From a crisp tap routine featuring syncopated superheroes to brash hip-hop zombies to a lyrical ensemble that can imitate autumn’s falling leaves with breathtaking lifts and side aerials, a great array of production numbers cross the stage during any competition. As choreographer, your goal is to make work that showcases your dancers, but admit it: Wouldn’t you also like to choreograph that one special number that lingers in minds long after the Nationals finale? Creating unique competition pieces that will please your dancers, the audience and the judges can be a tall order—especially when you’ve got dozens of group pieces and solos to choreograph each season. How is it that certain studios year after year present trophy-worthy work that brings down the house?


“The one thing I live by is not trying to be like everybody else,” says Kelly Burke, owner of Westchester Dance Academy in Mt. Kisco, New York. She says the key is to pay attention to what the new trends are in the competition circuit while staying true to her creative ideals. Her competition troupe has about 50 students, ages 5 to 18, and they consistently win high awards from prestigious competition organizations across the country. Her choreography is entirely ballet-based. “I keep new trends in mind, but stay with what I believe in,” she says. “Sometimes being a little different and standing out is a good thing.”


Choose meaningful music


Finding the right piece of music is paramount. Since competition dancers have to perform to recorded music, it’s the choreographer’s job to make the music come alive onstage.   


“I like to find the musicality. I teach the kids how to hear it and how to listen for specific instruments or notes,” says Jimmy Peters, artistic director for the Temecula Dance Company in Temecula, California. “When there’s a singer, you have to bring the passion of that singer alive through the movement. Show where the consonants and the punctuation marks are, and match the movement with the singer’s breath. I want everyone to believe that the singer is singing for the dancers.”
One of Peters’ most memorable pieces was a musical theater number called Money, to the song “Money” from Cabaret. He created it at the height of the recession after noticing that almost every house on his block had a foreclosure sign. “I brought pictures and paintings from the Great Depression into the studio and the process, and the movement came from that and the idea of money as greed,” Peters says. “The piece resonated with what was going on in the world, and the kids bought into it because their own families were having difficulties or knew of someone who was. The piece got standing ovations.” 
Using music that personally interests you often speaks directly to the audience and the judges. One of Burke’s most powerful pieces last year was called Bitter Earth, set to “This Bitter Earth,” an R&B song made famous by Dinah Washington. It was about growing older and the changes in life that you don’t have control over. Three of the dancers in the group were about to graduate after 14 years with the studio, and Burke was feeling the loss. At the same time, her father was facing a health issue. “It was dedicated to my father, who is now OK, and to my girls who were graduating. When I have a piece of music that has such a meaning, it’s so easy to choreograph.”


Burke asked her seven dancers, ages 15 to 18, to tap into their emotions from events that have been hard for them and to channel it into their movement. As for her graduating dancers, she asked them to put everything they could into each performance, showing how hard they’ve worked at dance, at school and in life for the past 14 years. “They had to have a meaning to make this piece work,” Burke says. “They can’t experience right now what it is to be old, but they do have the experience of understanding what it’s like to grow older.”


Emphasize your strengths


Burke’s students stand out at competitions with their strong ballet technique. “I work off of technique first,” she says. “I focus on the expression of the words in the music through the lines and the technique. I don’t have a lot of tricks.”


Manny and Lory Castro, artistic directors and owners of Dance Town in Doral and Palm Beach, Florida, also emphasize technique. “A strong ballet program is a must for every studio because everything begins with ballet,” Lory Castro says. But she also recommends making the most of your dancers’ strengths, whatever they may be. “If your school excels in acro and gymnastics, find a creative way to use it to enhance what you do. Or if your school is extremely well-trained in ballet, don’t make your winning number-to-be hip hop or Latin ballroom.”


The Castros’ dancers recently competed on “America’s Got Talent,” and their students include “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 5 finalist Janette Manrara and the two young dancers who won $500,000 on Paula Abdul’s “Live to Dance” show. The one thing Castro and her husband have learned with all their success is that there should be a balance between entertaining the audience and involving them in what they’re watching.


“We also try to stay true to the style in which we are choreographing,” Castro says. “There are no turns in à la seconde in 99 percent of the shows on Broadway, so why put it in yours? Choose steps wisely when choreographing in a style that is maybe not your strength—educate yourself, take classes or go see a show. It is necessary to have a real knowledge and respect for the style you are choreographing.”


Invite feedback


Good choreography is often made stronger if you’re willing to accept feedback from another teacher or staff choreographer, a knowledgeable family member or even your own students.


Sisters Staci Frye and Jamie Frye constantly give each other feedback as teachers and choreographers at Creative Dance Center in Ashburn and Chantilly, Virginia. They work in complete tandem during their choreographic process and share credit together for their pieces. “We tag off every couple of 8-counts, and sometimes we’re in complete sync with a movement at the same time, and when that happens we definitely put that in,” Staci Frye says. “I have a tendency to make pieces with a lot of tricks and leaps and turns, but then Jamie comes in with a fabulous emotion and sense of movement and that really sets our choreography apart.”


