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Behind the Curtain Blog

NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.

13Dec

Creating Student-Centered Choreography

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Shannon Dooling-Cain, NDEO Special Projects Coordinator. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

The challenge with traditional approaches to recital choreography

For most dance educators working in private studios, January marks the beginning of recital choreography season. After spending the first half of the dance season introducing new steps and elements of dance technique, many dance teachers will begin creating choreography for the end-of-year recital when they return from the winter break. This can be a time of great creativity for teachers and excitement for students. But, it can also present a lot challenges. Maybe you can relate to some of these scenarios?

  • Feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of choreographing many, many dances in the course of just a few months.
  • Being concerned about making each piece unique and exciting, especially if you have multiple classes in the same level and dance genre.
  • Feeling pressure to create something that your dance students will love, to keep them motivated and excited about class throughout the rest of the year.
  • Feeling pressure to incorporate a lot of “tricks” to excite audiences and impress parents, even if your students are not 100% ready for them.
  • Feeling pressure to create something that meets studio expectations and fits a prescribed theme, even if it doesn’t inspire you artistically.

Early in my career as a dance educator, I definitely felt the pressure of recital season more than the joy it can bring. I wanted nothing more than to create “good” recital dances - ones that would excite my students, delight their families in the audience, and impress the studio owners. In pursuit of these “good” dances, I was more concerned about how the dances reflected my abilities as a choreographer than how they reflected my students’ learning and growth.

But over time, I realized that the ruler-straight formations, perfectly phrased 8 counts, clever movement combinations, and cute motifs were often better for my ego than they were for my students’ education. I came to hate obsessing over minute movement details and endlessly drilling the choreography for months, especially when I realized how much time it took away from other aspects of dance education. I realized that we do our students a disservice when we overemphasize the importance of learning and rehearsing choreography for performance - especially if our students do not aspire to professional dance careers. Moreover, the standard recital choreography processes can be stressful for us as dance teachers. Too often, recital choreography leaves dance teachers feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and burnt out. There has to be a better way!

Collaboration: An alternative approach to recital choreography

I believe that our job as dance educators is to design a choreographic experience that furthers their students’ dance education, beyond just teaching them steps to repeat on stage. I also believe that we can do so without making more work for ourselves. The answer, I have found, is to ditch the typical choreographer-dancer relationship and use collaboration instead.

By making the choreographic process a collaboration between students and their dance teacher, I believe that we can create a better experience for all involved:

  • Dance students are given the opportunity to contribute their opinions, ideas, and movement. This can help keep them motivated in the process of learning and rehearsing the choreography. It can also help make the experience a safer one for them, as they are less likely to be subject to costuming, themes, or movement that could make them uncomfortable.
  • Dance teachers are relieved of some of the pressure of choreography, as they take cues and inspiration from their students. They can also ensure that they are providing a holistic and well-rounded educational experience as they teach them about the entire choreographic process - not just the performance part!
  • Dance studio owners may find themselves with happier teachers and students who are more engaged and excited to continue their dance training after the recital, leading to better teacher and student retention.
  • Audiences will enjoy a more diverse range of dances within the recital, and more invested performances by dancers who love the choreography that they are performing!

YearEnd2022There are many ways to create a collaborative choreographic process when working with student dancers. The level of potential collaboration will vary based on the students’ age, skill level, and interest in their dance training. The process that I will outline in this blog post seems to work best with intermediate to advanced students in third grade and up. However, it is important to remember that even very young dancers can be introduced to collaborative dance-making in simple ways. You may ask your younger dancers to create their own beginning and ending pose for their dance, for example, or to help you choose between “Step A” and “Step B” as the next movement in a phrase. These seemingly simple tasks can help students feel ownership of their dance, and let them know that their preferences are important to the choreographic process.

How to begin a collaborative process for dance recital choreography

I hope that by now I’ve convinced you of the benefits of a collaborative approach to choreography for your upcoming recital dances! Perhaps you are feeling excited to try out this model with your students, but are unsure of where to start. In the remainder of this blog post, I will share the process that I have used to create collaborative choreography with my students. Before we get into the process itself, here are a few helpful tips make your collaboration more successful:

First, it is important to consider some ground rules that you should lay out to create a safe and productive creative environment, such as:

  1. All opinions and perspectives are welcome. In this approach to choreography, everyone can contribute their ideas at the appropriate time. Even though we might not end up using all of the ideas proposed in our final product, the dance will benefit from everyone’s contributions throughout the process.
  2. Talk about ideas, not people. We may not agree with one another’s creative choices, but we should always be respectful. When working together, keep the discussion focused on the ideas, not the people who came up with them.
  3. Work time is not social time. Collaborative dance making offers us a chance to work together and practice our appropriate social skills. However, it is important to stay focused on the work we are doing so that we can meet our deadlines and be ready to present our best dance on stage by recital time.

