So you want to choreograph a musical? Simple tips for setting dance numbers

17 Jul

Uh oh. Somehow you, a non-dance professional, got roped into choreographing a show and you have no idea where to start.

First, you should hire me.

If that’s not possible due to my extremely high demand and exorbitant travel fees, never fear. Take a deep breath and remember: if you do not have a dance background, yet end up having to choreograph a show, chances are the majority of your cast won’t be up to anything crazy-complicated anyway.

Above all: Never show fear. They can smell it.

 

 

OK! Let’s get started.

Appoint a dance captain

There’s always at least one person who is both a good dancer and marginally responsible. It will be easy to spot that person after a few rehearsals. They don’t necessarily have to be the very best dancer, but for the love of God, pick somebody that actually shows up to rehearsals and stays the whole time. That person can help you in many ways including:

  • remembering what you said last time (a double-edged sword)
  • demonstrating stuff you can’t do or don’t feel like doing
  • doing partner bits with you
  • showing everyone else how to do something “right”
  • the person who everyone else will watch during performances (make sure to strongly discourage this, but it’s probably going to happen anyway. Reality.)

Do the locomotion

In choreography courses, you learn that there are two settings to movement: locomotor and non-locomotor (Fortunately there will not be a quiz). All you need to know is that moving through space–say, from one side of the stage to the other–in any fashion, to the music, counts as dancing. As my childhood ballet teacher will tell you, that includes things like walking/skipping/galloping in a circle. You can also use the old line switcheroo, if you have enough space. That’s where you’re in staggered lines and the back lines moves up while the front line moves back to switch places.

The standard three staggered lines, aka windows (source)

Bonus for kids’ shows: everyone gets a chance to be in the front.

Grab yer partner

Do not underestimate the power of things done in pairs. Do-si-do is classic of course, but think outside the box (square?). Mirroring can produce a neat effect, as can shared-weight.

Make use of tricks

I rather hate tricks in dancing as a rule.

Tricks refers to acrobatics like aerials, any kind of extraordinary body contortion, or things like running up a wall and flipping off of it.  I don’t like it because it’s not true dancing, and it doesn’t require as high a level of technique over a long period of time (if you’re bendy, you’re bendy). Plus, tricks can and often do mask a lack of technical artistry. But if you have folks that can do a million turns in a row or a switch split leap, give them the opportunity to do it (have the other dancers frame them and strike poses). Easier for you, plus it will take up time and provide a little wow factor for the audience (my opinion’s unusual, most people are highly impressed by tricks).

I mean, sigh…I guess. If you must.

Plus, nine times out of ten, in a non-professional show the people that can do tricks are not cast in a large role (I don’t know, law of theatre?) and it gives them a chance to shine.

Get your Richard Simmons on

This may seem weird, but many fitness styles like aerobics are excellent resources for “dance-ish” moves, and they’re easy for your actors who move because they’re usually repetitive (see below). Sometimes when I do workouts, I think of certain moves as dance choreography and it makes it easier for me. So it stands to reason the opposite thought pattern can be used.

Give ’em a hand

If you have to choose, focus on the upper body, in particular the arms. Why? The feet are more difficult to get correct and for better or worse, the audience notices the upper body more. There’s a reason the classic Broadway stance is so powerful and continues to be used in every show of all time.

The power of strong arms and simple feet (source)

Press repeat

I mean this in two senses. One is repetitive movement. I have trouble choreographing this way because I die of boredom slash feel like I’m actually exercising. But that doesn’t mean you can’t. Examples would be, for instance, four grapevines in a row.

The other is recycling sequences of movement from earlier in the number or from another number. I promise, this does not mean you are lazy, and coming from me that’s saying a lot. If anyone calls you on it you can say it’s “thematic.” (Hey, even Bill T. Jones did that boob-groping bit over and over in Spring Awakening and he won a Tony for it).

If all else fails, freestyle

Especially if you’re working with kids, you will generally find that actors are eager to move to their own rhythm and sometimes even create something that is awesome enough to teach everyone. But you might encounter significant hesitation if you straight-up ask “who has a good idea for this next part?” Nobody likes to be put on the spot, plus it might breed resentment of the isn’t-this-your-job? variety. Instead, frame it as a collaboration. Then put the musical number on and let everyone dance around while you watch for an inspiration–but be sure to give whoever created it due credit.

Happy Choreographing!

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