Confessions of a Reluctant Choreographer

by Andy Bettis

I never set out to choreograph dances. It always seemed to me that with the hundreds of dances already in the world there would never be any need to come up with a new combination of steps. Why add to a superabundance? How could I come up with something new? There were some choreographies around that I enjoyed dancing - the Bach Sun Meditation by Bernard Wosien, Winds on the Tor by Colin Harrison and White Bird by June Watts were among my favourites (and I still teach all three today) but these teachers were the 'big names' of the time and I had no expectation of emulating them.

(As an aside, it's interesting that for all three dances I've found new music to dance them to, which may go some way to explaining their longevity. It's as if having different pieces of music reveals different aspects of the dance and gives them a greater subtlety, or rather allows me to appreciate the subtlety that already existed there. The music I most commonly use now is 'While Sheep May Safely Graze' for the Sun Meditation, 'Andy's Waltz' for Winds on the Tor and the Los Incas version of 'Vasija de Barro' for White Bird.)

So looking back now with a handful of dances under my belt, what is it that has changed? Why did I start choreographing dances, and how do I go about doing so? I shall try to explain.

The 'why' has a simple answer - it usually starts with a piece of music that demands to be danced to. In most cases the rhythm and feel will suggest an existing dance (and in a surprisingly large number of cases this will be a Cocek) and that is that - I'll put it on the list for the next dance evening and try it out with my regular group. However there are some for which nothing seems to quite 'fit' properly, the steps come out too fast or too slow, the sequence is all wrong, or nobody likes it. At this point I'll either resign myself to free dance in the living room or decide to try and build a dance.

'How' doesn't have a single answer, I have a variety of ways to help me to get from itchy feet to a beautiful choreography. The easiest one has been to just find myself doing the dance, and to keep doing it until I can analyse it well enough to write the steps down. In most cases, sadly, this doesn't quite come up with something repeatable and/or teachable and a bit more work is required.

For me an essential part of creating a dance is to know the music very, very well, and this means listening to it lots of times. As well as getting to know the musical structure (this may not be in formal or 'correct' musical terms, just how it feels) I try to see what the music evokes in me, this could be images, associations, ideas for how the group and/or the individual will move, maybe even some dance steps. While I'm listening to the music all those hundreds of times I like to have some room to move - it can be a bit daunting just putting on the music and trying to force the steps out so I find that having the music playing while I'm doing something that doesn't require all of my attention (like the washing up) leaves me more open to inspiration.

Playing a track several times in succession (at last, a use for the 'repeat' function on the tape machine!) can be very helpful in getting the musical nuances and spotting 'hints' for changes, the last verse, etc. Remember that when you're teaching the dance, talking it through and spotting how well people are getting it, you may not have much brain space left for counting repeats, and knowing the third part starts just after the drum break is much more useful than knowing it comes after six repeats of the second part.

Once I've got a sequence that feels good I concentrate on what I'm doing with my arms. It's all too easy to just stick to a 'V' or 'W' without much thought, especially when I'm dancing on my own, and some movements become much more difficult when actually holding hands with people. If I'm considering adding any sort of arm movements it's important to check that the arm and leg movements fit together harmoniously, rather than just being two sequences that go on at the same time.

Once my new dance is starting to come into focus I may put it under some 'intellectual' analysis; looking at the overall pattern made by the group and the individual dancer, considering how symmetrical the sequence is, thinking about using regional style elements (especially if I'm using music from a particular area), etc. etc. (Although these 'logical' aspects of choreography can be very interesting they deserve more space than I can fit in here, see my article on 'Circle Dance Geometry and Engineering' when I get around to writing it.)

I've found the transitions between parts need careful attention. Although ending one part and starting the next on the same foot is the sort of thing you will spot very quickly, changing the direction your body faces can easily be missed, especially when dancing on your own in a small living room. This is a good time to invite a friend, partner or other guinea pig to help out, especially if they have some dancing experience and can pick up steps fairly quickly. While doing this you'll get an idea of how teachable the dance is, and how well you understand and can explain what you're doing. You'll also get your first feedback on how somebody else finds the dance, so try to pick somebody whose opinions you respect and don't take any criticism (or praise) too personally.

Of course the true 'test' of a dance is doing it in a group. I have two approaches to this - if I think a dance is finished I'll just teach it without saying anything about its origins, if it's not quite 'there' I'll tell the group that it's a 'work in progress' and ask for their help in completing it. As well as paying attention to any direct feedback about the dance I find I learn a lot by seeing how easily and accurately people get the steps, and how easily and accurately I can teach them! And the experience of dancing a dance in a group can be wildly different from doing it alone or with a friend or two, be prepared for surprises!

Something to bear in mind during the first few times you teach a choreography is that the group will be learning something new whereas you will have been living with it for weeks, so give them time enough to really get it before deciding that it's a failure or a success. There may be changes you want to make in the light of experience, try to balance the wisdom of the group against your original vision and remember that a dance that is tinkered with too often will sink into a cloud of confusion. My one piece of advice here (for now) is to not write the dance down, either in long hand or notation, until it seems to have found its final form, that way you are more likely to teach it from your body rather than your mind.

The final challenge is to let the dance go, realising that everyone who teaches it will add something new (including yourself) and that you have started a creative process, not finished one.

Moving from the general to the specific here are my Greatest Hits, the dances that I like enough to admit to, that other dancers like enough to request, and that teachers like enough to want to pass on. As with all dance notes they are intended as reminders rather than a way to learn the steps, but I hope they give a taste of the dances for those of you who haven't come across them (yet).