Don’t think you’re going to just waltz into this career. (Who waltzes anymore anyway?)
First, you’ll have to shimmy your way through all the obstacles of becoming a dancer since almost every choreographer starts that way. It will not be easy. There’ll be the years of backbreaking (or leg-breaking) practice, the years of soul-crippling rejection, and the years of scarfing Ramen because that’s all you can afford. Like we said—not easy.
Despite all the hurdles, a tenacious few—very few—do make it as professional dancers. The scary truth is that by crossing over into choreography, you’re giving yourself an even bigger mountain to climb. If the number of jobs for dancers is small, the number of jobs for choreographers is microscopic. Be aware that almost everybody who sets out to do this thing fails and fails big time. (This is starting to sound like one of those Scared Straight sessions in prison.)
Remember, just because you wowed the world as a pro dancer, that doesn’t mean anybody will give a flip about your choreography. Once you make it in one career, it can often take people a while to recognize that you’re good for anything else. What we’re trying to say is: be ready for more awful rejection. It’ll probably be even worse than before you made it as a dancer because now you’ve gotten cozy. You’re going to have to re-learn how to enjoy rejection. Savor it like one of those stinky French cheeses that make you gag at first, but that you eventually just can’t get enough of.
Are you brave enough for all this? Are you one of the few, the proud, the choreographers?
To make it as a choreographer, you have to be totally down with telling people what to do. It’s going to be way different than when you were a dancer, and you basically had to shut up and do what you were told. As the choreographer, you’re the boss. All those skinny young things will be looking to you for guidance, and even if they keep their thoughts to themselves, they will be judging you. Our advice: make sure you still look fierce in a leotard.
You’ll have to find the leadership style that works for you. Maybe your rehearsal room will be a huggy, kissy democracy where everybody has their say. Maybe you’ll rule with an iron fist, be hyper-demanding, and relentlessly push your dancers to execute every body roll exactly as you see it. It’s up to you to figure out which kind of crown you want to wear and then surround yourself with dancers who’ll thrive in the kingdom you create. You also have to be a good communicator. You can have the most brilliant ideas in the world, but if you mumble incoherently in a corner, it’s going to be a little hard for your dancers to know what you want them to do.
We probably don’t even have to say this, but good choreographers seriously know their stuff. They know their style inside and out, and they have other styles up their sleeves as well. They’re highly trained professionals who can whip up a tight routine that jibes with whatever project they’re working on. It takes years and years to be good at this job. What then does it take to be great?
To be a great choreographer, you have to break some rules. All the choreographers whose names we remember pushed the boundaries in some way. Some sparked radical new styles like queen of modern, Martha Graham, and some took risks in a style that already existed like king of jazz, Bob Fosse. To be great, you have to be unafraid to be the person who says, “Forget that. Let’s try it this way.” Remember, though, taking risks is, well, risky. Your bold new experiment might fall flat on its face.
This isn’t saying a lot, but job prospects for choreographers are expected to improve. Shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars have pumped up excitement about dance in general, which means more jobs for dancers and choreographers alike. It’s still going to be cutthroat competitive, but you might be able to dance your way into any number of jobs. There are touring companies, musical theatre, music videos, pop concerts, commercials—the list goes on. The truth is, though, that most choreographers end up working in some local studio with eight-year-olds in tutus. Hey, somebody has to keep the Grandmas of the world entertained.