Maddie Gaffney began her dance training at Chester Valley Dance Academy at a young age and studied all styles of dance. As a CVDA Company Dancer, she participated in various conventions in addition to annual Nutcracker Performances and Recitals. She is now a sophomore undergraduate student at the James Madison University pursuing degrees in Dance and Media Studies with a concentration in Creative Advertising . This past semester, she had the unique experience to choreograph and stage her work as a part of her Composition 1 course. Maddie shares her experience transitioning from a dancer to a choreographer and how unique dance training is in the collegiate setting.
As a collegiate dancer, I have had the opportunity to take dance classes that I never knew existed until college such as improvisation, dance history, methods of teaching, as well as composition classes that focus on learning how to choreograph. I have had the privilege since becoming a dance student at JMU to work closely with dance companies such as Ballet Hispanico, DanceWorks Chicago, and several choreographers such as Tiffanie Carson and Jacob Brent. I can already feel myself as a dancer and performer that I have grown in my dance training in the short time that I have been at college thus far and I would not trade this experience for the world.
Since coming to JMU, I have danced with classmates that come from all different areas, dance studios, and have been trained in a variety of different ways than I have. I have found that several of my peers were not nearly as technically ballet trained as I was growing up and I was shocked by this. My first ballet class my freshman year felt almost beginner to me, while some of my peers found it to be difficult. Growing up with ballet was and still is my favorite style of dance and my strongest. Therefore, I am very grateful that I have been technically ballet trained through CVDA as it has allowed me to be viewed as a more technical dancer at JMU by my professors and peers, and helps other styles of dance I am exposed to at JMU.
As a sophomore in JMU’s dance program, I completed the Composition 1 course last semester and am currently enrolled in Composition 2 this spring. In both of these classes, I have learned techniques and exercises on how to choreograph and develop movement into phrases, which I had never done before. I was forced to push myself out of my comfort zone and begin building choreography that was originally my own, which I found extremely exciting. Last semester in my Composition 1 class, I was instructed to choreograph a two minute solo on myself, as well as a three to four minute duet with two of my peers. I found the process to be very intimidating as I had never experienced such vulnerability in my own dancing and performance before in regards to choreography.
In regards to my choreographic process, I am a very visual person. Once I find the music that I want to use, I listen to it repeatedly, closing my eyes and finding patterns that I want to play with. I get so to speak close and personal with my music choice to the point where I know everything that comes next and can influence my choreography to the sounds and beats of the music. Once the music is essentially a part of me, I enjoy developing a framework in my mind of shapes, movements, entrances, exits, as well as lines and transitions that I want to incorporate depending on where in the music I see fit. I enjoy thinking about my creative process as building the exterior of a house before building the interior. I know where and when I want certain movements or shapes to occur within the music before filling in the gaps and establishing choreography. Similarly to building the beams and exterior of a house to hold the structure together before decorating the inside. I always keep a notebook with me when I am choreographing to write down ideas that I see in my head and transition patterns I want to use, as well developing a clear concept to base my piece off of, which is heavily encouraged at JMU.
I have found that when I choreograph I enjoy recording myself on video improvising to the music in an empty studio in order to allow my body to respond to the music in the ways that it wants to rather than forcing movement. I then watch the video back and find moments and movements that I enjoy and begin to incorporate them into my piece into phrases.
I have developed a great deal of respect for my choreographers and teachers in the past, especially at CVDA, due to the fact that I would have never imagined being creative to be so exhausting. However, I have found such a rewarding and satisfying feeling when I choreograph that always leaves me very happy with what I am doing and learning here at JMU.
The most difficult and challenging part of the choreographing process for myself personally that I did not believe would be as difficult beforehand, was being creative and unique. It is so easy to watch those around you and want to copy what they are doing or the patterns they are using. However, I made a promise to myself to be as original as possible and push myself to be different. For the majority of my training, I have primarily been a dancer and someone else was generating movement for me to perform. Although, now that I have been exposed to the choreographer's spotlight so to speak I never knew how exhausting it could be to be creative. I often compare it to writer's block. There will be days where generating movement is ten times harder than others, which can be extremely frustrating as I am pressed for time constantly. However, I will say since beginning my choreographic training and experience I thoroughly enjoy the freedom of expression and creativity that I have the opportunity to do here at JMU through my own movement.
For this Composition 1 Class duet, I felt a very peaceful feeling within the music and the contemporary ballet movement that I was using. The concept that I explored was the idea that you are never alone in the world and everyone always has someone that is going through the same thing or can be there to support you when you need it most. Therefore, in my mind I saw flowers and pastel colors which inspired me to make my dancers wear different colored pants and white tops to represent they are different but not alone.
Watching the duet come together was the most rewarding part of this process. It is both rewarding and satisfying to see my choreography performed on other people and not just stuck inside my head. It has been one of the most exciting and powerful feelings I would say I have felt throughout my dance career in college thus far as I had never experienced such a feeling before.
I have grown as a dancer, student, and person in ways that I did not know I was capable of doing in this short time at JMU. I have been exposed to experiences and opportunities that I would not have been if I had not auditioned. I have been challenged both physically and mentally through different styles of dance, guest choreographers from around the country, and have learned how to choreograph movement, which is something I never would have done if I had not pursued dance in college. I have found an immense amount of passion and excitement for dance and choreographing since becoming a dance student at JMU that I truly believe has reshaped the world and love for dance I have.
Maddie has much more in store in her collegiate career. She is enrolled in Composition 2 this semester where she will choreograph and audition a small group piece to be performed in JMU’s Spring Student Dance Showcase. She also had the opportunity to audition for JMU’s Virginia Repertory Dance Company where juniors and seniors dance majors are selected from each grade to work closely with guest artists and perform at the American College Dance Association Dance Festival. She was one of 8 dancers in her sophomore class to be selected for this program in the Fall of 2023.