Teaching Tips

How to Overcome Choreographer's Block

Photo by Faye Chou, courtesy of Decadance Theater

Your spring show is three months away, Regionals are around the corner, and you have dozens of numbers to choreograph. But you're stuck. If this sounds familiar, don't worry—you are not alone. Some of today's most high-profile dancemakers are no strangers to choreographer's block. Next time, try these strategies to get yourself back on track.

1. Take a break. “Take personal time, even if it's just 20 minutes," says teacher and choreographer Rhonda Miller. “Have dinner, read a book, get a cup of coffee—anything that has nothing to do with dance." A few minutes elsewhere will give your brain a chance to rest and regroup.

2. Change your music. Using the same kind of music each year can make it difficult to find fresh ideas. So don't be afraid to throw out your music, even if you like it. Michelle Latimer, director of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, Colorado, chose a piece of music she loved. But after two weeks, she realized the choreography was too similar to some of her previous numbers. “I couldn't go any further," Latimer recalls. “When I went back the next week [with different music], everything opened up and started to flow."

3. Get in the mindset. Talk to kids in the age group for which you're choreographing. Check out what TV shows, music, music videos and movies they like. “Find out what they dig, what they're into," says Miller. Getting in the mindset of your students can kickstart your imagination.

4. Let it go—for now. If you're stuck on a certain section, put steps together as a placeholder that will get students from point A to point B. “You can come back to it later and fix it," says Miller. Keep a notepad of sections you need to revise. Chances are, inspiration will strike after you finish the piece.

5. Work during your most prolific time of day. Every artist is different. For some, the most creative hours are early in the morning. Others find that late at night is the golden time. Know your own habits, and schedule your life so that you can be in the studio when you're at your best.

6. Use an assistant choreographer. Ask an advanced dancer to assist you. “Pick a student you think is a creative mover—maybe a student who is great at improvisation," says Latimer. Give the dancer a movement phrase, with instructions to put his or her own spin on it. Working side-by-side with a younger dancer can reveal new possibilities.

7. Don't pre-choreograph. Latimer has found that choreographing before she gets into the studio makes her overthink. “If I think too much, I'm frozen," she says. “I usually pick a song, listen to it a few times and get a concept in my mind. Then I start from square one with my students. When you have the bodies there, your idea will shift dramatically because they move differently or can do more than you thought."

8. Focus on the narrative. Choose a central idea or storyline for each piece, and remind yourself of it when you're blocked. “You need something to take you through the number," says Robin Dawn Ryan, director of the Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts in Cape Coral, Florida. “If you just put the song on and choreograph, there's no connection to why you're choreographing."

9. Stay true to your style. A creative block can happen if you're trying to choreograph according to what you think the judges want to see or in the style of another choreographer. “One year I tried to choreograph in a way that wasn't me. It was the worst year I ever had," says Ryan. “When we try to be that other choreographer, the work won't feel good to our kids or to us."

10. Delegate. Like it or not, sometimes you can't do it all. Asking for help will do more than de-stress your life—it will make your dancers better. For instance, “if you have a unique style, everything can start looking the same. You don't want your kids to get bored," says Latimer. Mix it up by relying on faculty members and guest artists. Observing others in action can reinvigorate your own choreographic process and improve your students' versatility.

11. Trust your instincts. For Miller, the primary cause of choreographer's block is perfectionism. “I want it to be so good that I get in my own way," she says. “As teachers, we need to be reminded: Trust your ideas and your beliefs in the student or project. Don't doubt your artistic vision. Believe in yourself!"

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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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