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Honing Your Choreographer’s Instinct

By Meredith Rankin

The performance was done and I was talking to my troupe director about a piece I had co-choreographed. I said the finished product didn’t turn out like I expected. The dancers did everything I asked, but my vision for the piece got lost. Choreography is a process of trial and error. Making mistakes tells you what works and what doesn’t, but isn’t there a way to know that before going onstage? Here are some tips for improving your choreographer’s instinct:

1) Know your tempo/don’t rely on counts: I said in a previous choreography article to find music that screams it’s the one and then listen to it ad infinitum. However, also try dancing to the promising piece to really make sure it’s a good match. You need to know what speed you’re most comfortable moving and scrap music that’s too far outside your comfort zone. If tempo and dancer aren’t matched, it will show in your body as awkwardness and doing moves off-time. If you’re working on a group piece, the group obviously has to agree on the counts. But if you’re a soloist, make the counts work for you. Playing with the time a move takes (slow and gooey or super-fast) helps you stretch your tempo and make the routine more interesting. Plus, playing with counts can also help you put more moves together.

2) Trust your gut/take your time: I was in a workshop with about 15 minutes left and the instructor wanted to appease dancers who asked for a combination with slow and fast moves. She put together a short routine very quickly, and almost effortlessly. It was a great piece, too. But I knew her extensive background as an improvisational dancer and that she occasionally has trouble choreographing, no matter how much time she has. Choreography shouldn’t be seen as just stringing moves together with a monkey on your back squawking “Get it done!” Choreographing a great routine takes the time that it takes, and the muse can’t be rushed. Unless you’re an experienced choreographer or improvisational dancer, the audience can usually spot a thrown-together routine. Sometimes I can visualize exactly which moves belong in a certain piece of music, and the moves fit perfectly. Sometimes, a combination I really wanted to put in the routine just doesn’t feel right no matter what I do, and I make myself scrap it and take the time to find something else. It’s a lot of trial and error, especially with a reluctant muse. But I know that if I gloss over a move that feels even slightly awkward or uncomfortable, hoping practice will smooth it out, that awkwardness will bite me during the performance.

3) Look for the sweet spot: I remember learning a skirt dance and doing certain hip moves that made the lights dim everywhere else. I didn’t pay any attention to the mirror, my surroundings, or the other dancers. All that was left was the music and me. That routine is still one of my favorites. I’ve felt that again when the bass of a song really kicks in, striking a pose at the end of a piece, or really connecting to another dancer. The energy and my enjoyment of the dance jump at that point; I’ve found a sweet spot. Your routine should feel good to you. Ideally, make as much of it a sweet spot as possible. Indulging will enhance your dance and make it more fun for you to perform and the audience to watch. If you’re struggling to choreograph a new piece, watch old performance videos of yourself and remember how you felt during certain routines. Watch for a bigger smile or a pose that really connected you with the audience, and try to re-create that in the new work.

4) Get evaluated: If you’re new to choreography or just aren’t sure about a piece, get critiqued. I asked a friend to watch one of my first bellydance routines. About 30 seconds in, she asked if I knew any other moves. I thought direction changes would make the same combination interesting; she thought there was too much repetition for too long. Another friend watched a different piece and said she liked my arm reaches. I was surprised because I had thought of those moves as more of a placeholder. Having another pair of eyes see your dance and getting feedback before performing for an audience is useful. Naturally, you want the friend to really like the piece. But it’s even better when the friend hands you a tool you need to keep going when you’re stuck and have misplaced the toolbox.

5). Keep learning: Let’s say you only make soup with beef, carrots, and potatoes. Even if you constantly experiment with those ingredients (the beef should dominate this pot), chances are you’ll eventually get tired of them. But what if you add onions? How about spices? Or substitute chicken for the beef? Those new ingredients will react with the same old things in new ways. It might not be palatable at first (no Brussels sprouts in the soup!). But seeing that you can shake up the pot will inspire you to keep experimenting until you have a masterpiece.

6) Push through the rut: I was itching to choreograph last fall and completed most of a three-minute routine in two days. I still wanted to do more, but then life handed me lemons. When I could breathe again, I couldn’t choreograph. I had the time to choreograph. I even had a proper studio, not just some extra floor space. But music I had once liked sounded mediocre. None of my combinations fit. Nothing felt right. I refused to take a complete hiatus from Middle Eastern dance, but choreography became a lower priority. Gradually, combinations and music got back on speaking terms and I didn’t feel as blocked from choreographing. But I noticed that the rut I had had to push through suddenly became helpful. Butting my head against several different songs and several different moves helped sharpen my choreographer’s instinct. I knew almost instantly when a new step would work, when a new step was my sweet spot, or when something had to be tweaked or taken out. I know I’ll get blocked again at some point, but now I also know that pushing through the rut works.

It’s wonderful when a routine comes together effortlessly, but some of the pieces I’m most proud of are the ones that took me longer to create. But the routines I’ve struggled with have taught me about the process and helped me improve as a choreographer.