Why should you teach dance improvisation?


If you knew me early on in my dance career, you’d probably be shocked that a big portion of my blog is devoted to teaching and practicing dance improvisation. I was terrified of improvisation as a young dancer, and becoming comfortable with improv took time, persistence, and some really great teachers. Over time, I came to love improvising, and helping my students fall in love with improvisation as well. It’s now one of my favorite things to teach in the dance studio! (You can read more about that process in this blog post!)

Improvisation has exploded in popularity in recent years, and it is increasingly important for dancers of all skill levels and dance styles to be comfortable improvising. Improv has become a necessary skill for success in the dance industry, Dancers may be asked to improv at auditions, as part of a competition, during convention classes, at workshops, during summer intensives, in rehearsals, and even on stage during choreography. It is our job as dance teachers to help our students become comfortable with improvisation so that they are prepared to encounter it throughout their careers. In addition to being a vital career skill, dance improvisation can also help students develop important life skills that will benefit them outside the studio. Students learn adaptability, decision making, confidence, self-expression, communication skills, creativity, and more through dance improvisation. It can be an important tool for personal empowerment.

In this blog post, I’ll walk you through the basics of improvisation: what it is and where and how its practiced. I’ll cover the benefits of improv, the challenges of it, and some best practices for teaching it. Lastly, I’ll share 2 dance improvisation exercises that you can use in class with your students. You’ll be well equipped to teach your next improvisation class, or to weave improv into technique classes or rehearsals, after reading this blog post!


What is dance improvisation?


Dance improvisation is spontaneously creating movement, without pre-planning any steps or choreography. Dancers move freely, without relying on set movement patterns. In improvisation, dancers may aim to create new, original movement, or to use familiar movements in unique ways. Dancers may use improvisation prompts, activities, or exercises; input from the music; their internal feelings; or their relationship with other dancers to guide their movement choices while improvising. Improvisation is used in dance for a variety of reasons: history and tradition, as part of the technique and style of the dance form, for personal expression, for community building, for socialization and collective expression, to generate choreographed material, and more.


What are some examples of dance improvisation?


Improvisation is used across a range of dance genres, including social and concert dance forms. In some dance styles, improvisation is integral to the technique and artistry of the form, closely related to its history and development. Other styles use improvisation as a tool for creating choreography. Structured improvisation, based on a score of movement prompts, can be presented as part of a dance performance. Improvised dance can be part of religious rituals, cultural traditions, rites of passage, and social celebrations. Some dance forms that use improvisation include:

  • Tap
  • Jazz, especially authentic jazz dance
  • Lindy Hop, Swing, Blues, and other jazz-rooted social dance forms
  • Latin social dances such as salsa, mambo, merengue, rumba, and bachata
  • Belly Dance
  • Contact improvisation and post-modern dance
  • Breaking and other dance forms in the Hip Hop family
  • Contemporary


What are the benefits of dance improvisation?


Dance improvisation is an important skill for dancers of all ages, levels, and dance genres. Dance improvisation can help students to:

  • Apply dance concepts, steps, and skills in their own ways, helping them to more deeply understand dance technique;
  • Develop self-awareness as they explore movement that works best for their own bodies;
  • Improve their understanding of musicality and develop stronger musical expression;
  • Work on performance skills such as embodying a mood, emotion, character, or story through personal movement choices;
  • Learn how to recover from mistakes, falls, or flubs in performance;
  • Discover their own style, expression, and perspective as a choreographer;
  • Experience meaningful self-expression and emotional release, helping to improve their well-being in and out of the studio;
  • Develop greater levels of confidence as they become comfortable moving in their own ways;
  • Become empowered through the process of making movement choices, learning to trust their own instincts as a dancer and performer;
  • 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.

How is dance improvisation taught and practiced?


