A successful choreographer demonstrates a keen passion and talent for dance partnered with persistence, determination and excellent teaching and leadership skills

As a choreographer, you'll create and plan routines for performance, usually to music or to evoke an idea in the heads of the audience. You'll create dance routines to entertain at live shows, events or for TV and films. You're usually required to plan the whole performance, from teaching the steps to the dancers to working with costume designers and directors to achieve the desired outcome. You could choreograph stage, TV or film performances, music videos, and even fashion shows or corporate events. You might create your own dance pieces or interpret a director's instructions depending on the brief provided.

You'll need a high level of dancing ability, the patience to teach others and to know what looks good to a wider audience, as well as the communication skills needed to make sure that your directions are coming across clearly to your dancers.

The most successful choreographers run whole shows by themselves, playing out storylines and themes through meticulous planning of dances, costumes, music and visuals, to engage the audience. Choreographers often run their own dance schools, which also involves balancing their own accounts and managing costs.

Responsibilities

Depending on your area of specialism, you'll need to:

  • develop ideas and create and develop routines to produce a well-polished performance
  • plan movements to fit to music, guided by artistic and musical directors
  • discuss ideas and plans with producers, costume designers, and musical and artistic directors
  • choose music suitable for the concept or subject you have been tasked with
  • audition, teach and rehearse dancers
  • for some forms of dance you may be required to record the steps using a notation system, such as Labanotation or Benesh
  • work with other professionals to choreograph fight scenes or theatrical stunts
  • be able to work on more than one show at a time
  • meet regularly with producers, musical and artistic directors and costume designers.

If you're freelance, you'll also need to promote and market yourself, find new work and deal with your own tax and accounts.

Choreographers usually specialise in one style of dance, such as:

  • classical ballet
  • contemporary dance forms such as jazz, hip-hop, street or freestyle
  • musical theatre
  • ballroom and Latin American, such as salsa
  • highland or Scottish country (ceilidh) dancing
  • cultural, such as Irish, Indian, African or belly dancing
  • ice dancing
  • disability dance.

Salary

Salaries are extremely varied depending on whether you work purely on a freelance basis, run your own company or work for someone else.

Variations in income can also depend on:

  • type of employment - freelance, fixed term or contracted
  • how experienced you are and your reputation in the industry
  • the size of the company or organisation you work for.

Earnings for choreographers can also vary widely, depending on the type of contract and production you work on.

Information supplied by forecasts that the average UK salary for a choreographer is currently £44,200 (LMI For All).

Equity, the performers' union, negotiates minimum rates of pay for choreographers each year, both for the commercial and independent theatre. The Independent Theatre Council (ITC) also publishes minimum rates of pay.

  • Initial rates for preparation and up to two weeks' rehearsal is a minimum fee of £1,951.50.
  • The minimum weekly fee (for more than two weeks of rehearsals) for a choreographer is £483.00.
  • The minimum daily rate is £157.00.
  • The minimum session rate (maximum of 3 hours) is £101.00.

Working hours

Your working hours will depend on your employer. For example, if you're working within an educational setting then your hours will be dictated by the student's hours, but you'll still need to consider the time outside of delivery hours in which you will be preparing your choreography and making arrangements for events.

The working hours of a choreographer tend to be long due to rigorous teaching demands in the daytime and further classes or performances in the evenings, because you tend to be working on more than one performance at a time.

Your work may be more based around short contracts rather than one permanent job which can also impact on the hours required and regularity of the hours.

Data provided by LMI For All suggests that the UK Choreography workforce is currently made up of 7.8% full-time, 26.6% part-time and 65.6% self-employed workers.

What to expect

  • You're likely to be often working on more than one production at a time.
  • You may mainly work in dance studios and rehearsal rooms, but also in theatres, film and TV studios, nightclubs, halls and holiday centres.
  • There may be a lot of travel, possibly including overseas. There will likely be more travel involved the higher up the chain you get, as popular shows often tour a country or even a continent. 
  • You must keep up your fitness levels and stamina throughout your career.
  • You might have to spend long periods away from home.

