Anatomy of a Dance Routine

I absolutely love dancing.  Dancing a choreographed West Coast Swing routine helped me improve my dancing by leaps and bounds.  It’s incredibly challenging but it is incredibly fun too.

My dance history is short and sweet. I finally began taking dance lessons 10 years ago. After learning to dance, I enjoyed social dancing in clubs and bars.  Even more fun, was dancing at Swing Dance events.  After all, everybody was there to dance so I got to dance a lot.  Those dance events included watching competitions by other dancers.  I watched some amazing performances, which inspired me to start competing too.  That is a whole new ball game there!

Dancing in front of judges is a lot different that just social dancing.  It makes you improve quickly because you’re under such a watchful eye.  It’s understood in social dancing that mistakes happen.  If you make a mistake while competing,  your scores and relative placing are much lower.  It made me want to correct my mistakes and improve.  It can be discouraging at times, but there’s something about competing that makes me keep at it. I suppose it’s my quest to always be better at whatever it is that I do.  While much of that competition is focused on improving myself, it’s also unavoidable to compare yourself to others that you dance against.  I like to be on top of the heap.

I had been told while I was growing as a dancer, that I should consider doing a routine.  I was told it would make me a better dancer.  Now, after almost 4 years of dancing choreographed routines, I have a little perspective on what it takes and what it does for a dancer.

It definitely makes you a better dancer.  Doing a routine develops many skills: memory, performance, presentation, orientation to the audience and a greater sense of music structure and timing.

The anatomy of a dance routine covers several topics.

First of all, you’ve got to find the right song, find the right partner and find the best choreographer.  That’s just number 1!  That, in and of itself, is a huge task.

You have to love the song you pick, because you will be listening to it hundreds of times as you practice and perform it.  It also has to have good entertainment value with peaks and valleys, quiet and loud, a good beginning and a good ending.  It has to be the song that will allow you to demonstrate the things that you want to convey when you perform it.  You may want to highlight footwork, or speed, or slow, smooth style.  Whatever it is, that will become the theme of your routine.

Often the music has to be cut down by deleting and editing out pieces so that it meets the requirement to be under 3 minutes of total play time.  I use Roxio EasyMedia to edit my songs.  My knowledge of music helps me make just the right cut so you never notice a splice.  I try to catch it right on a beat of music, or at a silent break in the song. It’s tricky to do.  I’ve gotten really good at it over the years, and it still takes me around 3 hours to edit one song.

Next or possibly at the same time, find a right partner.  It took quite a while for me to find someone who wanted to do this.  It takes a lot of dedication and time.  My first routine was with a better dancer than me.  We worked on a Novice Routine.  My second routine was with a Pro, Lisa D’Amico.  We did a ProAm routine.  My third routine was with what I consider an equal dance partner.  We are both intermediate dancers with several years of competition under our belts.  We are doing a Master’s routine and we’ll be taking that to the U.S.Open in November 2011.  I just started a fourth routine with Lisa D’Amico again which will be another ProAm routine.

Finding the right partner is just as challenging as finding the right song.  Having a significant other in our life can be a huge challenge too.  You are going to spend a lot of time with your dance partner.  Jealousy and lost time together is a tough obstacle to handle.  You need to have a friendly working relationship and a professional approach to both practice sessions and competition performance.  It takes flexibility, dedication, trust and compassion for each other.

My third partner, Karen, after our performance at Fresno, California

Life has a way of getting in the middle of a dance schedule, whether it’s a marriage, or a family upset, or something as simple as a traffic jam which causes you to miss a practice.  A healthy dance partnership has good boundaries, good communication and mutual respect.  There is a lot of give and take.  After all, this is supposed to be fun for both people and demonstrate a love for dance.

And, it takes money.  It takes money to pay for coaching and choreography.  It takes money to pay floor fees, buy costumes, pay for travel, hotels and entry fees.  Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find ways to cut costs.  I’ve practiced at home many times.  I’ve practiced at my gym.  And sometimes, you may get breaks on coaching and choreography too.  If you can find a willing pro or a partner who is creative enough to come up with moves that are show worthy, you can save costs.  That, however, is quite rare.

My first choreographed routine cost $500 for just the choreography.  Mario Robau Jr. did it and let me tell you, he is a genius at this.  He promises to have your choreography done within 2 hours.  Bring him your ideas and any special moves that you want and in 2 hours, he creates a masterpiece right in front of you.  It was astounding to watch him develop it, dance it with you or your partner to be sure it’s what you want, then dance every piece of it while we video taped it.  My first contact with this process spoiled me.  I was exposed to the best and I’ll never forget that session.

My second routine cost a little more than that.  Lisa D’Amico developed it.  Her style is quite different, though no less of a marvel to watch her work.  That’s what is so fun about choreography.  Each dancer hears a song differently.  Each has their own style.  Getting to work with Lisa totally changed how I hear music and how I move to it.  She is the one that I credit for taking me beyond the novice level as a dancer and teaching me to hear music, move to music and express what I hear and feel.  Lisa is one of the most amazing people I know. She is a treat to work with.

