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What I Thought It Said On His Leg, or, How Do You Choreograph A Dance?


ballerina drawing

The dancers were running around, leaping, and writhing on the floor. They each had words written on their body. I could make out most of them, but there was one blond fellow whose left calf had a word on it that I couldn’t discern, but I was fairly certain that it said “breakfast.” I had two questions. Why would he write breakfast on his leg, and how do you choreograph a dance?

Words on legs aside, there was some really complicated stuff going on, at least from what my non-balletic eyes could see. And it was mostly in unison.

I have a sister-in-law who was dancing that night in a piece she had choreographed, so I was taking in a rare night at the ballet.

I saw some strange things, and not all of them were my imagination. For instance, during a piece in which everyone was wearing crepe paper and dancing while a slideshow of Google-Images-Gone-Mad played in the background while trash hung from the ceiling. At first I thought all of the pieces of paper in the air were supposed to be silhouettes of seahorses. But they were just random.

I saw a man battling the demons of heroin on top of a table. The demons were very cute and had very smudged mascara.

I saw women who must have weighed less than 80 pounds performing incredible feats of strength. And one of them had a man hiding under her skirt, who occasionally leaped out and danced before retreating.

I saw very tight tights.

I saw an eyeball that was on fire superimposed over that Chinese guy standing in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square, while everyone on the floor screamed. Then they got up and pantomimed eating the Last Supper.

The best part of the night? There was a Nick Cave song for my sister-in-law’s piece, “Supernatural.” But I had fun overall. It was very different than what I am used to.

but seriously, for any of you with dance experience? How in the world do these things get choreographed? It looks so incredibly complicated, and some of the pieces were longer than 10 minutes. I know it wasn’t all just freestyle because there was so much dancing in unison.

1. How does the choreographer memorize it? Do they generally write it down?

2. How do they teach something so lengthy and complex to so many people?

I’m very curious about this, please chime in if you know.

Oh, and it said “bowlegged” on his leg, which wasn’t nearly as funny as “breakfast.”



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • wil April 26, 2011, 1:04 pm

    Hey Josh, I don’t know anything about choreography, but I just noticed that your previous two posts (Fish Oil, The Keep) don’t seem to be appearing in the RSS feed.

  • Jim Janney April 26, 2011, 1:07 pm

    It’s almost all memorized, and I still don’t know how they do it. I did two shows with a little performing company and I was always the stupid guy who couldn’t remember anything. Some things have names, so you can say “double stag leap into a jazz roll” or “pique to faille to attitude turn”, but as often as not the choreographer will just say “do this” and demonstrate.

  • Josh Hanagarne April 26, 2011, 2:57 pm

    Argh. It still sounds impossible. I can’t imagine.

  • Mike April 27, 2011, 5:37 pm

    It’s similar to playing a musical insrument – but using the body as an instrument. As Jim pointed out dancers within a dance style have a fairly large set of standard movement patterns that they practice a lot – and for many years. It’s a world unto itself and a largely unappreciated discipline. Check out this street jazz class:


  • Michelle April 27, 2011, 11:42 pm

    “I saw some strange things, and not all of them were my imagination.”
    That, the part about the seahorses that ended up just random, and the Breakfast bit (Bowlegged, I get it), are brilliant. I love this story. I could read any story you write, it could be any subject. Thank you.
    I think that dancers memorize a bit at a time. Like when you are in a circle and you say the first person’s name and then the first person’s name, and then your name. Then the first person’s name, your name, and the next person’s name. Then… so on. A bit at a time. But it’s been a long time since I was in dance classes.