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Make Progress With Breakdowns & Progressions

All of us attending 2002 World Fitness IDEA® this summer are looking forward to learning the latest choreography. Trouble is, once you get home it’s hard to remember how the presenters smoothly integrated all those neat patterns in their workshops. Knowing how to introduce new, complex steps in your existing classes can also be challenging. Yet your ability to ease your participants into elaborate movements might mean the difference between a class packed with fun—and frustration.

This article is based on a workshop I present with Isabelle Guay, the group exercise coordinator at FitCity for Women near Vancouver, British Columbia. We started this workshop to help instructors learn how to break down choreography. After conducting numerous staff evaluations, we realized that choreography-based workshops often focus on the final product—super-fun patterns—but not on the process necessary to create that product. Finally, we drew from our own experiences and observations as group exercise leaders, pinpointing what works in our classes—and what doesn’t.

12 Steps to Better Breakdowns

Below are 12 tried-and-true techniques for breaking down moderate to complex choreography. Although some tips pertain specifically to step classes, most apply to any choreography-based group format.

Keep in mind that these easy-to-apply strategies were designed to teach instructors how best to develop logical lead-ups while maintaining flow with their choreography. We do not intend to suggest there’s only one way to execute a proper breakdown. In fact, when preparing our workshop, we each discovered different, yet equally successful, avenues for breaking down the same pattern. There are no hard-and-fast rules for what’s right and what’s wrong, but there is a clear set of strategies for making the breakdown process as smooth as possible as participants learn the final choreography pattern.

1. Select Base Moves

Most complex movements come from rudimentary ones. For instance, a repeater that has you hopping and pivoting around the step derives from the original, no-frills repeater. Refer to “Base Moves for Choreography Progression Worksheet” on page 3 for more examples of base moves for step and low impact.

Starting your breakdown with a simple base move creates a solid foundation for gradually introducing fancier footwork. But identifying the most appropriate base move takes careful planning. For instance, to maintain flow, it helps to know if the movement you wish to break down changes lead legs.

Say you have already taught participants a 10-count step sequence and want to finish off the 16-count phrase with a final move that takes you up on the step for two low-impact knees, then down to the floor again; this would constitute a move that does not change lead legs. We’ll call this move “walking knees.” It takes 6 counts to complete, so a base move with this same musical timing would be best. You could choose a two-knee repeater, which also lasts 6 counts and resembles the final move. But a two-knee repeater changes lead legs, whereas the walking-knees move does not. In this case, it makes more sense
to opt for a 6-count march as a filler
because the march maintains the same lead leg. This keeps the breakdown as straightforward and logical as possible.

2. Create Logical Chunks

Imagine your choreography as a string of numbers. It’s harder to conceptualize and memorize numbers when they are in one large grouping (48908313) than when they are separated so that each pair stands out (48 90 83 13). This applies to your choreography as well. Both you and your participants will find it easier to process patterns if you split them into smaller chunks. Teach 8- or 16-count blocks one at a time, then tie everything together for the final 32-count phrase.

3. Balance Right
& Left Lead Legs

Paying close attention to lead-leg changes will help you plan breakdowns that are properly balanced, so you don’t practice steps on just one side.

To create symmetry in your breakdowns, match time spent on the right and left lead legs. But be creative; you don’t have to repeat exactly the same movements with both feet. For example, I teach a low-impact pattern that begins with four single step-touches and two right-leg V-steps as the base moves. This 16-count block doesn’t change lead legs, so the V-steps stay right. Rather than having participants eventually repeat this easy-to-learn base pattern on the other side, I cue them to hold left-leg V-steps for one or two 32-count phrases, depending on how many we did on the right. This way, participants get a “breather” from the choreography, I don’t have to worry about cuing and can interact more directly with the group, and the footwork stays balanced. Plus, choreography-hungry participants don’t get antsy rehearsing a simple pattern they have already mastered.

Although this technique works well to balance lead legs during a breakdown, avoid using V-steps or basics as holding patterns on the step. A holding pattern is a straight-forward movement that you cue participants to perform while you give an explanation, demonstrate a progression or provide them with a mental break to let new or complex choreography sink in. Unless you are very diligent about ensuring that both left and right feet get equal time, one-legged holding patterns can create lopsided breakdowns. So go with alternating movements, such as step knees, instead.

4. Study Musical Timing

An understanding of musical phrasing is crucial to teaching successful progressions, especially when you introduce odd-count movements that don’t fit into the normal 4-, 8- or 16-count phrases. Music guides you through choreography; it tells you how many counts each move in a pattern takes to complete and how long to perform fillers. A filler is a simple move, such as a march, basic or step knee,
that keeps you on the phrase during your lead-up but is eliminated in the final pattern.

Let’s go back to the walking-knees move from Tip 1. Remember that this move takes up 6 counts, so if you were presenting it on its own, you would
select a 2-count filler (perhaps a very short march) to keep the breakdown harmonious with the 8-count musical structure. Without this specially timed filler, you’d wind up off phrase.

Many music-savvy instructors purposely cross the phrase or go off beat during the breakdown and/or final pattern. Since participants who have a good ear for music may feel awkward when following cross-phrased patterns, it’s best to count the beats as you perform the moves, to keep everyone on track and ensure a smooth breakdown.

5. Limit the Number of Half-Time Breakdowns

In half-time breakdowns you and your participants rehearse complex moves in slow motion. Although adding these slow-mo demos to your classes is certainly not wrong, we have found that too many half-time breakdowns interrupt the flow and intensity of a group workout; this can make some skilled steppers impatient.

