Becoming A Choreographer

I'd like to take a minute to introduce you to Ryan Casey.  The funny thing about New York is that I am pretty sure I have met more Bostonians here than I did when I lived in Boston.  While I had seen Ryan perform while he was in high school and dancing for Themla Goldberg at The Dance Inn in Lexington, I didn't have the pleasure of actually meeting him until just this year while he was sitting behind the desk at the American Tap Dance Center.  Turns out, not only is Ryan an incredibly gifted tap dancer but he is also quite a writer and an overall great guy.  (He didn't even blink when I knew his name and that we are from the same city and then proceeded to babble like an idiot at him, all before ever introducing myself.)  Recently I discovered that Ryan (who is an undergraduate student at NYU's Gallatin School) has a blog and it just so happens that his most recent post is about his journey in becoming a choreographer.  Thank you Ryan for allowing us to re-post your story here!  I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did. 
If you're interested in reading more of what Ryan has to say, check out his blog!  I have the sneaking suspicion we're also going to be seeing more of Ryan around here, so keep an eye out!  --Nicole

Becoming a Choreographer
by Ryan P. Casey

When I got my dorm assignment last summer, I was thrilled to learn that my building, unlike the others, had its own dance studio. While some of my peers were out drinking and carousing, I envisioned myself spending late nights sweating it out in the studio, the thrill of new rhythms and musical explorations a more practical and useful endeavor than beer pong. Needless to say, I was disappointed to discover that the studio was no bigger than my own room, with a slippery tile floor, crooked ballet bar, and no sound system. And it was typically invaded by groups of studious Asians or loud theatre groups. While I did fulfill my dream of late-night choreography sessions, shuffling in my sneakers to avoid a wipeout, I knew I needed a better space in which to practice.

This spring, I decided it was time to cash in on the 20+ hours of studio space I had earned from my shifts at the American Tap Dance Center since the fall. I penciled myself into the schedule for two hours and showed up that Friday afternoon with the full use of a brand new studio at my fingertips – or toes, really – complete with sound system and sprung wood floor.

But after half an hour, I was bored. Finally I had the perfect practice space, space I had earned, and I was uninspired to use it. I found myself putting on different songs and growing thoroughly disappointed with my improvisation. I would experiment with choreography I had planned in my head or in my sneakers and find that it didn’t fit the music or was not interesting at all. I ended up letting my iPod play while I walked around in frustration, trying to let myself be inspired by something, anything. What was wrong with me?

Four years ago, when I set out to choreograph my first solo, I hadn’t encountered any mental barricades like this. Thelma and I had selected a song together, and it was decided that I would work alone in the studio every day for a week and then show her what I had created. It was a slow process, I remember, and not just because I spent a lot of time raiding the studio cabinets, trying to find something to eat (all I could find were strawberry NutriGrain bars, though I could hardly complain). But at the end of the week, I had a pretty good rough draft of my routine, which turned out to a big hit at Tap City that year. Okay, so there are no granola bars in the ATDC studios. But that could hardly explain my lack of motivation.

Part of it, I know, is related to a revelation I had in Barbara Duffy’s improv class in the fall: I am a very self-conscious tap dancer. No doubt this characteristic is a result not only of my generally anal ways, but of my continuing quest, sparked by Thelma, to be the best dancer that I can be. I had earned a reputation for being a very clean, clear tap dancer, and I felt pressured to live up to that expectation all the time. As a result, I was being too careful, ironically limiting my abilities in my attempts to perfect them. It was when Barbara encouraged me to let go, let loose, BREATHE, and ignore my mistakes for once that I realized I do not have to be careful in order to sound good; my technique is polished enough that I am confident I always will.

This was also one of the rare occasions in which I did not have any shows to prepare for. I did not have a deadline by which I had to produce a solo, and therefore did not feel as obligated to have something to show for my time in the studio. What was the point, I asked myself, of expending a lot of time, energy and thought on a routine when I did not even know if I would get to use it – assuming, of course, that it was quality choreography, which many recent endeavors had not been? (Yes, I realize now it was a silly question, for I do not need a deadline to be able to create a piece, but this was my thought process at the time.)

After experiencing this same frustration and failure a second time, leaving halfway through my scheduled three-hour session, I decided that I was truly bored with myself. I was not seeing my technique improve; I was not creating anything new and interesting; and I was effectively wasting my time in the studio. As discouraging and upsetting as it may be to fail others, I think it feels worse to fail yourself, and ultimately I was doing just that. Where was my mettle, my drive, my confidence? Surely I had not abandoned them back home in Lexington.

My fusion of poetry and tap dance, created for my school’s annual arts festival, renewed my inspiration and confidence as a soloist. I have not created anything new for myself since then. For the meantime, I would like to continue exploring my opportunities with tap and spoken word poetry, foregoing the typical solo path of canned music in favor of something original and experimental. It is what currently moves me and gets me thinking, and I think it truly allows me, as Barbara encouraged me, to let go and explore more of myself, rather than feel caged in by some recorded jazz groove or Michael Jackson song. Working with poetry has allowed me to find my unique voice through writing and dance, my two great passions in life, and has thus been much more rewarding.

But while I wallowed in my own self-pity and frustration, I contemplated what was next. I did not want to spend more time in the studio by myself. I needed to work with and be inspired by other dancers, to begin my journey as a choreographer. After all, if I ever wanted to be hired by a dance studio or a festival, I would presumably need some experience in creating and setting pieces on others. The closest I had ever come to that was choreographing the tap section of the finale at my last Dance Inn recital. I wanted to do something bigger now, make a whole piece by myself. But who would I work with? Who would my dancers be?

I was lucky enough to be able to work with my family, my Legacy girls, when I came home for the summer. They were all enthusiastic about the piece and have put in a lot of extra time, effort and dedication to learning and performing it. I was so pleased with its premiere at the Dance for World Community Festival in Harvard Square on June 12th, and I cannot wait to hear about how it is received when three Legacy dancers take it to Symphony Space at the Tap City Youth Concert on July 8th. It is really a thrill not only to see those dancers present my work onstage, but to see them having fun; to see them truly caring about my work and dedicating themselves to it; and to see that I have ultimately succeeded in carrying on the mission of the Legacy Dance Company: sharing the joy of dance with others. When we first danced “Hey, Soul Sister” in Harvard Square, we all clapped and flapped around at the end, and I remember passing my friends and seeing lots of smiling and laughing faces. That was the greatest reward for my first choreography project. I think I can safely and proudly call it a success. And I can call myself a choreographer, not to mention one who has had his work presented on one of New York’s top stages. This is quite an exciting beginning, and I look forward to future choreography opportunities.

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