In Good Shape

The formations your students assume onstage provide both a framework and a solid foundation on which to build a dazzling dance number. As a crucial tool for creating visual effects, formations can be one of the best ways to connect with audiences. “Non-dancers relate more to the visual aspect of the piece rather than its level of difficulty,” explains Arizona-based Sarah Dimmick, who teaches all forms of dance at Dobson High School, Arizona State University and Mesa Community College. “Playing with formations, spacing and level changes makes the piece look more complex.”

Many choreographers also find formations to be an effective way of conveying narrative or theme. “In order to relay your message to the audience, you have to determine how you’re going to manipulate the space,” says Jennifer Walker, director of the Dancer’s Workshop in Jackson, Wyoming. “In terms of space and design, I try to either build contrast or present a harmonious approach. Unison formations are more direct and strong, whereas layering the foreground and background creates depth.”

No matter what the story or tone of your piece, there are a few rules of thumb for whipping formations into shape. DT consulted several choreographers for their experienced take on the topic.


Call on the unexpected.
Though triangles and staggered lines are faithful standbys, it may be time to deviate from the norm. Creative use of level changes, unique shapes and transitions are more likely to keep audience members and competition judges engaged. “Something that pops is visually pleasing to people,” says Benjamin Allen, who teaches jazz funk and hip hop for Muse Dance Company and at L.A.’s EDGE Performing Arts Center. “For instance, you may want to hide a row of dancers behind the front row, and on a musical accent, have them shoot through the center. Ultimately, it’s all about the element of surprise.”


Consider lines of sight.

The effectiveness of your formations may vary, depending on the type of venue. In a stadium or gym, spectators are able to view your routine from all angles, whereas on a stage, performances are more frontally oriented. Dimmick, who is also a member of the WNBA Phoenix Mercury dance team, always keeps this in mind when choreographing pieces that will be performed at the U.S. Airways Center. “In an arena, there’s no such thing as a back row,” she says. “Lines have to be perfectly straight, perfectly staggered. No matter where you’re standing, you’re going to be seen.”

Think about points of entry.
On a proscenium stage, choreographers can take advantage of the wings to allow groups to enter from different sides. Upstage and downstage areas should also be utilized fully to create more contrast. Walker recalls a modern solo in which this was used especially dramatically: “Starting downstage facing the back wall, I dragged a piece of fabric while walking slowly upstage. From there, dynamic movement began to happen, pulling me diagonally away from the fabric. The material was my way of defining the space as I moved away from it. You can also do that with people and formations; sometimes our relationship to other dancers is about constructing the space.”


Transition with care.

From symmetrical to asymmetrical shapes, it’s important to present a variety of formations in each routine. To ensure seamless transitions from one to another, dynamic movement must be incorporated into the choreography, because simply walking from one formation to another can be tedious for audiences. Allen offers the following suggestion: “Know your choreography and which parts of the music are conducive to moving. Especially in hip-hop routines, there are a lot of traveling steps that visually look good and can transport you from one formation to the next.” Dimmick agrees: “I really like it when I see a piece and you can’t even tell a transition happens. Too many times, we make it easy and jazz walk into the next formation. Transitions need to be an organic part of the choreography.”


Play the numbers game.

Selecting the right formations may also depend on the size of your group. Small groups make it easier to diversify formation shapes, while space constrictions often present challenges for large groups of 20 or more. For bigger teams, choreography may need to be divided into small sections in order to break things up visually, whereas smaller groups may benefit from a close-knit, unified presentation.


Focus on the look of the movements.

Tight, intricate choreography tends to look best in close clusters, while bigger movements call for wider spacing. When choreographing, Walker takes time to figure out how formations fit into the bigger picture. “It’s your obligation to understand what you want to register to the audience,” says Walker. “To show determination or goal orientation, you might want your groups to move on a more angular path. Smoothness and roundness of shapes may give a more meandering feeling to the piece.”


Keep things in check.

Leaps and turns can make it far too easy for formations to spin out of control—especially in more technical routines. So how can you keep formations clean through difficult sequences? Allen suggests placing your strongest dancers front and center, as they can act as a spatial anchor for the others. Encouraging students to use their peripheral vision is also an important tactic in maintaining uniformity. 


Be open to change.

After spending months choreographing, it’s natural to be somewhat attached to initial formation ideas and visions. Though preliminary storyboarding  can be helpful, the most striking formations may result from the working progress. Says Walker, “As a choreographer matures, I think your piece just unfolds naturally. You can go into the studio with a great idea, but if you hold it too rigid, it can backfire. Allowing yourself to experiment can take your piece to a new place.”


Remember, using formations smartly in your choreography will help convey your message to the audience and keep them visually engaged. With a little careful planning, creativity and an open mind, you can maximize their impact. DT


Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles.  Her website is www.creative-groove.com.

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