How to choreograph a dance: a blueprint

Hey there, fellow groove enthusiasts. Diving into the world of dance choreography? It’s a wild ride. Imagine painting, but instead of a canvas, you’ve got beats; instead of brushes, you’ve got limbs flying around. Choreography is that fascinating bridge between the heart’s emotion and the body’s motion. It’s where our stories, feelings, and sometimes our quirks get to dance in the spotlight. Just like a captivating story needs a solid plot, a dance piece needs thoughtful choreography to resonate. So, whether you’re trying to express the euphoria of love or the chaos of the Monday blues, let’s embark on this journey of turning beats into steps and melodies into movements. Ready to jump in?

The Art and Science Behind Choreography

Ever wonder what makes certain dance sequences stick in your mind, while others fade away like last summer’s tracks? It ain’t just about cool moves or wicked beats. It’s a delicate dance – pun intended – between art and science. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Artistry in Motion: At its core, dance is a form of expression, a canvas where emotions play out in physical form. Choreography is where we paint our stories, drawing from personal experiences, inspirations, or even dreams we had last night. It’s subjective, fluid, and deeply personal. The artistry is the ability to convey a message, evoke a feeling, or simply create something visually delightful. It’s the nuances, the pauses, the intentional imperfections. Like how a single tear can sometimes say more than a monologue, it could be that lingering hand or the way a head turns in dance.

Science of Structured Movement: Now, here’s the clincher. You can’t just throw a bunch of moves together and call it a day. There’s a method to this melodic madness. Choreography leans on understanding body mechanics, spatial awareness, and musicality. How do you transition seamlessly from a leap to a roll? How do you ensure that dancers aren’t colliding or throwing off the visual symmetry in a group performance? That’s where the science bit kicks in. Structuring a sequence requires a deep understanding of counts, rhythms, and formations. It’s also about ensuring that the movements align with the dancer’s capabilities and the chosen music’s tempo and tone.

Melding these two – the raw emotion of the art and the precise calculation of the science – is where the magic happens. It’s like composing music, but you’ve got moves instead of notes. Or like crafting a delicious recipe, where each step, each ingredient, matters. Next time you watch a dance and feel something, know there’s both heart and a whole lot of thought that went into that. Let’s give a little nod to the choreographers, the unsung heroes who blend passion with precision, making our souls groove and our hearts move.

Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.

Martha Graham

Understanding the Purpose: Choreograph the Dance to be more Than Just Movement

Ever caught yourself swaying to a melancholic tune or pumping your fist to a rebellious rock song? Music, at its core, evokes emotion, and dance? Well, dance amplifies it. But before one jumps into crafting a sequence of steps, it’s paramount to dig deeper and understand the ‘why’ behind the dance. The goal you are trying to reach dictates how you approach the creation process.

Message Over Movement: While an array of complicated moves and flips might garner applause in battles and dance competitions, the message behind the dance truly resonates with an audience in theatres. Is it a story of love lost, a call to societal change, or perhaps a celebration of joy? Maybe it’s a narrative about battling inner demons or an ode to nature. Before delving into steps and sequences, a choreographer needs to be crystal clear about the message they want to convey. Think of it as the plot to your dance novel.

Adapting to the Platform: The intent behind a choreographed piece can also be dictated by where it’s performed. A competitive stage might demand technical prowess, while a community outreach program might emphasize connection and relatability. A theatrical production might require intricate storytelling, whereas a flash mob in a public space might aim for shock and awe. Knowing your platform helps in tailoring your dance to its audience.

Dancing for the Dancer: Lastly, understanding purpose also pertains to who is dancing. A solo piece can dive deep into personal emotions, while a group choreography might be about collective experiences or contrasting viewpoints. Moreover, choreographing for a novice demands different considerations than for a seasoned dancer. The purpose should align with the dancer’s capabilities, experiences, and, importantly, their own expressive desires.

