Why is dance improvisation important?
If you follow my blog or social media, you’ll quickly see how much I love dance Improvisation! That wasn’t always the case – but you can read about that in this blog post. Suffice it to say for now that my love of improv as a teaching tool was sparked by seeing how my graduate school professor Patrik Widrig used it as an integral part of his modern dance technique classes at the University of Maryland, College Park. I saw how dance improvisation could be used to help students understand, embody, and apply the concepts and skills being taught as technique.
It is increasingly important for dancers of all skill levels and dance styles to be comfortable improvising, because improvisation has exploded in popularity in recent years. Improv has become a necessary skill for success in the dance industry: for 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.
A note on the term “dance technique”
Let’s take a quick moment to define the term technique, because I think it is important to outline how we’re using terms: In The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach technique refers to the skills required to perform the movement of any dance genre efficiently and with the preferred aesthetic of the style. It is important to note that technique will look different for every dance genre, and within each genre, every students’ technique will and should be a little different based on how they are able to understand and embody the expectations of the form. The Holistic Dance Teacher Approach recognizes that it is our job as educators to help each dancer find their own technique within the form – and improvisation is a great way to do just that!
Why should you integrate dance improvisation into technique classes?
In a perfect world, all students would have a stand alone dance improvisation class every week. Of course, that is not always possible, as much as I might wish it was! Most students are introduced to improvisation during their dance technique classes. In this blog post, I’ll show you 4 creative ways to integrate improvisation into your dance technique classes, to help students develop their improvisational prowess alongside their technique skills.
In some dance genres, such as authentic jazz, Hip Hop, and post-modern/contemporary dance styles, improvisation is an integral component of the technique itself. Teachers of these styles are likely already blending freestyle movement experiences into their classes because improvisation is part of the technique – the two cannot be separated. Other dance styles use improvisation more commonly as part of the creative process – dancers may improvise to help choreographers generate movement for a dance piece, for example. Classes in these styles may include an improv component, but it is not necessarily integral to the technique itself. Traditional modern dance styles are a good example of this use of improvisation
In other dance genres, such as ballet, improvisation is not a common practice at all. I honestly cannot think of a single ballet class in which I was asked to improvise in a meaningful way. But I think that using dance improvisation as a part of technique class can be transformative for students of all genres, even if it is not commonly integrated into the form. When students improvise, they:
- 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.
No matter what dance genre you teach, improvisation can and should be used as an educational tool in your classes! The strategies below will help you integrate improv into your dance technique classes in an organic and meaningful way.
Four creative ways to use dance improvisation in technique class
Improvise Your Warm-up
Allowing students to improvise as part of their warm-up is a great way to help them reflect on the role of warm-up in dance, and what their own bodies need to be prepared for class. Before introducing improvisation as a warm-up tool, be sure to discuss with students the goals of warm-up in dance. A good warm-up will include gentle movement that primes all body systems – cardiovascular, skeletal, muscular, vestibular, etc. – for the demands of the technique. Students will want to ensure that they are making safe movement choices that will help them meet the demands of the class or rehearsal before them. Here is my favorite way to use improv as a warm-up:
- With the dancers standing in place, guide them through an improvisation that starts with movement for the cervical spine (neck) and moves down the body. Students will choose their own movement for their cervical spine (such as small head rolls or isolations), then shoulders, elbows, wrists, thoracic spine (ribs), lumbar spine (lower back), pelvis (hips), femoral/hip joint, knees, ankles, and feet. You can give them a set number of counts to move each body part, cue them verbally to switch, or allow them to move through the body on their own time.
- Once they have moved through the body once in a stationary position, repeat the process with the dancers moving through space (walking, running, etc.) while moving each body part to elevate their heart rate. Try a third time using movement that is off-balance movement to challenge the dancers’ vestibular systems.
- Give students movement metaphors to help them find new ways of moving each body part. Instead of, “Move your thoracic spine,” try “Move your thoracic spine as if you are trapped inside a peanut butter jelly sandwich.”
- Assign each dancer a partner, and ask them to mirror one another as they are moving through each body part. One dancer will start as the leader, and the other dancer will copy their movement as if they were their reflection in the mirror. For example, when the leader uses their right hand, the following dance will use their left.
- Arrange the class in a circle. One dancer will choose a movement for the cervical spine, and then all dancers will copy that movement. The next dancer will move their shoulders, then the next their elbows, and so on, with the rest of the class copying the dancers’ movement.