To keep your class energized, use half-time breakdowns mainly as a backup for when participants are not catching on, rather than as an initial strategy for progressing patterns. To maintain intensity when you do use a half-time breakdown, cue participants to observe your slower stepping as they move to the regular beat in a holding pattern. Or use half-time breakdowns during the warm-up or cool-down, rather than during the faster-paced cardio segment.

6. Avoid Tapping to Change Leads

The way you transition from one lead to the other affects the quality and flow of your breakdowns. Tap-free choreography guarantees more polished progressions, especially during step classes. Plus, it’s easier not to tap, because you don’t have to constantly cue every lead-leg switch.

In step, some base moves—such as L-steps, over-the-tops and turn steps—have built-in taps. Since participants anticipate them as part of the movement, you don’t have to cue them. But if you sneak in an unexpected tap to change footing, you diminish the quality of your breakdown—and your class. Fortunately, this problem is easily remedied.

Say you want to show participants how to transform right and left basic steps into something more advanced.
To maintain flow, cue a repeater after every second basic step. This naturally changes footing, keeps you on the musical phrase and lets participants practice on both feet without the confusion of tapping down. Note that you don’t have to include the repeater as part of your final sequence; just consider it a filler.

7. Use Inserts

An insert is a complex movement that you break down on
its own, then seamlessly layer over base moves in the final pattern. For example, picture a step pattern that ends with
an elaborate 8-count move called a
“repeater cha-cha” (one knee followed by a very short 1-2-3 run on the floor, then another knee). To use an insert, break down the entire pattern, presenting only a base repeater for the last
8 counts. Once participants learn the sequence, introduce the repeater cha-cha on its own. The next time you run through the pattern, simply insert the repeater cha-cha by cuing it instead of the base one.

8. Teach Options & Progressions

Including various skill and intensity options is just as important in the progression as it is in the final version of your choreography. Luckily, base moves can also serve as lower-impact and less complex modifications. Accommodate as many class members as possible by periodically cuing and demonstrating basic alternatives even if you’ve progressed to more elaborate moves.

Also, it’s perfectly acceptable to lead up to a complicated pattern over time
if necessary. Who says you have to teach all layers during one session? Introduce one or more progressions each class by using the insert technique described earlier. And don’t be afraid of repetition. Repeating a pattern until participants get it down will ultimately lead
to more successful breakdowns.

9. Use “Watch Me” Demos

In a watch-me demo, the instructor performs a new move while participants first observe, then follow suit. This technique makes breakdowns smoother and more time-efficient. Keep in mind, however, that this method works best for demonstrating short sections of choreography—for
example, going from a base repeater to a more complicated move. It depends on the complexity of the choreography, but a watch-me demo for movements longer than 8 counts may provide too much information for participants to process at one time. For best results, break down moves into short blocks when using this technique.

10. Avoid Detours

It’s also important to select moves that are logical and transfer participants from point A to point B quickly so you don’t take a roundabout route, or detour, to the final pattern. Instructors create detours when they teach moves or sequences that steer participants off the most efficient breakdown course.

To avoid detours, eliminate superfluous layers of a breakdown (this does not include fillers or tap-free lead-leg changes). For instance, if your final pattern calls for a 4-count walk halfway around the step, starting with an 8-count walk all the way around the bench would be a detour in an advanced class. Skilled participants are presumably familiar with the 4-count walk, so there’s no need to break it down further.

Are detours the same in every class? No. It depends on the kind of format you teach and what the participants are accustomed to. Novices in an introductory or beginners’ step class are unfamiliar with the standard choreography, so they certainly benefit from a more extensive breakdown. With this group, teaching an 8-count walk before using
a 4-count walk would not be considered a detour.

11. Use Information Cuing

Cuing is the backbone of presenting successful progressions. Without it, participants wouldn’t know what to do next! Obviously, effective cuing involves more than counting down from 4.

Use cuing to inform your participants. Alert them when something is going to change, or if you are about to eliminate a filler. The language you use when cuing is also important. Stick to obvious, informational cues, such as “Turn toward the door” or “Face the weight room.” If your choreography has participants moving around the bench
a lot, just shouting “Right” and “Left” may be confusing.

12. Be Prepared

Determine and practice every step of your breakdown before you teach it. This way, you’ll know in advance what fillers to select and you won’t be caught off guard by unexpected lead-leg or directional changes. Use the “Choreography Progression Worksheet” on page 4 to record your own breakdowns.

Being prepared also means learning from experience. After breaking down a pattern a few times, you may suddenly realize there’s a better way to do it. Observe how participants respond to your progressions, then use this information to fine-tune your technique
for future classes.

Progressing to Success

Learning new patterns at conferences
is always exciting. But since breaking down choreography takes up a significant portion of your classes, being
able to properly manage these progressions is a necessity. The stronger your skills are in this area, the more successful you—and ultimately your participants—will feel.

How the Pros Do It

Next time you attend choreography workshops, use these tips from experts to recall how presenters introduced each step of their choreography.

  •   Make enough copies of the “Choreography Progression Worksheet” on page 4 so that you can easily record each layer of the presenters’ breakdowns.
  •   Since instructors sometimes use different names to describe the same movement, substitute your own wording for breakdown moves so you remember them later.
  •   If time permits, request that presenters slowly review how they progressed a pattern.
  •   Most presenters are available to briefly answer one-on-one questions after their sessions. If you are unsure of a breakdown, ask for an explanation.

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a fitness professional and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals. She writes for IDEA, Health, Prevention, and Self, and has co-authored books on postnatal fitness and yoga. With a master's degree in human kinetics, Amanda has worked in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, including time spent as a program director and vice president for a chain of all-women clubs in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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