12th June 2011

This metaphor has been brought to you by the letter ‘C’.

When I talk about my job, the layperson often has difficulty understanding the difference between being a choreographer and being a dancer. Aside from the obvious similarities to directors (eg: choreographers consider the whole event, including design, costume, context etc., not just the movement); choreographers also work with movement in a considered manner, similar to the way a screen or play writer works with words. Hence I think ‘conversation’ versus ‘scripted ‘dialogue’ is a good metaphor for understanding the difference between dancing and choreography.

People talk to each other all of the time. Conversations are spontaneous, lateral, non-linear and full of pauses, repetition and non-sequiturs. Dancing at a club is similarly structured. In this context, dance moves, like words in a conversation, are equally spontaneous and unstudied, and function as a visceral response to the music. Like words, these moves are learned before hand through human interaction, TV, observation etc.. Or simply made up on the spot, by combining previously known moves, like using letters to create new words. The point is, a movement language must exist first in order to be used in an ‘off the cuff’ situation like a club. Just as a child must learn how to speak before having a conversation.

On the other hand, when dance movements are codified and structured, when they can be repeated and recorded, or when a theme or context is clearly defined, they become choreography. Similarly, when conversations are structured, with a specific outcome or theme in mind, they become scripted. This is how dialogue functions in a play, novel or script. There is a big difference between real conversation and scripted dialogue, no matter how naturalistic that dialogue might appear. Equally, there is a difference between throwing down a few shapes at a club and creating a piece of choreography. Of course, this is not to say that dialogue in films or plays cannot be improvised; and in dance, there is a strong tradition of ‘structured improvisation’. But the key in both instances, is that the material is shaped by someone, be they a choreographer, editor or director. Consequently, the seemingly spontaneous and ‘unscripted’ dialogue from reality shows such as ‘Made in Chelsea’, is ultimately scripted, just as what looks like an improvised club scene in a film, is actually a carefully choreographed sequence.