Budding choreographers learn basics in choreography class
by Joseph Carman
Jessica Totaro had taught for three years at Dance for Joy studio in Brielle, New Jersey, when she decided she wanted to pass on the choreographic skills that she had honed while earning her BFA at Rutgers University. Totaro approached studio owner Kimberly Houli about initiating a choreography class. Five years later, the results have been impressive.
Here Totaro shares with Dance Studio Life how guiding young students to create their own choreography enhances their dance education and sense of self.
“I wanted to encourage dancers to create without self-judgment.” —Jessica Totaro
Why was teaching choreography class a priority for you?
Unless you go to a high school that offers performing arts, many dance students don’t get this opportunity. I wish I had learned these skills—working with improvisation, learning ABA format, or using retrograde [a choreographic device where movements are performed backward, like rewinding a video]—before I went to college.
What ages do you work with?
I decided to start with the older girls the first three years I ran the classes, just because of their skill level. But in the last two years we’ve opened a class for a younger level, with the youngest student at about age 10.
What is the difference in the levels now?
We have a first year and second year. The advanced (second year) class is for juniors and seniors, plus other eligible dancers who want to pursue dance in college. The advanced class gets the experience of choreographing on each other without being in their own piece, so they learn how to dictate and generate movement by using their dancers or a concept. The older girls created duets on each other, so we picked some of those duets to perform in the February student choreography showcase and to submit to the student choreography division of a competition.
A great thing about the student showcase is that I say, “You do what we do. You sit in the house, you figure out your lighting, your costuming, your spacing, give the dancers notes afterward.” They get that full choreographic experience of getting to see their piece come to life onstage.
What is the format of the class?
The class is an hour once a week. It’s usually the last class of the night, because by then students can unwind and they can use both hemispheres of the brain. They’re warm and ready to move.
A lot of the class is improvisation. I require the students to bring a notebook to every class. I don’t collect or look at the notebooks but I encourage students to keep them as their personal journals. At the start of the class I have them write about their dance studies—something that they learned or that excited them—or to reflect on something that challenged them. Then I will give them a famous quote by an influential artist, dancer, or writer, and open up the class for conversation on how that relates to dance.
Next we work on the basics. For example, with the younger class we’ll do one exercise all about time for the first week. The next week will be space. The following week will be energy. After that, we’ll go through different formats like ABA format—start how you end, end how you start. I have them watch each other a lot and encourage them to talk about dance without giving an opinion, to avoid words like “I liked it” or “didn’t like it.” They can speak about levels, the relationship between each dancer, use of negative space—observations instead of judgment.
Do they get to show their work at the recital?
The class is geared toward creating work for the student choreography showcase that happens in February, but they also perform in their own dances in the year-end recital. They are the choreographers; their names are in the program—it’s just guided by me.
How did you develop a methodology for these classes?
I wanted to encourage dancers to create without self-judgment. The beginner class is usually more exercise-based and they work individually or with small groups. As they get older, they’re more in tune with their emotions and bigger topics in life and we figure out how we can generate movement from their experiences.
How does improvisation figure into the classes?
I’m huge for improvisation and Kimberly and I have been talking about having that as a class on its own. I do a lot of body scans, initiating with the head or different body parts. I do a lot of level work with students—low, medium, high. We work with negative space, so if someone makes a shape, the choreographer uses another dancer to find the negative space—which introduces partnering without touching. Sometimes I’ll start out with a light improvisation by having them travel using just one body part. Or using their musicality skill sets—I’ll have them listen to the first 30 seconds of a piece of music, replay it, and have them create movement off of the instruments they’re hearing. It starts their brains buzzing.
Do they choose their own music for their choreography?
When they are creating movement individually, I’ll play one song, mostly instrumental—nothing too emotional—with a constant beat and good energy, to generate pure movement, so they don’t get that outside influence of words. I’m sometimes a little more lenient with the older girls. If there are words in it, I usually say no.
What are the teaching challenges and concepts that are difficult to grasp?
In the first or second week they sometimes are a little shy, but I always prompt the class. I find writing helps in the very beginning. I open up a conversation so everyone gets a turn to speak. I always say, “Everything you make up is correct, because it’s coming from you, not from me.” I explain it like a coloring book: “I’m just giving you the outline and you get to fill it in however you please.” That lessens the anxiety.
Have you been pleased with the results?
One hundred percent! I could cry thinking about it. Since we started these classes there have been so many students interested in going to a conservatory and trying out summer programs. My alumni come back and say how prepared they are for college and for improvisation class. I have a lot of college freshman now who are asked to be in senior pieces, or faculty and guest choreographers’ pieces, because they’re so prepared.
Does the talent surprise you?
Yes. This year, there’s a girl in eighth grade who has blossomed. She took my choreography class for the first time this year. She’s choreographing a piece for the student showcase, setting up her own rehearsals. She has 10 dancers; her notebook is filled with all these ideas. She asked me to watch her piece and I couldn’t believe how clean it was. Just the concepts and the music she picked—for an eighth-grader to have that depth of understanding of what she wants in her piece was incredible.
Some students don’t have that voice for their technique but they have it for their creativity. Those students who find their creativity at a young age start excelling in their dance classes because they feel that “aha” moment of dance.
Do you have any advice for instructors who want to teach choreography?
It’s super important to keep an open mind and allow your students to create and show what they’ve created. This program has been so successful at this studio because the owner has allowed me to guide the students without feeling restricted. So the advice is to stay open, trust your students, and give them the proper outline and guidance, and they will generate the ideas you really want them to come up with.
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.