Competition Zone | Nonconforming Contemporary

by Amber Perkins

I have a request for educators who create contemporary competition dances: please, please, please don’t limit yourself to what you think contemporary choreography is supposed to be. Despite what we might see onstage at competition after competition, not every piece of contemporary choreography has to be deep and dark!

Many of us are inspired to create a particular piece by a musical selection or song. But it’s the dancers’ movement—not the music on which the movement is placed—that determines whether a dance competes in the contemporary category, or in another category (such as jazz or lyrical).

And there is not just one style or tempo of music that is appropriate for contemporary dance. Long before I choreograph, I work with my dancers in the classroom, experimenting with different genres of music that aren’t typically linked with contemporary choreography, such as African drumming or techno.

Now that you understand you are free to use any music you choose, take a close look at your dancers’ movement qualities. I like to take a few technical elements that we have been working on in class and create movement phrases that layer emotional movement qualities on that technique. Work with your dancers to test the limits of their movement, take risks with phrasing, and make use of negative space. If my students are to develop as dancers and performers, they need to understand this balance of technical and artistic movement.

Allow knowledge of your students’ movement personalities to enrich your choreographic choices.

As you allow your dancers to explore their space and their own emotions, you will see their personalities begin to emerge in the dance. This is a beautiful thing to watch! Allow this knowledge of your students’ movement personalities to enrich your choreographic choices.

Now it’s time to choose a concept or theme for your choreography. The possibilities are endless. A concept based on the board game Chutes and Ladders could be upbeat and fun, while a depiction of the Holocaust will most likely be sad and serious. In either case, your dancers need to be able to identify with the subject matter if they are going to do a good job executing your vision.

Creating choreography isn’t always easy, especially if you are working with a large group of dancers who have different abilities and personalities. But it is our job as teachers and choreographers to choreograph a piece that is not only suited to our students’ abilities, but that also compliments the class’ overall energy.

For example, some years back I needed to create two duos for four of my advanced dancers (two males and two females). I decided to pair them up based on their personalities. For one duo I created a serious dance loosely based on the coming-of-age romance A Walk to Remember, set to slow, sad instrumental music from the movie’s soundtrack.

For my other two students, my class goofballs, I concocted an upbeat comedy dance for a butler and a maid set to music from the Pee-wee’s Big Adventure soundtrack.

The important point is to stay true to contemporary movement qualities while showcasing the personalities of your dancers. Remember: your best work will come from within, not from trying to emulate someone else. So get to know your dancers, get out of that box, and create!


A native of Norwich, New York, Amber Perkins owns Perkins School of the Arts and directs Phoenix Project Dance. Her choreography has earned numerous awards. She has a BFA in dance and BS in economics.