Choreography

(Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Dorrance)

Since founding her company, NYC-based Dorrance Dance, in 2011, Michelle Dorrance has won one major award after another, starting with a Bessie and culminating in 2015’s MacArthur Fellowship. Like most tappers, she’s quick to cite the legends and masters who came before her. But Dorrance’s belief in the power of tap has helped her carve out space for her own genre-bending work. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Dorrance at the St. Louis Tap Festival (Photo by Gene Medler, courtesy Dorrance)

"I founded Dorrance Dance to push myself in directions I wouldn’t necessarily choose on my own. We’re working to institutionalize tap and get it represented at colleges, at jazz festivals."

“My early mentor Gene Medler took us to the second annual St. Louis Tap Festival, where we learned the African and Irish roots of the form.”

“Individual dancers often trigger something I’d like to create. Warren Craft is so striking

and unique. He pushes boundaries to the extreme, and he’s entirely unpredictable.”

Members of Dorrance Dance performing The Blues Project (Photo by Em Watson, courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance)

“I’m obsessed with New Orleans culture. The rawness and improvisation inside jazz music is embedded in tap.”

“I’ve performed at The Joyce Theater in other people’s work, but having our own season there was really special. The dance that has inspired me most? I’ve seen more than half of it at the Joyce.”

“I have three places that are like home: DANY Studios, where I have an artistic residency, the American Tap Dance Foundation and The Clemente theater in NYC. We have a studio there that used to be the urinal!”

Performing SOUNDspace (Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Dorrance)

“SOUNDspace is the site-specific work I created in St. Mark’s Church. We explored the way sound reverberated in the space by using different kinds of taps, shoes and socks.”

“Sometimes I picture things when I choreograph. But most often I hear things. I don’t usually know the vocabulary of a piece when I start, but I know the energy.”

“Blues and tap are the oldest American art forms, and they’re rooted in the

Nicholas Van Young (Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Dorrance)

plantation. The Blues Project was my first full evening of work, and I wanted to put blues and tap together to establish historical context because they’re rarely thought of as contemporaries. The show has affected a lot of communities in an important way.”

“For ETM: The Initial Approach, Nicholas Van Young [pictured] created ‘trigger boards’ that can make a footfall sound like anything. You’re playing the music you’re dancing to,while you’re dancing.”

Choreography

(Photo by Lee Cherry, courtesy Break the Floor Productions)

Al Blackstone is one of the fastest-rising choreographers in the industry, creating one successful piece after another. After making his Broadway debut as a dancer in Wicked, Blackstone won the 2011 Capezio A.C.E. Award for Choreographic Excellence, which gave him the opportunity to direct and choreograph a full-length production, Happy We’ll Be. For the last three years, he’s worked as Sonya Tayeh’s associate choreographer, and his work, which often has a musical-theater slant, has also been featured on “So You Think You Can Dance.” DS caught up with Blackstone to see what inspires his thoughtful and dynamic choreography.

“Jason Parsons made me want to become a dancer. I left high school in New Jersey early on Tuesdays and Thursdays to go to NYC and take his class at Broadway Dance Center.”

“Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake changed my life. I saw it three times. It made me want to be a choreographer, and showed me what was possible in storytelling without dialogue.”

“Just before the A.C.E. Awards, I was performing in Wicked on Broadway. The girls in the dressing room were always talking about online dating—it was starting to get really big around then. My work is usually derived from things happening in my personal life. So when I was creating my A.C.E. Awards piece, I was inspired by the dressing room conversations—and by the fact that I’d just fallen in love.”

(Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Al Blackstone)

“My full-length piece, Happy We’ll Be, explores the highs and lows of our universal search for happiness. I used music and dance from lots of different genres, and the stories that unfolded reflected the joy of connection to the world and to each other.”

“I knew early on that I wanted the venue for Happy We’ll Be to be the Roseland Ballroom in NYC, and was ecstatic when it was presented to me as an option. It has a certain

Al's parents at the Roseland Ballroom (courtesy Al Blackstone)

rawness and history—there are ghosts within that space. My parents used to go there all the time. My dad was a ballroom dancer, and I grew up listening to stories about his times at Roseland.”

