Dancer to Dancer

Tips for Choreographing Your First Dance in College

(Left to right) Madison Hicks rehearsing one of her creations with fellow Juilliard senior Page Borowski (photo by Kenneth B. Edwards)

Even if you've choreographed tons in high school, having your work seen—and critiqued—by professors and peers for the first time can be more than a little intimidating. So DS asked those who've been there how you can feel confident and creative throughout your first collegiate choreographic experience.

Getting Started

Chances are, the first dance you'll make in college will take one of two forms: a course assignment complete with guidelines and criteria, or an anything-goes submission to a concert of student works. If it's an assignment
for class, embrace the rubric. "We think we can't be creative within strict guidelines," says Professor Anne Van Gelder, director of dance at the University of Richmond. "But it's within parameters that we find creativity. In the professional world, you'll mostly be assigned projects—not picking out what you want to do. For example, if you're choreographing a musical, you're working with a creative team, in their concept."

If you aren't working within a rubric and you feel like you don't have anything to say, consider expanding your notions of choreographic inspiration. "Have you read a play or novel, or seen artwork that you want to respond to through movement?" Van Gelder suggests. "Or maybe something's happened politically, or there's a cause you care about. Talk to a faculty member or peer about what matters to you, confuses you, or is interesting to you."

Finding Your Process

Juilliard senior Madison Hicks says working with guest artists and choreographers has been the best way
for her to learn more about choreographing. "I enjoy observing how each choreographer's process is so individual," Hicks says. "If you look at their thought process, the tools they use, and the directions they
unexpectedly go, every experience will show you new ways to create."

(From left) Hicks rehearsing with Borowski

If you've never choreographed before, it might feel safer to prepare intensively before each rehearsal, but don't close yourself off from possibility. "Be flexible, open, and willing to see where a phrase is going—or where your dancers are taking it," Van Gelder says. "Communicating what you want through words and physicality is different than your mind telling your body what it wants."

When the Going Gets Tough

Choreographer's block happens to everyone, and stressed-out college students are no exception. "Taking a step away from the piece is always beneficial, even for a few minutes," Hicks says. "Or give a task to a dancer and watch them explore! All artists have wonderful ideas and will react differently to your guidance."

Van Gelder suggests improvising to get past the block—just not to the music you're using. "Play whatever gets you relaxed and not censoring yourself," she suggests. "If you have time, go look at something that's artistic, like visual art in a gallery, but not connected to the pressure to produce."

The Big Picture

Dissatisfied with how the work turned out? Don't stress too much. "I wish I'd known freshman year that not every little piece I created needed to be the best, and not every phrase I create will affect my future," Hicks says. "Sometimes exploring for fun with no pressure makes the most creative and enjoyable pieces. All you have to do is keep going."

A version of this story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "New Choreographer on Campus."

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