April 09, 2011

Routines 101 ©

The Components You Must Possess
For a Truly Amazing Routine

Dancing can reveal all the mystery that music conceals. -Charles Baudelaire

I rarely enjoy anything as much as I enjoy choreographing. Besides the people, it is the thing I miss most about my owning my own studio. It was life changing, empowering and incredibly satisfying to choreograph all day long… Foxtrot, Cha Cha, Waltz, West Coast Swing and Salsa... everything!

Then love, marriage and life happened. Now that I'm traveling for the WCS community again, it’s been a little shocking. I'm discovering that many widely known benefits and expectations of putting a routine together have been lost over the years. Things that used to be universally known or expected are now, I’m discovering, completely lost and forgotten.  I’ve found this to be true for much of our dance, not just the area of routines and choreography, but I shall address that in the future.

But if you or someone you know is interested in doing a West Coast Swing routine, and you want to get the most out of it that you can, here are some things you should know before you even pick a partner, never mind a song or a choreographer.

Whether you're starting on this journey to get better, to make your partner happy, to showcase your accomplishments or to make your coach happy, at the heart of it all you really have only one goal that matters: to put YOUR best foot forward. The audience will only see YOU. And nobody else can be you. Nobody! And that's a GREAT thing!

West Coast Swing is stunning in its ability to showcase your individuality within its strict parameters. So the main goal of your routine should be to showcase your strengths, your stylings, your lines, your footwork and your own personality.

I have choreographed routines for students with movements that look terrible on me. Don’t roll your eyes. I have enough students do that. I’m serious- there are moves that I would never ever, in a million years, allow myself to be videotaped doing, never mind putting into a routine of mine to be played repeatedly by others. However, those moves have often worked for others beautifully. If they look fantastic on my student, I’m putting it in.

Take my husband Nick versus my dance partner Josh. Both Nick and I have long forearms, but very short upper arms. When we do routines together, such as our Salsa routine, there are drops, tricks and moves that work, and then quite a few that don’t. However, Josh has super long slim arms. They eliminate certain moves Nick and I do, but they also open up quite a few moves Nick and I cannot do without my head getting caught in his armpit or my hair tangled in his wrist. Naturally a lot of this is learned the hard way, but it’s an expected part of the routine process.

In short, choreography is sometimes about your dance level, but quite often it’s about other things you can’t change. When Josh and I first partnered up, we’d never really danced together. So I videotaped us dancing to a few songs, and very quickly noticed that our legs were the exact same length. If you know my routines, you’ll notice that I very much capitalized on that in my choreography. But I also noticed that our arms were completely and utterly different. Therefore I had to eliminate all “in-sync” arm stylings. If Josh’s arm was up in a long line, my arm would stay down in its own line, not parallel to his, as you see here.

(available in book version)
Choreography that capitalized on our strengths and smoothed over our differences: arms vs. legs, etc. (Photo by Kermit Dukes)

Any choreographer should know about these expected similarities and differences, and be able to see it. Even if they can’t explain why as I just did, they should understand certain moves and stylings don’t work on every single couple they give choreography to.

Yes, long distance choreography is popular today. You send music to a choreographer and they send you a video with your choreography back. If that’s the case, then you need to choose your choreographer very wisely, or be prepared to change your choreography accordingly, either on your own or with another coach or choreographer.

Because of the Universal Goal, I’ve also choreographed routines to music that doesn't move me, but it moves my students. It’s not difficult to do, unless the music doesn’t match the kind of dance they want choreographed. For example, a wedding couple brings in “At Last” as their wedding song, and they want a Cha Cha routine.

Okay, that’s an extreme example, but still, people today rarely know what kind of music works with what kind of dance (thank you very much, Dancing with the Stars and “iPod” DJ’s!). I’ve been lucky to work with couples who have had, for the most part, swingable songs. And though they don’t match my tastes, I can tell how much a couple loves their song. And so I wrap the choreography around their passion for it so that the audience can see their hearts on the floor.

I remember one couple that had already won the US Open in their division. They were trying a completely new direction and had received choreography for a 100% lyrical song. But they loved it. I mean, they really really loved this song. Even though it was chosen for them by somebody else, I could see that it made them want to feel. But they held back. And since the song wasn’t swing, it made the choreography they’d been given seem awkward.

