Dance Film Workshop Lesson Plan

Developed and written by Jessie Marion Smith and Kyle Walker Akins


1. Workshop introduction: watch a sampling from a variety of dance films
2. Movement warm-up exercise
3. Choreography building exercise: learn about movement qualities and choreographic tools
4. Working in small groups, participants will conceptualize their film, scout filming location, choreograph their movement phrase, and discuss costumes
5. Learn how to plan out a film: discuss choreographing for the camera, camera techniques and shooting styles, lighting, art direction, and storyboarding
6. Participants plan and storyboard their films
7. Learn how to use a camera, tripod/dolly, sound recording equipment, etc
8. Set up art direction and lighting for film locations
9. Shoot films!
10. Learn the basics of editing with Final Cut Pro
11. Review footage and begin a rough cut
12. Edit and post production


Workshop Introduction

During this workshop we are going to conceptualize, choreograph, plan/design, shoot, and edit dance films. The workshop is designed so that the participants have a chance to experience the entire process and can start fostering an appreciation for all the elements that go into making a dance film. For this workshop, we will define a dance film as a short, experimental, art film featuring movement. We are not thinking of dance in any sort of a classical sense (for example, being able to kick your leg above your head). Our definition of choreography for this workshop is stylized physical action. We encourage the participants to draw on any past experience they may have, but also to keep in mind that one of the most important aspects of this workshop is collaboration. Collaboration is a great opportunity for different ideas to come together and challenge one another. Contrasting ideas can be juxtaposed and lead to bizarrely beautiful results. Keep an open mind to weird, non-traditional ideas. We love things like that.

There are infinite ways to approach movement. In the video below you will see several examples. Some of the films have choreography that is purely gestural. (Gesture is a place where both beginning and experienced movers can challenge themselves to develop nuance in their actions.) Another idea of alternative movement is “found choreography.” This is a new genre being explored in dance film where the camera captures an object in motion rather than a person. (Example: a leaf floating down a river.) That idea can be taken further into actually choreographing an object (like a puppet show) or choreographing the camera movement around a person who is remaining still. Whether the choice is conceptual or aesthetic-based, you can make choreography out of anything.

The integration of elements (choreography, location, and the camera) is integral to making a successful dance film. Dance film is not just a documentation of a dance performance. Video of a performance can often remove the viewer from the action, distancing the dynamic feeling of the choreography. In this workshop, we are instead going to focus on finding a union of body movement and camera movement. We are going to seek out a way for these elements to serve one another. It is not always necessary to capture the entire body’s action in the frame in order to capture the essence of it. Perhaps, the heart of a movement is in the hand and so, a detailed shot of that would express the choreography best. Another example is the camera following the subject’s action so that the dance and camera are executing the same type of choreography. This is why we have the participants work both in front of the camera and behind it. In dance film, it is as important for the cinematographer to know the choreography as it is for the performer.

Another factor that makes dance films unique is the interaction between a subject and its location. The participants will approach a setting thinking about how to build choreography around that specific location. This is just one example of how a dance film can explore alternative aesthetics that a theater cannot always provide. Imagine a performer on a spiral staircase and the multitude of ways they could interact with it. In the video below, you can see some examples of this type of site-specific choreography.

Initially, many people think dance film is similar to music videos. This is not necessarily wrong but, in this workshop, we are not going to make music videos. We will focus on dance and video and want those two mediums to be at the forefront of the creative process. Music can have a strong influence on choices that determine content, style, and aesthetics. We are going to challenge the participants to develop their own ideas. The seed of the projects should come from within, without an influence from a particular musical choice. In the video below, you will see that movement can create its own rhythm and music. A performer can make sounds with their body or other objects during the video shoot. And, we encourage participants to think about making their own soundtrack like this, if applicable. If any of the participants are musicians, they could also think about performing live music in their video.

Creating Choreography

There are many perspectives to pull from while developing movement. For example, consider the movement’s quality. Is an action sharp or soft? Does the movement engage the whole body or just a small detail like a finger or a toe? Think about creating a variety of pace within the choreography. Some movements may be slow while others are quick. Movements may also travel through a location or remain stationary. Consider using different parts of the body. Perhaps a head circle is followed by a flick of the foot. Movements can also explore different levels or elevations, i.e. jumping or rolling on the floor.

A simple way to develop choreography is to create a movement score. A movement score is a list of qualities similar to those mentioned in the paragraph above. For example: sharp, serpent-like, lackadaisical, etc. The next step is an exercise called a Round Robin. Round Robins are a great way to build choreography with a group. It works as a cumulative process where one person makes a move, the next person performs that move and adds their own new movement, and so on. The Round Robin follows the movement score. The first person would contribute an action that embodies the first quality on the list (sharp). The next person would perform that sharp action and add a serpent-like movement. The third person then would perform the sharp action, the  serpent-like action, and add on a lackadaisical movement. This accumulation continues around the group as many times as needed to build the movement phrase. Once the phrase is built, examine the transitions between movements. Go back and smooth out/connect actions if needed.