YearEnd2022aOn the topic of deadlines, you will want to set a schedule and stick to it. In the dance studio setting, we don’t have a lot of time to waste - especially during recital season. A process-focused choreographic experience can definitely take more time than a traditional approach to recital choreography. It is important to look realistically at your class calendar and set deadlines for each step in the process. Be sure that you allow enough time to rehearse and refine the choreography when it is finished.

Another important tip is to determine how you will document your work and share it with your students throughout the process. This collaborative process will generate a lot of movement material, and you will likely want to take lots of videos to help yourself and your students keep track of it. Creating a DropBox or Google Drive Folder with videos for each class can be an efficient way to catalog and share your process videos with students.

Finally, be sure to emphasize patience, for yourself and among your students. This will likely be a very new approach for many studio dancers. I believe that ultimately, it will be worth it. But you may find yourself having to explain and justify your methods to students, their families and other studio staff.

A quick note on my background: This process is informed by my background in ballet, modern, jazz, and jazz-derived dance forms. It is influenced by Western, modern-dance based compositional processes and techniques. However, I believe that the same principles involved in the process can be used with the choreographic approaches of many different dance genre. I invite you to modify the process outlined below as you see fit for the genres that you teach.

Six steps for creating collaborative recital choreography with your students

Step 1: Get your students’ input on major aspects of the choreography

Allowing your students to share their opinions on major aspects of the choreography is a great way to begin a collaborative choreographic process. I like to start by asking my students for their preferences in music, costuming, and theme. I also check in with them to see if they are comfortable improvising, partnering, and being featured in the front line or a solo. Some of the input that I get from students before starting choreography includes:

  • I like dancing to music that is (choose one or more): upbeat, cheerful, and fun; soft, sweet, and lyrical; powerful, strong, and aggressive; darker, creepy, and serious; or other (please specify).
  • Who are two of your favorite musical artists at the moment?
  • A story, mood, or feeling that I am interested in exploring through our dance this year is ….
  • A story, mood, or feeling that I do not want to explore through our dance this year is …
  • When it comes to dancing on stage, I am more comfortable (choose one only): being in the front line; being in the middle or toward the back; or no preference.
  • I am comfortable with partnering on stage, including lifts and touching other dancers (choose one only): yes; no; or other (please specify).
  • I prefer costumes with (choose as many as apply): a skirt or dress; pants or shorts; long or short sleeves; no sleeves (tank, halter, etc.); sparkles and bling; more plain decoration; bright and vibrant colors; more neutral colors; other (please specify)

I always let the students know that I cannot accommodate all of their preferences for music, theme, and costuming, but that I will do my best to take them into account when making creative choices. I keep the answers to these questions handy throughout the choreographic process so that I can reference individual requests related to improvisation, line placement, partnering, etc.

An interesting bonus that has come with asking these questions is that it gives me some insight into the students’ social and emotional health. If the music or themes they choose are particularly dark or heavy, it might alert me to check in and see how they are doing. If a student went from being seemingly fearless and outgoing to expressing that they are not interested in being in the front line or making physical contact with other students, it might be an indicator that they have experienced some kind of trauma and need intervention or support.

Step 2: Design your dance class curriculum with the recital choreography in mind

Almost every combination I create in class throughout the year is made with the recital choreography in mind. Students have learned at least three long movement phrases that become the source material for our recital choreography at the end of our 18-week first semester (August-December). This doesn’t necessarily mean that every combination makes it on to stage as-is. Rather, my students and I can draw from them as we collaborate in steps 3 and 4.

Step 3: Let your students generate choreography by manipulating class movement phrases in their own ways

Once you have a collection of movement phrases ready, you can collaborate with your dancers on different ways to present them on-stage. I start by introducing the students to different compositional techniques. Most of these are influenced by my modern dance background, but I do try to incorporate genre-specific practices as well. For example, in jazz we will include a call-and-response pattern, and in ballet we may be inspired by Maurice Petipa’s pattern of a phrase that repeats three times, followed by a break.

Begin by teaching or reviewing different dance elements that influence choreography: level, floor path, movement quality, repetition, tempo, direction, and others. Then, divide the dancers into small groups. Assign each group a particular element and task them with creating a new version of the movement phrase that includes changes to that element. You may try to change directions throughout the combination, for example, or alternate staccato and fluid movement qualities while performing it. This can even work for ballet! Try tasking the dancers with turning an adagio into a grand allegro combination, or changing the pathway of turns en manège.

Invite each group to share their new version of the combination with the class, and discuss the process they used to make the changes. Then, as a class, choose some favorite movements from each version and combine them to create an entirely new combination.

Depending on the age and skill level of the dancers, you can repeat the process using other choreographic tools and devices, such as retrograde, inversion, accumulation, or cannon.

Step 4: Let your students create their own choreography that complements the class material they’ve learned

Once students have had an introduction to the choreographic process by manipulating existing movement, they can begin to create their own combinations and movement phrases. I like to give the dancers a movement challenge to accomplish in the creation of their own choreography. For example, I ask the dancers to include at least 3 steps that they have learned in our class. This helps us ensure that the individual movement phrases are cohesive enough to become part of a single dance.

