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Ballet Talk for Dancers


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What you have there may not be a choreographer, but a budding choreologist; that is, a specialist in recording dances using notation of whatever sort.

Thank you for the correction. :wink:


My mind got ahead of my typing as I was thinking about the creation at home the other day while he was just dancing to music. It was interesting and I asked how he would remember it until he had a chance to show someone. He said "well, I'll just write it down". He went away for a few moments and then brought a symbolic representation on paper to show me. It was the shape of an asterisk (with longer spokes) and a circle on the end of each spoke. His body was the center. Each spoke was his arms and the circle on the end to represent his arms bent up at the elbows and hands upwards. Opposite ends had an open or darkened circle. The darken circle represented the side the weight was on with the arm angled lower. The open circle was the side with the moving leg and arm angled higher. Each spoke was a step in the rotation around the center axis. - basically, slowly spinning in a circle with his weight shifting and arm arrangement changing with each step/beat. Having seen the move, the symbol looked like a very accurate representation. However, I can also see why a choreography wouldn't usually be the choreologist. They're probably the only ones who could later understand their own interpretation! B)


Anyways, it was such a surprise a couple days later to see a post about this subject!


About notation.... I also stumbled upon Sutton Dance Writing after my last post here. I think it looks very interesting for a younger child who might not be quite ready for a more complex, technical method and might hold their interest better while exposing them to the confines of standardization in transferring a real dancer's movement down to a symbol on paper. The flowy stick figure symbols might be more naturally translated by kids than the symbols used in Benesh or Labanotation. If they maintain an interest in recording choreography, I think they would naturally gravitate to a more complex method as they get older and their interest to record more complex choreography increases.


I can't find any software for Sutton Dance Writing but her site has 3 sizable instructional manuals in pdf format. A great way for kids or adults to explore this interesting facet of the dance world. the web site is:




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I did both Sutton and Laban notation. Sutton as a teen, and Laban in college. Sutton was by far easier. Laban was harder for ballet notation. I prefer the Sutton notation (she actually came to our studio and we a full course with her). I have often looked at her site for help when trying to remember subleties with the 'big variations' she has listed. It is difficult when you have let the practice lapse. Also, it take a LONG time to scribe the variation.


I think if you 'record' choreography in a 'multi media', you are somewhat 'safer' that the nuances and subleties won't get lost. For example, a Sutton notation of your piece, a video tape of your piece, and any handwritten (computer) notes and voice tapes of your notes should ensure a somewhat long life of your piece.



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Thanks to both Prism and b1!!!!!!

Kids just amaze me!!! :)

Clara :unsure:

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  • 1 month later...

At the studio I am going to we are having a student showing at the end of the year where the students choreograph a short piece on other students. I tried to choreograph a piece earlier this year and realized how hard it is and ended up wimping out at the sheer magnitude of it all.


Well my teacher really wants me to try again. With the knowledge I obtained during my previous attempt I am hessitating. So my question is how do you go about choreographing a piece? I can't quite picture how to find the music, get the people there, and find steps that they can do, and that fits the music. Is there a special order I should do all these things in?




a very stressed ping :huepfen:

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Mel Johnson

Just try moving yourself, without anybody else there, to the music you want to use. Take a couple of notes about things you like about what you did. Draw stick figures, whatever else you need to do, but keep listening to that music! Over and over and over and over again, until you can hum it backwards, if necessary.

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Sanna Koulu

ping, would you like a fellow student's view? I don't know squat about choreography, really, but I've done a few short pieces that have been performed for an audience, in folk dance. -- Hopefully the experienced folks will get here soon and enlighten both of us... :huepfen:


Getting to choreograph is a lot of fun, and it's wonderful that your teacher encourages you to do it!


Something I think is common to all the nice student numbers I've seen is a good grasp of your resources. Questions to ask might be, what is the dance form and idiom you are comfortable in? How many, and what kind of dancers do you have to work with? How much rehearsal time can you get in, and how comfortable are you with leading rehearsals? Even, what kind of costumes can you get? Tailoring your piece to the practical demands might sound boring, but it really helps to keep stress under control.


When I'm starting to work on a piece, I like to listen to a lot of music and envision different kinds of dances. Sometimes I have a vision (say, a hambo for two couples) and then I look for the music that will suit, and sometimes I know I need some specific stuff (a polka, when I think we need to work on that) and start from there. Sometimes a piece of music just demands to be choreographed... of course, in a field as limited as modern folk music in Finland, many of the cooler pieces have been done a dozen times already. In folk dance, a practical length might be around 2-3 minutes, so even if I love a piece, it gets tossed if it would only work with 2 minutes of intro. Getting a .wav of the piece is good, so you can modify it a bit.


When I have a piece I like, and some kind of idea what I want to do to it, I start sketching movement to it. I get a big room for myself, put the piece on repeat, and explore the possibilities for movement to it. For me, this is also the first reality check for the music -- if it doesn't feel good to move to, it probably won't be fun to work to. The movement sketches I do are like brainstorming -- the idea is to get a lot of raw material to work with. Repeat as necessary.