Yes, I fixed a lot of the choreography, but my biggest change was to how they approached the song while dancing. I said, “Look, you love this song. I can see it. Don’t hide it! Let it envelop and fill you all the way through and just groove to it while you dance it. I want you to get totally lost in the song.” And so they did. And it gave me goose bumps.

Later, when they did their next “demo” in preparation for the Open, my own coach came up to me and said they had tears in their eyes after watching them. She said, “I didn’t know they could dance like that.” Exactly. It wasn’t a swing song, and it was hardly a swing dance, but all of that and the awkwardness it would normally have produced made the performance one of their best yet. As a judge, my job would have been easy, but as an audience member, I would have thoroughly enjoyed seeing “them,” in all their joy and passion, enjoy their song the way only they could.

(Imagine if they did that with a real swing song and a real swing routine! Oh my. I believe it would’ve brought the house down! And they would’ve placed much higher. There is nothing on this planet like watching swing dancers jam out their alive-ness in full expansion, with unfettered feet, against a ridiculously awesome swing song. It’s better than a triple shot of espresso, and it’ll charge you with so much energy you won’t be able to sleep that night! But I digress…)

The fact remains that no matter who you are, no matter what your background, level or experience, it’s vital that you understand this one thing before anything else.

If you are going to invest the money, the time, the training and the practicing... make sure you keep one goal in mind: to be yourselves. Never underestimate an audience. They know if you are pretending to be somebody else. And never underestimate the power of your "true self." It will fight you every step of the way if you try to be something you're not. You'll reduce your hours of investment, practice and coaching while increasing your enjoyment and benefits of the routine by taking the steps to ensure that it reflects YOU… and no one else.

This may sound obvious, but at the core you are doing a DANCE routine. Whether or not you're competing or simply showcasing your routine, never forget that you're doing a dance routine. So pick a song that makes you want to do just that: DANCE. And no, head-bobbing doesn’t count. It has to make you want to get off the couch, not lay back on it.

Trust me, whatever song or combination of songs you pick, you will end up hearing it a million-ba-jillion times before you ever perform it. You'll hear it at slow speeds, at fast speeds, in your head while you take a shower and in your head while trying to go to bed. If it inspires you to dance, and dance now, you'll enjoy the entire routine process and every performance a lot more than if not.

I am not a morning person. Not even a little bit. I don’t now how in the world I survived teaching high school and I don’t now how in the world I’ll ever survive kids. When the sun rises, I get tired and when it falls, I start to rev up. So when I have to stumble out of bed for a 6 AM floor trial with only three hours of sleep, I’ve never had to worry about not having the energy to practice. I put in the time and the work to get the right song. I know that, without a doubt, I'm going to want to dance no matter what the moment the DJ hits play.

The same applies to you. If you’re a morning person, then you’re going to have to be ready to dance at 11 PM at night. Either way, have a song that starts your engine is everything. Help yourself out and take the time to pick the right song ahead of time. It's worth the investment.

While we’re on the subject of music, let me let you in on a little secret. We pros with real training know that you choreograph, practice and rehearse to music that is 2% slower than what you will actually perform to on stage. You see, we know that adrenaline will make the speed you’re used to feel like mud when you’re out there.

Some pros no longer do this in WCS because they are no longer nervous. They know exactly how they are going to place or there is very little at stake. Others no longer do this because they are no longer energized by their routines or the crowd. But the majority of the real professionals dance it at 1 or 2% up from what they practice to, and for everyone else, 2% is considered the hard and fast rule. And what a little nugget of gold that rule is. I can’t even tell you. It’s quite the performance booster.

So if your song is 130 bpm, you may want to practice and choreograph at 2% down and then make a CD with your song at its normal speed. Or, as most people do, practice and rehearse at its normal speed, and then ask the DJ at the event to increase it by 2% when they play it. NOT at floor trials, mind you, but only for the big show. Trust me, you won’t notice a difference out there at all! The adrenaline will make it feel as if it’s the normal speed you’ve been practicing to all along, which will give your performance a much greater shot at being smooth and powerful.

