A choreographer is a person who works with dancers to design and shape their routines, providing guidance and creativity to make them the best they can be.
The role of the choreographer has, in recent years, become even more popular than before. A lot of this can be put down to the exposure the role has received through being featured in television programmes such as the X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing on Ice. Even before this, the job was an ideal one for those who enjoyed dancing and wanted to move on to the next level and test their creative skills.
As alluded to above, a choreographer is someone who teaches actors, dancers, music artists and students dance routines and techniques that express ideas and stories through precise, rhythmic movements. With input from their dancers, the choreographer also comes up with the movements, the design and tone and also the speed and music that will be used. It is a relatively specialist position, requiring experience in dance and a natural flair for knowing what looks impressive and artistic when expressed through dance.
The working environment, as you would expect, tends to be the dance studio. This is because it is a very hands-on job, and there is only so much preparation and design a choreographer can do on their own, on paper, before they need to see it carried out. Only then can a choreographer see what is working and what isn’t, and can make running adjustments as the routines are worked through.
The vast majority of choreographers start out as dancers themselves, doing something that they enjoy while picking up the experience they need to move on. People who then want to do choreography do it in bits and pieces in their classes and groups, building further experience before going on to take their own classes after showing an aptitude for it.
Sometimes working hours can be quite long, as a choreographer will often be working towards a deadline. Of course, complicated dance routines do not come overnight, and rigorous practice and fine-tuning is the order of the day. As such, a choreographer should not expect the quotidian nine to five existence, as they will often have to put in longer hours to make sure everything is right.
Salaried jobs as a choreographer, despite being available, are not exactly numerous, and due to them being highly sought-after there are often hundreds of applications. Because of this, a lot of choreographers work on a freelance basis, offering their skills and experience to different organisations on an ad hoc basis.
Finally, and despite a certain perception of dancing as a somewhat feminine pursuit, there are actually many male dancers, and a lot of those go on to become choreographers too. As mentioned above, the role of television has highlighted choreography work, with people such as Brian Friedman (X Factor) and the effervescent Louis Spence (Pineapple Dance Studios) becoming household names.
With working hours varying for different projects, and with choreographers often working for an hourly rate, it is hard to quantify a hard and fast range of salary bands. However, a choreographer starting out could expect a salary of around £20,000 per annum, which can go up to around £40,000 for the more experienced.
Hourly rates for freelancers are dependent on a lot of factors, such as experience but also the budget allocation for the production and the geographical location. As such, it is far too nebulous to put a figure on it, although you can contact Equity, the performer’s union, for advice on what to expect.
Below is a list, not necessarily exhaustive, of the type of things you would expect to do as a choreographer –
- Coming up with the choreography for all kinds of dance, and having the adaptability to work with different styles and tones
- Planning each movement of the dancers in detail and melding them with the whole
- Ensuring all routines and moves are fully rehearsed
- Utilising dance notation to record movements to make sure everything is going to plan
- Selecting dancers for specific roles and briefing them
- Liaising with other creative staff, such as costume designers, artistic directors and producers, to discuss overall requirements for the production
- Teaching specific steps to the performers
- Attending and observing rehearsals, making changes as needed
- Organising and participating in community workshops to spread the word of dance
- Liaising with theatres and arts or dance organisations to look for work and/or promote who you are working for
- Attending auditions, publicity sessions, presentations and meetings and being the creative point of contact for people
Put simply, in a lot of cases there are no official qualifications you will need in order to become a choreographer. Some universities and dance schools offer specific qualifications in choreography, with entrance determined through a dance audition and interview, but they are not mandatory.
The best qualification for becoming a choreographer is to display a deep knowledge of, and passion for, dance, as well as having a good amount of experience of dancing itself. Another good tip is to make yourself available as an assistant choreographer while dancing, which shows a commitment to the role before actually carrying it out properly.
These are some of the aptitudes you will need to display or develop in order to be successful as a choreographer –
- Creativity and flair for ideas
- Excellent communication skills
- High level of concentration, in order to remember and recall complicated dance routines
- The ability to build productive working relationships with people under stress
A choreographer, apart from time spent sitting down working out ideas on paper, will spend the vast majority of their working lives in a dance studio, dance hall or similar surroundings, working hands-on with their dancers.
As you might expect, along with the sometimes long hours a choreographer has to put in, the physical demands can be high. Dancing is, of course, a physical activity, and encouraging and coaching it means there will be a certain amount of physical fitness needed.
Because of this, there are risks of injury, especially through overuse and fatigue, in particular when the routines involve strenuous gymnastic moves or are done at a fast pace. Proper warm-up and warm-down are essential to combat this.
A long-term passion for and participation in dance is essential to becoming a choreographer, as you must have an in-depth knowledge of dance, in order to teach it. It is one of these things that is hard to teach without having done it yourself. In many cases, experience will count more than any qualifications you might possess.
As regards choreography, there are no central, major employers, just a multitude of creative companies that require such expertise. All dance schools will require a number of choreographers, as will production companies and those dealing with arts events and the like.
Freelancers are advised to contact individual companies speculatively, as a lot of choreographer roles are not actively advertised.
The path of a choreographer is fairly linear, so it is easy to find out how to go about becoming one. First of all, being a dancer, while not a prerequisite, will stand you in good stead in terms of experience. Then you can offer yourself as an assistant choreographer, gaining further experience before possibly going on to gain an official qualification or putting yourself out there as a choreographer in your own right.
A lot of choreographers have an ambition to set up their own dance school, so that they can bring in other dance teachers and bring up the next generation of dancers.
Also known as…
- Dance Teacher
- Creative Director
- Acting Coach
- Gymnastics Coach
- Yoga Teacher
What’s it really like?
Jade Falconer, aged 25, is a Senior Performing Arts Development Officer. She is also a dance teacher and choreographer at Freeman Dance School, in Coventry. She gives us the inside story.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I have been doing this specific job for two years. I have however danced since I was four, and helped with choreography since I was about 16.
What did you do before this job?
I completed a dance degree at Coventry University, which complemented my own dancing and allowed me to pursue dancing professionally as a career.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
I design and deliver dance classes at primary and secondary schools in the National Curriculum as well as running and teaching at after school clubs too.
What do you like about the job?
I absolutely love teaching children to dance. I deal with a variety of children including special needs and those with behavioural difficulties. I also like the creative freedom to design my own routines and, basically, enjoy the fact I am able to have a passion of mine as a centrepiece of my working life.
What do you dislike about the job?
There is not a lot regarding the actual dancing that I have a problem with, as I love that type of work. However, having a team of unreliable people and having too many responsibilities without an awful lot of support can get tiring. The end result is invariably worth it though!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
To be prepared for hyperactive kids – it’s about channelling their energy in the right direction though, i.e. dancing! Seriously though, you need to keep relatively fit and be prepared for long hours sometimes.
What kind of things do you think you might like to do after this role (if any)?
I would like to continue my choreography work obviously, as I enjoy the creativity of it. I would, however, like to be a regional dance development officer and encourage children to get active through dance too.
Are there any other special tips you can give to help people considering this career?
Experience is THE big thing, as the more dance experience you can get the better. It is a very demanding job to make sure children are engaged and active in what you are trying to deliver so having an outgoing personality tends to help, especially with early years. Also, as above, a modicum of physical fitness can go a long way.