Making the Most of Your Guest Choreographer

September 15, 2015

Competing a solo with your dance studio is a big honor—and responsibility. To make sure your solo is uniquely yours, and to expand your horizons as a performer, you may decide to hire a choreographer who doesn’t regularly teach at your studio.

The challenge? The more high-profile the guest, the less time he or she might have to work with you. “People think we set a solo and it’s an instant masterpiece,” says New York City Dance Alliance faculty member Andy Pellick, who choreographs solos for students across the country. “But it’s really up to the student to rehearse and clean the piece and make it her own.”

How do you make the most of your time with the choreographer? Dance Spirit asked the experts.

Finding Your Choreographer

If you’re hiring the choreographer directly, keep in mind that this isn’t the time to reach out to a total stranger. “You want to choose someone you’ve already worked with—in a convention, a master class or an intensive,” says Terri Howell, owner of All American Dance Factory in Tampa, FL. “That way, you’ll know if you can artistically grasp their style.”

Having a relationship with the choreographer means he or she will already be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and have an idea of what movement will best suit your abilities. Plus, it helps to know the choreographer’s teaching habits before you enter the studio.

Tatiana Melendez performing her solo (Propix)

Optimizing rehearsal Time

It’s normal to have just one rehearsal with your choreographer. And since rehearsals typically range from two to five hours, arrive ready to dance full-out.

As intimidating as it may be to work one-on-one with a choreographer you admire, speak up. “You don’t want to be shy,” says 15-year-old Tatiana Melendez from All American Dance Factory, who’s been working with Pellick on her solos since she was 11. “If you like certain lines or jumps, you want to mention that so the choreographer can work them in.”

Staying Positive

While you’ll want to feel at home in your solo, it should still be a challenge for you—that’s the point of stepping outside your comfort zone in the first place. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t nail it during those initial rehearsals with the choreogrpaher. “Dancers usually can’t do a new solo all the way through at first,” says Shaping Sound Dance Company’s Travis Wall. “Either they get winded because they haven’t figured out where to breathe, or some of the transitions are rough.” But Wall stresses that he doesn’t expect a solo to be perfect. “You need to have something to work toward.”

And as much as you want to impress your choreographer, try to be confident. “Do what comes naturally and feel your way through it,” Pellick says, “and I’ll correct and fix you.”

Recording and Remembering

Learning a guest choreographer’s solo means absorbing a lot of info in a short time. “I always have the dancer take a video once we finish,” Pellick says, “so she can remember it after I’m gone.”

The video should include you and the choreographer performing the piece. It’s also a good idea to have someone tape individual sections of the solo, along with the choreographer’s comments and cleaning suggestions. Howell recommends asking the teacher who’ll run your rehearsals for the rest of the year to film—or at least to be in the room for the final run-throughs.

Tatiana finds that while video recording is good for recalling steps, style is something you should try to pick up while in rehearsal with the choreographer. “If you don’t pay attention to style while you’re learning your solo, it kind of gets lost,” she says.

Cleaning Your Solo

The bulk of the work will happen after your choreographer has left—and your first cleaning rehearsal can feel overwhelming. Pellick recommends beginning by breaking everything down. “Listen to the music a thousand times to hear what the choreo-grapher did, and visualize your approach to the steps,” he says. “Then work with your teacher to clean little sections at a time.”

While a teacher from your studio can provide an extra set of eyes, work independently, too. “When I’m with my teachers, we get technical aspects as clean as we can,” Tatiana says. “On my own, I work on creating my story. I focus on movement quality and getting the steps in my body so it looks natural when I perform.”

Some choreographers will let you send a video of your progress or a performance, and they’ll provide feedback by email or phone. Occasionally, a rehearsal via webcam can be useful—Tatiana once rehearsed with Pellick via Skype. In special circumstances, you may be able to have an additional in-person rehearsal.

But no matter who else is in the room—or on your computer screen—it’s up to you to do the work. “No one else is dancing this solo,” Wall says. “It’s yours.”