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How to Transition From Dancer to Choreographer

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Photo Source: Photo by Rojan Maharjan on Unsplash

As a dancer, I’ve been asked over the years to be excellent in different ways. Initially, I was asked to be the best dancer I could be. There’s so much joy in the simplicity of doing your best. Soon after I was established as a dancer I was asked to teach. Then, very soon after I was asked to choreograph. I can say my personal experience with being a choreographer is a mixed bag. Some great, some good, and of course some bad. So how can you transition to choreographer? 

First, don’t lose sight of the dancer you are. The things that make you great are the things that will make your choreography special. Also, make sure you know your story before you try to tell it. Is your piece for the general public or a dance-based audience? Are you placing your piece at the beginning, middle, or end of a show? In your head, know if it’s an opener, middle, or closer. We know a closer is usually the best performer or performance in a show whereas an opener is friendly, warm, and inviting (typically). We cannot all be the closer, but if you know that’s where your work belongs, go for it.

You should also practice on friends and peers. See how people will bring your vision to life using people you know and trust. Seeing how easily they grasp your concepts will be a good test. If it takes time and multiple explanations, your ideas need more fleshing out. If they’re immediately successful then you know you’re ready. 

As a dancer, you know how to move through space. Commanding a stage is what you do. When you choreograph, make your piece move like you do. Moving groups of people is a challenge in itself. Gracefully covering the stage as you see it or personally do it with others is tremendously important. With this movement, you can direct the audience’s attention to where you want them looking. You may want to transition a dancer to the other side of the stage unnoticed. Make the audience watch the moving dancer while the rest are still. The movement you place will start becoming your trademark.

The technique involved in your choreography matters as well. Choreographing for a show is much different than choreographing for a dance competition. Show work has a lot of feel. It doesn’t need to be the hardest most difficult work anybody has ever seen. It needs to be smart, clean, and entertaining. You’re taking the viewer on a journey. Dance competition is something else entirely. There are time constraints and expectations by age. This is an entirely different conversation to have at a later date.

Finally, what are you choreographing to? The more the music moves you the more complete you will feel choreographing. If the music brings out emotion in you, strong choreography is coming your way. Know the music. Listen to different versions. If you have the ability to use original music, do that! Listen to the music while not trying to dance to it. Be patient with yourself as ideas come to you. I often dance in stores and on streets when the ideas come, but you can wait until you’re in the studio.

As you think about moving from dancer to choreographer, remember: Know your style. Know your story. Know how it moves. Know your music and practice!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Aaron Tolson

Aaron Tolson is a professional tap dancer who is currently a professor at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee. He is the co-director of The Intensive, director of speaking In Taps, and a spokesperson for SoDanca. Additional credits include: Imagine Tap and Riverdance on Broadway and Radio City Music Hall.


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