“When creating Happy We’ll Be, I had a giant queue of songs I wanted to use during the production. ‘Hyperballad’ by Björk was one of them. To me, it represented a return to my contemporary roots. And I was set on ending with Louis Armstrong’s rendition of ‘La Vie en Rose.’ I’d also wanted to use ‘Chicago’ by Sufjan Stevens, but had to cut it because it just didn’t fit.”

“‘SYTYCD’ was a crash course in trusting my instincts. The routines I created for Season 12 were exercises in making quick decisions. Nine times out of 10, your gut is right. For Jaja and Ricky’s routine to ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ by Nat King Cole, I knew I wanted Jaja’s character to be bold and feminine. She’s an amazing actress, so she played the feisty wife of a smooth-talking mobster perfectly.”

“I’m really inspired by filmmakers Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, especially Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and Mighty Aphrodite feature choreography by Graciela Daniele—she uses humor in a way that’s really stayed with me.”

Choreography

Choreographer Matthew Neenan, who danced in Pennsylvania Ballet’s corps, was eager to include plenty of dancers in his first work for the company back in 1998. “As a corps member, I’d always been around large groups, and it excited me to get everyone in there!” says Neenan, who ended up using 20 dancers in his ballet. But with a large cast come a lot of complications—complications that can sometimes overshadow the fun of having all those dancers to play with. What are the keys to clutter-free, universally flattering large-group choreo? Here are a few creative and practical ways to devise choreography that will help you highlight your cast’s strengths.

Define Your Concept

Joanne Chapman, director of Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Brampton, ON, mounts production numbers every year for 55 to 115 dancers aged 5 to 18. Her cardinal rule is to find a clear theme—and stick with it. “From the beginning, you have to have a well-defined concept,” she says. “Make a decision about what you’re going to say, and stay true to that. If you’re trying to tell a story, you have to be very explicit—otherwise, it can end up looking like a highway at rush hour.” Her piece Drove All Night, for example, had a 35-

member cast, for which she constructed pure-jazz choreography, avoiding aerials and acrobatics because they would have confused the overall look. “With a large group, you can’t afford to get sidetracked,” she says.

One of Suzi Taylor's numbers for this year's New York City Dance Alliance Nationals featured a cast of 145 (!) (Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy New York City Dance Alliance)

Emphasize Cleanliness

Even with a clearly defined concept, it’s easy for choreography to get muddy with a lot of dancers onstage. When teaching the steps, it’s important to be very specific about body alignment, arms, focus and direction changes. Chapman holds pre-planning sessions with her assistants to make sure everyone’s on the same page about the details. Then she rehearses her dancers in small groups, looking for inconsistencies and tightening up unison work.

Even if that kind of intense organization isn’t your style, it’s still smart to go into the studio with a battle plan. Though Neenan likes “to allow for some messes to happen, some bump-ins and such,” he still brainstorms big ideas and traffic patterns before beginning rehearsals. Mistakes, he says, are part of the journey. Just make sure that you take an active role in correcting and reshaping them.

Be Sensitive to Technical Levels

Inevitably, the range of abilities within a big cast will vary. Subdividing the piece into sections based on technical level can help you show each group’s strengths. But when the whole ensemble comes together, it can be helpful to keep the level of difficulty relatively low.

That doesn’t mean choreography for the whole group can’t be interesting. Chapman makes even simple phrases exciting by inserting featured moments for her strongest dancers. “One dancer doing turns or acrobatic tricks while everyone else is on the floor, for example, can really spice things up,” she says. “We also do a lot of canons, with each line starting the same phrase on a different count. That creates a very cool wave effect.”

Anticipate Logistical Hurdles

Getting groups of dancers on and off the stage is one of the toughest challenges of large pieces. Chapman makes transitions between sections seamless by using a consistent movement (like a jazz walk) for all entrances and exits, and slightly overlaps their timing to ensure a smooth flow. Neenan sometimes likes to have dancers in his larger pieces exit with structured improv, so they still hold visual interest even while others are entering—a pleasingly layered effect.

