When it Becomes a Kite Routine

kite routineAmongst even recreational sport (stunt) kite fliers, the words “ballet” or “kite routine” (individual) are fairly common terminology and bring to mind someone piloting their kite through various maneuvers in time to a musical track either as a structured program (choreographed and planned out) or totally off the cuff – i.e. improvised “soul flying”… Regardless of whether you’re planning it out to the last detail or making it up on the spot, a little applied concept can make a world of difference in your sport kite presentation.

My goal here is to try and relate some of the concepts and dynamics I’ve considered when performing a sport kite ballet – and please notice that I did not say planning or creating a routine, because I honestly feel that planning can be optional depending on the personality type and general skill set of the pilot in question… It really does depend on what YOU want out of the experience, and how far you want to take it.

The techniques and approach I use today is a blend of things I’ve learned since day one, with strong influences from various fliers and “kite thinkers” I’ve taken inspiration from… I encourage you to do the same with the information in this article, use or discard pieces on the way to your own style.

Before I go any further, I’d like to give my usual disclaimer for articles like this – I’ve gathered, learned or developed the following ideas, techniques and dynamics over more than 20 years of competition and exhibition, as well as through in-depth discussion and time flying with some excellent pilots… But as with any creative process, these are relative to my own experience and there is no absolute right way – different strokes for different folks, but I hope you’ll consider the information here and find some of it to be of some use in your own development.

Learning the Ropes, or… “Trial and Error.”

To lay the foundation and get my juices flowing, I’ll briefly summarize three of my early ballet routines that played a critical role in my perspectives on ballet and each one is very different in terms of how it was developed and/or performed.

It’s also important to note that I’ve had no training or significant experiences with music or dancing, and these stand out in my mind as the clearest mile markers for me – ballet selections during which I gained some new perspectives and had my biggest “Eureka!” moments…Not necessarily because of the individual music qualities, but more so their coincidental timing in my own progression.

1991 – Mack the Knife (Bobby Darin)
Literally my first kite ballet ever, I had no conscious understanding of choreography and chose the song on a whim – I had no idea where to start, except to try “dancing” the kite in time with the music and I ended up taking 18th, 1st and 1st (pure luck I think) out of three Experienced class outings in my first season.
** Freestyle, no routine, 100% improvisation every time.

1992 – Olympic Fanfare (Concert Arts Symphonic)
My second dual line routine – I wanted a track that would be easier to break down in terms of beats (cues) or sections, and classical music was very popular in kite competition around this time… There wasn’t much put together for my first two 1992 events, but I started to see how it all works after attending my first judging workshop in Florida (Feb of 1992), the benefits of having a plan and defined ballet were evident very quickly (and consistently) with good scores on the competition field.
** Planned, 90% pre-prepared routine.

1993 – Rabbit of Seville (Carl Stalling)
I’d dabbled with Rev (quad line) ballets before but I was intrigued after seeing Eric Wolff fly Rev to this particular track and upon being asked, he graciously said he had no problem with me using it… The first few times were totally improv, but during the routine I’d see certain things I really liked and made mental notes to build it into the routine next time, so on and so on, one block at a time until it became what it is today.
** Started as freestyle, 95% routine developed over 10+ years.

Every other “routine” I’ve flown since these were mostly improvised, making it up on the fly with some “hooks” or highlighted combinations (we’ll talk more about these later)… But having taken the time to create routines a few different ways, it’s definitely made me more confident and versatile, particularly in less than ideal conditions.

Choosing Music Style for your Kite Routine, or… “Straight vs Curvy.

Music choice is really the front line, I’ll ramble a bit and try to break it down into the general subjects I’ve used to organize everything in my own mind…

Do you want to fly to win, fly to entertain, fly for yourself, or all three?

This aspect is widely interpretive by it’s very nature, but I’ll provide a few of my own perspectives as fodder for your own theorizing and exploration of music selection…

Option #1 – Choose music that is clearly structured and equally (safely) enjoyable by most demographics so that you can fly a technical performance that would rate well in competition.

Option #2 – Choose music that is purely entertaining, appeals to a huge demographic, possibly funny or on the current top ten list but often does not have a well-defined structure for choreography and technical flight.

Option #3 – Choose music that moves YOU, subject to any personality-related quirks that may render it less than ideal for general consumption, but may offer greater personal energy and inspiration on the field.

Option #4 – Choose music that weighs in all the factors and gives a good balance of all facets, so you can fly a performance that not only moves YOU, but also entertains the audience and is chock-full of technical opportunities.

In summary, some of the basic factors to consider in this area might include:

  • Demographics (audience appeal)
  • Energy type (conveyed mood)
  • Tempo (speed and turn count)
  • Lyrical content (language and message)
  • Personal (moves you or makes a statement)
  • Variety (changes in speed and rhythm)

How long should your music be?