In essence, choreography isn’t just about crafting a dance; it’s about crafting an experience, a story. And every great story starts with a purpose. So, as you embark on your choreographic journey, take a pause and ask – what story do I want to tell?

Choosing Your Music for the Choreography: The Heartbeat of Dance

Imagine setting a fierce battle scene to a lullaby, or perhaps a romantic pas de deux to aggressive metal – seems off, right? That’s because music is the backbone, the pulse, the heartbeat of a choreographed piece. Selecting the right track can make or break your dance. So, how do we go about it?

Resonate with the Rhythm: Before anything else, the music must resonate with you as a choreographer. Can you visualize movements, transitions, and emotions while listening? If a track doesn’t stir something within you, chances are, it won’t stir your audience either. Trust your instincts and choose a song that speaks to your soul.

Understand the Dynamics: Music isn’t a monolithic entity; it has highs, lows, crescendos, and pauses. Mapping these dynamics aids in understanding where the dance can have explosive movements, gentle flows, dramatic pauses, or intricate footwork. The dynamics of a song guide the dynamics of the dance.

Lyrics Matter (Sometimes): If you’re choreographing to a song with words, pay heed to the lyrics. If they are not easy to understand when listening, grab them from the internet. They can provide an additional layer of narrative to your dance. You can either follow the rhythm of the lyric, the story they are telling or only emphasize some single words. A turn on the word “spin”, a jump on “fly”, or a collapse on “fall” – these are simple examples, but the lyrics can provide a roadmap for your movements, enhancing the connection between the dance and the music.

Don’t Shy from Experimentation: Traditional ballet pieces don’t always need classical tunes. Hip-Hop can be danced to violin strings. The world of dance is ripe with examples where choreographers went against the grain, merging unexpected dance styles with contrasting music, leading to some of the most memorable performances.

Choosing music isn’t just about finding a catchy tune; it’s about finding the right partner for your dance story. When both dance and music are in harmony, they create an unspoken language that has the power to captivate, communicate, and connect.

Three Approaches to Crafting Your Dance Choreography

In the realm of dance, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe to choreographing a piece. Just as artists use different brush strokes, choreographers have varied methods to carve their vision. Here are the ones I used.

1. Story First: Narrating with Movement

Dive into the world of your music and weave a tale. Before a single step is mapped, the narrative unfolds in the choreographer’s mind. The music becomes the backdrop, setting the scene. As the tale progresses, sections of the song become chapters of the story, and dance steps breathe life into the characters and their journey. This immersive method pulls the audience deep into the narrative, making them live every twist and turn as the music feels like the perfect soundtrack.

To pull this off, you listen to the music and decide on which part of the song, which part of the story unfolds. So you already know what happens when on the track. After that, it is a matter of finding the right steps to fill the void. Knowing the music and the story, that is rarely a problem.

Check out an example in the clip below.

2. Concept First: Abstract Artistry in Choreography

Dance doesn’t always have to tell a straightforward tale. Sometimes it’s an idea, an emotion, or a theme that dictates the movement. With a concept-first approach, the essence of the dance is abstract. Choreographers might start with a vague notion or a feeling they wish to convey. From there, they mold and shape their movements, creating a piece that evokes emotion without a linear storyline. Once the core concept is established, narrative elements might be sprinkled in, adding layers of depth to the abstract masterpiece.

Check out an example of a concept piece that only works with hand shapes below.

I already wrote a lot about concepts in dance. If you are unfamiliar with that term, check out dance concepts here on my blog. If you really dig that stuff, you can grab a copy of my book Dance Smart, which is dedicated to dance concepts.

Dance Smart at the Open Qualifier for Circle Industry 2020. Photo: Christian Poschner

3. Music First: Moving to the Melody

For some, it’s all about the beats, rhythms, and harmonies. With the music-first method, choreographers become devout followers of the song’s intricacies. Every beat dictates a step, every pause an emotion, and every crescendo a climax. It’s a visceral approach where the music and the movement become one. Rather than imposing a preconceived story or concept, the choreographer allows the music to guide the journey, creating an organic flow that’s harmonious and intuitive.