The most glaring logistical issue when working with a large cast is how to fit everyone onstage. Standard tricks like staggered lines are useful, but sometimes you’ll need to think more creatively. For this year’s New York City Dance Alliance Nationals Senior Outstanding Dancer number, Suzi Taylor literally couldn’t get all 145 of her dancers to move onstage at once without colliding—but she ended up turning that to her advantage. “I used the space on the floor in front of the stage, working level changes with unison and creating ripples of movement,” she says. “It turned out to be pretty stunning!”

Sometimes asymmetry can be the most arresting way to arrange a large group of dancers. Neenan encourages thinking about the possibilities beyond traditional lines. “I like to put dancers in ‘communities’, sharing the stage in more of a normal, ‘street’ fashion, rather than symmetrical patterns,” he says. Those kinds of groupings have the extra benefit of allowing more dancers to share a small space. “And using space creatively can be part of how you develop your original voice as a choreographer,” he says. “There’s only so much vocabulary—this is another way put your stamp on something.”

Choreography

Kyle Abraham is on fire. In the past few years, he’s been named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and honored by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Ford Foundation. College dance departments across the country can’t get enough of the young choreographer—and neither can major dance companies: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Martha Graham Dance Company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago have all commissioned work from Abraham. He was even the resident commissioned artist at New York Live Arts, NYC’s postmodern dance hub. Dance Spirit caught up with Abraham to find out what drives his historically  and emotionally charged work. —Jenny Dalzell

“Many of my works have some sort of Pittsburgh influence in them, since that’s where I’m from.”

(Photo by Steven Schreiber, courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)

The Radio Show was initially inspired by two things: the one urban radio station in Pittsburgh going off the air, and my father, who had Alzheimer’s and aphasia. I was thinking about what happens when a community loses its voice, as well as my memories of the songs I grew up listening to. The radio station had both AM and FM feeds—the AM station played old soul music, by artists like The Shirelles, and the FM station played music by Jay-Z and Kanye West. So my work was broken in two parts, using music from both stations.”

"David Dorfman, whose company I danced with, always said to live in the uncomfortable and divorce the familiar when improvising or choreographing. Sometimes choreographic block hits—and when nothing is coming, you can’t force it. You just have to be patient. That can be frustrating when you’re paying for studio space, but patience can also be really rewarding in the long run."

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion dancers in Pavement (Photo by Steven Schreiber, courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)

Pavement evolved from looking at the 1991 film Boyz N the Hood; reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk; and thinking about my experience in Pittsburgh in 1991, which was my freshman year of high school. I wanted to create a work that explored the time period between the film and the book, as well as the history of Pittsburgh’s black community.”

Wendy Whelan and Abraham in Restless Creature (Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)

“I’m a big fan of mythology, and I’ve been a history geek since elementary school. The piece I created for Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature, ‘The Serpent and the Smoke,’ came from a myth I thought I’d heard: A snake becomes enchanted with smoke and thinks it’s seeing another snake. As it turns out, this myth doesn’t actually exist—I made it up.”

“I love working with Chalvar Monteiro, who was in my company for a little over four years, and with one of my current dancers, Tamisha Guy. I love their versatility: They’re trained in Cunningham and Graham techniques, and they’ve worked with Kevin Wynn, who’s a huge influence on my work. They’re great movement generators, too.”

Abraham (center) rehearsing Another Night with AAADT's Jamar Roberts and Jacqueline Green (photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)

“I created Another Night for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater while I was making Pavement. It all stemmed from the same ideas. But Another Night was much lighter. It addressed the vitality and the community of an earlier era—the time when jazz artists like Art Blakey and Billy Strayhorn were performing in Pittsburgh.”