Dance improvisation can be taught as a stand-alone class, focusing exclusively on the exploration of improv prompts and activities. Improvisation can also be woven into dance technique class in wide variety of dance genres. Depending on the genre, improvisation may be integral to the teaching methods of the technique, as improvisation can not be separated from the actual “technique” or the dance form. For example, a class in authentic jazz dance or post-modern dance would naturally include a strong focus on improvisation, as improv is a primary component of those styles. A class in traditional modern dance or ballet may also include improvisation activities, but improv is not integral to the teaching methods in those styles or a primary component of the technique. In some dance styles, such as breaking or Latin social dance forms, improvisation may be experienced naturally in the practice of the dance. B-boys and B-girls may be introduced to improvisation (freestyle) in the cypher, and salsa dancers will improvise with their partners on the dance floor.

For ideas on incorporating improvisation into dance technique classes, check out this blog post: 4 Creative Ways to Use Improvisation in Dance Technique Class


What skills are needed to be successful in dance improvisation?


There are a number of skills that can help dancers become successful improvisers. These include skills related to dance technique, artistry, and social-emotional learning, Dance teachers should create improv prompts, activities, and exercises that help students develop these skills.

  • Coordination – being able to move parts of the body independently and collectively
  • Spatial awareness – understanding how their body moves through and relates to space
  • Effort – understanding different energy qualities and how to use them in their movement
  • Musicality – tempo, rhythm, dynamics, and interpretation of the music
  • Being able to transition intentionally between movements
  • Being present in the moment – not pre-planning the next movements
  • Listening to and understanding the objective and directions of the prompt, activity, or exercise
  • Self-awareness – knowing your personal movement habits
  • Growth mindset – being open to challenging your personal movement habits and develop new skills
  • Being comfortable dancing individually or with a group, as directed by the activity
  • Grit – the ability to persist despite challenges or set backs

Work on you improv skills with the tips in this blog post: Simple Ways to Improve Your Dance Improvisation Skills


 What are the challenges of teaching dance improvisation?


In my experience, the biggest challenge of teaching dance improvisation is that improv can be difficult for many students, even those with extensive dance experience. Some dancers are uncomfortable moving spontaneously, as they are used to being given combinations and choreography to execute. Others might be comfortable improvising in the private, but get nervous at the prospect being watched by a teacher or other students. Inexperienced improvisers might feel silly making up their own movement on the fly. Advanced students might find themselves stuck in their own movement habits, and don’t know how to break them. Other dancers find themselves trying to emulate the teacher’s style in an effort to do what they think is expected of them. Still others simply do not know yet how to move in a way that is unique to them because they haven’t had practice doing so. For any these reasons and many more, a lot of dancers will end up “improvising” by copying movement they’ve seen before on TV or in performances, or stringing together dance steps and patterns they’ve learned in class. This robs them of the true improvisation experience: moving freely and spontaneously in a way that is unique and authentic to their own bodies.

As educators, it is our job to help our students overcome these anxieties and habits, and expose them to a range of dance improvisation tactics and techniques that can help them find their true movement potential. By following some best practices for teaching dance improvisation, we can provide the support and encouragement our students need to become comfortable and confident improvisers.


What are some best practices for teaching dance improvisation?


It may seem obvious, but I think that the best way that we can help our students become comfortable and confident improvisers is to be clear and purposeful in our teaching of dance improvisation. Often, we as dance teachers treat improvisation as an innate skill, not one that can be developed and improved over time. We tell our students to let their instincts lead them, often at the expense of offering proper training in improv techniques. We tell our students to “Just improvise!” or “Just feel the music and move!” or “Just do what you are feeling.”

Vague instructions, while well-intentioned, do not give students the support they need to become successful improvisers. In my experience, when students are given vague directions such as to “feel it,” they usually either freeze up because they are not sure what to do, or resort to mimicking things they’ve seen in popular dance routines or their favorite steps on repeat. Instead, we need to provide clear and specific directions that will help them improvise comfortably and organically.

