Forum: Irish / Irish - Champs

Choreographing a solo - a 'how to' (karma: 9)
By Louisemember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 07:53 AM
Edited by Louise (29559) on 2010-02-18 07:56:03
Made sticky by oz_helen (35388) on 2010-02-21 00:41:13

I was going to leave this until after the All Ireland's but I saw a post on a similar theme this morning so I thought I'd hurry it along. It's looong, so cookies to anyone who reads it all.


Choreography - it can seem daunting, especially if it’s your first time, but if you have a formula to follow, inspiration just ‘comes’. And I thought – you can get guides that tell you how to write an essay, so why not a guide for how to make stuff up?!

Decisions, Decisions…
Take a second to think about what you’re doing. Sit down, if it helps. Ahhhhh.

The dance you’re working on should greatly influence the steps you choose. I’m a firm believe in athletic reels and graceful slip jigs – sets with a good mix of rhythm and movement but not relying too heavily on pointe work. So – which dance is it?

Clever choreographers often pick a ‘theme’ for their dance. I’m not advocating creating a storyline – competition dances are all about impact, high energy and – well, just plain showing off. Save your interpretation of the Children of Lir for the performances. John Smith ADCRG probably won’t be blown away by you flapping your imaginary wings and weeping. No – by ‘theme’ I mean a signature move that you can perform in a couple of different ways to link each step to another, to link the step/set, or to just keep the whole thing flowing and coherent. For example, my old King of the Fairies had the theme of heels/drum rolls. See end of this article for more on the theme…it's not a necessity, just a nice idea.

If you’re choreographing for yourself, then it’s tempting to just put comfortable moves in there, moves you can already do well. But then how will you ever broaden your repertoire? I strongly suggest incorporating a move that you just can’t do – and force yourself to learn it. Hence me and drumrolls. Further to that, I suggest learning it on your left foot first, since that seems to be the hardest part for dancers. “I’ve got it on the right leg, but…”

In the Beginning…
We Irish dancers obsess about getting the first look. And you have to admit, most of us try and do it with costuming. But while not every adjudicator will like your dress more than your competitors’, ALL adjudicators will be forced to look at you if you do something a bit special with your steps – and then they’ll be watching you when you move to the left foot, too.

To choreograph an effective opening sequence, you have to think about every aspect of the dance together. It’s NOT advisable to choreograph your steps and then think about where they’ll take you. They should come together as a whole. Watching champion dancers, the trend is to gallop towards the front right hand corner and to get there first. If your competitor is doing that, and you take yourself across the back of the stage or stay on the spot for a bar or two, or even go left or straight up the middle, Mr ADCRG will think ‘Hmm, what are they up to over there?’. At championship events, the judges to the left of the stage are probably feeling a bit left out too, bless them. If you’re used to seeing dancers bound to the front, a dancer hanging back looks more interesting and, I think, more confident.

There’s a pretty standard floor pattern for the 1st and 2nd steps as well. Watch your competition, see what they do and where they go – then do something different! Don’t just do the standard back-and-forth-the-front-of-the-stage or the bog standard V shape. You can trick people, too. Dancing backwards at speed is quite a cool skill, and if your carriage is great then a sharp turn and sudden unexpected change of direction will shock people into watching you.

So – Confucius say: Clever dancer use stage as well as step to wow judge.

Links Between Steps
Y’all wrote stories in school when you were little, right? Now, I know most kids don’t have the firmest grasp on good narrative but most of us have been told off for writing stories that go:

”Sinéad got out of the feis mobile and then she went to fetch her number and then she carried her dress to the champ stage and then she put her wig on. Then she warmed up with her friends and then she put on her glittery eyeshadow and then she put her dress on and then it was time to dance so she danced and then she got a trophy ...and then we all died of boredom…”

Eh? Choreography is like narrative. To have:

“Lift 2-3 and step and step and double-hop down and step and step and lift 2-3 and step and kick out down”

– is boring! How bitty! Variation of ‘linking’ steps is key. Instead of straight skips or threes, you might use a straight kick out as a movement step. You might use a turn or walkaround as a way to link a lift to a double-hop/quiver/double-up, and also as a way to suddenly change direction. Dramatic pauses (if you get high on your toes and have great posture and carriage) can create interest within the step. Or how about two lifts in a row? A lift, entrechat, lift? Rock 2-3, double-back-down? Get it?