Check out the clip below to how that could look like. In this clip the dancers work really nice with the lyrics of the song.

This often comes in the form of repeating freestyles to the same track over and over, finding movement that you like and keeping that part, then moving from there. You repeat this process until you are done. Stepping away for a while might be necessary if you hit a block.

Each approach has its charm and challenges. The key is to find what resonates with you as a choreographer. For me, it’s a blend of all three; with an emphasis on story. It’s about capturing the essence of what you wish to convey and translating it into a dance that leaves an indelible mark on the audience.

Staying Inspired and Navigating Creative Blockades while Choreographing a Dance

Much like any other art form, dance has peaks and troughs. There are moments when inspiration flows like a river and others when the well seems to run dry. No matter how seasoned, every choreographer has faced the daunting wall of a creative blockade. Here’s the secret – it’s not about avoiding these blocks but learning to dance around them.

Stay Curious: Just as a dancer always learns, a choreographer should be forever curious. Explore other art forms, from painting to poetry, and find connections back to dance. A scene from a movie, a verse from a song, or even the rhythm of raindrops can spark an idea.

Break the Routine: Change your environment if you’re always choreographing in the same studio or space. Sometimes, a new setting can offer a fresh perspective. Let different surroundings influence your movements, whether it’s a park, a beach, or even your living room.

Collaborate: Dance is a communal art form. Engage with other dancers, choreographers, or artists from different disciplines. A fresh pair of eyes or a new perspective can break down walls you didn’t even know existed.

Embrace the Block: It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way out is through. Instead of fighting the blockade, use it. Make a piece about feeling stuck, trapped, or restrained. You’d be surprised how therapeutic and liberating this can be.

Remember, every artist has their moments of doubt and dry spells. The passion, persistence, and the will to push through separate the good from the great. Embrace the journey, with its highs and lows, and let it fuel your dance narrative.

dance concepts dance espresso

Why we need to separate creation from evaluation

Why do many people get stuck when they try to create new moves or routines? The answer is simple, but its impact is often underestimated, and therefore, people tend to ignore it. Creation and evaluation (analysis, assessment) are very different processes:

In creation mode, you want the ideas to flow freely.
Creativity is what you need.

In evaluation mode, you need to analyse your results from creation.
Logic is taking the lead here.

A popular scientific theory says that different sides of your brain are responsible for these two different tasks. And they don’t work well together. So if you try to do both at the same time, you are doing both inefficiently.

I can not comment if this theory is right or not, because I lack the scientific understanding. But I know that I work better when I only create at one time and judge later.

When you get stuck in your creation process, try to get rid of the voice in your head that wants to evaluate immediately. Film yourself and do that later. You will see the differences.

And finally, let’s grab a Dance Espresso over this topic:

business dance concepts understanding music

Digging Deep & Deep Work

Today is not about business, marketing, music, or dance alone. It is about a mindset thing that is beneficial in all of those.

We live in a world of distractions. That sounds like an exaggeration, but is a brutal truth that results in a decline of real productivity and creativity. We think we are experts in multitasking, but we are not. We are experts in being distracted, which leads to a culture of superficiality. We wear “being busy” like a badge of honor when it is only a sign of lacking priorities.

As an artist and entrepreneur that is in the game to stay (without burning out), we shall cultivate a habit to dig deep in what we do. At least for all the things that matter (the ones that align with your bigger picture).

Digging deep means:

  • to give ourselves the time that is needed to work things out
  • to look at a topic from different angles
  • to do additional research when we miss information instead of assuming things
  • to ask questions
  • to find the reasons behind symptoms
  • to take ideas far

Deep Work means:

  • to commit to a specific task
  • to immerse yourself in the work
  • to shut out distractions (flight-mode is a lifestyle)
  • to spend enough time with a topic to allow our conscious and subconscious mind to get involved

You will only do your best work when you reach depth. So avoid today’s culture of mediocrity and dig deep when you create your art and set up your business.

dance concepts

How to Start Your Freestyle with Micro-Structures

Out of the many possibilities to start a freestyle, I find “micro-structuring” to be one of the easiest and at the same time most versatile. The concept is straightforward and similar to last week’s “Structure through Timing and Topics“. Here is “how to freestyle with micro-structures”.