“I was initially inspired to dance by Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards, with music by Prince. I was a huge Prince fan, and I identified with the music first—that’s what pulled me in to dance. I’d never experienced that before, and it stuck with me."

When the Wolves Came In (photo by Ian Douglas courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)

“The repertory program When the Wolves Came In and the evening-length The Watershed were both inspired by Max Roach’s album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. The subject matter—the civil-rights movement, the Emancipation Proclamation and apartheid in South Africa—was tricky. I didn’t want to tap into all of that too literally. Instead, I wanted to create work that nodded to the album.”

 

 

Choreography

Today, 20-year-old choreographer Emma Bradley spends her days touring with the dance convention NRG Dance Project, making work for students across the U.S. and Australia. But her first choreographic ventures were far more personal: During her junior and senior years of high school, Bradley started creating her own solos for dance competitions. “Making work on my body totally influenced the way I think about and process choreo-graphy,” she says. “And it set me on a different artistic path than I imagined.”

These days, more and more dancers are testing out self-choreographed solos at competitions. It can be risky—you could be going up against seasoned choreographers like Travis Wall—but the potential rewards make it worth taking the chance. “Choreographing your own solo is an invaluable learning experience,” says Andrew Winghart, a judge and choreographer for JUMP Dance Convention. “It forces you to look outside of yourself as a dancer, to really analyze your facility and how you can look your best.”

Tempted to try your hand at self-choreography? Read on to find out more about taking creative control.

Emma Bradley performing her self-choreographed solo, "Hater," at The PULSE on Tour (photo by Propix, courtesy Emma Bradley)

Choosing Music

Do pick a song you enjoy listening to. “It’s so much easier to choreograph for yourself if you choose a song that already resonates with you,” says 18-year-old Regan Norton, who competed self-choreographed contemporary solos during her junior and senior years of high school. Finding a personal connection with your music is a great first step toward making something that’s truly you.

If you know what style you want your solo to be, start by listening to music that will complement it—and you. Take note of musical artists that catch your attention, and explore their greater bodies of work on iTunes or YouTube. Or, look to your own iPod for inspiration, like Bradley does. You never know what gems you’ll rediscover.

Don’t use a song that’s in the Top 40. There’s a good chance that many other soloists have “connected” with it, too. “We tend to get a lot of the same songs,” says Brett Hahalyak, a judge at Nexstar, World-Class Talent Experience and International Dance Challenge. “I like to hear things that are kind of out of the box, rather than popular or current music.”

Setting Movement

Do create a solo that showcases you and your talents. One way to learn how you move best is to improvise when you start your choreographic process. “I would record my improv and see what kind of choices I made repeatedly,” says Bradley. Incorporating those

favorite movement patterns into your choreography will help the final product feel more natural to your body.

Don’t rely on tricks alone. It can be tempting to pack all of your most crowd-pleasing stunts into one solo. But with little more than two minutes onstage, you need to leave some time to tell your story. Throughout your creative process, think about what the piece means to you—and how you can communicate that message through movement. “I want to see a moment where you become more than just a dancer onstage,” Winghart says. “I want to see you take time to connect with the audience.” As much as you may love the wow factor of 16 turns in second, it’s probably not the best way to make that connection.

Do challenge yourself. Setting goals for your solo throughout the year can keep it from getting stale after the first few performances. Both Bradley and Norton adjusted their solos after competitions, adding new, more difficult movements as they felt ready. “The great thing about doing your own solo is you can kind of edit as you go,” Winghart says.

Don’t present something unpolished. While it’s important to push yourself, make sure you allow enough time to practice and clean each section before your performance. The stage is not the place to debut that new triple pirouette or switch leap. “You have to be super-solid in all elements before you get onstage,” Hahalyak says. If you can’t consistently perform a move in the studio, don’t bring it in front of the judges!

Getting Feedback

Do ask a teacher to stop by and help you with your process. Sure, you have ultimate creative control, but it’s still a good idea to have another pair of eyes looking on. This can be especially helpful when the dreaded choreographer’s block sets in.

