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Getting Your Groove Back: Busting Through Choreographer’s Block

Jessica Goepfert, Director, Cambridge Dance Company

Dancers and choreographers are inherently creative people.  We are artistic, playful, sometimes eccentric, and accustomed to working with (and around) constrained resources. Many of us dance simply for the pure joy of it and work hard with little to no monetary incentive.  It seems unjust, then, that we are not impervious to the dreaded choreographer’s block.  How can this art form that brings us joy, peace and freedom also be a source of such frustration, anxiety and paralysis?

Choreographer’s block can occur for any number of reasons: distractions from other obligations or life events, lack of inspiration, a flawed concept or perhaps an over-ambitious project. Whatever the cause, there is no silver bullet to remedy it.  But rest assured that the condition is virtually always temporary.  As we learned from Austin Powers, your mojo is within, Baby.  Like a nervous puppy, it just needs a little coddling and coaxing to make its way out.

To help you get your groove back, I asked Cambridge Dance Company members for their tried and true tactical tips.  Got swagger already?  Be sure to comment and share your favorite ways to get back into the rhythm!

  • Get Literal.  If your music has lyrics, listen to the words and literally dance them out.  Simplistic as it sounds, it can be a useful way to convey your message.  Recognizable gestures and sign language are also great tools to both communicate your vision and to inspire choreography.
  • Change Your Tune.  Try putting on a different song, ideally nothing like your chosen music.  Work out a phrase or two and then retrofit the movement to the actual song.
  • Go Gangnam Style.  Why not open up the creative process to your dancers and try crowdsourcing?  Perhaps one of the most well-known current examples of this technique is the iconic invisible horse move that serves as the hallmark of PSY’s Gangnam Style phenomenon.  PSY turned to the K-pop community for ideas, and the rest is viral YouTube history.  Provide some stylistic guidelines and a framework and then set your dancers free to create the movement.  You can then decide when and how to incorporate the choreography.  Who knows what hidden gems this will unearth? Maybe the next Elvis Hip Shuffle or Axl Rose Snake Dance awaits your discovery!
  • Begin at the End. Or the middle. Or anywhere other than where you’re stuck. Experiment with a non-linear process if you tend to choreograph beginning to end. Jump into the part of the music that moves you or for which you have an idea and worry about connecting the dots later. If you tend to gravitate towards a more fragmented process, start with the beginning and work your way to the end to see if it helps you focus your vision and structure your piece.
  • Break Your Own Rules.  Sometimes the very idea which motivated us in the first place is itself the problem.  Is a prop becoming too confining?  Are your characters too rigidly defined?  Try loosening the rules a little bit, even if just temporarily, and allow yourself to take more liberties. The movement will start flowing, and you can still maintain the integrity of the concept.
  • Change Your Venue.  Feeling stifled by the walls of your kitchen or living room?  Perhaps a change of venue is in order.  See if you can snag a couple of hours somewhere different.  If a studio is not an option, consider a public space like a park.
  • Recycle.  Purposeful repetition of certain movements, phrases or gestures that are emblematic of the piece as a whole can be effective. Rather than just repeating parts exactly as they were done the first time, consider ways to modify it.  Reverse it from left to right or front to back.  Try morphing a standing phrase to work on the floor, or vice versa.  Make it travel.  Make it stationary.  Or, try juggling the order of the counts.  For instance, if you have 4 counts of 8 – call them A, B, C and D – the second time see what happens if you shuffle the order to be D,A,C and B.
  • Go Away.  True for almost any problem – artistic, professional, personal or otherwise – taking a short break might just be the shot in the arm you need.  Rumor has it that Einstein came up with the theory of relativity while riding a bicycle.  What will YOU invent?
  • Get to the Root.  Most current dance styles and genres of music emerged from somewhere, and exploring this history could help aesthetically ground your piece. Breakdancing, hip-hop, and salsa, for instance, are all derivatives of African dance.   Perhaps taking an African dance class or seeing a show will inspire new movement or strengthen your connection to the music.
  • Steal From the Best…And Then Make It Your Own.  Or, as Picasso put it, “Good artists copy, but great artists steal.” Leveraging steps from a video, dance class or another piece is probably the easiest, fastest, go-to approach when stuck in a rut, but it can also be viewed as a taboo topic that choreographers quite literally dance around.  Let’s be clear: it is never cool to “borrow” a significant amount of choreography from another work; this tactic does nothing to promote the art of dance.  Be sure to take the movement or concept and add your own interpretation to it, transform it to match your persona.  In this way, you have truly made it your own and not just duplicated what has already been done.

Regardless of the approach taken, the most important takeaway is to cast your judgment aside for the moment and Just. Get. Moving.  Bust out your best Lady Miss Kier psychedelic attire, don your devil-may-care attitude and remember that Deee-lite said it best: Groove IS in the heart. Dig.