As we talked about before, just about anything can be a dance move. What makes it successful is the performance of that movement. Rehearse, refine your execution of the choreography, and perform it with commitment.

Planning a Film

Once the participants have a concept and location for their films, as well as their initial movement phrases, they will storyboard their films. A storyboard is a sequence of drawings representing the shots planned for your film. Think about how the camera and the choreography are going to interact. If in your dance phrase, you have a gesture in which your hand is moving, on your storyboard you might make a drawing that shows a close-up shot of your hand. Also, consider what style of cinematography best captures the intended energy of the different scenes and movements throughout your film.

Although storyboarding is helpful when planning a film, DO NOT be afraid to let inspiration hit you while at work. If you have a spontaneous idea for a shot, go ahead and try it! It may be what saves your film when you get to the editing process.

Styles of Shooting

Handheld – gives you a frenetic quality, a live ‘in the action’ type of feeling.

Steadicam – gives the camera some mobility while maintaining a smoothness to the shots. It often feels voyeuristic, surreal, and gives a hovering sensation.

Tripod – provides a stationary base for the camera. But, there are still plenty of ways to involve movement using a tripod. A dolly rolling along tracks can get a level strafing shot. (Imagine sitting on a skateboard.) Tripods are also great for shots that pan left or right, and shots that tilt up or down.

Composition of Shots

It is much more interesting to offset the ‘subject’ of your videos than to always have it centered directly in the middle of the frame. Experiment with creating extra space opposite to your subject within the frame. This will help balance the composition and make a more dynamic and engaging shot. Another tool is to involve diagonal lines within your composition. (For more information about this, look up the “Golden Ratio in photography composition.”)

Have you considered perspective as you are constructing your shots? You could use a ladder and film from above or lie on the ground and aim up. Have you thought about using depth? You could highlight close-up details of a performer in the foreground while the whole body of another performer is shown out of focus, distanced in the background.

Choreographic Tools

While thinking about where subjects will be placed within a frame, you may also want to implement some of these choreographic tools.  Apply these techniques to your initial movement phrase.

Repetition – for example, you could shoot different people doing the same movement phrase in different areas of the room.

Variation – when the same general concept is approached from different perspectives. One performer could do a slicing action with their arm while the other performs the action with their leg.

Group/Solo – is the movement most effective in the shot when performed by one person or multiple people?

Unison/Cannon do the performers’ actions stay altogether or follow a cannon? A cannon is like the song “row, row, row your boat” where the second singer begins after the first singer has completed their first line.

Partnering an easy way to build partnering is to have one person perform the original movement phrase and have another person create actions that fill in the spaces around it or react to it.

Art Direction

Art direction is the attention to detail of the aesthetics within your shot. It can have a huge effect on the success of your film. An Art Director’s job is to make sure that everything within the frame is intentional and stylized in order to support the content of the film. This can mean so many different things depending on the kind of film you are making. (If it is a site-specific shoot, perhaps you would sweep the leaves off the outdoor stairway you are using. If you are shooting inside, perhaps you would hang a backdrop to provide a solid, simple background. Or, you might create a whole set from scratch.) Costuming is also an important thing to consider when designing the aesthetics of your film.

An element that seems to occur often in dance film is the use of texture. A few examples of texture are wind, water, sand, and dust. These substances act as an extension of the performer’s movements and help to add atmosphere. Lighting is another important way of creating atmosphere.

Lighting Effects

Background/Foreground – do you want the performer silhouetted or casting a shadow?

Floodlight/Spotlight do you want to illuminate the whole scene or just a detail?

Stationary/Following   does your lighting device stay in one place or would you like it to follow the choreography? (Imagine using a flashlight.)

Lens flare point intense light directly at the lens of the camera. This creates a starburst/refraction of light.

Here is a video that illustrates some of the concepts listed above:


Here are some other important things to think about when planning out a film:

Master shot – a shot of the entire scene, from start to finish, from an angle that keeps all of the performers/subjects in view. You may need to fall back on this shot if, when you get to editing, you discover that some of your more detailed shots are not as successful as planned.

Creating an arc – does your film have a beginning, middle, and end? Think about a dynamic sense of pacing throughout your film. For example, your film could start out with a long slow panning shot, then slowly pick up pace, and end with a series of fast, handheld shots.

Continuity – do the details throughout your film remain consistent? For example, make sure that if a performer has a ponytail in one shot, they are not wearing their hair down in the next.

Actions leaving frame – a nice place to make edits within your video is when a performer’s actions leave the frame. When shooting, the performers should continue their movement all the way out of the frame. It is also a good idea to start the camera rolling before they enter the frame.