It can also keep you on schedule. For example, when Winghart was choreographing his own competition solos, he would give his teacher a specific time to watch the finished piece. “She would hold me to those deadlines,” he remembers.

Don’t let your teacher’s opinion overshadow your creative vision. As the choreographer, you have the final say about what goes onstage. And while your teacher may have more experience making work, you know yourself better than anybody. Trust your gut!

Choreography

“Dancing with the Stars” pro Derek Hough gets around. This year alone, in addition to the work he did on Seasons 18 and 19 of “DWTS,” he starred in both a national tour (MOVE Live on Tour with his sister, Julianne Hough) and in the hip-hop dance film Make Your Move. He even choreographed a gold-medal–winning ice-dancing waltz for Meryl Davis and Charlie White for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and a sultry tango for American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland. Dance Spirit caught up with Hough, who recently earned his sixth Emmy nomination for his choreography on Season 18 of “DWTS,” to find out what inspires his work.

Derek Hough with Amy Purdy in Too Darn Hot (photo by Adam Taylor/ABC)

“I’ve realized that when I hear a song I like, I see colors and shades, like blue, red or an amber glow. That color paints the mood for the rest of the piece. For the jazz duet Too Darn Hot I created for Amy Purdy and myself, I envisioned a smoky haze—and imagined we were in an old-timey detective’s office. I stuck with that first instinct. On ‘DWTS,’ the costumes are designed before a routine’s choreography is finished. So you really need a strong vision before you begin.”

“I’m totally inspired by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo’s energy and work ethic. Their pieces are so fun and creative. And I love watching Travis Wall. He has such a beautiful sense of flow, and he’s evolved so much as a dancer. I’m blessed to have become friends with such phenomenal talents.”

“Reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and books by Deepak Chopra, has taught me to be in the moment. If I’m fully present, everything I see can become a set piece. I’ve learned the best ideas come when you’re vigilant and aware of your surroundings.”

“Most of the time, ‘DWTS’ chooses music for us to use. But earlier this year I heard Christina Perri’s song ‘Human’ and knew I had to use it on the show. It spoke to Amy’s journey from losing her legs at 19 to becoming a Paralympic snowboarder. The same thing happened with Hardwell’s song ‘Dare You,’ which I chose for our finale freestyle. Amy’s message throughout the season was about daring to get up off the ground, daring to live—the song completely fit.”

Hough partnering Allison Holker in Heart Cry (photo by Adam Taylor/ABC)

“A friend of mine wrote the music for Heart Cry, which I performed with Allison Holker on ‘DWTS.’ I wanted to choreograph a routine that was a bit of a departure from what I usually create for the show. And Allison is like my muse. I love working with her, and we share a similar energy and movement quality.”

“Getting to work with Misty Copeland, who, unlike many celebrities on ‘DWTS,’ is incredibly in tune with her body, was so refreshing. It was my first time choreographing a ballet, and I threw myself into it. Over time, I’ve learned to take risks. I have confidence that I’ll figure it out along the way.”

“If I’m stressed out, or if I need to escape, I love going home to Utah. Looking out at the mountains and seeing their vastness is humbling. You can step back and say, ‘You know what? I’m all right.’ The mountains help put my problems in perspective.”

Choreography

Dana Foglia had a stressful first outing as a choreographer. As a longtime commercial dancer, she wasn’t used to being at the head of the room, and her dancer’s instinct to be “perfect” was so strong that she had trouble developing her personal style. Searching for inspiration, she began experimenting with different types of music, and eventually that tactic helped her switch from following rules to creating new vocabulary. “Understanding that no movement was ‘right’ or ‘correct’ helped me find my creative voice,” she says. Today, Foglia is the director of a successful company, Dana Foglia Dance.

Making the transition from dancer to choreographer can be daunting, especially since dancers aren’t accustomed to taking the lead in the studio. But certain skills you’ve honed from years of experience as a dancer can actually enhance your choreography—and knowing how to use the networks you already have can jump-start your choreographic career. Here are tips from a few of the pros who’ve successfully made the leap.