I recommend the following best practices for teaching dance improvisation:

  1. Use specific dance improvisation prompts and activities. Instead of using vague instructions like “Do what you feel,” be sure to use specific dance improvisation prompts, activities, and exercises as you teach. It is important to give students a clear task to accomplish through their movement. This can help students discover new ways of moving and break out of their typical dance habits.
  2. Have a learning objective or goal in mind for each dance improvisation prompt and activity. When you are designing or planning improv tasks for your classes, consider what you want your students to learn or accomplish. How can this exercise deep their understanding of dance improvisation? How can it help them develop new improv skills? 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!)
  3. Give clear directions for each dance improvisation prompt and activity. Don’t assume that students know what is expected of them or how to successfully complete the exercise.By providing clear directions for each improv exercise, you can help students achieve the desired outcomes and reach their full movement potential. Describe the instructions throughly and in an age-appropriate way, using terminology that is familiar to the dancers.
  4. 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. Incorporating play into your improvisation lesson plans can be a great way to help your students relax and feel more comfortable. You’ll find strategies for creating a playful dance experiences in my blog post Your Ultimate Guide to Incorporating Play in the Dance Studio. You’ll also want to try out the Dance Games Bundle, featuring 75 educational dance games that are based on improvisation and creative movement. 
  5. Use a mix of solo prompts and group activities. Improvisation can be both a solo exploration and a collective. experience. Solo prompts help students explore their own movement potential and artistry, while group activities can help build communication and teamwork skills. In an improv class, students can learn by dancing on their own, watching other  dancers, and dancing together. Using a mix of prompts that students can explore on their own and as a group allows for a comprehensive and holistic improvisation skills.
  6. Don’t get stuck in a routine. It can be easy to rely on the same improvisation prompts and activities class after class. But it is important to challenge your students with a variety of exercises that help them explore new improvisation concepts and skills. Just as we don’t want our dancers to fall into the same movement habits, we don’t to find ourselves stuck in the same old teaching habits! Check out the activities below for some improv inspiration and keep your classes fresh!

Check out my favorite tips for teaching dance improvisation to beginning students: Dance Improvisation Tips and Activities for Teaching Beginning Dancers


What are some good dance improvisation exercises to use in class?


There are countless dance Improvisation prompts, activities, and exercises that can be used to help students develop their improvisation skills. The only limit when developing improv tasks is your own imagination. However, it can be helpful to have some pre-set activities at the ready to add to your lesson plans. Below you will find two of my favorite exercises to use in dance improvisation classes. You can find 23 more in The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities.


Boxes and Bubbles

The primary objective of the exercise is to help students understand concepts related to space (kinesphere, backspace, levels, reach, direction, 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, and each side) is a button. As the dancers improvise inside their imaginary box, their movement goal is to press each imaginary button with different body parts.

This exercise can be adapted by:

  • Encouraging dancers to use a range of body parts to press the button, not just their hands and feet.
  • Making the imaginary box much larger – 2-3 times the dancers’ reach, for example -or much smaller.
  • Having the dancers move the box through space as they travel across the floor or around the room, rather than staying in one place.
  • Adding more buttons – in each corner of the box, or multiple buttons on each plane – but maintaining the same spatial clarity.
  • Having the dancers imagine that they are in a bubble, cylinder, or pyramid, or other 3 dimensional shape instead of a box.
  • Have dancers observe one another and give feedback on the dancers’ spatial clarity. Are they really hitting the buttons each time?
  • Having two or more dancers share a shape, then facilitating a discussion about how it felt to move with their partner in a constrained space. They can have different movement challenges like touching the same button with each movement, never touching the same button, or always moving on different levels.


Monkeys in a Row

The primary objective of this activity is to help students understand the concept of negative space and to move in relationship to other dancers. 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, dancing over, under, around, and through the shape they have made. The traveling dancer then makes their own shape, connected to the first dancer. Each successive dancer follows suit, until all are in line, at which point the first dancer moves down the line to the end.

This exercise can be adapted by:

  • Encouraging dancers to use different relationships in their shape making. (Examples: complementary and contrasting, symmetric and asymmetric)
  • Encouraging the moving dancer to use different levels, qualities, and tempos as they dance around the others.
  • Encouraging the dancers to use straight lines, curves, angles, large and small shapes, wide and narrow shapes, and high, mid, and low levels when making their shapes.
  • Instituting different “rules” for the moving dancer, such as a certain body part must remain on the floor at all times, or you cannot move your arms, etc.


More dance improvisation resources

Visit my Resources page for tools that support a holistic teaching and creative practice. Keep in touch by signing up for my quarterly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.