I'm not going to lie. Partnerships are not easy. They are like marriages. They take mutual work, conviction, love, honor, respect and humor to run smoothly. I think I've seen a perfectly equal partnership on all fronts... twice. I learned very early on that for every two minutes we see of a partnership on the convention floor, there are hundreds to sometimes thousands of hours that we aren't seeing of that partnership. But it’s those hours that really matter, much more than those 2.5 minutes on the floor.

So here's the deal: everyone's different. Some people need a 50/50 partnership. Some can handle 90/10 partnerships. Decide what you can handle and grab a partner that fits. Be aware that most partnerships break up before they ever make it to the floor. There's no shame in that at all. Have pride for trying because you will have learned a lot no matter how far into the process you made it. It's worth the risk.

Keep this in mind, too. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, height, hair color and body types are NOT the thing to look for in a partner. All of that can be solved in choreography and costuming. Michelle Kinkaid was more than a full head taller than Phil Trau when they won the US Open Classic Division three times in a row. They rocked it like nobody’s business out there. Lance Shermoen, the King of the US Open, danced with more than three different partners over two decades, none of whom looked anything alike, and all of whom were phenomenal dancers. Yes, all of the routines looked different, just as they should have, but they were all amazing. Looks and levels don’t matter. Those can be worked around in routines.

What does matter? Abuse. You absolutely must be on the lookout for that. Routines are highly stressful projects. The tend to bring out the absolute worst in the absolute best of us. No one is immune. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse and mental abuse... these are the greatest pitfalls of routines. Learn how recognize the signs, how to protect yourself and when to walk away. If you have a partner that respects and honors you, no matter what their level, you can get an incredibly satisfying and even highly successful routine experience.

Oh there are so many things to know about choreography! Especially in today’s environment. It is only too easy to pay a ton of money and get a routine you can’t dance all the way through after even as much as a month of practicing. Now, more than ever, you must be attentive, aware and ready when it comes to choreography.

Here are the things to know:

A) If you plan on hiring a choreographer, remember that you don't have to pick only one.

Some couples have two, three or even four choreographers work on their routine. But whoever you work with, be aware that it's easy to be intimidated and accept changes, choreography or music out of fear (submission) rather than trust (joy). I don’t think people understand how much fear controls their decisions in today’s climate.

One of my most life-changing lessons was that a business attracts people who are like the person who owns it. We’ve had Nissies running and winning things for more than decade now, and so we’ve spent the last decade slowly but surely losing teachers who are healthy and helpful and replacing them with Nissy instructors, who are more interested in their own visions and desires than they are in you and your success.

As a result, it will be quite easy, no matter where you live, to end up getting choreography from a Nissy. And you will instinctively fear them enough to stay quiet. Very quiet. Watch what your body does when you are around them. It will tell you wonders. Last year, for example, I was working on a couple’s routine for the US Open. They were taking with another coach at the same time. At floor trials, as I worked with them, they were open, giddy and asking a lot of questions. They had freedom.

Then it was time for me to work with another couple. I went up into the bleachers. As I waited for the couple to take the floor, I noticed that the “other” coach had approached the couple I was just working with. My jaw dropped. The woman’s shoulders were wrapped tight around her body. Both of them were kind of hunched over. The coach was chattering away super fast as I’ve seen him do before, even with me. But I’m strong enough that I’m not afraid of him, and I can chatter away right back rather easily. But the couple never said a word. Literally. I think she kind of nodded her head at one point, but for the most part, they were caught in his Nissy tractor beam. They looked deflated by the meeting, the exact opposite effect you want from a coach. But he was a ‘name,’ and he had youthful energy, so still and quiet they stayed. In fear.

How unfortunate. And how easily avoidable! So take note. Fear will slow you down, cost you more and paralyze you. A good coach and choreographer will make you feel empowered and excited about getting on the floor. Remember, this is your routine. It’s your time and it’s your money and it’s your performance. Only. Nobody else's.

