From Dancer to Choreographer

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

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.


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.

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