You take a short timeframe (I recommend anything between one and four bars) and define where you put your focus on any given time. If you are new to the idea of structuring your dance in general or have a hard time counting music, go with one bar for a start.

Now define your focus for every time within that bar. For example: on the 1 and 2 of the bar you do a step, and on 3 and 4, you work with an isolation movement. That only means you make moves that are based on steps for two counts and then isolation-based moves for another two counts. After a bar (or the duration you chose) you repeat the idea.

Your structure can be as easy the example above or more complicated: You could also choose a chest pop that starts a travelling movement on the 1. Glides with rotations that carry you through 2 and 3 and finish with a hard stop on the snare drum on 4. Now you accent only the head on the “and” before you come around to the chest-hit on 1.

Again, your structure can be as straightforward or as sophisticated as you wish. For beginners, I recommend making the differences between the elements very clear. Like, Steps on one part, hand styles on the next, then isolations and so on. If you are more advanced, you can do more stuff at the same time and shift only the emphasis from one element to the other. You could keep doing steps all the time and add isolations for the first half of the bar and switch to counter-movement in the second half.

Go crazy with your ideas but don’t fall into the trap to make your structure too specific, so that it becomes choreography.

dance concepts

Structure your Freestyle with timings and topics

Creating a structure for your freestyle before starting takes a lot of pressure away in the actual thinking process during the dance. Some people will argue that it is not freestyle anymore when you structure it beforehand. We choose to ignore these naysayers for today as we still don’t choreograph the round ahead of time.

What we do is we decide ahead of time for how long we will dance. Then we split the time into parts of the same length and give every piece a simple topic.

For example, we dance for 16 bars (meaning 8 8-counts) and keep every topic for 4 bars (2 8-counts). Now we choose the topics “work with isolations”, “travel through the whole space”, “use some floor work” and “incorporate some pops for accents”.

Choose the lengths of the whole freestyle and the time of your parts as you wish. Make the topics as easy or complex as you want. If you want to, you can only create a series of topics and change when you feel like changing. It is your dance, and the concept should help you create it.

If this comes easy for you, I recommend you choose the length of your themes considering the song structure of the music you work with. So your changes are aligned with the changes in the music.

dance concepts

The imaginary material of the floor

Another idea that helps you explore new possibilities and transform your freestyles or choreographies is to work with imaginary attributes of the floor.

What this means is you style your movement with the goal to create the illusion of dancing on a certain kind of underground. It can be defined through simple adjectives like:

  • sticky
  • slippery
  • muddy
  • hot
  • cold
  • dusty
  • unstable
  • magnetic
  • burning
  • everything you can come up with

or by a more vivid image:

  • dancing on raw eggs
  • in a swamp
  • in the desert
  • on a frozen lake
  • stepping on chewing gum
  • and whatever more you can imagine

You will execute your moves in a different way if you immerse yourself into the idea. This concept is very close to storytelling, but it gives you just one idea to work with, instead of a whole plotline.

The only tricky point in this one is that it only works if you commit and believe in the image that you want to create. That is not a thing for everyone, but I strongly recommend you give it a try, as being able to believe in your concept/story/idea will help you to improve your performance-abilities a lot.

dance concepts

Four Corners

Four Corners is a concept that helps us to break free of a static front and helps us to explore different directions and rotations within a step or a freestyle round.

Here is how it works:

  • We envision ourselves standing inside a square or rectangle.
  • When dancing, we try to hit the corners of the square with every move.
  • The order of the corners does not matter.
  • In the strict version, we need to hit every corner before we can hit a corner a second time.
  • Sometimes it’s also ok to chill and hit corners multiple times, when you are not in the mood to keep track of which ones you already touched.