To further challenge the dancers, you might give them an additional task that relates to your choreographic intention. For example, if your piece is inspired by historic events, they might be inspired by old photos from the time period. The dancers could begin their phrase by recreating the pose from the photo, then incorporate 3 movements that they have learned in class as they dance. If your dance is about memory, you might have them create a phrase, then retrograde it, so that it looks like their movement is playing out in reverse like a videotape being rewound. For a dance inspired by space exploration, direct the dancers to create their phrases as if they were on the moon, being sucked through a black hole, or orbiting close to the sun.

You can direct the dancers to work individually, with a partner, or in small groups. You will want to provide clear guidelines, such as the number of counts, whether the phrase should travel or stay in one place, and how the dancers should begin and end their phrase. If the dancers are working in pairs or groups, you will want to be clear about whether this combination should include specific formations and partnering, or if it should just focus on the movement creation.

Invite the dancers to share their movement phrases with the class. When all have had a chance to share, they will take turns teaching their movement to their classmates. This way, all of the dancers will know and be able to perform the phrases when you incorporate them into the choreography.

Step 5: Experiment with your students as you determine how to use this movement in your choreography

Now, you have three sources of movement material: the original combinations from class, the manipulated combinations, and the students’ original phrases. But coming up with great movement is only one small part of the choreographic process. Now, it is time to put it together in a way that communicates your choreographic intention.

Begin this step by discussing the theme, message, emotion, energy or story that is inspiring your piece. Ask your students to brainstorm different ways that they can communicate the intention through the choreography. Some of the things that they should consider are formations, groupings of dancers, spatial relationships, movement qualities, timing, and entrances/exits. Experiment with some of these different options: What would happen if the dancers were very close together? What if they were far apart? What if one group performed phrase A while others performed phrase B? Now, what if group one moved in super slow motion, while group B repeated their phrase twice at regular speed. Try each option and let the dancers share their impressions. Save the ones that seemed to best communicate your choreographic intention.

Step 6: Work together to codify your choices and build the final version of your dance

Now, it’s time for the most difficult part of the collaborative recital choreography process: working together to codify your choices and build the final version of your dance. You may choose to take a more authoritative role in this step, by making the final decisions on your own. Or, you may continue to collaborate with your dancers in this process, with yourself as the mentor who guides them in their own decision-making. Some ways that you can work together to finalize your decisions include:

  • Storyboarding - Make diagrams or pictures that represent different sections that you have created as a class. Lay these on the floor or tape them to the mirror. Let the students arrange and rearrange them in different orders, then try out that version physically.
  • Voting - Allow students to vote on the sequence of combinations, fornations, and transitions that they like best.
  • Decision Makers - Assign an individual or small group a section of the music. They will be responsible for all decisions related to that section of the music.

Step 7: Reflect, discuss, and get ready to share

As I mentioned above, this will likely be a new approach to choreography for most studio dancers. It can be beneficial to their learning and their well-being to allow for plenty of time for reflection and discussion. You might encourage the dancers to journal throughout the process, and schedule time to share after each step in the process is completed.

Finally, get ready to share your collaborative dance recital choreography with an audience by running, cleaning, and refining until your students are feeling comfortable. You might want to try some of the strategies I’ve outlined in this post on my blog, including The Holistic Dance Teacher Choreography Cleaning Bingo Game!

Using a collaborative process for creating recital choreography offers many benefits. It takes some of the creative pressure off dance teachers, and leads to a more well-rounded educational experience for students. If you teach in a studio setting, I highly encourage you to include some aspect of collaboration when creating your recital choreography this year. Have you used a collaborative approach to creating recital choreography with your students? Please leave a comment with your own tips and advice. I’d love to learn from you!

Want to Learn More? Register here today for NDEO's OPDI Course, Intro to Choreography in Dance Education: A Process to Teach Students How to Create Dances. "This course offers participants experience with a system that can be used to teach basic elements and principles of choreography and explores how to encourage self-expression through dance making."

Shannon Dooling-Cain, MFA, was born in New Mexico, spent much of her life dancing in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and now calls Tucson, Arizona home.  She holds an MFA in Dance from University of Maryland College Park and a BA in Dance from DeSales University in Pennsylvania. Shannon is a dance artist, educator, advocate, and writer with an extensive background in dance education, administration, and choreography. Her choreography has been showcased at venues from New York City to D.C. and in Arizona, including the Triskelion Arts Center (NYC), the Baltimore Museum of Art, Dance Place (D.C.), and the Tempe Center for the Arts. She has taught ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, improvisation, and dance history in colleges, K-12 schools, community centers and dance studios. You can find more of Shannon's blog posts and resources for dancers, educators, and choreographers at www.shannondoolingdances.com.

Headshot attached courtesy of Reyna's Photography

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