Just in case you don’t know already, demonstration routines typically don’t have any guidelines for length but individual competition kite routines are typically limited to a minimum of 2 minutes and maximum of 4 minutes.

That being said, here is how I’ve come to look at ballet length:

2-3 minutes is quite short, which means a little bit of content (maneuvers/tricks) will go a long way toward looking like a lot of variety and avoiding too much repetition… It also means the judges and spectators are less likely to become bored as long as you’re doing a decent job of it.

4+ minutes will give you a TON of opportunities to impress with lots of time in which to show your whole arsenal, but it gets a bit more challenging in terms of holding the viewer’s attention and accurately executing more maneuvers with which to fill the routine – a planned routine will really help.

From a competitor or judge’s standpoint it could also be argued that a kite routine can’t really be penalized for being shorter (rules clearly say 2-4 minutes) so if you can take your best stuff and pack it into 3 minutes or less (as an example), the chances of making a mistake go down based purely on the number of turns or maneuvers and time being judged – less maneuvers, less chance of catastrophe (be it weather or pilot related)… The caveat though, assuming that the shorter and longer routines are of exactly the same quality (hypothetical), the 3-4 minute routine could potentially score higher than a 2-3 minute routine simply by volume – same quality, but more of it.

Back in the “good old days” I was really voracious for field time, and generally pushed my music right up to the last allowable second so I could strut my stuff at length (the max time was actually 5 minutes back then)… But over the past several years I’ve started to favor musical tracks in the 2-1/2 to 3 minute range because of how much easier it is for the pilot to make it fresh and exciting (both for myself and the audience) throughout the performance.

Clear cut or “fuzzy”?

I find that there are simply too many sounds happening at the same time with a lot of modern or popular music… Not knowing anything technical about music, the best way I can describe it may be “fuzzy”… Less “space” between the sounds, a lack of drama and not so much “drawing out” of the choreography.

Again, please forgive me as I’m out of my element with musical terminology so I’ll fall back on some quick examples…

Wide open, easily choreographed:

Raiders March
(John Williams)

Peter Gunn
(Blues Brothers)

Fuzzier, more overlapping directions, less clear cut:


(Gnarls Barkley) 

Now PLEASE bear in mind – I’ve seen some fly REALLY WELL to musical selections that I would never have chosen in a million years, or expected to look so good… Sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective, from the person who is flying and how they interpret the music into their performance.

I think the greatest thing is when a pilot sees or hears something in a special way that allows others to see or hear it the way they do… Never take a tutorial, guide or instruction at full face value – innovation and expression are important.

Vocals vs Instruments

Another consideration is what PART of the music you’re going to be choreographing to… On the surface level, we have instruments and sometimes vocals as well – so which do you follow when flying to the music?

Instruments are typically very clear sounds and exist throughout most tracks, whereas vocals aren’t always there and the “beats” or cues may not be as obvious… The purist view (i.e. old competitors) is that kite routines should be flown to the instruments but honestly, competition exists in a very small realm now with exhibition and demonstration being the par at most kite events worldwide – which offers more freedom with regard to how you interpret your musical choice.

Some of my current favorites:

  • “Satisfied” by Prince
  • “Supermassive Blackhole” by Muse
  • “Din Daa Daa” by George Kranz


You’ll hear this word used in reference to kite ballet, and it refers quite literally to the opportunities provided within the music for turns, tricks, changes in tempo, etc… If a beat is constant and there isn’t much change in a track, then it’s likely the opportunities for clearly choreographed maneuvers are lower as well.

Choreography, or… “Do I turn now?

When I speak of choreography in this instance, I’m referring to the broader concept of matching the music… Again – this can be done either improvised or in a planned routine, but the principles involved are more or less the same in action.

I’m not sure exactly how to further explain turning on a beat, so I’ll provide some of my favorite ballet videos below as examples… As you watch the performances, see if you can identify any of these aspects and see how the pilot interpreted them:

  • Rising sound (did the kite go upward)
  • Dropping sound (did the kite go downward)
  • Curving sound (flying circles or arcs)
  • Stop sound (silence or quiet – landed or stalled)
  • Sharp sounds (corners, crisp movements)
  • Expressive sounds (bouncing, walking, etc)

Sometimes you will also see pilots use a particular series of maneuvers more than once in their routine, particularly if there is a crescendo, recurring beat or chorus that matches it (again – we’ll talk about “hooks” or “trademark” moves a little later).

Guido Maiocchi

Richard Debray

John Barresi

Marcel Mehler

Chapters, or… “Comedy and Drama.

One of the characteristics I’ve seen in most successful ballet routines is a sense of program, distinct sections in the routine that have clearly different musical tempos and flight sequences… A lot of the veteran sport kite performers will attest to the benefits of a “beginning, middle and end”, often starting at a medium speed, shifting to a slower and more elegant section, and then a climactic finish.

It all goes back to variety of content… Mix it up, with both your sections of music and planned maneuvers.

Using the Space, or… “Flying Outside the Box.