This video explains the basics of the video editing software Final Cut Pro:

These written instructions follow the above video:

Arrange Window Setup: Window > Arrange > Standard

Set Scratch Disks: Final Cut Pro > System Settings

Save Project: File > Save Project As > “Title Project” > Click Save

Create New Sequence: File > New > Sequence

Import Files: File > Import > Files (Find on your hard drive) > Choose

Fades: Effects Tab > Video Transitions > Dissolve

Render: Sequence > Render Selection > Both

Text: Effects Tab > Video Generator > Text Folder > Text

Export: Select Sequence > File > Export > Using QuickTime Conversion > Title Your Movie > Adjust Settings > Save

Hot Keys:
z – undo
spacebar – plays/stops the video
c – copy
v – paste
i – selects an ʻin point’ of a clip
o – selects an ʻout point’ of a clip
r – renders selection
n – snap on/off
arrow keys – move the playhead forward/backward one frame

Editing Concepts

Now that you have the basic tools used in editing, let us talk about some of the artistic concepts behind editing. A lot of thought goes into planning and shooting a film, but it can all completely change when you begin the editing process. Sometimes the shots are not cutting together well, or they just are not satisfying you for any number of reasons. Do not let that stop you from squeezing as much as you can from your video. Keep an open mind throughout the editing process so you are able to recognize when you have a successful shot, whether or not you planned it.

First, begin pulling down portions of the video that catch your eye. Place them into “Sequence 1”, this will be your Rough Cut. Editing can be very time consuming, but it is very important that you are aware of all the footage that you have. Pulling the sections of clips that you like into the timeline should not involve too much critical thinking. You are just beginning to develop a general sense of how your video will go. It is easy to get sidetracked and consumed by finessing tiny details within your edit, but DO NOT let yourself be distracted by that too early. The goal of your Rough Cut is to create the basic storyline/arc of your film. (Keep in mind the sense of timing/pace/rhythm of your video.) At this point, it is perfectly okay if transitions and cuts are stumbling into one another. Refining your project is the next step. If there are sections of your Rough Cut that are not flowing together well, consider switching around the order of the clips. You do not need to adhere to the original vision laid out in your storyboard.

Here are several editing techniques:

Cutting on dynamic action – cut on the most accented point of a performer/subject’s movement to a clip from a different position. This helps maintain a good sense of pacing.

Cutting to multiple locations – did you repeat your choreography in different locations? Try cutting between these locations on dynamic actions.

Cutting on the entrance/exit of a frame – does your subject exit the frame? Try cutting to the next clip there.

Jump Cuts – this type of edit gives the effect of jumping around in time and space. Your video does not have to cohere to a linear timeline. Jump cuts can provide an alternative sense of pacing in your video. You can repeat the same shot over and over again to build a rhythm. Or, you could remove portions of your video so that a performer pops up in all different locations of the frame without showing the transition of them getting there.

Fades ­– be careful when using fades. They can be a tell-tale sign of novice video editing because people use them to conceal unsuccessful edits. Search for ‘hard cuts’ that work. Fades, especially fading to black, can halt the sense of pacing and create an unwanted drop in the emotion of your film. Fading between audio clips, however, can be quite helpful in smoothing out transitions. And, one strong use of video fades is to give a sense of time passing.

Sense of Pacing/Rhythm – your edits establish a sense of rhythm/pacing. No matter what the content of the video, your edits will have a drastic effect on the energy of the film. Once a rhythm/pacing is established, start playing with people’s expectations. For example, if your cuts have been far apart, you might want to suddenly switch to rapid cuts. These experiments with expectation can add or release tension.

Repetition – use the same clip multiple times. When developing a more abstract film, repetition can act as a foundation or palette cleanser. For example, a dancer enters through a specific doorway before each new scene.

Slow Motion/Reverse – Everything is better in slow motion. What about slow motion in reverse? Even better!

Here is a video that illustrates some of the editing techniques listed above:

For more information on editing theory, check out some techniques developed by the great Walter Murch.

Key Words

Types of Choreography:
Gestural choreography
Found choreography
Plot-based choreography
Site-specific choreography
Choreography of objects
Choreography for multiple skill levels

Movement Variety:
Quality (sharp/soft)
Whole body/small detail
Different parts of the body
Levels (jumping/floor)

Choreographic Tools:
Movement Score
Round Robin

Shooting Styles:
Detailed/Mid/Wide Shots
Following the action
Playing with perspective
Composition of shot (offset the ‘subject’, diagonal lines)
Master Shot

Art Direction & Lighting:
Background lighting (silhouette)
Foreground lighting (shadows)
Stationary/Tracking light
Light leading action
Lens flares

Cutting on entrance/exit of frame
Cutting on dynamic actions
Cutting between multiple locations
Jump Cuts
Slow Motion