarily the best dancers, but they:
a) were fantastic at “telling stories”
b) possessed a strong spatial sense (being able to visualize spaces, movement, and shapes)
c) for group choreographies, were articulate and charismatic leaders (this does not always mean *nice* or *friendly*, but possess charisma and language skills which transcend these virtues to drive dancers to new heights)
d) had a grasp of energetic flow: both between the performers onstage, and between the performers and the audiences they were intending to reach.

I have found that some great choreographers are also great judges of movement and choreography of others (like dance critics), as well as having a great eye for art, design, decoration, fashion, etc. It is the capacity to observe the elusive elements of balance, texture, color, energy, flow, white-space, connection, pulse, rhythm; and tie it all up in a package of intention and message that makes a great artist in any genre. And oftentimes these skills overlap between many disciplines.”

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on choreography and how one trains to improve choreographic skills!

Follow Shay:

Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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    I would be interested in hearing more on lyrical sense.
    Can lyrical sense be taught? Or is it an instinctual thing we learn how to identify, follow and trust over time?
    Although certainly an important asset, the best dancers aren’t always the ones who know the most steps or have the best technique, but the one’s who can best communicate emotion to the audience. At least, I’ve heard that said a few times, and think I agree.
    As much as I have heard of soulful, moving performances, and as much as I have seen energetic, sensual and spirited dancers, I have yet to see a dancer use choreography to express a weighty, serious meaning.
    I know they are out there. And I look forward to the day I witness such a performance (any you tube suggestions would be SO appreciated).
    But as a relatively new dancer in this form I have a difficult time understanding the various ways tribal choreography can tell a variety of stories.
    This was a great blog post and that really sparked a desire to hear more about it.

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