This fall I undertook a big project with 4 other local hoopers. We've spoken about doing a large group piece for a while, but I have no dance training or background so I was pretty intimidated by the prospect. With Arts in the Heart of Augusta (and the giant Global Stage) looming, they finally convinced me to work on it. Since these ladies were already coming to my Monday night hoop dance classes, it was pretty natural for me to take the lead on putting the choreography together at the start, but by the end I found that it was a rewarding collaborative experience with these talented hoopers.
Before the experience gets too far behind me, I wanted to describe the process of choreographing a piece for 5 hoopers. In my own research leading up to this piece I had a hard time finding tips and advice on how to do this, so I hope this is helpful for others looking into the same thing!
Click through for the low-down on how we got this thing done!
It took me quite a while to find a song I was happy with. I wanted something with a good variety throughout, with volume, tempo, and energy changes. I've learned from solo performances that a boring song will make even the coolest tricks fall flat, so when I rediscovered Dog Days by Florence + The Machine, I knew it was a good fit.
Envisioning the Choreography
The music gave me a big part of my inspiration for the first part of this piece. At the beginning the lyrics say, "Happiness hit her like a train on a track."and I wanted to conceptually represent that in some way. I decided that the hoops would represent "happiness" and as I gave each one over to the dancers, it would be like they found their happiness in the hoop. Every dancer got a unique move to introduce themselves before we all joined up in the dance together. It gave me teacher-warm-fuzzies, for sure. But once everyone got their hoop, I was unsure what I wanted to do with the rest of the choreography.
A Dance Takes Shape
I broke my "choreo-block" by abandoning the concept I had for the beginning and thinking about the rest of the song in physical shapes. For each major part of music, I decided what shape I wanted the group to form. From there, I decided how I wanted each shape to move and change.
For example, between 1:10 and 1:20, I wanted the hoops to stay "static" on a vertical plane in order to frame each dancer and build some anticipation for the upcoming chorus. At the same time we needed some motion so the audience wouldn't get confused or lose focus. So we did two slow half coin rolls, pausing between each one. We even stepped out to the side on the first coin roll, then closed the gap between our feet in order to shift the line slightly and get the audience's attention. Then, to indicate that something dramatic was about to happen, we flipped the hoops in a staggered line. This kept the vertical plane intact, but it was such a departure from the last two actions that it geared up the audience for something big coming up next.
From there, we all went into lasso, and two of the hoopers went to the front with the hoop on their waist, and three went to the back with the hoop still in lasso. This was the next "shape" I wanted to work with, and I had the hoopers switch places and change levels with their hoop within that shape to give the audience variety.
Other shapes you can see the group make in this piece are the "Kali" where we get in a line behind each other, the "scatter" when we all separate from the organized line of the kali, the "box" where there's a hooper at each of the 4 corners of a square (plus me in the middle), and the "W" when I come forward through the middle just before we all do the escalator move at 3:07. With these basic shapes all set in place, we were able to figure out what specific moves we should use to punctuate the music.
KISS- Keep It Simple, Silly!
Before our first group practice I picked out moves I thought would work for the piece and what I assumed we could do on stage. I was still in a mode of choreographing for a solo piece, so there were some very complex passages that would have been great for a single hooper... but when we started running though we found that with five us vying for space on stage and trying to stay together, things needed to be simplified. So within a few minutes of first working through the choreography as a group, it became a collaboration for all of us as we found ways to have the same effect with simpler moves.
The biggest thing I learned in this process is that the shape of the dancers as a whole has the most impact for the audience; The complexity of the moves is almost completely irrelevant.
Listening to the GroupThe hoopers I worked with were also pretty awesome at finding solutions to tricky parts- what we would do for the partner segments, for example, and how to work within the confines of a small space, like staggering our positions. They were constantly coming up with ideas to make the piece flow better, and even came up with the end of the piece (I literally had "do something cool... jump through??? in my notes, but I like their version a lot more). Listening to their suggestions made this piece awesome.. A caveat to this guidance, however, is this: Unless it's simplifying the choreography, try not to change anything too close to the performance date, no matter how much a group member wants it. Have them save their ideas for another group piece in the future.
Other useful tidbits:
- CHOREOGRAPHY NOTES: To share the choreography notes, I used a spreadsheet in google docs. These are immensely helpful for quickly sharing and allowing a lot of people to review new edits without wasting a lot of paper. I had a column for the timing, one for the lyric at the moment, one for the main action of the dancers, and another for the action of the other group of dancers. Each person is represented by their first initial. Further on in the choreography where there's a specific order needed, I indicate it by separating their initials by slashes, like so: A/E/C/L/J. We'd have printed copies at each rehearsal to make notes on (printed up by one of the hoopers with a much better memory than I) , and I would update the google doc afterward. You can see how I set it up the spreadsheet in this screenshot:
- PRACTICES: Getting people together isn't easy! With our insane schedules it was hard to find time together to practice, but it certainly paid off. In order to go home at a reasonable hour we had to make sure to stay on task, which wasn't always easy. I was grateful to the other hoopers that when I stepped up in "teacher mode" and said that we needed to get back on track, they went right back to work. For a group of hoopers that don't necessarily have a teacher figure, it could be useful to appoint someone to be the person to fill that role.
- RUN THROUGHS: We had a variety of methods to running through the choreography in order to memorize it. I would recommend doing all of them. To explain the choreography to the group, I had them all sit while I mimed each part. We walked it out slowly without music. We walked it out to the music without hoops. We rehearsed 30 second to 1 minutes spans at a time in order to get a specific transition here and there. I called out the moves while the music played and they listened. About a week before the performance, we transitioned to running through the whole piece with music and hoops almost every time we gave it a go. If we had a perfect run-through, we would usually break for the night in order to end on a high note.
- TEAMWORK: The group of hoopers that came together for this choreography were stellar team players. Because we all had worked together in the class previously, we had experience with helping each other out with tough moves. They were all patient with me and each other as we learned some new moves and refined old ones. Even through hangups and frustrating practices, everyone was super respectful of each other, too.
I hope that helps a bit with any future group hoop pieces out there!! I chose not to go too much into why I chose which moves we would do because I think it's really up to the specific groups to determine what's right for them. I may do something about my individual thoughts on choreography in the future, we'll have to see!
I want to give mad shout outs to the hoopers who learned this choreography with me- Jess Lankford, Ashley Gills, Lacee Deanna, and Emily Moore.
If you're a hooper planning something like this, let me know! I definitely want to see video to continue spreading the inspiration for big hoop acts like this. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org