If you are a stage performer, troupe member or member of a theater production, choreography is a MUST! You can’t go out there without it if you want a cohesive, intricate piece that is reproducible and creates a predictable effect over and over again.
Choreography even has its place in the classroom. It gives form to compositions and helps students to see how to put together a piece from start to finish. It gives students a sense of accomplishment (whereas an improvised piece is never truly “done.”) It is handy for teaching how to use elements or for pulling elements out of a whole and putting them elsewhere.
The thing I am arguing against is the over-reliance on choreography as the sole teaching tool or the sole performance method in a venue that doesn’t require choreography. In other words, don’t dance solely with a choreography crutch.
If you can’t improvise, are you truly a dancer? Can a piano player play without sheet music? Can a writer write without instructions? Can a painter paint without directions? Can a sculptor sculpt without a teacher telling him what to do in advance?
What I am trying to say is that art requires some sort of skill development. That skill is both technical and logical. If all you are teaching is choreography, it’s like telling a story and then instructing your students to give it back to you. It does build some skill, but not enough to teach the student how to write independently. If the student can’t write independently, is he truly a writer?
In order to dance improvisationally with skill (because some people can do this spontaneously, but without any skill whatsoever), you have to know how to think and feel. I don’t believe choreography is the best way to teach either of those things, nor does it develop confidence in the ability to be spontaneous, feel, or explore.
Choreography is almost a no-fail way of teaching. Students have to have the room to fail in order to learn to succeed. By learning what doesn’t work, you learn what does. If all you have is choreography, you may have something that works, but you don’t know why, so you can’t really do it again reliably. And what happens when something goes wrong with the choreography? How do you recover?
One of my favorite belly dance stories is about Nagwa Fuad. I heard that she was in the middle of a show when something happened and she lost sound. (Not sure how that could happen with a live band, but anyway…) Being a trooper and believing that the show must go on, the drummer picked up where the band left off. He and she did the first ever live drum solo and it’s been emulated ever since. That moment in history (assuming it really is history) could never have happened had either of them been sheet music reading, choreography dancing performers.
Improv is a necessary skill if you want to be a good dancer. Use choreography when it is required and improv when the venue best suits that. Both will be enhanced if you are good at both.
To learn more about the BDT method of choreography or improvisation, get my book Shake Your Booty. Both methods require a solid knowledge of dance and music basics. Lessons on those topics are also included on that page.