You’ve probably encountered this argument: Improvisation is far superior to choreography!
Or this one: Only serious dancers choreograph!
In addition to the arguments in online belly dance discussion forums about “technique vs. expression” (pro-tip: BOTH), or worse, “cabaret vs. fusion” (don’t even get me started), the next most popular argument is probably one of compositional preference: choreography vs. improvisation.
So, I’m here to argue that all well-rounded dancers must learn choreographies and learn how to create their own work. And it’s worth mentioning that this dichotomy never came up as a debate or controversy when I was earning my MA in dance. It was implicit and required that we learn both set choreography and improvisational techniques. Both are essential and fundamental methods of dance-making, and one feeds the other.
It’s also important to realize that improvisation and choreography exist on a spectrum. You could have the loosest, most free improvisation, which no anchors or guidance at all… or the most rigid and set choreography, with every arm, finger, and head placement determined by the choreographer.
Revolutionary dance-maker Anna Halprin and her husband explored this spectrum through their creation of what they called the RSVP cycle. The “S” stands for “Score,” that is, the instructions for a particular work. Just like a musical score for musicians, a dance score gives guidance and direction to the dancers. A score could be quite open, giving the dancers the freedom and options to choose what they will do. Or a score could be quite closed, with specific instructions to each dancer and what they are to do throughout the work.
So, as we explore the reasons why a well-rounded dancer must be proficient at both choreography and improvisation, remember that it’s not a black-and-white binary. Nor is one better than the other. And consistent exploration of the compositional spectrum will deepen your performance and practice, as well as develop your personal stylization.
1. Choreography Teaches Musicality
When you learn choreography from master instructors in a musically-driven form such as belly dance, a large part of what you’re learning is how they hear music. This might not be quite as true when learning choreography or phrasework from, say, a modern or contemporary dance instructor. But for belly dance, the music is the heart.
Notice how the choreographer physicalizes musical accents and hits. Ask yourself if a movement is highlighting the rhythm or the melody, or maybe both at once. Determine whether this dance prefers to follow the melodic instruments, or perhaps they favor the percussion. Examine how their movement shifts from one phrase to another. Note how the energy and flow of the phrases shift with any tempo or rhythmic changes.
And when you create your own choreography, it is essential that you first start with understanding the structure of the music to which you are setting your work. Otherwise, it’s like crawling into a cave with multiple paths and tunnels with only a headlamp and no map. You must create some sort of musical map so you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
2. Choreography Teaches Transitions
In the Salimpour School, we talk a lot about “threading.” What we mean is the transitions between steps. Some transitions flow better than others, and sometimes, you have to work a little harder to connect steps in a seamless way.
So, when you’re learning a choreography, pay attention to how the instructor threads steps together. You might find that the instructor blends phrases together effortlessly. Or maybe they haven’t put much though into how they piece segments together, and it’s up to you to figure out how to make it work.
And, of course, when you start creating your own phrases, you’ll discover which steps and movements flow well together in your own body. Allowing yourself to doodle and play with these movements will help you gain greater insight into what works for you, rather than just leaving it all to chance with improvisation.
3. Choreography Teaches Discipline
Let’s face it. Becoming good at anything takes hard work. And that requires discipline.
When you learn choreography, you must tap into a different thinking and cognitive processing method than when you’re improvising or following someone else who is improvising. Choreography retention requires a kind of long-term muscle memory. If you’re improvising, you don’t necessarily have an impetus to remember what you have done.
But when you’re learning a choreography, you’ll likely want to run it and maybe even perform it. Or maybe your company director has required you to learn a piece. And that takes a different kind of attention than creating or mimicking extemporaneous movement. It takes dedication and repetition.
In addition, when you practice a choreography, you’re refining, tweaking it, and polishing it. You’re fine-tuning arm and leg lines, placement of your head and feet, and hopefully your gaze and focus as well. You’ll want to dig into the details of the movements, particularly if you plan to perform the piece in a group or ensemble. Then you’ll be analyzing timing, facings, and more to make sure the work looks clean.
4. Choreography Teaches Stylization
In addition to learning how a choreographer hears music, when you learn someone else’s composition, you’re also learning to embody their specific and unique stylization. Each arm placement, leg line, hand gesture, and head tilt is indicative of a dancer’s style, and each dancer has their personal quirks and preferences.
And then once you’ve learned the dance, you can then make a value judgement about whether you like how they physicalized the music, what movements they chose, or how they repeated or didn’t repeat certain phrases. Ask yourself how you might have done it differently, or whether you would have kept certain sections the same. When you start evaluating movement in this way, you are starting to develop your taste as a dance maker as well as your personal style.
5. Choreography Teaches You How to Watch Dance
When we learn a choreography, sometimes the instructor will be able to explain their movement clearly and concisely in words. But it’s more likely, especially in belly dance, that this will not be the case, particularly if there is a language barrier. If you have a strong technical foundation in foot patterns, hip work, and arm pathways, a lack of clear verbalization won’t stop you from embodying the details of a dance.
The next time you’re learning a new composition, practice seeing the instructor’s movement objectively and descriptively. If you are able to truly watch the instructor, you will pick up nuances that you can integrate into your own compositions, morphing them and adapting them to your own body and musicality.
6. Choreography Empowers Cleaner Improvisation
Learning and creating choreography is a fast-track to giving you valuable improvisational tools that would need hours and hours of refinement if you just went on stage and improvised.
Once you have learned choreographies in a wide range of styles from a wide range of instructors, you’ll have under your proverbial belt an arsenal of phrasework, cultural movement, gestures, and transitions to pull from when you are improvising. If you’re improvising to a song to which you already know someone else’s choreography, you can use their work as a foundation for creating your own in the moment, rather than starting completely from scratch… which can sometimes feel quite daunting for less-experienced performers.
So the next time you’re feeling intimidated by learning a new choreography, try to approach it from a new perspective. Maybe you want to experience the essence of a particular dancer’s style. Or perhaps you’re looking for creative combinations or transitions. Or maybe you want to learn a dance that you can perform at your next event.
Choreography and improvisation are equally important… and I’ll be exploring the value of improvisation in the next post.
What are you thoughts on the choreography vs. improvisation debate? Let us know in the comments.