While the Castros each choreograph their pieces separately, the two lean on each other’s creative opinions. “It’s very hard to be critical of your own work, and you need to be open to new ways, ideas and suggestions,” Lory Castro says. “When we view each other’s numbers for the first time, we can usually pinpoint the weaknesses right way. You can always improve a piece, even when you think you can’t.”


Yet, even if you are working solo, there are ways to gather feedback. Stephanie Pearson, owner and artistic director of Nebraska Dance in Omaha, frequently videotapes her pieces to catch things she might miss during rehearsal. It’s a way to see “the big picture,” especially when she creates about 25 group pieces, between 15 and 30 solos and one enormous group number each season.


Pearson also sometimes brings in a group of students to watch a piece—not to ask them directly what they liked or didn’t like, but to see their reactions as audience members. “I’ve always been more about moving the audience,” she says. “So when a group of 20 kids see a piece or part of a piece for the first time, their body language tells me how they are feeling, and it helps me gauge where that piece is heading.”


Forget the judges


“We aim to please the audience and ourselves,” Lory Castro says. “We don’t do it to win trophies. If you compete just for that, you will be disappointed. Not all judges think the same way, and trying to please them could drive you crazy.” 


Kolbie Bowling, co-owner of Strictly Rhythm Dance in Alexandria, VA, choreographs about 90 percent of the school’s competition numbers. “You never know what style of dance the judges will like or favor, so I think more about having our dancers perform my vision for the piece,” she says. “I always try to make each piece look different and try not to have any ‘signature moves.’ I just use my creativity and hope the dancers will tell the story when they are onstage.”


Bowling always gives her students challenging choreography, so they have time to not only hone the steps throughout the school year but to have a tangible goal to work toward. “At the beginning of the season it may be too difficult, but by the end of the season they have mastered it and have really grown as dancers,” she says. Her studio doesn’t emphasize competition results. “It’s more about what they gained by the experience of each competition,” she adds.


Peters agrees that the judging process is subjective, and that ultimately the experience is for students to learn about dance, to work toward a goal and to always try their absolute best. “Emphasizing winning is empty,” he says. “What does it mean to win? I’ve had instances where a student has won, and I’m furious with them because they didn’t do their best. And there are other instances where my students didn’t win but I tell them: ‘You didn’t lose today, because you rocked the house. You were wonderful and made an impact and that’s what’s important.’” DT


Mandy’s Thoughts


Each time “So You Think You Can Dance” competitors perform a Mandy Moore piece, the judges rave about the athletic movement, daring lifts, unusual transitions and musicality. “I don’t have a signature look,” Moore says. “I always enjoy when people don’t know it’s my piece when they’re watching it.”


Although the Emmy-nominated choreographer is known for her work on television, film and stage, Moore also choreographs competition routines and often serves as a judge. Here are her thoughts on creating compelling choreography and what catches judges’ attention:


“When I judge pieces, I often see all these really cool movements but with no transitions or arc to it. What’s strong to me is a smart idea that is well-thought-through. The choreographer has really thought of a beginning, middle and end—it wasn’t just an exploration of movement in space.”


“Thinking outside the box is enough—you don’t need to go so far outside the box, though. There is something really great about a classical ballet or traditional jazz piece. Everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel right now, but now the old has become the new.”


“So many times people don’t take the time to clean and fine-tune a piece. And often a good piece can turn into an excellent one if enough care is put into it.”


“A competition choreographer has to use his or her dancers well. At studios you’re not always given a dream cast, but the best pieces are those where the choreographer is able to take all of those dancers, types and levels and put them in a space and give them movement, so it looks like they belong together.”


Joey’s Tips and Advice


Joey Dowling’s choreography has a strong sense of musicality, grandness and even an aggressive flavor—whether it’s for a “So You Think You Can Dance” routine or for a competition number at her mother’s studio, The Dance Club in Orem, Utah.


We caught up with her during New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in July (where her piece RoyalT was a finalist for a Critic’s Choice award) and asked her for tips and advice when it comes to creating competition choreography:


“Push your limits as a choreographer. Don’t be afraid to explore and try new movement. Do things that scare you because they’re just going to make you better as a choreographer.”


“I videotape a lot of my choreography, and I love watching how dancers do the movement. Everyone has their own style and way of moving. It helps me to see how a movement may need to feel or look different the next time that I work with them.”


“Musicality is so important—that’s where your bread and butter is. You have to show the lyrics, phrasing, transitions and swells in the song, and where the chorus goes into the bridge. It’s a choreographer’s job to heighten that and add to it. It’s like adding frosting to the cake.”


“You want to challenge your kids, but the goal should not be to want to win. You want them to get better—better technically, stylistically, musically and transitionally—so that it all falls into place. If your intentions are to win, you are going to end up choreographing differently.”


Click here for an exclusive video interview with Kelly Burke and footage of Westchester Dance Academy students in rehearsal and performance.


Hannah Maria Hayes is an NYC writer with an MA in dance education, American Ballet Theatre emphasis, from New York University.


Photo: Kelly Burke makes ballet the foundation of her winning choreography for Westchester Dance Academy. (by Rachel Papo)

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