Jessica Lang Dance performing Lang's Lines Cubed (photo by Kazu, courtesy Jessica Lang)

What Do I Already Know?

One of the biggest advantages dancers have is that they know what it’s like to be choreographed on. You already understand what makes for a great dancer/choreographer relationship (the dancers feel involved and valued) and what makes for a not-so-great one (rehearsals that run overtime, choreographers who never thank their dancers).

Sabrina Matthews, who’s created works for companies in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, says consciously creating an engaging atmosphere in the studio makes the resulting choreography better. “I’m adamant about fostering mutual respect,” she says. “I remember how much I appreciated that when I was a dancer, and without it, the work suffers.” Jessica Lang, who danced with Twyla Tharp before starting her own company, Jessica Lang Dance, sets a similar tone in the studio: “Drawing from my own experience as a dancer, I’m determined to create an environment in which dancers feel safe and able to be themselves. When they know they’re valued, that results in the best working atmosphere.”

How Am I Supposed to Act Now that I’m in Charge?

As a newbie choreographer, your first opportunities may be workshops or school shows, which probably means making work on dancers who are also your peers—and telling your friends what to do can feel awkward. The good news is that if your friends respect you as a dancer, you’re halfway to earning their respect as a choreographer, too. Freelance choreographer Nicholas Villeneuve, who made a piece on Ballet Hispanico when he was still dancing with the company, says, “Always have a great relationship with your fellow dancers—they’re your partners one minute and your bosses the next!”

Doing adequate prep work before each rehearsal will build further trust in your leadership. Have your music ready and your thematic ideas mapped out, for example, so you can get right down to work. Just remember that there’s a fine line between being prepared and being rigid. New choreographers, afraid of looking indecisive, may shy away from creating on the spot, opting instead to create every step in advance. Matthews made her first piece that way, but says she eventually gained confidence and began creating in the moment. “Especially for pas de deux work, it’s impossible to discover all the possibilities without creating on living, breathing bodies in front of you,” she says. Striking a balance between authority and flexibility is usually the best way to go.

Sabrina Matthews (right) working with the Royal Swedish Ballet (photo by Carl Thorborg, courtesy Royal Swedish Ballet and Royal Swedish Opera)

How Can I Juggle Two Roles at Once?

Most aspiring choreographers start out while they’re still performing. Though jumping between roles can be challenging, it’s also a great opportunity to learn your new craft from the inside out. NYC-based choreographer Joey Dowling made her first piece at age 16 for her high school dance company, and kept at it throughout her dancing years. Switching between being the sculptor and being the clay was hard, but it helped develop her creative mind: “I would think to myself, ‘Why is the choreographer making that choice? Would I do that?’ I started to ask questions a dancer wouldn’t normally ask.” Dowling stresses that unpacking a choreographer’s intention will enrich your dancing, too: “Trying to understand the choreographer’s perspective will help you grow and make you a smarter performer.”

What’s the Best Way to Get My Work Out There?

Once you’ve decided to become a choreographer, creating dances is only half the battle. Getting your work seen is a full-time job of its own. Luckily, you already have a broad base of contacts in the business, and there are lots of ways to network.

An online presence is critical, both through social media and a personal website. Dowling recommends setting up a YouTube channel where people can see your work. Villeneuve has a website promoting his choreography, and after updating it he’ll sometimes forward the link to his former directors.

Most dancers aren’t used to being assertive, but Dowling cautions against shyness when it comes to networking. “Especially at first, don’t be afraid to take on the tiny jobs and to ask your friends to dance for free,” she says. “It’s difficult, but when someone says, ‘We’re not accepting work,’ send your reel anyway.” Artistic vision and voice are important, but when it comes to launching a career, persistence is one of the best qualities a choreographer can have.

Choreography

You already know that deciding where to go to college is a big deal. And finding a school that fits both your academic and your dance needs can be especially hard. But while pursuing a dance major is one option, it’s not the only one! Many colleges are also home to a bunch of impressive student-run dance companies. Why would you want to be part of a group run by your peers? The opportunities just might surprise you.

