What is the Line Between Dance Inspiration and Plagiarism?

Imagine a profession where one’s slaved-over work gets stolen without repercussions, but the passion is so great the employees keep returning for more. Choreographers are accustomed to coping with harsh realities of inspiration versus plagiarism in their beloved industry, especially when it comes to protecting their intellectual property. Choreography plagiarism is a crime people are not afraid to commit. Formerly presented movement is not being recognized as copyrighted work, and therefore the most creative and honest choreographers are increasingly discouraged as they watch their original ideas fly away with someone else’s name on them.

...a moral standard for choreographers can - and should - exist in this profession.

I can recall a specific time when a not-so-honest “choreographer” was interrogated about their alleged plagiarism: they admitted to knowing the origin and original piece but hid their face behind the phrase “used it as choreography inspiration.” They turned a valid artistic process into an excuse, because they knowingly decided to take something that was not theirs.

This is far from being the only occurrence where this phrase was falsely thrown around, but many artists agree that gathering dance inspiration from other artists can be a very legitimate and legal form of artistic growth. Any art community would cease to develop if those stopped viewing others’ work, stopped appreciating, and didn’t allow their colleagues near and far to take them somewhere new. But at what point do we cross the line between inspiration and straight-up stealing? Where does that boundary exist? Since there is no concrete answer, I reached out to some of the industry’s most respected choreographers to see where they would draw the line.

You can be inspired by it, but you have to make that movement your own.

NYC- based choreographer, Alexandra Beller, (Alexandra Beller/Dances) chooses to embrace inspiration from others, and sees nothing wrong with that if done justly. “We obviously can’t control, and we wouldn’t want to control, when ideas come to us or when inspiration hits, so I’m grateful for those moments when I’m watching a piece of art and the lightbulb goes on… I think it’s actually great to let other people’s ideas traffic through you, even if for a while in the studio it feels like you’re working with someone else’s material. The part that feels unacceptable to me is once you’re actually setting something down in order to present it. Then I feel like it needs a really rigorous interrogation about what it is and what it looks like and where you got it. And if it feels like you have repeated, and really not created something, then it’s not yours.” Beller can unfortunately call herself a veteran on the subject, as her personal rehearsal video went viral (you have probably seen it), but earned no credit or compensation when others used her ideas and video without permission. She continues to experience similar flaws in the dance industry, especially in the recognition of movement as artistic property. “I don’t see such difference from verbal or written language. I’m a professor at a university and we have apps we can use. Four or more words in a row gives it a red flag. That’s the mathematical alert system for written or verbal language. I don’t see why it’s that different in dance... You can do “tombé, pas de bourrée, glissade, jeté.” Technical steps like those that have names that are part of the standard lineage of movement vocabulary, are public domain… but the minute you are using movement that doesn’t have a name, I would say four moves or more that don’t have names… it’s somebody else’s, or at least it’s a red flag. But why isn’t that a standard? Why isn’t it just the same?”

When you put your full heart into your choreography, you deserve its full recognition...

No industry wants its normal to be lack of standard, or worse, a void-of-consequences free-for-all. Choreographers are needing to make their own decision to behave appropriately, and David Greenhouse, a resident choreographer of Universal Orlando Resort and well-practiced licensed property show creator, does this specifically to receive complete honesty for his work. “I definitely get inspiration from other choreographers. That's actually a compliment to them... For me personally, I may build on a certain style that I see. Not so much take choreography verbatim. I choose not to plagiarize because when I put on a show, I want to own it for all its good things and bad. I never choreograph for myself. I look at the big picture and create what needs to be there. I don’t think you can take choreography from someone else and just fit it into a show. It will look out of place. I want to know, at the end of the day, the outcome is completely up to me. Good or bad.”

...challenge yourself to think outside of the box, and approach choreography in its truest, most authentic way...

As an up-and-coming dance company owner, Alexander Drapinski (Drapinski Dance Company), always chooses to view inspiration from other choreographers as only a starting point. “I of course have been inspired by others’ pieces before. They touch on a certain topic and that inspires me to touch on that certain topic. So, I do it my own way and change the music, change the movement, change the quality. You can be inspired by it, but you have to make that movement your own. You have to explore it in your own way. If you’re unable to explore something in your own way, then that is clearly someone else’s material.” Drapinski says he will pick the long hours in the studio creating his original content every single time. “Authenticity is what satisfies me. I choose to present work that has never been done before because I want the audience to take something back that they have never felt before. In order to do that you have to challenge yourself to think outside of the box, and approach choreography in its truest, most authentic way… I truly don’t see a point in stealing choreography. Why would I be spending my life doing this? Why am I in this profession? Those who steal material are clearly in it for the wrong reasons, and those who are unable to create their own ideas need to let the work go to the choreographers who are capable.”

If you’re unable to explore something in your own way, then that is clearly someone else’s material.

Being a dance artist and a contributor to the dance industry is certainly a precious gift one gets to cherish, but must also care for. Although it may take longer for the rest of the world to recognize dance material as copyright choreography, a moral standard for choreographers can - and should - exist in this profession.

It is imperative to understand that everyone can gain inspiration from each other. At the same time, everyone can allow growth from inspiration, allow collaboration, and allow teamwork. Everyone can respect all others they work alongside, whether it’s across the studio or across the world, and ultimately, everyone can do unto others what they would want done unto themselves. With that, I urge you to hold and maintain a high level of artistic integrity as you consume and create art. When you put your full heart into your choreography, you deserve its full recognition, and should recognize all other choreographers deserve that exact same respect.

About the author

Cleveland mid-westerner Chelsea Hupalowsky spent most of her youth in pointe shoes, then earned her BFA in dance performance from The University of Akron and came out a contemporary dancer. Alongside performing she has taught dance in public schools, rehearsal directed for universities, and has produced shows across the nation. She currently resides in Orlando, performing and playing dance captain at Universal Orlando Resort and Cirque Magique/Cirque by Night. With her leftover spare time, she manages a bar and runs her apparel brand, Concept Hissyfit. Chelsea has been a freelance writer and blogger for over eight years and is ecstatic to be sharing her obsessive passion for dance with anyone who will listen.