It's no surprise that more and more dancers are choosing to choreograph their own solos for competitions: It grants them creative freedom, gives them a chance to practice choreography, and allows them to find what movement works best for them.
But what about dancers who want to choreograph a duet, trio or even a group dance with their peers? Does it become a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, or an opportunity for collaboration and growth?
First, Ask Yourself Why
Before you begin collaborating with other dancers to choreograph your own work, consider your motivations. Are you eager to see where your creativity can take you? Do you want to explore a particular style that's unlike those of choreographers you normally work with? Are you encouraged by your teachers and dance-team directors? Having a clear "why" can help motivate you when the process gets difficult and keep your focus on your creative journey, rather than competition trophies.
At Spotlight Dance Academy of NJ in Martinsville, NJ, dancers are encouraged by their teachers to explore their own choreographic chops with choreography. So, when Bryona Inglis, Analisa Marago, Mikayla Sivulka and Emily Stass decided to choreograph a group competition routine for all four of them, they had both support from their teachers and some prior experience.
"Choreographing is something we've done for a couple of years now," Stass says. "We've also done solos and duets. We're encouraged at our studio to explore choreographing at a younger age."
Julie Rust and Hannah Brabham, dancers from The DanceWorks in Round Rock, TX, decided to perform a duet together for Brabham's senior year competition season, and wanted the freedom to blend elements of jazz and contemporary. The pair approached their studio's owner and their competition company's director with their idea.
"We really wanted to do a duet, but we felt like only we could create the choreography that we wanted," Rust says.
"We had seen older dancers at competitions doing self-choreographed solos and duets," Brabham says. "So we went to our teachers with the idea of choreographing a duet together, and they were behind us 100 percent."
Like any choreographers, dancers who plan to self-choreograph for a competition can start their work in a variety of ways. Some choose to select their music first and then create movement, others start by creating movement phrases and then setting them to music, and some even begin with a story or theme for their piece and build from there.
Rust and Brabham looked for music separately before their first rehearsal. "We sent links back and forth until we landed on a piece of music that felt like a perfect blend of what would challenge us and be musically interesting to choreograph to—something we would enjoy listening to and dancing to at all our rehearsals," Brabham says.
When it comes time to work in the studio, each choreographer brings their own style. How you blend those styles is a matter of choice: You could work together step by step, or you could each contribute your own phrases of movement to the piece.
Rust and Brabham's creative process was heavily based on their improvisation together. "We played the music, and then whatever our bodies wanted to do, we'd set for that part," Rust says.
"We let it organically happen, like 'Oh, that looks cool. How do we blend that into something else?'" Brabham says. "And it was really collaborative, not like 'I do this section, you do that section.' It was a reflection of our styles and our individuality, but also us as dancers together."
Staying On Track
Don't be surprised if you hit a creative block while choreographing your first piece. Sometimes the solution is to push through, but if an idea isn't working, don't be afraid to shift gears.
The four dancers from Spotlight Dance Academy of NJ were halfway finished with one dance before deciding it didn't have a proper storyline, and so needed some changes. "It was a lot of trial and error," Inglis says.
Rust and Brabham started with a sentimental dance dedicated to their friendship and Brabham's senior year, but they scrapped it after a month of work. "We felt really restricted doing it, because it wasn't necessarily 'us,'" Brabham says. They turned their efforts towards a darker, more contemporary style, and the movement flowed from there.
Despite being open to changing artistic directions, both the group from New Jersey and the duo from Texas had to stay mindful of their competitions' deadlines. They dedicated at least an hour weekly to their self-choreographed pieces to complete and clean them.
Cleaning a dance you are also performing can be challenging for a choreographer. Rust and Brabham turned to technology for solutions. They filmed themselves and reviewed the footage over and over to smooth out awkward transitions and refine their timing. Their company's director, Kali Boyd, also offered tips.
"When we got closer to competition season, Kali came in and gave us advice," Brabham says. "She basically told us, 'What you have is good, but here are ways to elevate it to the next level.' But for the most part, she made sure that we were prepared and wouldn't send us out with a dance that wasn't ready."
Julie Rust and Hannah Brabham dance their self-choreographed duet at competition.
Photo courtesy of Rust and Brabham
As with any group project, choreographing as a group has the potential to bring up conflict among the collaborators.
"We all have unique styles of choreography, and we're also all really good friends, so sometimes we would butt heads and bicker," Inglis says. "But, ultimately, we all had the same goal—to do well at competition. So we'd decide what was best for the group and communicate instead of fighting."
Try to approach conflict with that idea in mind—you're all on the same team and working towards the same goal. Talk it out in a level-headed manner, and, if need be, bring in a trusted teacher as an impartial mediator.
Certain competitions have categories and special awards for student choreography, so check the rules and regulations when registering. If not, enter in the standard category and enjoy seeing your own names in the program under "choreographer"—you've earned it!
"I'm most proud of how independent we were with our duet," Brabham says. "Our teachers really trusted us to do what we wanted, and we were able to make something of our own that was a reflection of our hard work."
"Be open, and communicate with your group or partner," Sivulka says. "And remember: It's your dance. Do what works for you."