As the old saying goes, “the only one who can fight for you is… YOU.” If you fight to choose your choreographer wisely before you begin, as in doing some research, taking some privates to see how they operate or asking around… you’ll save yourself the pain of breaking up with the choreographer in the middle of the routine. You might have change mid-choreography, but be assured that this happens so incredibly often these days, that I’ve never heard of a single pro asking where their couple has gone once they’ve lost them. Very few are keeping track the way they used to, and if they are, then that’s kind of a red flag anyway. So enjoy flexing your freedom muscles.

B) Don't be afraid to ask!

9 out of 10 couples I've seen in the last four years have had their choreography done by one pro and then partially or completely re-choreographed by another pro in order to "fix" it. This isn't cheap. But this expensive practice is perpetuated by a nonsensical trend: couples give their original choreographer credit and label the other choreographers as "coaches." I constantly see couples hit with surprise at the routine they've received, simply because the choreography that inspired them in others was actually done by a completely different pro. So when you ask a couple where they got their routine, find out exactly what pro choreographed your favorite parts. It'll save you a lot of money in the long run. Then pay it forward. Give credit where credit is due.

C) And finally, don't be afraid to make your own changes.

You can keep yourself in check by videotaping yourself. You'll learn what to keep and what to toss and, depending on your eye, save yourself a lot of money in coaching and choreography.  If something feels awkward, stop watching the video for the eighth time and change it to feel less awkward. Sometimes it’s something as simple as turning your shoulders or hips to a different wall that makes everything feel better. Sometimes it’s putting in more footwork to protect your knee from being twisted. Trust your body to tell you when something isn’t working right, and do what needs to be done to fix it. You don’t even need to point out the change to your coach.

Too often I see couples making a change they love, and then they show their coach, like proud teenagers wanting their mom’s approval. But the coach feels threatened instead, and makes another change to it. Now the couple is uncomfortable again, and they avoid making any changes in the future out of “consideration” for their coach. If you have a feeling it’ll go that way, then just enjoy your changes on your own… and you’ll rock it a lot harder on that floor as a result.

When I was studying at UCLA I was hired as one of their fitness instructors. During training, they pounded one big lesson into our heads again and again: choreograph to the major phrase. I had already learned about phrasing in Swing, but was surprised to find it so underlined in a fitness program. The staff would literally fire instructors who didn't phrase their fitness choreography. Why? Because whether you’re educated in music or not, your body knows a major phrase change when it hears one.

The UCLA trainers considered our training in phrasing as a "protective measure" against injuries. If we choreographed our step routines, for example, to start over on the major phrase, the body’s internal instinct to change is fed, and nobody trips or falls over by instinctively changing when the music does but the choreography doesn’t. I’ve seen a few of those falls go down. It’s not pretty.

UCLA knew phrasing was a powerful tool, and back then, swing did too. Being able to ‘chart’ a song is everything.

It’s a powerful and easy tool that will make your routine look amazing, more professional and more exciting to your friends, family and audiences. So whether you are choreographing your own routine or bringing it to someone else, try to phrase out your music or hire someone else to phrase it out before even touching it with choreography. Make sure you start a new pattern on the "1" of each major phrase.

So there you are. Doing a routine is not a small task. I didn't even touch on costumes! Or Timing, Technique or Teamwork (any coach that has any actual training will build these into you and the choreography they give your to make you both look and feel fabulous!). But it's worth it. And worthwhile things take work.

I'm keenly aware that one routine can impact every level of dancer in the audience, no matter what division or what place the judges give you. I'm not a fan of routines that are clearly unrehearsed, uncomfortable or uncontrolled... the things that make your eyes gloss over while watching them. C.S. Lewis once said, "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally - and often far more - worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond." I believe it's the same with choreography. If a routine I put on the floor doesn't make kids and kings want to dance, then I've wasted my time.

As the nature of Jack & Jill's change, as more and more people are injured, and as more and more people feel sidelined in the dance, routines have the potential to change things. For the good or the bad. Follow these tips though, and you’ll be part of changing things for the better. You can love, live and grow through routines... visibly expand and shine... if you take the right steps.

Above all, I wish you the strength and courage to be yourselves out there…


Routines 101 has been greatly expanded with new material, pictures and info. It is part of the collection of groundbreaking articles found in Telling the Truth, available in both Kindle and Print on Amazon.com.