A Look In The Mirror pt. 2

I began a review of one of my own choreographies in part 1 of A Look In The Mirror which took a critical look at the routine. In this section I hope to provide some insight into the creation of the choreography from the perspective of the artist.

One of the hardest things for any routine is the initial selection of a piece of music to work with. The song is the artist’s canvas; it sets tempo, implies mood and dynamics, and sets the structure which the dancers work within. Sometimes a dancer hears a song and knows that it would be a solid number to do a routine to; more often the selection of a song is a painstaking process with many hours spent listening and re-listening to songs and weeding it down to a manageable selection. With a manageable selection (five or so songs) its then possible to dance to each of them once or twice to feel how the dance relates to each of them. A song is then eventually chosen (edited if needed) and the choreography can really begin.

After a similar process to what I have just described, Caro and I chose Goin’ Nuts, composed by Johnny Hodges and performed by the Six Jolly Jesters (Oct. 1929) – of which there were ten, based upon the desired tempo range, the playful almost impromptu jug-band sound, and the driving energy of the rhythm section. It had clear breaks and shading to the various sections which were helpful in the choreographic process. That is at certain points the music instinctively called for certain things, for example swing-outs. One thing the song does partially lack, as I believe a comment on part 1 implies, is a singable melody. Now, while a singable melody and recognizable song is definitely appealing to most audiences it doesn’t necessarily improve the performance; although I will agree it can make it more memorable.

Having found the song, we danced to it a few times just to get the feeling for it. We then mapped it out in phrases and sections adding some descriptors to these (like: jazz steps, swing-outs; or more descriptive of the music: driving, horns, break) and set up weekly practices to work on it. We roughly choreographed the first forty-five to sixty seconds in that first meeting by dancing it; taking something that worked in a section, immediately writing it down and repeating it.

Each week would usually start warming up to some different tunes and then running what we had a couple of times. After warming up we would select a section of the music to work with. We would dance that section of the music, marking broad ideas and then clarifying movements that worked well.

On occasion we would have a camera available to record these intermediary steps of choreographing, allowing us to see in a given run what parts of the improvisation fit well with the music. We would distill these moments from the improvised sketching to a cleaner choreographed movement. The camera provided an excellent record of our progress in addition to its value as an immediate tool for review.

With three or four weeks of practice and choreography, we debuted what we had to some friends whose opinions we valued. Their feedback was essential in identifying what we thought looked cool or worked and what was actually the case. In almost any case, constructive criticism from dancers you respect can greatly improve a choreography that you are working on; since as creators we can get too attached to a particular idea even if it doesn’t work. We ended up going back to these people on occasion to get further feedback and suggestions.

Almost ready to present, ULHS was coming up quickly and we needed to spend a solid few hours in polishing it if we were to be ready. Unfortunately events out of our control removed me from Montreal and our plans to present at ULHS were scrapped due to the lack of any practice time in the week prior to ULHS.

With ULHS out of the picture and unable to practice, we pushed the presentation back to ALHC where we hoped we could get some practice time in. Originally planned more as a classic style routine but with the classic competition early on in the weekend which left us no practice time, we switched to the open showcase division whose qualifications required aerials. With about two hours of practice and some excellent coaching from Eric Bertrand we managed to clean up an aerial we had originally scrapped from the routine and added as much polish as we could. We ran it three times full out half an hour before the competition, passing the aerial without assistance only a few times and cleanly only once.

We rested and stretched and thankfully had what some people described as “our best run ever” when we performed. Having long gotten over my shakiness in front of a crowd, it was fantastic to perform this piece in front of people and we received an excellent reception from the crowd (which really does make you dance better). Hopefully I will have the opportunity to work on a routine with Caro again soon.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for posting about this, Carl. I’m working on creating a Classic routine right now, myself, and it’s always great to get insight on how other people go about the process.

    Can you tell me more about what made you choose the song you did?

  2. This is really fascinating. I’m strictly a social dancer, and can’t see myself ever dancing in front of a crowd. But it is both fascinating and enlightening to read about the process you go through to develop a routine, from picking the song, to developing and refining the routine, to finally performing it. If I ever do go nuts and decide to perform, your writings make a pretty good blueprint.
    Say, Carl, this could also be an interesting topic for a future blog entry – what made you decide to perform, was it a hard decision, was it terrifying the first few times, how did you get to be comfortable in front of a crowd?

  3. Thanks Brody, I’ll definitely take that into consideration as a topic. It is definitely one that a lot of people struggle with or come to think about often and I’ve been asked about it before. I really enjoy suggestions, so thanks.


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