One of the most powerful tools available to you is expanded use of your wind window, looking at the sky as a dividable grid and distributing your maneuvers to cover a lot of ground… Flying toward the edges of the window also shows off (and develops) another set of skills, but it also allows you to run longer lines of flight across the window.

Look for an upcoming article with my thoughts on these dynamics, and illustrating some ways to get the best use out of whole full wind window, I’m hoping to have it ready and online by the end of July.

Imperfectly Perfect or… “Prove it!

One way to achieve perfection is to realize that a routine is rarely ever perfect, and with that realization, be prepared to roll with whatever comes… One of my favorite examples is a combination I used to do in competition called the “killjoy” – coin toss to tip drag, axel to tip drag, axel to tip drag, axel to tip stand and ollie.

The first time I did it, I’d actually accidentally dragged a wing tip so I repeated it with axels in-between which put the  judges in the precarious position of proving that I’d actually made a mistake – it worked in my favor.

For another example, say you’re doing a series of square corners and one of them comes out diagonally by mistake…

Two choices:

  1. Go back to doing squares, leaving that one mistake apparent to anyone.
  2. Do a few more diagonals, then go back to a few more square corners after.
Again – with option 2, anyone observing is hard-pressed to notice or prove the mistake.

Moral of the story, it’s possible to sweep errors under the rug by doing it again, making it all look intentional.

Wind Range, or… “Whoa Nelly!

When choosing music or planning your routine, be sure to leave areas for gaining ground in light winds, or “plan B” maneuvers for extreme high wind conditions – being flexible will save your tail when things don’t go as you expect… And often, you’ll find inspiration in the end result, possibly even a new addition to your routine(s).

Feeling Professional, or… “Fake it ’til you Make It.

Even if you’re improvising, do it enough in PRACTICE that you don’t look like you’re out of your element – fly to your music A LOT, work to be casual, relaxed, just going through the moves and paying attention to the basic details and proportions of your flight… Every practice flight adds a little more info or ideas for the next time.

Also – develop a simple and efficient process for handling your equipment, getting on and off the field, testing the wind, warming up and performing or competing, then you have MUCH more mental bandwidth to focus on the application quality of your flying and feel less rushed overall.

Using Hooks, or… “Bait, set, hook, repeat.

A lot of musical pieces have a clear chorus or high point that repeats 3 times or more, making an ideal place for a “trademark” combination of maneuvers… Maybe think of it as a 3-minute short story, using a some reliable and “high scoring” combinations at key points so that they become recognizable to the observer and demonstrate repeated (not overly) application of specific skills, these favorite maneuver combinations can also become part of your go-to flying style.

While we’re on the topic of maneuvers and combinations, the idea of crafting a performance is to focus on showing off your best skills rather than using tricks you really want to do but can’t do reliably (best left for practice)… But just to keep your valves clear, so to speak – sometimes it’s good to just go out and give it your all, as long as you walk off with a good attitude no matter what happens.

I encourage you to check out my Flying with Intent article (last March) for suggestions on how to create and use combinations.

Well, I think that’s all I have for the moment – it’s tough, because this is one of those topics that can be discussed and debated endlessly (as well it should be)… This particular article is NOT meant as an end-all guide by any means, but I hope some of my ramblings have provoked some theory of your own and I look forward to seeing it manifest on the demo field!

Related articles from the Kitelife archives:

There are a lot of other good articles to be found in the archives, just a matter of exploring – as of this writing, we’re also still re-archiving issues 4-40 so there will be another 30+ issues coming online with additional articles… I hope you’ve found this article on stimulating, and I encourage you to either comment below or leave a post on the Kitelife Forum to open it up for more kite routine discussion.

Until next time – good winds,

John Barresi

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Author:John Barresi

Involved in the greater kiting community since 1990, John is an avid kite flier in several disciplines, has served as President of the American Kitefliers Association, and is co-founder of the Revolution sport kite team iQuad. View John Barresi's Profile →

3 Responses to “When it Becomes a Kite Routine”

  1. July 10, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    Thanks for this article. As a novice to competition I’ve been gathering as much information and suggestions as I can to help improve my skills. I am currently on discover mode for the music I will be using for the 2014 season. I’ve narrowed down my choices for the music and will continue to practice with them until I weed out the ones for this season.

    I like your suggestions here in this article. One of the other suggestions I received, which I’ve decided to take, is to have both a low wind and a high wind performance song. I can see the value in this so far. I am still in the ‘Soul Flying’ phase of my ballet performance and have been just practicing using the figures, stalls, and landings as the canvas for my ballet. I’m going to keep an open mind while I continue to develop my skills.

    Phila, PA

  2. December 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Fantastic article!!

  3. April 25, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    This is truly helpful. I appreciate the clarity.  In reading about ballet, the author often cryptically refers to “missed opportunities” in the performance.  After reading this article i have a better understanding of what they mean. 

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