Professional dance companies, Broadway musicals, tap class at the local community center, your teenager’s high school… these are all places choreographers work and make art. The style of dance they create varies depending on the needs of the company they work with. Regardless, choreographers are highly skilled, creative professionals who help tell stories, evoke feelings and have fun with movement.
A choreographer is responsible for designing dance and movement. In many cases, this is in the context of a larger production. That might be a musical, a ballet or a concert that combines several pieces from one or more choreographers. Sometimes, a choreographer works with a company to help support a small moment on stage that requires dance or movement. And let’s not forget the special folks who teach dance classes to children. They don’t get nearly enough credit for choreographing dances that young people can shine in. No matter where a choreographer works, they need a certain amount of passion for dance, as well as the ability to teach large groups of people efficiently and effectively.
Before a choreographer can do anything, they need to understand the scale and scope of the work. Are they creating a new ballet? Choreographing movement for a musical? Restaging another choreographer’s work? It varies from gig to gig, and skilled choreographers always start with lots of questions about expectations.
Even if a choreographer is creating work for a standalone concert of only their own work, they still need to collaborate with lots of other artists like costume designers, lighting designers and the dancers themselves. For a theatrical production, a choreographer will need to collaborate with the director of the show to understand the vision so they can work seamlessly together.
In many instances, a choreographer is helping to tell a story through movement. Thinking about what they want the audience to feel or be moved by is a vital part of creating powerful choreography.
This seems obvious, but at some point, the choreographer has to actually make the dance. Many folks do this on their own, listening to the music they’re setting the dance to or looking at the score for the musical or ballet. Other choreographers — especially those making new work with professional dance companies — will spend at least some time with the dancers creating dance through improvisation exercises.
Knowing how to dance is one thing. Knowing how to teach dance is another. Choreographers have to understand the skill levels of the dancers they’re working with and then figure out the best way to teach the movements to those people. Professional dancers will learn quickly, but thinking ahead about how to present material will expedite the work even in a setting with folks who are pros.
This can be tricky, but it’s so important to understand when to push a dancer and when to pull back. A good choreographer can walk that fine line, creating trust with company members and making work that allows performers to shine.
A good choreographer is able to estimate how long they’ll need to teach and rehearse material and then stick to that timeline. Seasoned pros know that even the simplest choreography takes longer to teach than you really think it will, so planning ahead is incredibly important. In a situation where the choreography is part of a musical theatre production, taking the time to talk through rehearsal needs with all of the other artists working on a show will go a long way toward making sure there’s enough time and managing expectations if dance and movement sequences need to be simplified due to tight schedules.
The best choreographers are advocates for the dancers they’re working with. That might mean allowing time for an injury to heal or talking an insistent director out of a tricky move that young performers aren’t ready for. Taking good care of dancers might even require talking with a costume designer to make sure a costume fits properly and isn’t a tripping hazard. Knowing a choreographer is their advocate helps to build trust and lasting relationships with dancers that can last for many years — and shows — to come.
A choreographer is often a dancer in their own right. They may have performed with a dance company or as a musical theatre actor for a time. For a variety of reasons, other choreographers skip that time on stage and go straight to making dances for other people to perform. Generally, a choreographer will start out working as an assistant for a more seasoned professional before taking on the role of choreographing an entire show or concert on their own.
A choreographer knows a lot about a lot of different kinds of dances. While they tend to specialize in one style or another, choreographers need to know about a variety of techniques and traditions so they can best honor the story they’re trying to tell. The training never stops, and even the most seasoned choreographer continues to take dance classes and study to expand their knowledge.
Most choreographers who do that work as their main source of income have spent years of their lives training in dance classes, and many of them have degrees in performance. Depending on the kind of choreography someone is interested in, they might seek out a career in dance performance, dance education or musical theatre.
There’s a lot of time that goes into learning as much as possible about the art of dance as well as how the human body functions. Dancers and choreographers who earn college degrees are required to take courses in kinesiology and anatomy so they understand the complexities of creating movement.
Choreographers also tend to know a lot about music, and a choreographer for musical theatre can usually read music pretty well, too.
As with any job, the pay varies with the scale of the work. A choreographer who pops into one rehearsal for a couple of hours to help clean up a tiny little moment would make about $100 for the evening. Choreographing an entire musical should be much more lucrative. Your local high school isn’t going to pay as much as, say, a Broadway production. However, choreographing a show is a huge job. Fees can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
Leslie W. Price is a theatre artist, educator, and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on LinkedIn or visit her portfolio.