Going Beyond “Just Improv”

Improvisation can have a vast array of benefits for dancers of all ages and skill levels. When students improvise, they:

  • Discover how 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 principles and ideas in ways that work best for their bodies
  • Become empowered through the process of making movement choices, developing greater levels of confidence.
  • Experience meaningful self-expression and emotional release
  • Be freed from the bonds of perfection that are so common in the dance studio, enabling them to find joy and a greater sense of self through movement.

But for all of it’s benefits, improvisation can be trying for many students. Some are uncomfortable moving spontaneously, especially if they are being watched. This discomfort leads many students to feel “plan out” movement in advance so it looks and feels “good.” Many dancers end up copying movement they’ve seen before or stringing together technical steps with which they are familiar, for any number of reasons: it is comfortable and feels good, or it is what they think is expected of them, or they simply do not know how to move in a more organic way. 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.

certificate of-2

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing dance teachers tell their students to, “Just improvise!” or “Just feel the music and move!” or “Just do what you are feeling.” Most students, especially those just starting out with improvisation, need much more direction to help them go beyond superficial movement. 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 on TV or doing their favorite steps on repeat. If we want students to truly experience the benefits of improvisation, we need to help them go deeper into their own personal movement style. Luckily, this can be achieved by making a few simple changes to how we talk about and structure improvisational experiences for students.

  1. Have a goal in mind. What do you want students to learn or accomplish through this improvisation activity? Just as you would have a goal for every warm-up, progression, or combination, it is important to have a clear learning outcome for an improvisation exercise.
  2. Give clear directions. Sometimes we as teachers think that we will stifle students’ creativity if we try to direct their improvisation, but in my experience the opposite is often true. It is only by providing clear directions and prompts that we can help students achieve the desired outcomes of the activity and reach their full movement potential.
  3. Demonstrate when you can. As a seasoned improviser, “initiate movement with your armpit” seems a like perfectly clear direction to me. But for young students or those who are not familiar with this way of thinking about movement, it probably sounds absolutely crazy. A physical demonstration as well as a verbal description helps students to more fully understand the goal of the activity.
  4. Be creative, and even a little silly! I have found that students, young and old, are often able to let go of some of their anxieties and fears when some creativity and silliness are incorporated into improvisation.

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:

Level Changes – This is one of my go-to exercises because it is incredibly versatile and relatively non-threatening for beginning improvisers. 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
  • move with different qualities (staccato, fluid, strong, light, bound, free)
  • move as if they were in a different settings (on the moon, underwater, inside a volcano, etc.)
  • follow a movement “rule” like keeping 3 limbs on the floor at all times, never letting your bottom touch the ground, not using your arms, etc.

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 corner 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 (complementary and contrasting, symmetric and asymmetric, etc.) 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, etc.

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 (on or off balance, symmetric or asymmetric, wide, narrow, big, small, etc.)
  • encouraging dancers to initiate with different body parts, such as the 3rd rib, the armpit, the big toe, the ear, etc.
  • 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 improvisation activities I like to use to introduce students to improvisational dance. 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. If you’d like to learn more, feel free to contact me to commission a custom lesson plan, coaching session, or professional development session for your faculty.  I’m also available to teach improvisation and choreographic methods, and to arrange improvised scores for performance, as a guest teacher for workshops, intensives, or residencies.


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