With Mario’s choreography, I had to learn how to do what he put on video for us.  That was hard for me, but I learned it eventually.  Lisa, on the other hand, danced each 20 second segment with me, so by the time we had the whole song done, I pretty much knew the moves.  I found that method to be better for me, but being exposed to both was the real education.  They both work.

My third routine was developed over a longer period of time.  It ended up costing about $700.  The going rate for the top Pro’s today to choreograph a song is near $1000.  My partner and I took lessons every other week at about $75.00 per lesson.  We’ve been doing that for over a year now.  See what I mean! It takes money.  It can certainly be done for less, but this is how mine have been.

Once you’ve got your song, your partner and your music choreographed, now comes the practice sessions.  I have always loved this part.  Every routine I’ve done has pushed me farther than I would have ever gone by just social dancing.  I’ve learned fancy footwork, speed and control.  I’ve learned to listen to music differently in order to accent parts of a song with my body movement, and I’ve learned performance presentation.  Presentation includes things like your posture, where your head is turned, what are your eyes looking at (your partner, the sky, the audience) and smiling!

One of the most humbling parts of this practice time is video taping a session and watching it with your partner or coach.  It’s a critical look at how you are dancing and what can be improved.  It’s something that you have to do.  It’s awful at first but becomes so important as you try to correct bad habits, or improve timing, or get better at synchronizing movements with your partner.  I hated it at first. I’m appreciative of it now.  Today, my partner and I taped our routine twice during our 1/2 hour practice.  We caught several things that we want to correct before we perform it again.  For me, that was how I held my right arm and how I hit one of my big moves.

My first routine started in May.  A year later, we were coming close to being able to perform it.  My second routine went faster because I had better dance skills.  We started that one in August and performed it in January, less than 5 months later.  My third routine was started in April.  We performed it nine months later in January. My fourth routine was started on a whim, or perhaps a dare.  I can’t talk about that one yet, because it’ll be a surprise where and when we perform it.  I’ll post an update when we do.  What I can say is, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked on a dance routine.

Over the life of a routine, changes are inevitable. Try as we might to do a certain move, sometimes, we just can’t get it done well.  So we change it. That means all that muscle memory that was spent learning a move, must now be ‘re-programmed’ to learn the new moves.  At first it was scary for me.  Now, we are better at evaluating and developing new pieces.  Its keeps the routine fresh and young.  It also solidifies our decision that we’ve made the right correction.  It works, it dances good for us, and in the end, we present it better too.

We do as many dress rehearsals as we can, performing in front of friends and other dancers.  We try out our costumes before we dance to be sure we don’t snag each other and be sure that everything stays tucked in.  On the day of our performance at a dance event, we have floor tryouts to test our music with the DJ, to position ourselves properly on the dance floor, to test the speed and size of the floor, and to get rid of some of the jitters that come with performing.

The first time I performed a routine, I didn’t know how my body would respond.  I didn’t eat anything for 6 hours before dancing in case I threw up.  I didn’t sleep well.  My heart was pounding too much to sleep.  I kept asking myself, “What did I get myself into this time?”  And I didn’t know how I would perform under pressure. Would I forget my moves? Would I crumble?  Dare I look at someone in the audience?!?!?!I did well, and didn’t fall apart.  Over time, that anxiety diminishes, but it’s still a part of dancing.

You wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t experience some adrenalin rush, or apprehension.  But I have also found that I have developed a confidence that I can execute the routine properly, or at the worst, I can smile and roll with the punches.  During a recent performance, I missed a critical hand change.  Not many people noticed because we never stopped smiling and dancing, even though one hand was not connected.  We just picked it up at the next chance we got and kept on going. Our faces never gave away the fact that we had goofed.

Performance then, is the final part of the anatomy.  You can’t have this experience any other place than out there on the dance floor, just you and your partner, dancing to the music.  All the hard work, all the timing and dance skills, all the wardrobe, hair and cosmetics – all come together for this single performance.  It’s exhilarating!

A dance routine can be performed for as long as you like, but typically, it’s good for a year from the time you start performing it.  After that, it isn’t new and fresh to the audience.  It’s time to start a new one.

Doing a dance routine had been one of the main reasons for my growth and confidence as a dancer.  All the pieces in the anatomy are necessary in order to grow.  My social dancing has improved too.  But the best reward has been that my love and my appreciation for this dance of mine.  I love West Coast Swing more than ever because of the freedom it gives to adapt to so many styles of music, plus, it allows for so many forms of presentation of the dance too.  A dance routine is just one way to show what West Coast Swing is all about.

Here’s a video of me from almost 2 years ago.  This was the first time I wasn’t embarrassed about how I danced or how I looked.  That’s a pretty big thing for me to say, knowing how afraid I was 10 years ago to even step out on the dance floor of a local bar!

About Wayne to the Max

Active writer, dancer, traveler, Christian and father, aviation enthusiast, photographer, music lover and a DJ, hiker, Harley driver and fine wine drinker. My digital photo artist page: www.WayneToTheMax.com
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2 Responses to Anatomy of a Dance Routine

  1. Big Bill says:

    Where do pros make their money dancing? In the movies and stage?

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