What is Choreography?

Mary McMahon

Choreography is the art of arranging dance performances. Choreography is also used to arrange ice skating, cheerleading, synchronized swimming, and a variety of other performance arts. Someone who composes choreographed pieces is known as a choreographer; typically, a choreographer works as a performer before becoming a composer, so that he or she will have a deeper understanding of the art.

Dance performances utilize choreography.
Dance performances utilize choreography.

The practice of choreography is ancient; the word itself comes from the Ancient Greek, and it literally means “dance writing,” a reference to the notation used to record choreography. Over time, people came to use the word “dance notation” to describe the specific style of language used to create a written record of a choreographed composition, and “choreography” to describe the process of developing and directing that composition in performance.

Synchronized swimmers depend on choreography for their intricate routines.
Synchronized swimmers depend on choreography for their intricate routines.

This art is probably most famously linked with the field of dance, where it is viewed as a critical part of the performance. Talented dancers can only do so much without the vision of a choreographer, and they rely heavily on the greater vision which can be brought to a performance by a choreographer. Choreographers consider the impact, look, and feel of a piece, directing dancers in ways which will fulfill their vision to create a carefully orchestrated piece in which every single movement is thought out ahead of time.

Some choreographers use their skills to choreograph routines for cheerleaders.
Some choreographers use their skills to choreograph routines for cheerleaders.

In some cases, a choreographer is also a dancer, composing the pieces he or she performs in. Martha Graham is one notable example of a dancer/choreographer. In other instances, a choreographer is a retired dancer, who puts the skills learned during his or her career to use once the days of performance are over. Many noted dancers go on to become very skilled choreographers.

The art of choreography can be used in essentially any sort of performance which requires organized movement. Marching bands, figure skaters, choirs, gymnasts, and so forth all utilize choreographers to improve the quality of their performances and to tighten up their performance skills.

Choreography is also used to arrange staged fights for film and theater, in which case the choreographer is known as a “fight choreographer.” Fight choreographers generally have a background in various fighting techniques such as fencing, and they may also be skilled stuntmen (and women). Fight choreographers face the unique challenge of teaching people who do not know how to fight to fight in a way which suggests that they have years of experience and practiced skills, often in a very short period of time.

In competitions, ice skaters perform to choreographed programs.
In competitions, ice skaters perform to choreographed programs.

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Discussion Comments


What about choreography in a performing arts context? How would one explain three major skills within choreography to a group of drama students?

I am a trainee teacher, you see, and I am taking a performing arts class next week, and I am dong a choreography workshop with them.

I need to make it as simple as possible for them to grasp and understand. But at the same time I need to explore the three skills followed by giving the class a task to create something in a dramatic context. Any ideas?


One point this article did not touch upon is that choreography is a gift that one is born with. You can be taught choreography and get better at it with practice (energy, placement, staging, etc.) but the truly great choreographers' ideas and visions come from their soul. It is my feeling that you must "feel" the music and have it touch your soul and then will the choreography come to fruition.


@indigowater - From what I've seen, if you want to study choreography, there aren't a lot of schools that offer a straight-up choreography degree program.

But you do get choreography classes in a performing

arts/dance program, so maybe you could go that route.


It just doesn't seem like there's a straight path to being a choreographer. It looks like a lot of hard work and then a bit of luck being in the right place at the right time. But maybe there are choreography schools that I don't even know about?

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