After this, I usually count the phrases and bars of the music I'm using, and write them down with all sorts of notes about "violins come here, energetic" and "quiet bit, hard to follow rhythm?". I'd say it's much easier to set a piece to music that is evenly phrased with 4 or 8 or 16 bars per phrase, and a regular time signature. Anything with an irregular number of beats per bar is just trouble.


When I know the structure of the piece, I think about the structure of the dance -- the music should support it, but not be too obvious. I think it's nice, for folk dance that is, to have the same or similar pattern or figure repeat when the music repeats e.g. the C part of the melody. Of course, this won't always work. I think about things like a sort of general theme for the piece and the masses of dancers on stage -- how will they move on stage? will this bit have just a couple dancing, and the rest are watching from upstage? would this energetic bit be nice with the dancers coming towards the audience, from upstage, with flamboyant show-off style?


With a general sort of structure in hand, I then take the raw movement material I have and shape it into short combinations - say something like 4-16 bars of stuff. At this point I usually have a feeling about where the stuff will go, but a lot of it might still get scrapped, so I try not to get too attached to anything.


These short combinations I then teach to the dancers, checking to see how well they work for the dancers and how they look in flesh. Usually this teaching process gives me more ideas for the choreography, and especially if you've got a sort of workshop environment, the dancers may have a lot of suggestions themselves. Some of the combinations and pieces will get thrown away or modified, of course.


After this reality check, I set the combinations to the piece of music I'm using and flesh out the missing bits. I then have a semi-solid piece of choreography, which will of course take a lot more work to make presentable... but now it's ready to be taught to the dancers to the music as set. I start from the beginning and work on from there. After this, I try not to change things too much... it confuses people. I also try to rehearse pieces of choreography to the appropriate spot in the music: it's easier if you are working on the "final" version and not just to some general piece of music. This is really important if you're working with irregular bars or phrases, I think.


About the steps: I think simple is better. Folk dance (like ballet, I'd assume) is kind of easy since the steps are codified to a large extent, and you won't have to spend time to explain what kind of movement you want ("this kind of twist up from the floor -- no, don't use the leg -- yes, with an emphasis up, but not thrown, more like sticky..."). If you are using non-codified movement, make sure that you can perform the steps yourself in a very consistent way, and explain what you want. Getting dancers to be in sync needs a lot of work, even when they are good. Don't rely on synchronizing for effect, if you don't have rehearsal time to make it work... and be very clear on the counts, and know the music and your own combinations by heart :huepfen:


Anyway, that's what I do. Of course, to quote Kipling, "there are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right". A friend of mine skips the whole structure bit, and just sets movement to the music linearly according to what feels right. Some skip the reality-check phase of teaching combinations to the dancers and then modifying them as necessary, and just make more-or-less ready choreography and start teaching that.


Oh, and I think that to get the hang of choreographing it's good to approach it like any craft (I'm not talking about art, here). Practice makes better, if not perfect, and the only way to practice is to do it :huepfen:


Hope some of this helps, or at least gives you some ideas to consider. Do let us know how you get on with your choreography!

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Mel Johnson

Toooooo much detail. Listen to the music, listen to the music, listen to the music. Then you can work from there, and you will find your own way.

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Listening to the music until I have it memorized helps me choreograph a piece. Then I can try to work out some steps without the music, just hearing it in my head, and then I can try the steps with the music playing. If you listen to the music enough, you will probably see steps to certain parts of it. That's the easy part! Linking those places that choreograph themselves is the hard part.

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It depends. Generally, I just listen to the music and give the steps that I see. However, if you are doing a dramatic piece or something like that, you can start with the character. For instance, I did a ballet based on the Lady of Shalott. I started with her, with who she was, and how she would move, how she would walk and hold herself and steps started to come that were specifically hers, and I put them into the music in different ways.

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Is choreographing a Contemporary piece different than choreographing a Classical piece?


No particular reason, just wondering.




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Mel Johnson

Not really! :D A lot depends on your definition of "contemporary" and what vocabulary you propose to use for it. Some contemporary work is very classically based, and others look like they were taken right off the table during a particularly difficult birthing. :P

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I'm choreographing a piece for 9 dancers right now. Its very stressful.


Everyone has said listen to the music....over and over and over again. Also, pick a song you know you're going to still want to be listening to by the end of the process.


Try to find something somewhat easy to count. The piece I'm working on now is an original composition and doesn't have a steady count at all and my dancers are FREAKING OUT.


Get a notebook or something where you can write a "map" of the music with all the counts, maybe with little notes in the corner, and you can write out sections and make sketches.


Mainly just enjoying. Vary up the levels and energy and all that fun stuff. Let us know how it goes!


Also, when you're casting, keep in mind their work ethic as well as ability

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Mel Johnson

Just bear in mind, a solo for yourself is one thing. Fairly easy. A solo for somebody else, and the difficulty goes up a notch. A pas de deux for yourself and partner, another notch. Two other dancers...and so on, and so on. And after you get to four, then things start increasing exponentially. A group dance doesn't necessarily have all the dancers doing the same things all the time!

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