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Choreography 101: 10 Pro Tips for Beginners

As dancers well know, developing a new skillset takes guts. For so many of us, training begins young and, to our friends' bafflement, only gets more intensive. ("Wait, what? You're going to dance class six days a week?") Yes.

Developing your choreography skills is not unlike the serious dancer's training in terms of the sheer pluck, determination and passion required. Even for seasoned dancers, it can feel like gutsy business to get started as a choreographer—yet it doesn't have to. But how does someone who knows how to move their body in someone else's choreography begin to develop choreography of their own? Three seasoned choreographers offer their insights on how to get going if you're new to dancemaking.


1. Start with what you're familiar with

Choreographer Matthew Neenan, co-founder of BalletX in Philadelphia, suggests that aspiring choreographers "first make what you know." Ask what you know about the art form and how you can convey this to your audience. For Neenan, this meant working with classical music and using balletic and Balanchine-inspired vocabulary. He cautions beginners against jumping too far into uncharted territory. "There's always room to grow and expand."

2. Think of your piece as a puzzle

Gabrielle Lamb, founder and choreographer of New York City's Pigeonwing Dance, says, "I think of choreography like building, like if you build a stone wall. You have a pile of rocks, and you have to pick out the ones that fit well together and put together a puzzle." When coming up with ideas, consider your options. Do you want dancers to start onstage, or off? To music, or in silence? Should they move in a circle, or in a line? As you make those decisions, think of the big picture—how can you start combining the various elements of your work in a way that will eventually produce a cohesive work?

Wearing black leggings and sleeveless gray top, Gabrielle Lamb kicks her right leg high and twists her upper body back, looking at her reflection in the mirror. Three dancers in black dancewear look on.

Gabrielle Lamb works with the dancers of CelloPointe

Jaqlin Medlock, Courtesy Lamb

3. Try structured improvisation

One way to piece together your wall is to use structured improv prompts. It's a strategy Lamb teaches because it helps you come up with movement via tasks or commands. She suggests using artist Richard Serra's Verblist to create a phrase: pick two or three verbs and "cycle through them repeatedly using different parts of your body." Bend and twist? Figure out how to bend and twist your arm, your torso, your head. Using methods like this one not only stretches your ingenuity but also relieves some of the anxiety that can accompany the creative process.

4. Look for inspiration

Open your eyes to the world around you—and its inherent, diverse glimmers of creative inspiration. To get you thinking of the possibilities, we asked Neenan, Lamb and Tara Lee, co-founder and choreographer of Atlanta's Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, about what stirs them artistically. For Neenan, it's the modern dance greats: Alonzo King, Crystal Pite, Paul Taylor, Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato and Ohad Naharin; for Lamb, poetry, science and metaphors; for Lee, existential questions about relationships and the human experience. Find whatever makes you want to wildly chase your muse, and don't discount it if it's out-there. Out-there is original.

5. Record yourself

Both Neenan and Lamb video themselves as they're coming up with movement sequences. Neenan shares that this allows you to "look at your work objectively." When he's on the hunt for a fresh idea, he re-watches old videos of himself dancing. "I'll watch something and realize, 'Oh, that little thing I did—I liked that. I didn't even mean to do it. So I need to let that into the piece.'"

Matthew Neenan, wearing a blue V-neck T-shirt, is shown from the waist up crossing his arms and looking towards the camera.

Matthew Neenan

6. Allow yourself space to develop your own voice

As a novice, it can be daunting to put your personal flair into your work. "Don't be afraid," says Neenan. "We all have different voices and opinions on what we would love to see."

Lee says it's important to ask questions as you find your voice: "What kind of dance do you love to watch? What sparks your curiosity? What inspires you?" These types of queries are a great springboard for coming up with material. "Figure out what your language is by what feels good, what you enjoy watching—that's all really relevant. And just play."

7. Don't let creative roadblocks disrupt your process

Choreographer's block is inevitable. For Lee, she has discovered that "the flow" should remain central in spite of any roadblocks. "The more I allow my energy to get stuck, the more the entire process loses its momentum," she says. She strives to keep stressed energy out of the studio, instead finding alternative routes to figuring out material, such as running ideas past dancers and other artists outside of rehearsal time.

8. Let go of your ego

It can be tempting to jump into your first piece full force. Maybe you want to use a composer and choreograph on your colleagues. There's nothing wrong with this, per se, but it may be to your advantage to work with less advanced dancers first. Lamb recommends taking opportunities to create on lower-level dancers because it "stretches your creative boundaries."

To do this, you may have to let go of your ego—and accept the unexpected. Sometimes your piece can turn into something entirely different than you first envisioned. "That can be even more beautiful," says Neenan. When you put your ego aside, the work becomes less about you, which can be a really good thing.

long Tara Lee, wearing a wide-neck gray short and her black hair down, is shown from the neck up and smiles towards the camera.

Tara Lee

Joseph Guay, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

9. Try, try again...and yes, again

"Like dancing or any discipline, you want to spend as much time with it as possible, because that's how you get good at it," says Lamb. She points out that when we see works by famous choreographers, we forget that they've "been doing this for decades already."

10. Don't shy away from creating at home

Many of us have yet to step foot in the studio again, thanks to continued social distancing restrictions. But on the bright side, you probably have more time on your hands than usual. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to explore your interest in choreography. As Neenan and Lamb point out, less space can make things tricky, but it can also incite more inventiveness.

Whether you're feeling a little stir-crazy, looking for a new creative outlet, or hoping to become more well-rounded as a dancer (or maybe all three), why not see what you can come up with? Lee says it well: "Go ahead and take this time to just be playful with your ideas."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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