Branch Out

College is all about trying new things, and student-run dance groups make it easy to do just that. Want to explore a niche dance style, like bhangra or belly dancing? There might be a student group devoted to it. Want to experience a whole range of styles? There are companies that do it all, too. Don’t see the kind of organization you’d want to join? At most schools, you can get funding to found it yourself.

Sarabande, a student-run company at Tufts University, performing Say My Name, choreographed by Ani Loshkajian (photo by Andrew R. Schneer)

Even if you’ve only ever considered yourself a die-hard ballroom dancer, a student-run group like Arizona State University’s Free The Dance can give you the chance to set aside your heels and slip on some funky sneakers. The group, created and run by recent ASU graduate J. Bouey, holds free weekly dance classes for all ASU students. “Our most popular classes are contemporary, jazz and hip hop,” says Bouey, “but we’ll also have partnering, ballroom, tango, Latin, swing, African and belly dancing throughout the semester.”

When Ani Loshkajian, president of Tufts’ student-run dance company Sarabande, first joined the troupe as a freshman, she was a total bunhead who had a hard time letting loose and giving in to movement. Fast-forward four years: “I feel like I’m an entirely different dancer,” she says. Because Sarabande allows its members to explore a variety of styles, “my dancing has become much more personal and expressive of who I am.”

Keep the Passion Alive

If you don’t want to major in dance, student groups offer an alternative way to make it an important part of your life on campus. “I didn’t choose one passion over the other,” says Loshkajian, an international relations and French major. “Sarabande made it possible for me to continue my passion for dance, without sacrificing the other visions I had for my future. In fact, being a part of the company has served as an incredible creative outlet that’s contributed to my academics.”

And if you are a dance major, participating in a student-run group can be the release you need to make sure you don’t burn out. “It can be hard to maintain a real joy for dance when you’re studying it in an academic setting,” says Bouey, a dance major. “Free The Dance has been my escape. I can show up and just move, without worrying about homework. It’s helped me to hold on to that innocent love for dance.”

Go Beyond the Stage

Choosing to take on a leadership role in a student-run group can help you learn to shine offstage as well as on. Sarabande, for example, holds elections each semester to determine who will be a part of an executive board made up of a president, vice president, treasurer, social chair, producer, public relations manager and webmaster. For Loshkajian, serving as the  company’s president has taught her many of the skills she’ll need to thrive after graduation. “I’ve learned how to work closely with a team, and how important personal relationships are to leveraging results,” she says. “Most important, I’ve learned that no matter what, the show must go on!”

Make Moves

For those interested in making dances, a student-run group can provide opportunities to try out choreography. It’s pretty much the only time in your life that you’ll have access to great dancers, rehearsal spaces and performance venues at no charge.

Sarabande's Heather Ngai and Matt Evers in Evers' Next Chapter (photo by Kyra Sturgill)

Think choreography isn’t your thing? A student-run company could be just the environment you need to get going. “There’s a freedom that comes from being in a company with your peers that can unlock a flow of creativity,” says Nikolas Kaim, artistic director of Ithaca College’s Rock Hard Dance Company. “You don’t always find that in a professional company or at a studio.”

Student groups may offer teaching opportunities, too. While Free The Dance doesn’t currently put on formal concerts, students can audition to become instructors for the group at the beginning of each semester. “It’s a really great chance to improve your teaching skills,” Bouey says. “At the end of each class, we have a discussion where we give feedback to the teacher. It’s a good time to learn the small things, like needing to speak louder or teach more slowly.”

Ultimately, there’s a wide range when it comes to what your experience in a student-run group might look like, because everything is up to you and your peers. And as you all create things together, you’ll probably become great friends, too. “This is one of the only environments where you’re surrounded by people who love dance and are choosing to spend their limited free time doing it,” Kaim says. “No one’s making money, no one’s parents are forcing them to participate—everyone’s just there because they want to dance.”

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