The Rights Stuff: Who Owns Choreography?
There I was, in another conversation about who owns choreography, the teacher or the studio. Sometimes I think this issue will never go away, doomed to be debated forever by two clans glaring at each other over an immovable fence.
Absent contractual language to the contrary, choreography is usually considered “work for hire” that belongs to the employer. A court ruled in 2002 that even choreographic genius Martha Graham didn’t legally own all the movement born in her head. But I don’t want to debate copyright law, intellectual property rights, or any other legal (or not) mumbo-jumbo. Instead, I want to make an ideal-world case for understanding, mutual respect, empathy, and common courtesy.
Say you’re a teacher. It’s mid-April and your recital dances are coming along nicely when you watch La La Land and decide to pursue your dream of movie stardom. Today. You’re leaving the studio, heading to California on the next available flight, and taking your recital choreography with you.
If such a case were brought before the court of common courtesy, I think you’d lose. It would probably be easier for you to get that Oscar nomination than it would be for the studio owner left behind to rechoreograph and reteach dance numbers during the prime weeks of softball season. So go and chase after your Hollywood dream—just leave your dances behind at the studio.
Now let’s consider empathy. Say you’re the studio owner. You know what it’s like to give birth to choreography. Themes come to you in dreams. Your feet work out steps under the kitchen table while you eat breakfast, and your hands tap out eight-counts on the steering wheel while you run errands. You know that choreography comes only through personal cost, just like a child—good or bad, it’s still your baby. Those feelings you have about your own choreography? Teachers feel the same way about theirs.
Which brings me to respect and understanding. As a teacher, I’m comfortable pouring my heart and soul into my choreography because I’ve had no reason to question the integrity of the studio owners I work for, but most important, because I view my choreography as a gift that I give to my students. If I were making the rules, I’d say that if you want to use my choreography, you’d have to ask them.—Karen White
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.
Cycles of Inspiration
There are days when I really love my job. For this issue, for example, I exercised editor-in-chief privilege to assign myself the delightful task of interviewing several of my favorite choreographers and master teachers for a feature story, “Cool & Contemporary.”
Despite their very busy schedules, Tyce Diorio, Teddy Forance, Mia Michaels, and Derrick Schrader all found time to talk with me about their work in dance and what the term “contemporary dance” means to them. They discussed the impact of social media and the internet on making—and owning, which resonates with Karen’s thoughts above—art. They explained the importance of music to their work and how they approach setting choreography. They offered advice for studio owners and dance teachers who are working in the classroom and choreographing. And they talked about how precious and important art is, not only in terms of how it inspires their own work, but how it can create cycles of inspiration among artists.
“Seeing art that moves and transports you can inspire you,” Diorio told me on the phone. “It elevates you. And that affects other people in your life and they are elevated in turn. We constantly keep inspiring one another, and that’s a great thing.”
Art isn’t only painting, or sculpture, or music, or dance. Education, too, is an art. And that means that the work you do as teachers, when shared, can elevate the art of teaching; you can inspire others and be inspired by them. By learning from and sharing with each other, we can create cycles of inspiration in dance education.
And that will result in many more of those days when we really love our jobs. —Thom Watson
DSL editor in chief Thom Watson is a San Francisco Bay Area–based aficionado of ballet, contemporary, and folk dance. He has also been an internet and social media executive and a political columnist.