Raise Your Routine Choreography Level Without Adding More Difficulty

by Mike Mastandrea

Seldom do I compose articles unless I have a real passion for the subject matter. Most recently, I wrote about “Putting Things in Perspective”, discussing director’s attitudes and goals towards dance team competitions. Now, simple rules of choreography are my pet peeve. For some of you, the following is a mere affirmation of what you already practice. For others, however, it may provide a little insight into good routine choreography especially from a judge’s viewpoint.

Recently, our office received a telephone call from a director-friend inquiring about why her routine did not receive a “Home Routine Award” at summer camp. Naturally, not wanting to offend this person, we spoke on a very professional plane discussing the general elements of what the staff (judges) looks for in a dance routine. What we did not say was that the routine was BORING! Not only did it violate rules of phrasing and transitions, but it was unexciting because the choreography did not pay attention to counter melodies and accents.

Following this conversation, I began to think about dance competitions and the topic of choreography in general. Personally, I have judged several local, regional, and state competitions for the past 17 years. In many instances, I can remember watching routines and wondering (to myself, of course), if the routine was choreographed to the same piece of music I was hearing, or if my ears were just deceiving me. In no way did the routine choreography portray the music playing. The dance could have been performed to just about anything. This same statement could be said endlessly by the judging panel at a competition. And, by the way, it applies equally to routines “professionally” choreographed.

In my estimation, one of the biggest problems with dance team choreography is the lack of attention paid to musical phrasing, syncopation, and accenting. Most directors and students chart the music in 8 count intervals but do not go the extra step to identify the foreground, middle ground and background within a musical piece as well as the melody and counter melody. Although we all use musical terminology, we sometimes may not fully understand the true meanings and applications of these terms. What is a musical phrase? It is a set of 8 counts (such as 2, 4, or 8) which expresses a specific rhythm, tempo, theme, or motif. It is these phrases and accents that distinguish one piece of music from another and make it interesting. Identifying the other elements of the music and designing specific choreography that features these sections will deeply enrich a performance. If one simply breaks down a piece of music into 8 count intervals and begins choreographing steps, the chances are great that many rules of movement will be violated. I would expect to see groups beginning new series of movements in the middle of phrases. This is akin to a student beginning a new paragraph in the middle of the same thought or adding a series of unnecessary commas to a simple sentence. It would make an English teacher’s “skin crawl”! Well, what do you think it does to a qualified dance team judge? Even a layman audience has an innate feel for phrasing and can tell when choreographed movements and steps fit the music.

Do not forget to utilize the accents and counter melodies in your choreography. How often do you hear students complain about teachers who speak in monotone? Boring is usually the word they use! The same principle applies to dance choreography. Routines can certainly be more interesting and visual without adding any more difficulty.

So much for the soapbox… What can one do to help ensure that his/her choreography is exciting and “song specific”? The following exercise may help develop this talent.

  1. Start by charting the 8 count intervals as usual.
  2. Proceed to phrase identification. How many distinct phrases does the music contain? Note tempo changes, rhythm changes and any differences in themes within the piece. Does the music contain interesting counter melodies?
  3. Locate the accents or stresses within the music. Be thinking of ways to choreograph steps, head movements, leaps, etc. to portray these accents.

If charting and dissecting music is not your forte, why not go to your band director and say, “I really want to improve my routine choreography and I could use your help. Would you listen to this piece of music and help me identify the foreground, middle ground, and background as well as counter melodies, phrases and accents”? Don’t you think that he/she would be flattered that you are requesting his/her assistance and expertise? This might even be the beginning of a great new relationship!

Donna and other members of my staff often tease me about my love of John Philip Sousa and college fight songs. Actually, listening to a series of college fight songs helped inspire this article. Descending from a long line of professional musicians has at least provided me with a good ear for music. I enjoy listening to the phrases, accents, and counter melodies in a piece of music as much as the harmony. If you ever listen to marches, notice the role of the trombone and in many cases, the woodwinds (flutes and piccolos). They give the piece life! Often, they “jazz up” an otherwise dull and monochromatic piece. Start going beyond the simple melody and pay attention to the extras… the salt and pepper, the secret seasonings, of the musical number. As an exercise, have your officers or team try to choreograph a routine, not to the regular 8 count intervals of the melody, but rather to the phrases, accents, etc. Naturally, all of these elements must blend. However, I guarantee you, ho-hum routines will become much more interesting and exciting. Your choreography will likely be appreciated 100% more even though you have not significantly increased the level of difficulty. And, you are sure to improve your scores with both your audience and the judge’s panel.

Mike Mastandrea
Owner and Executive Director of Marching Auxiliaries Dance Company
Guest Speaker and Writer for DTDA
Lifetime Achievement Award from TDEA