How to Protect Your Choreography From Being Stolen

The Towson University Dance Team has won seven national championships in a row at National Dance Alliance's Collegiate Championships. Each year, dancers enter the competition understanding Towson is the team to beat, waiting to see the mind-boggling synchronization, energy and complexity of its championship winning routines. With such visibility, it seems unlikely that another team would attempt to take the stage with the same choreography. Yet, last year, that very thing happened after a former Towson member sold the team's 2004 national competition routine without permission. After the incident, Towson could legally do nothing but express outrage on its website - and continue winning titles.

So what can a dance team do to protect its sacred choreography? Given the nature of dancemaking - it's common for choreographers to borrow and adapt moves from videos, classes and performances - there's no surefire mode of protection. However, if you plan to hire an outside choreographer, there are steps to take to ensure your own routine will be title-worthy in its own right.

Do Your Research

Before hiring choreographers, get to know their work. Watch routines they've choreographed and pay attention to styles, themes and songs they've already used, as well as for which teams they've worked and which categories their pieces are in. Universal Dance Association judge and freelance choreographer Sara Haley says it can be problematic for choreographers to work with numerous teams that compete against one another, because the teams' steps and stylizations may start to look the same. "Don't be afraid to confront the choreographer if you run across that problem," she advises.

Talk It Out

Hiring a choreographer you already know may seem like an easy solution, but business between friends can get tricky. NDA Director of Marketing Martha Selman suggests that before sealing a deal with any choreographer, have a frank conversation to clarify that after payment, the routine will be the sole property of the dance team. "The more clear and detailed you are in the beginning of your conversation, the less work you'll have to do at the back end," she explains.

Sign a Contract

One way to legally uphold the ownership of choreography is to sign a contract. Reiterate to your dancers that it's against team policy to share routines with others, and most importantly, hold the choreographer responsible should he or she attempt to sell the same routine. If you put all choreography agreements in writing, you decrease the odds of buying an unoriginal routine, hiring a choreographer who's stolen others' works, or risking that your dancers will pass off the team's choreography as their own.

The Consequences

So why is it so important to perform an original routine, or that others don't copy your numbers? According to Haley, judges notice when choreography is repeated, and they dock points for it. UDA's judge sheet indicates that choreography is worth 25 points (on a scale of 100). Also, if a judge is particularly angry at the offense, he or she could take off points in other categories as well. "Personally, I would deduct in difficulty, because it's way too easy to copy somebody's routine," says Haley. "I would [also] deduct in creativity and originality."

All About Respect

Docked points aside, copying choreography is as much of a sin in the dance world as plagiarizing a paper is in school. Ultimately, it comes down to respecting other people's creative and intellectual property. Towson's routines have obviously proven to be successful in capturing national titles; however, the dancers' skillful execution of the moves is just as important to winning as the choreography they're performing. "I feel worse for the team that's actually copying than for the team that gets copied," says Haley. "It's never going to be as good as the original." Many dancers and novice choreographers may not even realize the severity of stealing routines, but if they see you taking the matter seriously, they could follow suit.

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