This ‘linking’ theory also goes for the transition between lead-round and 1st step, 1st step and 2nd step. The steps show flow and, even if you don’t have a ‘theme’, they should relate to each other. There shouldn’t be an obvious join between the end of one step and the start of another. Consider ending one step on a lift 2-3, and starting the following step the same way. You then have a chain – two lifts in a row shows off good height and control, but also blurs the edges between steps.

Rein Yourself In!
Just a short point here. There’s a certain school, who I won’t name, who packs every move under the sun into their dances. Those who pull it off DO look very sharp but at the same time I’m sat there thinking – “We get it, you’re good. Now just slooowwww down!” I don’t want you to be lazy but don’t wear yourself out either. If you pack too much in then it’s just begging to go wrong.

I'm aware that this is veering most verbose so here's a cute picture to break things up a bit:

Image hotlink - ''

Awwwww. Where were we?

Use the Adjudicator
The most useful thing my teacher ever told me, is that most adjudicators finalise the mark they give you (and write it down), in the last eight bars of your step. If you tend to tire, and put some ‘low’ moves with no hanging leaps in there, they’ll know why. You can’t trick them here.

The last eight bars are crucial. It’s like the conclusion of an essay – you reiterate all of your main points and bring them together. In your last step or half step, you need to show that you still have the stamina to get the height and correct technique on all of the tricks that you could pull off in the lead around. One way to get around this, is to choreograph a ‘low’ 1st step – cut down on the lifts and put in fancy footwork to conserve energy for the last step. You just have to be rational here – if you find yourself only dancing two steps at a feis – no excuse. You CAN pack high-energy moves into the lead AND first. If you usually do three steps, then you can get away with a lower energy 1st step and high energy 2nd step. Of course, the best thing to do would be to challenge yourself and make each step a killer. I told you to put moves you can’t do into your choreography for the same reason – how will you ever get better/fitter if you play it safe? Prove you can do it – don’t let yourself slip. It’s the recency effect – an ADCRG will probably remember a bad last step more than a good OR bad lead round.

Confucius say: Soar like bird in last step.

Now, if you’re in championships – you have three or five or even seven judges to impress. Use them ALL! A high energy last step will impress from any direction, but you need to pay special attention to each of them and do something spectacular right under each of their noses. When choreographing and practicing, put out markers to represent each judge. Chairs if you have room, otherwise perhaps a post-it note on the wall in front of you. Try and move around the stage so that you show each of them a high leap and a fiddly bit of footwork like a rock or entrechat. Five judges is more difficult, so a trick in between two of them is okay. Now, don’t panic. You don’t have to show each of them a leap AND a rock AND an entrechat AND a bicycle jump AND a turn with perfect carriage. Just make sure that you present yourself to each of them. They’ll still be able to see your tricks at the other end of the stage, but remember you never know where the other dancer is and therefore they might be blocking the view. If you do something perfectly right under their nose, they can’t help but look at you...

Especially if you do something fun and a bit cheeky. I saw a dancer once in the hornpipe, quality little sequence it was. She bombed straight to centre-front at the speed of light, stopped dead on the offbeat (en pointe) then went straight into a rock with a cheeky wiggle at the end, then bombed off to the corner at breakneck speed. It was like a train had just roared by and a little boy in the window pulled a face at you – funny, memorable, clever.

Heavies and Sets
Toestands can be boring. Yes, they actually can be.

Don’t get me wrong, I did/do them and I like them. But simple balance after simple balance doesn’t cut it, not in championships. It looks like playing for time and it interrupts the rhythm if you're just standing there. If you’re watching live commentary at the All-Irelands, really LISTEN to those sets. You can definitely tell a boys’ set from a girl’s set.

If you’re going to do them, it has to be pretty neat. A kick or cut with the supporting leg en pointe. Toe walks where the front foot flicks and flutters with the weight on the back foot. Do something different with them, or don’t do anything at all. Despite everyone’s addictive dependence on toestands and pointe work, judges are still more impressed by a fancy rhythm section than a boring balance. Time seems to stand still. You can work toestands into a rhythm section and as I said, you can do something special with them. But dances should not have ‘filler’, and a lot of pointe work I see in Irish is just that.

To state the obvious – heavy/hard/jig shoes make noise. Utilise this fact – dance loud and rhythmically so that even if the judge isn’t looking at you – they can hear something special happening. Play with the off-beat, stamp and toe, use different treble combinations, use your heels and drum rolls, slow it down and speed it up. And then take off in the other direction with some travelling heels, walkover clicks or travelling trebles. Movement is still important in the jig and ‘pipe, and you still have to USE each adjudicator.

