Saturday, August 18, 2012

Should I improvise or choreograph my performance?

Most pole dancers don't get a lot of performance opportunities. Unless we are highly involved in the competition circuit or working as exotic dancers (which is pretty much all improvisation so doesn't factor into this blog post), the vast majority of what we do is relegated to the studio, our homes, and maybe our YouTube accounts.

But every once in awhile, those of us who are pretty serious about our pole hobbies will have the opportunity to perform in public. It could be a local competition, a showcase, a studio performance, or some sort of local event that you've been asked to perform at (hopefully for money--this isn't a cheap hobby!).

For most polers, the first question they ask themselves will be, "What will I WEAR?!?!" The second, though, will be, "Do I just get up there and dance, or do I have to write a routine?"

The truth is that either way is totally fine. People do it both ways. So you just have to decide what's better for you. Obviously I can't do that for you, but what might help is going over what it's like to do each, and what the pros and cons are.

Improvisation should play a huge part in your studio or home training, so you should be pretty comfortable transferring that practice to a public space.


Since you are not running a routine over and over, your training will not change much from your day-to-day routine. You'll probably just keep practicing the moves you were working on anyways, and doing some freestyling. Even if you don't have a routine in mind, though, it's a good idea to have a mental list of what moves you think you will and won't use. We all have our "default moves" that we pretty much throw into everything, but that probably won't be enough to fill up a whole song. What else do you have that would be a good fit? More importantly, what do you NOT want to do? Are you sure that combo you've been working on is ready for an uncontrolled environment, where you or the pole might be too hot or too cold or too slippery and you won't be able to do anything about it?

And please please video yourself, even just once. Routine or no, you're bound to catch something you're doing that needs to be cleaned up, whether you tend to flex your feet when you fonji (I know I do) or make a face when you drop your legs down & up in an iguana (I do that too).

Before the show

You'll mostly be reminding yourself to include the moves you want. You shouldn't be stressed out about too many things beyond general performance anxiety.

During the show

Hopefully, you will be totally into the music and the moment, connecting with the audience and feeling amazing. Here are some other thoughts that will probably run through your head, though:

"OK, what should I do next, um..."
"WTF this song is LONG!!!!"
"Crap, I think I did this move like three times already."
"Uhhh what else what else was I supposed to do..."
"Why aren't we done yet? WHY IS THIS SONG SO LONG?"

After the performance

You should feel awesome and elated. But you will probably be saying, "Gahh, I forgot to do like 10 things I meant to do!! Dammit!!" and maybe "I think I just did the same couple of things over and over."

That's the biggest problem with improvisation. You'll be relatively chill beforehand, but kicking yourself afterward for everything you didn't do. The good news is, you're the only one who knows that. The audience doesn't know you didn't do an Oona split, and even if you think it would have blown their minds, really they were probably just aweing at how beautiful and graceful and amazing you are. You can tell your fellow polers about all the awesome stuff you were GONNA do, but the general public really doesn't know the difference.

Other pros and cons

The best thing about improvisation is that you are totally adaptable to any situation. It doesn't matter how thick or high the poles are, or whether or not they are attached to the ceiling. No ceiling? Don't use the ceiling. No problem.


Writing and mastering a routine is quite a lot of work, but extremely rewarding.


Depending on how much time you have to prepare, you need to start practicing way in advance.
Of course it's all relative to your time frame, but you should be doing complete run-throughs of your routine at least a couple weeks before go time. Because you're gonna find that what worked in your head, and what worked one chunk at a time, is usually impossible to actually pull off in context. Generally, especially if you are a more athletic-style dancer, you're gonna get completely winded after the first verse. Stamina is a topic for another day, but for now let's just say you either have to keep practicing 'til you get used to it, or re-choreograph so that you get more "rest" time. And there's no way of knowing in the beginning which one it's gonna be, ie, whether or not what you want to do is going to be possible for you or not.

You also don't want to overtrain. That's also a subject for a future column, but for now: if you're running your routine a lot, you're practicing the same moves over and over, on the same side, day after day. This can easily lead to overuse and imbalance. Be careful and make sure you have at least a little time dedicated to working your other side in there. Try running your routine, even in slow motion and without music, on your other side. It doesn't have to be good, but you have to try. (See also: Reasons to learn tricks on BOTH sides.)

Before the show

You're gonna be freaking out about everything. It matters a LOT what kind of equipment you'll be working on, and sometimes the people you're communicating with are not very specific. Yeah, so it's 8 feet, but if it's self-standing then you can't do your ceiling lay. Will there be enough floor space to do the kinds of floor work and dismounts you were planning? Plus, you have all these moves to worry about. If it's too slippery to do a monkey tail (or whatever the kids are calling it these days), and you have one planned, you're pretty much screwed. Once you have your routine set in stone, you're going to find that you are not willing to deviate from it. When you have planned down to the last hair flip, it seems inconceivable to change an entire move, which will affect timing, height, transitions, and maybe the entire sequence it's a part of.

During the show

If you've trained and practiced right, you should really slay here. You should have the moves so memorized and second nature that you can concentrate entirely on personality, showmanship, and just rocking it. That said, something will always go wrong. Hopefully it will be something small, but just know that there will be a little snag or glitch somewhere and no amount of preparation will prevent that. I once had a routine that I agonized over, including a really difficult, really fast spin sequence. In my performance, the pole got semi-stuck and wouldn't spin fast, so the entire effect was lost. Not my fault, nothing I could have done about it, and yeah I was pissed because it was a really super cool thing, and that whole verse pretty much just fell flat. But the audience didn't really remember that, they went ape for my performance overall.

After the show

You should be feeling good. If you were prepared, then you almost certainly did all your moves well, in the right order, and hopefully were able to add on a lot of stage presence. You'll still be mad about that one thing that didn't go right, but you will hopefully have put on a real show, and that's what the audience will respond to.

Other pros and cons

Because it matters so much what the setup is, your routine may not be reusable in its current form. That is, you planned on a static pole and a spinning pole twelve feet high and going all the way to the ceiling. Your next performance might be on a single nine-foot static stage pole. It won't transfer without some serious editing. So you're looking at doing a TON of work and maybe being able to use it once. You better at least get it on video! You should probably video your dress rehearsal, too, in case that comes out better.

Combination of the two

If you're not ready to commit to one plan or the other, you can always do something in the middle. One example is to freestyle, but to practice freestyling to your song so many times that you've got a pattern going of what you're going to do when, even if you're not committed to it. Another is to choreograph just parts of the songs. For example, you know you want to climb to the top of the pole during the guitar solo, and you know what you're going to do once you get up there. You almost might consider planning out just the beginning and the ending of the song, so you know you that no matter what else happens, you'll start and end strongly.

Which you pick depends a lot on personality type and performance style, so it's a really individual choice. Don't worry--as you perform more over time, you'll find what works best for you. Good luck and let us know how it went!

Image of Cleo the Hurricane from Pole Dance Italy


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