Qualifications

There are no formal qualifications required to enter this role, however many choreographers usually start off as dancers and many study dance at college or university. A background in dance (preferably as a performer) is more important than educational qualifications.

Several courses in dance performance include an option in choreography. There are courses in dance and performing arts (including dance) at different levels, from National Certificate (NC) or National Qualification (NQ), up to Higher National Certificate (HNC), Higher National Diploma (HND) and degree.

Not all courses need academic qualifications, although there's usually an audition. It's useful to have experience in English (required by many courses), expressive arts subjects such as dance, music and drama, and physical education. Many dancers start at an early age and undertake graded examinations through dance classes. 

There are also courses at private schools. Information on recognised dance courses is available from the Council for Dance, Drama and Musical Theatre (CDMT).

Skills

You should have:

  • a creative imagination
  • a high level of dancing ability and general fitness
  • a knowledge of established dance steps and movements
  • an excellent sense of rhythm and understanding of the theory of timing in music
  • a good ear for music
  • a knowledge of human anatomy
  • good spatial awareness
  • a good memory to recall sequences of movements
  • energy and stamina to try out the movements yourself and demonstrate them to others.

You'll also need:

  • patience, stamina and excellent focus
  • self-discipline and determination
  • good communication skills for working with people
  • an awareness of health and safety
  • marketing and business skills, if you work freelance
  • the ability to explain effectively and to teach others
  • strong interpersonal skills.

Work experience

Each job may lead to more recognition and bigger opportunities for choreographers. Showcasing work whenever possible is important, and choreographers at any stage of their careers may find that community productions, dance recitals and festivals offer opportunities to demonstrate their artistic skills. Jobs may also be available through cruise ships, and leisure activities or in teaching positions. 

You may find it useful to get work experience with an established choreographer. The One Dance UK UK Choreographers Directory (UKCD) is a free, searchable directory of independent choreographers with experience in the arts and entertainment industries. You could also develop your skills by volunteering to choreograph amateur dance club performances.

Aim to get experience of as many different types of dance as possible, such as ballet, contemporary, jazz, tap and Bollywood. Listen to lots of different kinds of music and start to create your own routines.

Employers

There are no official central or major employers, just a multitude of creative companies that require such expertise. Dance schools will require several choreographers, as will production companies and those dealing with arts events.

Jobs may be advertised in publications such as The Stage and on dance-related websites, such as The Place - which also produces a monthly magazine, Juice. Choreographers must also network and promote themselves. Dance UK has a Choreographers Directory and national forum. Freelancers are often advised to contact individual companies speculatively, as a lot of choreographer roles are not actively advertised.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Dancers tend to begin training early in their lives, completing grades and exams in specific dance styles. Many go to a dance school or take a dance/musical theatre degree, some of which will include modules on choreography.

Being a dancer, while not mandatory, will stand you in very good stead in terms of experience. Then you can offer yourself as an assistant choreographer, gaining further experience before possibly going on to gain an official qualification or putting yourself out there as a choreographer in your own right. From this point, all progression is performance based - the way to get noticed is to choreograph routines that simply cannot be ignored.

A lot of choreographers have an ambition to set up their own dance school, so that they can bring in other dance teachers and bring up the next generation of dancers.

One Dance UK provides professional development opportunities including networking, mentoring, and training courses, which include dancers' health, teaching and fundraising.

CDMT is the membership body for the professional dance industry. It organises a programme of continuing professional development (CPD) alongside specialist companies, teaching societies and other bodies operating the arts.  

Career prospects

Many choreographers progress into teaching, either in the private or the public sector. CDMT provides details of the range of dance teaching qualifications available. Following this route, you could opt to run your own dance courses, or consider running a franchise within a health and fitness club.

Other career options include working as a dancer or actor or taking on a director or management role within the film, TV or theatre industry.

Some choreographers also go on to become dance movement psychotherapists, a therapeutic process which helps clients address their problems or develop personally through dance and movement. You could also work as a movement coach for actors.

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