Working With Dancers


I have the deepest respect for dancers.

These people are kind enough and interested enough in what you do as a choreographer to lend you their bodies.  Dancers allow you to tell them what to do and often are paid very little.  What I’ve discovered is that I enjoy working with all dancers of various degrees of experience and skill.  Of course it is extremely satisfying having the luxury of really skilled dancers to execute what you, as a choreographer, have in mind.  That is one thing.  But it is just as satisfying in a different way to work with dancers of less experience and to witness them discover their new levels of potential.

I got a taste for this witnessing experience when I put together the piece, “War Devours Youth” (produced as part of “Eyes of Eve” at Cowell Theatre in 2009) using three teenage boys I had met in my capoeira class.  I was watching them in class one day, their liquid movements, their casual strength, when it occured to me that in a couple of years these young “kids” could be called off to serve their country in a war. A whole idea just landed in my lap – kerplunk. Boys. War. War Devours Youth. It’s like I saw the whole piece from start to finish. That rarely happens, but that day it did.

Now I had the task of convincing these boys that they were dancers. Watching their smooth flexible movements, it was clear that they were, but now I had the challenge of introducing new concepts and ways of being in their bodies. It would be a balance of using what they already knew while taking risks into new territory (well, and it also included some conversations about how not all male dancers are gay).  Through these three boys I actually learned a good deal about how to work with dancers and some rules that I try to live by:

Rule #1: I try to never waste a dancer’s time.

I begin and I end on time.  This tactic goes a long way towards productivity.  People really appreciate not having their time wasted. It creates an atmosphere of respect all around. Also, if I am setting the choreography all myself I come in with many phrases already prepared. I try to stay two steps ahead of the dancers in the choreography in the event we have a really good day and manage to cover more material than we expected.  Depending on how long we have to produce something, sometimes I’ll want more of a collaborative environment. Even so, this also needs preparation. As the director, I set the goal of what we are trying to accomplish in the seesion, I bring a lot of ideas to try, and bring ways to improvise with those ideas.  This was important for “War Devours Youth,” because the movement base was capoeira (which I had only been studying myself for two years) and hip-hop which I was new to.  So there were a lot of times when I had the choreography up to a point and then I would literally say, “ok, now we need like some sort of thingie where you can flip up off the floor,” and they’d give me a ton of ideas.  One dancer, David, was especially good at making the choregraphy better. I’d set one thing and then he’d say, “oooh what about if we do it like this,” and he’d contort his body and fling it in a seemingly impossible way. He was great at improving movement – even to the point where I’d have to tell him to stop when no one else could execute it besides him.

So, I like to trust my dancers.  But I’ve also found that sometimes you have to ask dancers to do things that they’re initially not interested in doing.   Which leads me to

Rule #2: Know when to push, let go, and ignore.

There is a skill in realizing when a dancer’s resistance is just their ego (often), or when it goes deeper than that. Sometimes they have an injury or sometimes their English skills are not good enough to understand what is going on and they are too embarassed to admit it, or sometimes they are just scared.  So if there is resistance, it is best to try to find out what is really going on there. Sometimes they need to be pushed past their comfort zone and sometimes you should just back off and let it go (even if it is their ego). There are also the times when it should just go ignored: they are working out something that’s personal and if you coddle them it would seem condescending. You have to know when to do these things: push, let go, or ignore.  I’d like to think I’m getting a lot better at this if only because I’ve screwed up so many times and done exactly the wrong thing.

Rule #3: Prepare your dancers for the work.

Another thing I like to do when I work with dancers is to do something I call “stack the movements.”  When I’m planning my session with them, I’ll start with the choreography I want to teach, then work backwards creating exercises that build up to the final work.  When I start working with them I’ll give them the trickiest part first (I learned this from Ben Levy who gives you the floorwork early on. By the time, you insert it into the final phrase at the end of class, it seems familiar.) After teaching the tricky part, I give excercises that break down many of the important techniques used in the final choreography.  If I stack the movements well enough, then by the time I teach the choreography the dancer’s body already knows what to do and it only takes ten minutes to learn the sequence.  This way, the dancer has the freedom to focus on the flow of the phrase rather than being frustrated with the new details they weren’t prepared for.  If I do my job correctly, then by the end of the session the dancers are able to just dance the phrase over and over – rolling it around and tasting it like a good wine.  These last 20 minutes of a session can be magical. The dancers are allowed to begin claiming the dance as their own, expressing themselves more fully through it, and I have the pleasure of witnessing it.


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