When taught holistically improvisation can help dance students grow in their technique, artistry, and overall well-being. There are many benefits to incorporate improvisation into your students’ dance training, regardless of their age or the dance style they are studying. Improvisation helps dancers to:
- Apply technical concepts in new ways, helping them to more deeply understand and internalize their dance technique;
- Develop self-awareness as they explore movement in ways that work best for their own bodies;
- Become empowered through the process of making movement choices, developing greater levels of confidence;
- Experience meaningful self-expression and emotional release, helping to improve their well-being in and out of the studio;
- Be freed from the expectation of perfection that is so common in dance training, enabling them to find joy and a greater sense of self through movement.
But for all of its benefits, improvisation can be difficult for many students. Some are uncomfortable moving spontaneously, especially if they are being watched by a teacher or other students. Because of this, many dancers end up copying movement they’ve seen before or stringing together steps with which they are familiar. Some dancers simply want to move in a way that is comfortable and feels good. Some are stuck in their own movement habits, and don’t know how to break them. Others feel the need to do what they think is expected of them. Still others they simply do not know how to move in a more organic way. that is unique to them.
As educators, it is our job to help our students overcome these anxieties and habits, and expose them to range of improvisation tactics and techniques that can help them find their true movement potential.
Too often, however, dance teachers do not provide students with the support they need to become successful improvisors. I often hear teachers tell their students, “Just improvise!” or “Just feel the music and move!” or “Just do what you are feeling.” Most students, especially those just starting, need much more direction to help them improvise comfortably and organically. In my experience, when students are given vague directions such as to “feel it,” usually they resort to mimicking things they’ve seen in contemporary routines or their favorite steps on repeat. To help students find their own personal movement style through improvisation, I recommend the following:
- Have a goal in mind. What do you want students to learn or accomplish through this improvisation activity? What can they learn about dance technique, artistry, and social-emotional skills through their improvisational experience? (Do your improv class lesson plans need a reboot? Check out The Holistic Guide to Dance Lesson Planning!)
- Give clear directions. By providing clear directions and prompts, you can help students achieve the desired outcomes of the activity and reach their full movement potential.
- Demonstrate when you can. A physical demonstration as well as a verbal description helps students to more fully understand the goal of the activity.
- Encourage students to be creative, and even a little silly! Students of all ages are often able to let go of some anxiety and fear in an environment that fosters creativity and silliness.
Here are a few of my favorite improvisation activities, which can be adapted to any dance style and for any age group or skills level. For even more ideas, check out The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities.
Level Changes – This is one of my go-to exercises because it is incredibly versatile and easy for beginning dancers to understand. The primary objective is to help students understand the concept of level and be able to transition through different levels as they move. Students begin on the floor in a low level shape, and are given a designated number of counts to move through the mid level and end in a high level shape (meaning that the center of gravity is elevated – a releve, suspension, reach, etc.). They then reverse the process, moving from the high level back to the floor. This exercise can be adapted by encouraging dancers to:
- Move in different tempos;
- Initiate movement with different body parts (don’t forget the weird ones, like the armpit or the big toe!);
- Move with different qualities, such as staccato, fluid, strong, light, bound, or free;
- Move as if they were in a different settings, such as on the moon, underwater, or inside a volcano.
- Follow a movement “rule” like keeping 3 limbs on the floor at all times, never letting your bottom touch the ground, or not using your arms.
Boxes and Bubbles – This exercise has been adapted from one of my former professors at the University of Maryland, Patrik Widrig. The primary objective is to help students understand concepts related to space (backspace, levels, wingspan reach, etc.) and develop clear spatial intention in their movement. Have each dancer imagine that they are in a box that is as tall as they are from floor to finger stretched overhead, as wide as they are with arms outstretched, and as deep as they can reach front to back. On each plane of the box (top, bottom, front, back, each side) is a button. As the dancers improvise in the box, their movement goal is to hit the buttons with different body parts. This exercise can be adapted by:
- Encouraging dancers to use a range of body parts to press the button, not their hands and feet;
- Making the imaginary box much larger or smaller;
- Having the dancers move the box through space as they travel across the floor or around the room;
- Adding more buttons – in the corners of the box, or multiple buttons on each plane;
- Having the dancers imagine that they are in a bubble, or pyramid, or other 3 dimensional shape;
- Having two or more dancers share a shape.
Monkeys in a Row – This is based on exercise I was introduced to as an undergraduate student at DeSales University. The primary objective is to help students understand the concept of negative space and to move in relationship to other dancers in space. One dancer starts in a shape of their choice on one side of the room. The next dancer moves in the negative space around the first dancer, then makes a shape connected to the first dancer. Each successive dancer follows suit, until all are in line, and the first dance moves down the line to the end. This exercise can be adapted by:
- Instructing dancers in different shape relationships, such complementary and contrasting or symmetric and asymmetric, and encouraging them to use these relationships in their shape making
- Teaching students about weight sharing techniques like perching and counterbalance, and encouraging them to employ them as they move down the line;
- Encouraging dancers to use different levels, qualities, and tempos;
- Instituting different “rules,” like a certain body part must remain on the floor at all times, or you cannot move your arms.
Lumps of Clay – This exercise is loosely based on a practice shared with me by Graham Brown, who was in my graduate cohort at UMD. The primary object is to help dancers understand the concept of shape and to explore new ways of initiating movement. One dancer starts in a neutral position as a “lump of clay.” Their partner begins moving them, one body part at a time, sculpting them into new shapes. Once they have done this several times, the prompt of the “sculptor” can become a movement initiation. The “clay” dancer will follow the initiation of the sculptor and see the movement through to a resolution. This exercise can be adapted by:
- Encouraging dancers to make their clay into different kinds of shapes, such as on or off balance, symmetric or asymmetric, wide or narrow, big or small;
- Encouraging dancers to initiate with different body parts, such as the 3rd rib, the armpit, the big toe, or the ear;
- Turning the exercise into a game, similar to tag. Rather than working in partners, several dancers start as “clay” while others are the “sculptors,” and any sculptor can interact with any clay lump, a designated signal could be used to change roles
These are just a few of the dance improvisation activities I like to use to introduce students to improv. They can also be adapted to challenge students who are already comfortable improvising, making them perfect for classes with mixed ages, levels, or skill sets.
Do you want even MORE ideas for incorporating improvisation into your dance classes? Check out The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities, with 25 ready-to-use ideas for dance improvisation. Each activity listing includes a description of the primary learning objective, instructions, ideas for adapting or changing the exercise, and discussion questions.
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