Following on from the previous, it’s so much easier to choreograph fun rhythms in a set dance. It’s the only time you know exactly what tune you’re getting – so you can match the fiddler or accordionist on your CD and know that it will still correspond on feis day. Listen to the music a few times – clap along, dance along with it without thinking. Does it lend itself to a rhythm pattern there? How about a rock or drum rolls? Dramatic pause? Often the music will be the best inspiration.

As many of you will be aware - you can technically start anywhere you want in a set dance. Middle-back, middle-front, top right corner, bottom left corner, middle of the far right. Up to you (and your teacher, some don't like a random startline). But you MUST finish in centre-front. If yours doesn’t, you’re going to have to change it. But, if you do choose to start up-front then you’d better have a pretty special beginning with solid basic technique – starting up front says to the adjudicator – I have nothing to hide. You’re going to be blown away by me right from the start. So be aware.

The step of your set dance HAS to be right-left – in some other dances you can do a right-right lead around, but this is NOT a lead round so you have to do it with both feet, and you don’t have to move in a circle. Here's that floor pattern thing again.

Sets are the easiest dances to make creative use of the stage in. Once you get past the step part, you’re completely unrestrained and you can go in whichever direction you wish. Turn side-on to the adjudicators and move backwards along the front or back of the stage. Go in a V from front left, to absolute centre, to front right – and then straight along the right hand side. As long as you can get yourself back to the middle – you’re fine. And then – when you’re actually AT centre front – how are you going to end this?…

Fifth position? (Feet turned out and crossed, heel to toe or overcrossed)
First position? (Feet turned out, heels together)
En pointe? En pointe on one leg, with back foot kicking backside?
Supporting leg turned out, and front foot crossed in front with toes resting on the stage?
As above with ‘toe’ foot behind the supporting leg?

Or something a little more spectacular?

General Tips in a Handy Numerical Format
1 – Write it down. You don’t have to create an expansive Labanotation-style language. You’re the only one that needs to understand it. ‘Treble up, swing up treble (back) treble-treble- toe-stamp will suffice. If you write it in big letters, well spaced out, you can write L or R for leading leg, and which direction etc above the name of the step in a different colour.

2 – Ask for advice. Your teacher won’t rescind your right to choreograph just because you’ve asked for their input. If you don’t have anyone to ask about technical things, for example if you’re working at home, you can still ask family (or neighbours who’ve come to complain about the noise) what they think of the beginning, the stage use, the ending. Does it look jerky? If it’s a heavy dance, does it sound bitty? If all else fails – beg, steal or borrow a video camera.

3 – Try it out on a big stage. Okay, you might not have enough room at home – I know I don’t. Can you stay behind at school and practise on the stage or in the dance studio? Church hall? Make sure what you’ve choreographed can really carry you across the stage. And remember to put out your judges!

4 – Don’t be afraid to change things. If you thought of something cool, but then thought of something cooler, then replace it if you like. Just keep a note of the first cool thing for reference.

5 – Watch other dancers. You don’t want to rip off their entire dance, of course you don’t – but look out for the top dancers and look for interesting variations on how link steps together. How do they combine the modern trend of bombing around the stage, with traditional and pretty yet stationary ‘fancy footwork’?

Oh yes, and I was going to tell you…

More About the ‘Theme’…
Do NOT pick a signature move that’s a staple of Irish dance. A hanging leap over won’t cut it. You need to pick something that you can use four or five times without people thinking ‘Is that all #666 can do?’ You need to be able to interpret the move in a couple of different ways. Perhaps a double hop/quiver/double up – you can do a normal one, one with a kickup in the back, one followed immediately by a leap over, one linked with a bicycle jump. An entrechat in a chain of fancy footwork, or on its own, or where the leading leg whips into a cut on its way back round. If you don’t feel you can work a theme move into there, that’s not essential. It’s just something I think looks sharp – you might not agree and although I may refuse to talk to you for several days, it’s okay really.

Just promise me something – don’t stick it in the same place each step. Don’t put that drum roll on the 2nd and 6th bar of every step – that just looks unimaginative. End your lead round with it, put it on the 6th bar of your 1st step, and start your last step with it. Sharp.

...anything to add?

20 Replies to Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'

re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By Nona_Premium member
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 08:22 AM
Interesting point about the sedond step being like an essay, never thought of it like that before. Well thought out post.
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By Teasharkmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 12:48 PM
This was really useful and well thought out! And - while I do not have to choreograph anything for myself at the moment as I have a lovely TC who does everything in the competition depart for me - this was very useful from the point of view of someone training for competition.

The use of the stage, impressing every judge, thinking about why something in the step is at it is, how to make the most of every move.

