Learning Other Peoples' Choreography

I get asked on a not infrequent basis to create videos teaching prop spinners how to add more dance into their work. It’s really flattering, not the least of which because from where I’m sitting I’m a pretty mediocre dancer, but it’s also a really massive challenge. Learning how to dance is without a doubt the single hardest thing I’ve learned in my adult life and part of what makes it so hard is that it really can’t be taught as a step-by-step process unlike many other things I’ve learned in my life.

There’s really no set standard by which dance is judged to be good or bad--it’s in the eyes of the audience and the same piece can be seen as powerful by some or self-indulgent by others. So much of dance is built on feel and there’s really no way to get that without dancing. A lot. Like, a lot a lot.

A series on dance and the flow arts is in the works, but it’s taking a while. Every once in a while, though, I do get reminded of one or two little tricks that can help you through that process--this past week featured one such case and I wanted to share it with you because it’s both really easy to do as well as something that’s really rare in the flow arts world.

It’s to learn someone else’s choreography.

The idea of copying someone else’s creative work is super common in many other creative pursuits. When I was learning how to write songs, I’d do it by learning to play other peoples’ songs. When I was learning to write, I’d do it by copying the styles of other writers that I admired.

It’s really common for us to learn tricks that people we respect do, but actually stringing them together into a complete piece is both much more rare. It could be that this is seen as too derivative or in danger of ripping said artist off, or it could be that it requires a type of discipline that we as flow artists are just kind of unused to.

It came up for me because I saw a short movement phrase the other day on Instagram that had been published by the Russian Double Staff channel Double What. In general, I’m a huge fan of the work these guys are doing because it’s super entertaining, their tutorials are great, and they’re among the few flow arts content creators that actually maintain a consistent release schedule.

The piece they’d uploaded was of some Double Staff choreography performed with a group of students and it did a number of things I’ve been trying to work on in my own choreography and haven’t succeeded in pulling off. This past weekend, I decided to learn this choreo and I was then inspired to write my own that connected to it. In the past few days, I’ve continued to add to this movement phrase and what I’m coming up with feels as though I’m well on my way to writing a complete double staff piece, which would be my first ever with this tool!

Here’s the thing: learning someone else’s work is a great way to find the way that you work. You can take what feels right and apply it to the stuff you’re writing. You can see what works in their choreography and try to take those same a ha moments and apply them to what your own work.

I’m not saying you need to get onstage and perform the exact same piece that someone else wrote--that’s not cool unless they’ve given you permission, but I am saying that if you’re having a tough time working on your own choreography, learning someone else’s can be a great way to teach you the things you need in order to get there.

Because dance is so incredibly subjective, it can even be difficult to explain why this technique for learning works so well. But I think at the very least learning someone else’s choreography accomplishes the following three things for you:

  1. It strings together moves for you--a lot of us have problems seeing how things fit together and by drawing upon the work of someone who’s already done it we can begin to do this work ourselves.
  2. It gets you moving--it’s not uncommon to experience some form of writer’s block and that can feel very paralyzing. Learning someone else’s work at least gets you moving and putting ideas into your body. It can jump start the creative process.
  3. It teaches you something. Everybody moves in an unique fashion and by learning to move like someone else, it tells you a lot about what does and does not feel natural to the way you move.

Nobody pops out of the womb creating great art--you have to learn the steps that go into it somehow. Learning from someone else’s work is a good way to do so.

What are some of your favorite methods for learning dance or integrating it into your work as a flow artist? Let me know down in the comments.

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