The Choreography Process

Today’s episode brings us back to August 2018, the 9th annual celebration of Jersey Tap Fest. Part of my program with Jersey Tap Fest is a public “Tap Talk” where I invite a couple of faculty members to join me in answering questions directly from the students. In this Tap Talk, the audience was wide-ranged with dancers of all ages: children, teens, adults, advanced-beginner through professional levels all with one thing… a mutual love and respect for tap dance and an eagerness to learn more.

This excerpt of our Tap Talk features myself, Bril Barrett and Justin Myles speaking on the process of creating and teaching choreography. At the time of this recording, Justin Myles was fresh off of NBC’s World of Dance with the JAM Project and is currently on tour with Tap Dogs. Bril Barrett is the founder of M.A.D.D. Rhythms (Making A Difference Dancing). M.A.D.D. Rhythms is a Chicago-based tap dance company which has served as a training ground for some of today’s great tap dance artists as well as an outreach program and tap academy for dancers of all ages. I am lucky to call these guys my friends and you, iTapOnline Community, are lucky to have the chance to dig deeper with them and their creative process!


JUSTIN MYLES travels nationwide and internationally to conduct Tap workshops, Contemporary Jazz technique, and body percussion workshops. He is one the proud co-founder & Directors of The JaM Project & The JaM Youth Project in DC. The JaM Project specializes in setting choreography/compositions, and workshops nationwide for dance studios and conventions. The JaM Youth Project is a preprofessional company preparing members for the world of dance. This entails monthly classes, workshops, technique, numerous opportunities to perform in festivals both internationally and locally, and professional video dance films which are available online.

BRIL BARRETT is a dedicated tap dancer, whose mission is to preserve and promote tap dance as a percussive art form, foster respect and admiration for the history and creators of tap, and continuously create opportunities for the art form and its practitioners. Bril is the founder of M.A.D.D. (Making A Difference Dancing) Rhythms, Co-founder of M.A.D.D. Rhythms Canada, director of The Chicago Tap Summit, and founder of The M.A.D.D. Rhythms Tap Academy.


Hillary-Marie on Student Solo Choreography: (2:28)

My choreographic process depends on what I’m choreographing. If I’m choreographing a solo for a student I will ask them to send me three songs that they love, which gives me a feel for their musical taste. Maybe I’ll pull from those songs or those songs will inspire me to send them something from my library that I feel fits their personality and their musical taste. I don’t create the choreography until I’m in the room with the dancer. I don’t prepare material in advance, I set it on them in the moment and get a feel for who they are and what their ability is.

Hillary-Marie on Professional Company Choreography: (3:15)

When setting material for my professional company, Hillary-Marie’s Sole Music Collective, the choreography is usually the last thing that I do. I think of myself as more of a director. I feel the music that I want, then I see the piece and its story, and I see the lighting, the people and the image and feeling I want to create. Footwork is last and the most important thing for me is the overall composition. I tell my dancers that I don’t want them to look like me, I just want the sound that I’m asking for and I want the individual dancer to be who they are within that sound or to be the character that I need within that piece in order to accomplish telling the story.

Hillary-Marie on Personal Solo Choreography: (4:38)

As a soloist, I haven’t choreographed for myself in so many years. I used to be a super-polished choreographed solo dancer, which I got from my teachers: Harold Cromer, Karen Calloway Williams and Deborah Mitchell. Everything was polished and ready to be presented. Since then, I’ve taken an improvised approach to my solo work as an opportunity to exist in the present moment and manifest my musical thoughts.

Justin on Student Solo Choreography: (5:36)

Justin also prefers to create in the moment. He says, “if you come in with a skeleton of work and spend time choreographing for a kid I’ve never seen before, how do I know what the vibe is going to be? Why would I set a country song on you if you didn’t like it? I wait for the moment and ask for music ahead of time so it’s my choreography, but it’s YOUR solo, an extension of YOUR personality.”

Justin on Student Company Choreography: (6:54)

In the JAM Youth Project with Mark Orsborn, Justin says that the choreography is an extension of all the kids, an extension of what they know will look good on them. There’s always a message behind the work as well. Check out this JAM Youth Project piece their piece “If I Rule the World”.

What is the definition of Composition?: (7:28)

  • Creation
  • Putting things together
  • Road Map/GPS
  • Your Journey
  • Connecting to the song and seeing how you would really dance

Justin’s Thoughts on Fusion: (9:23)

There’s been a lot of fusions in tap in recent past, with contemporary and hip/hop fused tap dances. Justin feels that this coming together is incredible and okay to do “if you take the cue from your music”, but encourages dancers “to still pay ode and homage to where we come from”. **(see the footnote below!)

Hillary-Marie on How to Develop Your Choreography Skills: (10:46)

No one expects you to walk into a room and wing your choreography. We didn’t start that way. It was through trial and error that we developed this skill.

Before you choreograph for other people, I recommend that you choreograph on yourself. Get into the process of what it is for you to learn choreography and retain it for yourself. Right now you are professional students and your whole entire job description is to learn and absorb. What is it to teach? What is it to create? And how can you empathetically offer that information to whoever it was created for as a choreographer? Those are skills that you obtain over time and you get better at it the more hours that you put into it.

Important note: If you are that person who comes in with steps written down, there is nothing wrong with you and your process. What is important is your process and you have to figure out what that process is for you, your students and your situation.

Bril on Choreographing: (12:50)

Bril’s inspiration is what shape his choreography, “sometimes it’s a piece of music, or an emotion and the way I’m feeling and the music comes later.” He’s currently creating a whole show based on Nina Simone’s music. “She was very prolific and ahead of her time: unafraid of saying what needed to be said. That is my inspiration for setting the choreography for this show.”

**Footnote: (13:37)

ConTAPuary: What is it? Did you know that Contemporary dance fused with Tap dance is now being called Contapuary in some places? You will have to wait for a future episode for the rest of this footnote where we share our collective thoughts on fusion!

What YOUR Process? (13:54)

Tell me more about your choreography process. What feels good and what’s challenging? What other questions do you have after hearing us share our processes? You can comment in the show notes of this episode or post in the iTapOnline Community Facebook group. Please comment and share your thoughts. I always write you back!

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