When you want to drill one specific move: take only this move inside the rectangle and find all directions and rotations possible.

Or be free in the selection of your moves and use it as the design criteria for your freestyle.

The concept is very similar to the Pendulum, that I covered earlier. Both give you a guideline for your dance by defining the directions. If we look at this idea close enough we see that the geometric shape does not make a difference. You can use a triangle, a star, an octagon or whatever with the instructions above. Play with it or make it a group activity and challenge each other.

dance concepts

The 8-ball concept

The 8-ball is a concept to create new patterns of steps based on figure eight. I heard about this idea the first time from b-boy Alieness who taught an 8-ball six step at Circle Prince Croatia. I can not remember the exact year, to be honest.

While there are multiple different 8-ball steps (like the aforementioned 8-ball six step), the concept follows only one simple rule:

You take a series of steps/moves and combine them in a way that they flow in both directions without interruption.

In the original idea, the creators tried to emulate the figure eight as a path on the floor. Today most people consider a step to be an 8-ball when you follow the rule above.

And because it is easier to understand when you see it, I embed a video from Poe One, from Style Elements crew, below. He demonstrates multiple steps that were created with the 8-ball idea in mind.

Poe One teaching 8-ball footwork

This concept is a perfect match if you are looking for a way to drill your footwork both ways.

dance concepts

Using Constraints to spark creativity in Dance

When we want something but have limited resources to make it happen, we usually find creative ways to get what we want. That is the essence of creating artificial constraints for our dance practise.

Artists and creative entrepreneurs use the technique of artificial constraints to spark creativity in their work with great success. To use this method in dance we give ourselves limited options of what we can do. Depending on the purpose of our practise we can either delete some things from our repertoire or only allow very limited options..

As an example: Most of us have so-called fallback moves. There are the moves that we know in and out. The moves we can execute perfectly, no matter the circumstances. If those are too predominant in our freestyle we give ourselves the constraint of not using them at all.

There are a series of constraints that are common:

  • You might not use specific parts of your body
  • You might only use specific parts of your body
  • no/only moves while standing up
  • no/only jumping moves
  • no/only moves while crouching
  • no/only moves on the floor
  • hands might not touch the floor or must always touch it
  • same with the feet
  • hands and feet must always touch the floor
  • certain ways in the space are a must or forbidden
  • the phrase must always turn to on side or it must not
  • one part of your body is glued to the floor or another bodypart
  • every movement must be initiated with the same part of your body

This list is of course not complete and it can never be, because you can come up with your own constraints and you should. It’s your dance, not somebody elses.

Let us know your favourite practise constraints in the comments.

Dig deeper into dance concepts with the following posts:
Basic questions to ask every Move | Conquer the Space | Pendulum

This concept and 35 others can be found in my first book Dance Smart, which is now available on Amazon.


3 reasons for slowing down in your dance practise

Quality of movement is a term that comes up often when you are talking with professional dancers. Depending on who you are talking to, it might have a slightly different meaning, but in general it refers to how good a movement is executed. In my personal point of view this translates directly into how beautiful a move looks. Some people might have a different opinion on this. For the sake of this blog, we will ignore those other opinions. My blog, my rules. 🙂

B-Boy dancing with text overlay about 3 reasons to slow down in dance practise

No matter if we learn a new move or try to polish an old one, doing it slow helps us being more conscious about what we do instead of relying on the autopilot to take over. The more moves we have the higher the chances that we apply techniques of another similar move instead creating the muscle memory for the new or changed one. While the results can be quite as good, we miss the topic of creating or polishing.

An additional benefit of moving slow is that we focus more on details of the movement. Being clear about all the details of a move results in cleaner execution.

Last but not least: moving slower gives us more time to come up with new ways.

If you have different experiences with moving slow while creating or learning, feel free to let us know in the comments.