Explore New Skills Through Improvisation
When introducing a new technique skill, you can use improvisation to help dancers to explore its underlying concept. Think about the basic underlying action of the movement, and use that as a prompt for improv:
- In ballet, for example, you can have dancers improvise using the darting action of elancer movement like pique turns and saubrasaut. (You can find an example lesson plan structured around this idea in The Holistic Guide to Dance Lesson Planning.)
- In jazz, students might use the weight shift of ball change as the basis of improvisation.
- In modern, use improvisation to have students explore the difference between undercurve and overcurve.
Another way to approach improv in this way is to start with a skill that your dancers are currently working on. We’ll use grand battement in this example:
- Teach your students a grand battement combination, and have the students practice it several times.
- Think of pedestrian words that describe the actions needed to perform this skill. For example, you can use brush, suspend, and point to describe what goes on in a grand battement.
- Use these words as prompts for improvisation. First, have the dancers use brushing movements in their improv, then have them think about suspending and releasing, then have them explore different kinds of pointing movements. Finally, have them combine all three in the same dance.
- After the improvisation, have them perform the grand battement combination again.
- Ask them what (if anything) felt different about their grand battements this second time around. Where they able to apply the concepts from the improv to improve their technique in the grand battement?
Use Improvisation to Keep Class Moving
Improv is a great way to keep students engaged and learning during what might typically become “downtime” in class. It can be a helpful tool in online or hybrid learning formats, when teachers may have to split their attention among different groups of dancers frequently throughout the class. There are many ways to use improvisation in this way, here are just a few of my favorites:
- Give an improv prompt for one group to explore while you observe and give feedback to another group who is performing a technique exercise. This is especially helpful in hybrid classes, as it allows you to watch either the online or in-person group closely while also providing a productive activity for the other dancers.
- Add a few eight counts of improvisation between sides of a combination. Students will perform the right side of the combination, then improvise for a set number of counts, then start the left side. (This also works between sides at the barre during ballet class!)
- Use improvisation to transition between groups during center floor combinations. Group one starts in place and performs the combination. At the end of the combination, they have a set number of counts to improvise out of the dance space. At the same time, group two takes 16 counts to improvise into the dance space and set for the combination.
- Use improvisation between progressions across the floor. After a group performs the progression across the floor, they will improv across the back of the room to get back in line for the next pass.
- Have students improvise instead of walk when changing lines and formations between class exercises, or to get their water bottle during a break!
Build Community and Foster Teamwork through Improvisation
There are many wonderful dance improvisation activities that help to build community and foster teamwork in class. Group improv activities allow students to connect, collaborate, and create together. Students learn about themselves and others as they participate in self and group expression during improv activities. They work together toward a common goal, navigating differences of opinion and style. They watch, listen, and respond to one another in real time and space, helping to develop valuable social skills. Here are just a few of my favorite group dance improvisation activities:
- Mirroring and Shadowing – This is actually a partner exercise, but it is great for developing cooperation skills. Read more in this blog post!
- Call and Response – I use this hallmark of jazz music and dance as a basis for group improvisation in classes of every style. One dancer performs an improvised movement, and the rest of the class responds in movement. I like to provide different directions to the response dancers, such as: react however you feel moved, as if you are having a movement conversation (traditional); repeat the movement as closely as you can; do whatever you think the opposite of that movement is; or do the same movement with your own flavor or style.
- The Letting Go Dance – This is actually an individual exercise, but when done as a group, it can be a powerful way to help students embrace vulnerability together. Read more about this exercise, and find others like it, in this blog post.
- Birds on a Wire – This is a fun group partnering activity that will be great to incorporate into class post-pandemic. Get it and 24 other improvisation activities in The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts and Activities.
- What I Like About You – This is a wonderful activity for team building and confidence that works any time of the year! Read more in this blog post.
More resources for teaching dance improvisation
- Your Ultimate Guide to Improvisation in the Dance Studio – Everything you need to know about improv, including 2 of my favorite exercises to use in class!
- Dance Improvisation Tips & Activities for Beginning Dancers – Strategies for teaching improvisation to beginners, including 2 fun and easy activities that novice improvisers love!
- Simple Ways to Improve Your Dance Improvisation Skills – Dancers, this one is for you! Check out these 10 powerful tips for becoming a better improviser and watch your skills improve!
- The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities – Make your dance teacher life easier with these 25 awesome dance improv activities, from solo explorations to. team-building exercises
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.