So Thank You! How you found the time and motivation - while still keeping us up-to-date on the everything going on at Al's - I will never know. But thank you for doing so. Have so many new things to think about in tomorrow's practice session :)

Kind regards,

re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By saoirse3473member has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 02:56 PM
i dont know what this sounded more like... how to choreograph, or how to make the judge notice you more while dancing in champs! lol
its good for both i guess :)

also, another thing to add would be (kind of cheesy) to ad some emotion in to it! love what your creating, treat it like a masterpeice! i cant tell you how many times ive seen lifeless choreography that, while the steps were impressive. was so boring to watch! nothing is more impressive than a dancer who can do cool tricks... and look thrilled while doing so! so even if the steps has lots of running moves (aka skips, gazelle runs, or toe runs, switches, etc), at least let them move and fly gracefully and have fun while doing them!
i would rather watch simple steps on a happy dancer, than watch hard steps on a "i'm not really enjoying this" dancer...
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By irishgirl26member has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 07:14 PM
Great post. I can use this even though I'm not in champs yet, it's really helpful!
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By Realtreble
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 07:24 PM
OK, this is magnificent, but I'm volunteering you for a urine test. You are way too spunky (US English for overly energetic)not to be using something.

No more cafine until you've had at least 6 hours rest.

Seriously, this post needs to be a sticky. Thank you for your thoughts, advice and hard work.
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By irishdancingdog
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 07:42 PM
This is great! Thanks for all that you've done and are doing!
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By Jitchiwahmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Thu Feb 18, 2010 10:55 PM

don't worry, it's just the effects of far too much KFC.
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By Louisemember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Fri Feb 19, 2010 02:48 AM
I hasn't had a KFC since New Year's Eve. I am saving myself for my first ever Scottish KFC :P
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By luckyclover1member has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Sun Feb 21, 2010 12:37 AM
Louise, this is wonderful. I'm not at the level of choreographing my own steps yet, but this was useful in so many ways. It's made me look at my current competition steps in a whole new light. Thank you!! :D
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By RinceRed04
On Fri Apr 09, 2010 10:59 AM
Gah, this is great!
I'm still only in Prelims, but I have a bit of an obsession with making up steps (actually, I just spent the last 20 minutes in my garage choreographing a reel, lol.) The notes about impressing each judge with something significant were really nice, and you totally just opened up a new view for me (gods, that was a bit cheesy.) :) Anyways, thanks again for the insightful post, it was so helpful and interesting!
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By Saoirse_89
On Sat May 15, 2010 02:23 PM
This is a really helpful post -- I'm working on a new Reel and 2-hand and I could do with a better set. Cool!
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By lockedinside
On Tue Jul 13, 2010 12:38 PM
i completely agree with you about the dancers that put too much in their steps. however i have to disagree with what u said about saving energy by not going all out in the 1st step. Ive been in open champs for a few years now and in my experience the 1st step grabs the judges attention and its the 2nd step that isnt as important (of course it depends on the times when the judges are watching but thats just a general rule). if a dancer does well in the last step they can make the judges forget their 2nd step but not the judges' first impression in the lead around.
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By mcbrittle
On Sat Sep 25, 2010 08:25 PM
Great help for someone getting back into dancing after an 8 year break!
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By CelticPiksymember has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Sun Sep 26, 2010 09:52 AM
This is also great for a new teacher starting out!
I obviously want to make dances that look great but are also fun for kids to learn!
Interesting point about a 'theme' i'd never thought about that before!
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By lauren_mcsporran
On Sun Oct 24, 2010 10:39 PM
Thank you!! I cannot give you any karma yet - as I'm a new member - but it is an awesome posted, annnd I just wanted to make sure you knew that ;) Thanks again!

Lauren x
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By icanfly
On Mon Dec 20, 2010 10:07 AM
I love making up steps but I some times look at the north Americans national to find cool moves and make them my own.
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By LiveIrish
On Wed Feb 16, 2011 10:36 PM
Well done! Very useful how to in choreographing, now i know how to choreograph a routine, with pizzazz!
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By knotirish
On Mon Jul 25, 2011 08:58 PM
Very interesting! Will definitely think of this when trying to choreograph.
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By tgc
On Tue Sep 13, 2011 07:12 PM
While it could have been more detailed(just joking)it was very interesting
re: Choreographing a solo - a 'how to'
By manymacs
On Sun May 13, 2012 10:55 AM
This post is very helpful to my girls. They are not yet in Champs but they are very close to getting there thanks to this!


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