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What is your favorite choreography style?

Choreography is the art of designing sequences of movements in which motion, form or both are specified.  The term is often associated with dance, but it is used in a variety of fields other than dance, including water fitness. Whenever you put sequences of exercises together, in other words, whenever you teach a water fitness class, you are creating choreography.

Some instructors prefer spontaneous choreography.  They create their sequence of exercises as the class unfolds, drawing on their previous experience and the needs of the class participants.  It takes a certain amount of skill to be able to do this well.  The pitfall is settling into sequences that have worked well for you in the past and falling into the rut of teaching nearly the same routine for every class.  Nevertheless, even if you prefer other styles of choreography, it is worthwhile to practice spontaneous choreography occasionally.  It forces you to think on your feet and it is helpful for those times when you are called upon to teach a class at the last minute, such as when an instructor calls in sick.

The opposite end of the spectrum is a highly choreographed routine in which a complete plan has been made for every move in the class.  This includes routines designed for specific music, perhaps with motions that relate to the lyrics.  Think, for example, of the arm movements that go with the “YMCA” song.  If you want to design this type of choreography, you need to be familiar with musical terms such as tempo, measures, meters, themes, phrases and bridges.  An easier way to practice this form of choreography is to buy a DVD from a well-known choreographer such as Mark Grevelding, Pauline Ivens or Connie Warasila.  You will also need to purchase the specific music they used.  Memorize the exercises and practice with the music until you can perform the choreography with your class.  After you have put this much time and effort into a routine, you will no doubt want to use it multiple times.  Remember though, that after 6-8 weeks with a specific routine, the body adjusts to it and your participants will no longer get the same benefit as they got in the beginning.  You have to change!  Even if you prefer other styles of choreography, it is worthwhile to use at least parts of the choreographed routines of experienced AEA presenters because it can help you with timing and techniques that you may be unfamiliar with.

There is a spectrum of choreography styles in between spontaneous and highly choreographed.  Most are easy to create and you can use any music that you'd like, as long as the beats per minute are appropriate.   Using a specific choreography technique require some advance planning.  Write down your ideas and try them out on your own, then test them on you class.  You can always delete any sections that didn't work very well and replace them with new exercise combinations.  The advantage of writing it down is that you will have a lesson plan ready to go when you are finished.

The style that most people think of first is linear choreography.  Linear choreography is a list of exercises that have little or no repetition.  It's the easiest type of choreography to write, but the hardest to remember.  Therefore, it's a good idea to have a theme to help you remember the exercises.  Possible themes are exercises that alternate between working the front, the sides and the back of the body; deep or shallow water running; multiple variations of 2 or 3 basic exercises; circuit classes; and boot camp formats. 

Other choreography styles use patterns and repetitions as an aid to help you remember what comes next, and some of these are described in the AEA Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual.  One is pyramid choreography. Create a set of 4-8 exercises.  Perform each exercise 16 times the first time around, 8 times the second time around, then 4 times, 2 times, perhaps even one of each at the end. The order can also be reversed, starting with fewer reps and then increasing. 

Add-on choreography is another popular style.  It can start with one exercise, followed by a second exercise.  The first and second exercises are repeated and followed by a third exercise.  And so on.  You can also use sets of 3-5 exercises instead of single exercises.  The first set is followed by a second set of 3-5 exercises.  Repeat those two sets and follow with a third set.  In my experience, this has worked better than using single exercises.  When I tried it using a single exercise with my participants, we were all sick of the first exercise by the time we got to the end of the class.

A fourth pattern is called the layer technique.  Begin by creating a set of 4 or more exercises.  Keep repeating the set, but replace one of the moves with something else each time around. 

Block choreography is similar to the layer technique.  Your original set of exercises can be as short or as long as you like.  Each time you repeat your set, you keep the same basic exercises but change something about them.  Change the arm movements, add travel, increase the range of motion, use a different impact option, cross the mid-line of the body, combine 2 of the moves or make any other changes you'd like.  Here's an example:

Basic moves:

Knee-high jog

Run tires

Jumping jacks

Cross-country ski

Kick forward

Heel jog


Change arms:

Knee-high jog with pumping arms

Run tires with shoulder blade squeeze

Jumping jacks clap hands

Cross-country ski with windshield wiper arms

Kick forward with triceps extension

Heel jog with unison jog press


Add travel:

Knee-high jog travel backward

Run tires travel forward

Jumping jacks travel backward

Cross-country ski travel forward

Kick forward travel backward

Heel jog travel forward


Increase the range of motion:

Leap forward

Leap sideways

Jumping jacks with arms out of the water (do not take the arms in and out of the water)

Cross-country ski full range of motion

High kick

Skate kick


Change impact option:

Bicycle suspended

Frog kick suspended

Jumping jacks suspended

Cross-country ski suspended

Seated kick suspended, emphasize quads

Seated kick suspended, emphasize hamstrings


Cross the mid-line of the body:

Crossover knees

Ankle touch

Jacks cross

Cross-country ski with rotation

Crossover kick



Combine 2 moves:

In, in, out, out

Ski-jacks combo (ski, ski, jack, together)

One leg kicks forward & back


Once you catch on to the idea, you can get as creative as you like.  Add in some exercises that repeat every set, similar to the chorus in a song.  Or change the even numbered exercises one time and the odd numbered exercises the next time, instead of all at once.  Work one of the exercises very hard for 20-30 seconds and back it off for 10-15 seconds 3 or more times to create an interval. The possibilities are endless in block choreography.


Most water fitness instructors teach better classes when they plan ahead.  Even when you are using spontaneous choreography, it helps to have a general idea of what you are going to do before you start your class.  Pyramid choreography, add-on choreography, the layer technique, and block choreography are techniques that use patterns and repetition to help you remember what your plan is.  Put in the extra effort to memorize a highly choreographed routine to challenge yourself beyond what you usually do. Whatever your favorite choreography style, you will grow as an instructor every time you try something different. Change not only keeps your participants interested but it can help ward off burnout.




AEA (2010) Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual.  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Alexander, Christine (2011) Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Zerner, Meridan, M.S., R.D., L.D., “An Afternoon of Water and Wellness.” MAAP Continuing Education Training, Dallas, TX, April 3, 2004


About the Author

Christine Alexander is the author of Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography. She is an AEA CEC provider and a member of the Board of the Metroplex Association of Aquatic Professionals in Dallas, Texas.  She teaches water fitness classes for the City of Plano Parks & Recreation Department.  She holds certifications through AEA, USWFA, YMCA and the Arthritis Foundation.