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.
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."
In our "Dear Katie" series, MCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured!
I'm 14 and have been studying ballet seriously for about three years. Even though I feel ready,my teachers haven't put me on pointe yet. Am I doing something wrong? Should I ask them about it, or is it pointe-less?
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Samantha Figgins (Andrew Eccles)
Samantha Figgins is currently in her fifth season with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (and was a Dance Spirit cover girl back in 2013!). But what many people don't know is that the gorgeous dancer suffers from single-sided deafness. As a baby, Figgins contracted spinal meningitis, which caused her to lose all hearing in her right ear. She never gave up on her dance dreams, though, and fought her way through uncomfortable situations, never missing an opportunity to learn and grow. Now, after getting her first pair of hearing aids, she opens up about her path to success. —(As told to Courtney Celeste Spears)
Sara Esty as Maggie in "A Chorus Line" (courtesy Esty)
Sara Esty's ethereal grace and sophisticated charm have won over ballet and Broadway audiences alike. The bunhead-turned-Broadway-baby began training near her hometown in Gorham, ME, at the Maine State Ballet's School for the Performing Arts (with her equally fabulous twin sister, Leigh-Ann). She enrolled full-time at the Miami City Ballet School in 2004, and joined Miami City Ballet as an apprentice in 2005. In 2006, Esty won the Princess Grace Award, and she was promoted to soloist at MCB in 2011. After leaving MCB in 2014, she made her Broadway debut in An American in Parisas the understudy for Lise, and went on to share the role of Lise with her sister on the show's national tour. Most recently, she was seen in 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Marie, Dancing Stillin Seattle, WA. —Courtney Bowers