Choreography Conundrum

Do songs move you? Or are you captured by costumes?

compiled by Debra Danese

When it’s time to choreograph, we all look for the idea that will spark our creativity. Inspiration doesn’t always come quickly—or easily. Here at Dance Studio Life we noticed that when it comes to recital choreography, some teachers start with a piece of music, while others take their cues from costumes. So which comes first—the music or the costume?

We asked some veteran teachers about their methodology. Here’s what they had to say.


Sam Sinns, owner, Twirl, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Dance recitals at Twirl are extensively themed, so I ping-pong between choosing the song or costume first. When I am rock solid on a song that’s perfect for a class, I’ll search for the right costume. Other times I look to the costume company websites for inspiration. Acro is big at my studio and appropriate costumes are hard to come by, so I search the costume websites to see what will work and go from there. I also commonly choose the costume first for my Down syndrome dance program. My costume choices are limited because students in these classes have a wide variety of body types and sensory issues. I’ll sift through costume choices that will work for these students, and then explore song options that suit both the costume and recital theme.

I actually like situations where I have to choose costumes first because it can be a great exercise in creativity. I’m forced to ask myself, “What’s something really cool and different that I can do with this costume and will also fit our recital theme?” Last season a new student joined a class right before we cut off registration. The costume was unavailable in her size, yet was so specific to the song that I had to scrap the whole idea, cancel the class’ costume order, and go in a completely new direction. It was frustrating, but situations like that keep me on my toes creatively.

“I actually like situations where I have to choose costumes first because it can be a great exercise in creativity.” —Sam Sinns

Janice Brougher-Roos, owner/artistic director, Studio ’91, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: It’s sort of the chicken or the egg. I go between both; however, I would say the music is what inspires me most. You know what music the kids like and what they get excited about. I’m always working on music ideas, but I do like to get my costumes selected and organized by the beginning of October. If we can’t find a costume that goes well with a song, we will change the song, or vice versa.


April Spisak Nelson, owner/artistic director, Spisak Dance Academy, Glendale, Arizona: I set the recital theme first. My teachers submit song choices for approval, then have three months to select costumes from five costume companies. (We’ve always been able to find what we need.) My mom started the studio in 1960 and we have been doing it this way for 58 years. I think inspiration is different for everyone—sometimes it’s nothing more than a random thought.


Allison Kofke, instructor, Shannon Cooper’s Academy of Dance, Coatesville, Pennsylvania: I usually pick costumes first, unless I have a song idea and a class that can pull it off. Many of the costume names are song titles, so I’ll use that as my music inspiration. I don’t always pick that song, but it’s a starting point. Once in a while I’ll find a song first and build off of that, but typically I start with costumes because there are more song choices than there are costume choices—and because I often find myself stuck when picking songs. Sometimes the students inspire me. If I have a class that is very good at performing, I will pick something a little showier. When picking songs for little ones (2- to 3-year-olds), I usually try to pick something they enjoy listening to because then they are more likely to dance to it.


Marla Kay, owner, Elements Dance Factory, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania: I prefer to use one costume company that I find to be the most reliable for recital. I look at the costumes first and it sometimes helps me decide which song I might use, or not use, that year. I also let all of my teen classes have a say in what music they would like to dance to. I let them write the names of their top three song picks and sometimes that helps me decide as well.

“I know I have found the perfect song when I immediately start to visualize the choreography as I am listening to it.” —Debra Danese

Kirstin Casey, owner, Dance-N-Groove, Hutto, Texas: We mostly start with songs because our end-of-year show has a theme. However, the costume choices help to determine which class uses a particular song. Sometimes a costume fits a song perfectly, but it will look better on babies than on the older dancers, or better fit the shape of dancers in one class. I love matching costumes to songs—we find it easier that way. Occasionally we’ll find a costume that we really want to use, and then find the song to go with it. My students also inspire me; sometimes the students and I listen to possible songs in class and I watch their reactions.


Raelyn Joyner, owner/director, Northern Illinois Dance Center, Sycamore, Illinois: First we pick our recital theme. Last season our theme was NIDC’s Billboard Hits, and teachers could choose songs from any Billboard Top 100. Teachers choose their class’ costumes from two companies—they must fall within our modesty standards and budget. We have always done it this way—for us, it just flows easily. I want to give teachers a bit of freedom to exercise their artistic expression.


And one final comment from the author, Debra Danese: My inspiration always starts with the music. I teach a variety of levels and dance styles, and all of that influences my song choices. I hunt for tempos and time signatures that will be easy to follow for my pre-dance and kinder classes. For my older, advanced students, I search for music that has interesting changes in dynamics and mood so that I can play around with musicality and movement phrases. I know I have found the perfect song when I immediately start to visualize the choreography as I am listening to it.


Debra Danese is a full-time teaching artist who holds multiple certifications and degrees in dance.