Novelist Willa Cather once said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
Then again, it has also been said that there are seven foundation stories from which every successful narrative known has been made.
Choreography can start from many places. You may have heard a song that you just have to dance to. Perhaps you’ve just invented the best combo, and you can visualize it on stage as the climax to a routine. Alternatively, I have often felt with no place to start but a competition or showcase on the horizon that requires me to put something together. In each of these cases, choosing a focus on a story, rather than just a theme or character, may help you construct a fluid routine that has the potential not just to impress but to take your audience on a memorable journey.
If you are looking for inspiration for your next routine, perhaps some insight into the structure of stories could help you. Before or after you choose your song, adding story elements to your performance will ensure that you are engaging the audience from many angles. In my experience, pole dance routines with stories also tend to be appealing to non-pole dancers. The performance becomes more of a show and offers the audience something to understand and relate to when they are unfamiliar with the nature of pole dance.
I outline each of the seven plots below (as described by Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, 2004) with reference to pop culture examples to help you understand how each is different. Under each example are some points about how the plot could form a container for a rich and meaningful pole dance routine.
1. Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.
Examples: James Bond, Attack on Titan, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Shrek, David and Goliath.
This can work well as a doubles or group routine, allowing for dynamic interplay between two or more characters. Costumes and characters here can be diverse, ranging from simple contrasting colours (white vs black), to actors based on real stories themselves.
2. Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person.
Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, Great Expectations
Such a narrative may require props and effective costuming to help support the messages conveyed to the audience. When done well, and with familiar characters, it is possible for the props to “fill in the gaps” allowing you to emphasise just one part of the story over another, avoiding the trap of feeling like you need to fit an entire fairy tale into a 3 minute routine!
3. The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way.
Examples: Iliad, Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, The Land Before Time, One Piece, Indiana Jones
Consider how the music could add a sense of struggle followed by triumph. The poses and shapes chosen by the dancer would also emphasise challenges and then success. When telling this story, the obstacles and temptations would form the bulk of the routine, while the final success would offer the audience a sense of relief. How could the audience feel like they were on the journey with you?
4. Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience.
Examples: Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Hobbit, Gone with the Wind, Chronicles of Narnia, Apollo 13, Labyrinth, Finding Nemo, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz
Try to choose one perspective when telling these types of stories. Or if you are in a group or performing as doubles, keep the elements simple and cut back. I’ve previously shared how much I love Kristy Sellars’ Alice in Wonderland routine. By adding the video projection she was able to share so much more about the journey and the narrative. We might not all be able to be so ambitious, so consider how less is more.
5. Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker makes sure to stress that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. Most romances fall into this category.
Examples: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Bridget Jones Diary, Sliding Doors, Mr. Bean
Pole Comedy can be hard to accomplish. There are many moves, tricks, and poses that can be dramatised in a funny way, but make sure your performance also has a sense of triumph over struggle so it is more than just goofy dancing.
6. Tragedy – The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally ‘good’ character.
Examples: Macbeth, Bonnie and Clyde, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad, Hamlet
This could be a simple as a lyrical or contemporary based routine that captures the emotion of the tragedy. This story line can be a good starting place for those wishing to put more meaning into their routines, or who find energy from an event that has happened in their personal life.
7. Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person.
Examples: Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Despicable Me, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
In my mind, this is a more refined version of the “Comedy”, “Voyage and Return” and “Rags to Riches” stories. However, the turning point of the story may happen earlier so within the performance you have more time to express the ideas of the rebirth.
Hopefully these story ideas have inspired you to consider a new routine or have helped you flesh out a previous idea to turn it into a full show! No matter what story plot you choose, remember these key points:
- Your story needs to be understandable to your audience, which may require that you use props or settings to help them follow the plot.
- Think about how your costume can also work as a prop to help convey your story. Do you take off something, reveal something new, or change entirely as your character evolves?
- Many of the familiar fairy tale stories have been done before – think Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Cinderella. This is not to say that you should avoid these topics, they are done again and again because they translate so well! Perhaps think about how you can add to the story, or present it in a different way. Instead of playing the character of Snow White, how would the story look from the Evil Witch’s perspective? Maybe you are the prince, searching for Cinderella after she loses her shoe?
- Your performance does not need to tell the entire tale. In three to five minutes this would be a huge undertaking. Choose part of the story that is manageable, and add on with props and costumes that fill in the rest of the narrative for your audience.
- Make sure you sustain your character throughout your floorwork, transitions, and pole tricks. If you can’t do the trick in character take it out, and choose to maintain the mood and integrity of the performance as a whole. Pole champion Irmingard Mayar warns, pole dancers “can be 100% engaged when off the pole, but as soon as they take their movement into the air they shift to robotic trick-mode” which jars and stops the flow of the story.