A dancer on the floor doing a backwards somersault with the words 5 mistakes to avoid as a beginning choreographer

5 Mistakes to Avoid as a Beginning Choreographer

It’d be nice to think that even as a beginning choreographer, I’ve always been great. That I was a wonderful choreographer and leader and my dancers have always loved working with me. Of course that can’t be true. Especially at the beginning of my career I made a lot of mistakes, both interpersonal and artistically. Fortunately, through various feedback from dancers, other choreographers, and audiences, I slowly started to figure things out.

That’s not to say that I’m the greatest choreographer now. I’m still learning! Of course art is subjective, so I’m not discussing here anything about what makes choreography good. What I am talking about are things that I wish I knew when I started. Avoiding these mistakes might not make you an award-winning choreographer. They will, however, help the process go more smoothly and also help mature the work more.

Of the five things I’ll discuss, two of them are managerial, in that they involve how choreographers deal with dancers. Three are about the creative process. Of these creative ones, only one is a bit subjective, and the other two are more about how you go about it.

Let’s get started.

Communicate with your dancers

I get it: some choreographers are very, very sure of what they want and they come in ready to make it happen. Remember, though – as a beginning choreographer, your dancers might be one of your best resources of knowledge, especially if they’ve worked with other choreographers. Even if they are also starting out, they can give you a lot of feedback.

Still, if you are certain that you want to create exactly what you want to create, and the movement is already set (which I don’t recommend, by the way), you very much need to communicate with your dancers. You need to tell them why you are doing it that way, and why you want to stick to this vision. Keep the lines of communication open. Dictator choreographers are the subject of constant gossip and complaints among dancers outside of the studio. I know; I’ve listened to a lot of them. Even choreographers who do experiment but don’t communicate or share their vision get complaints.

I’ve found that allowing a discussion in the studio for dancers to suggest their own ideas often makes the pieces better. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, as there might be a part that you feel strongly about and a dancer might suggest to change it. However, if you are open to experimenting and listening, you might find that even these “unwelcome” ideas can make a difference. On one of the very first pieces I ever made, I did not ask for feedback. The pieces were okay, but they could have been much better. I’m pretty sure the dancers thought so, too.

Don’t enforce a style

This is also where ‘enforcing a style’ comes in. I have to note that this is just my opinion, and it’s more relevant when working with dancers from diverse backgrounds. But it’s something I learned as a beginning choreographer, so I’m passing it on. If you focus more on the storytelling and allow the dancers to come up with their own ways of telling it that you can piece together, it helps. This is especially true if your dancers are in any way senior to you. Bringing in their ideas, their movements, and also trying to find movement that looks good on their bodies, can make a difference.

It’s good to remember that choreographers are also people managers. Not all your dancers respond in the same way. Some need more encouragement, some need more critique. Some need explanations, some just want to know the steps. Try to learn who they are and how they move, especially as a beginning choreographer, and it can get you started on the right foot.

Too Much or Too Little? The Balance of Movement

The choreographer of Second Nature Dance Company used to say that you could always tell beginning dancers because they move too much. He said only mature dancers are confident enough to be still onstage. It’s the same idea with beginning choreographers. There is a desire to create lots and lots and lots of movement, to add novelty and difference. Eventually, from an audience perspective, it all blends into the same thing, and it can get boring.

Some choreographers, if they aren’t confident or feel they have too little movement, might copy phrases or steps they’ve seen. They might try to recreate dances they really liked. Definitely don’t do that! Of course, there are only so many movements that a human body can do, so individual movements might be the same. However, you should rely on your own movement.

If you don’t think you have enough content, there are few things to remember.

First of all, it’s okay to repeat movements. Actually, I think it can be a great storytelling device. A certain phrase can be a great marker to help audiences know where they are in the story, or remember something from before. Changing it slightly in dynamics or quality can also bring a story forwards.

It’s also okay to include stillness. Dancers don’t need to move all the time. Contrasting movement with stillness can be very interesting.

Also, if you want to make longer pieces, it’s a good idea to develop out the concept, and then use it to ‘research movement.’ Researching movement basically means searching for the right style, steps, or physical quality that match your concept. Not all movement is the right choice, and this is also a great way to get to know your dancers. Choreography research is usually done through improvisation, where the choreographer explains the concept and provides a prompt, and sees what kind of movement the dancers come up with in response.

Live and Learn: Be Open to Feedback

Of course, as prepared as you are, there is really nothing like experience. As a beginning choreographer, you are still understanding your style, your artistic voice, and your way of dealing with and managing dancers. There will be bumps along the way, so the best thing you can do is be open to feedback.

There are three different channels of feedback for beginning choreographers that I think are really useful: from dancers, from colleagues, and from audiences. After the project, consider asking your dancers how the experience was working with you, and what they might suggest you to improve on. If any of your peers have attended the performance or you have a video, show it to them. This could also include mentors, teachers, or other choreographers. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but finding out what they think can be very valuable.

Feedback from audiences is what all artists want, naturally, though it can be hard to get real feedback, especially from friends and family. Try to push your friends to give you critical feedback by asking questions like, when were you bored, when were you most engaged, and if I wasn’t your friend would you see another performance like this.

While feedback can sometimes be tough to take – I remember one of my dancers absolutely taking me to town for every leadership mistake I made during one project (though it was in a kind way) – it does makes you better.

The rest, well, you just have to live and learn!