How I went from terrified of dance improvisation to teaching it!
Are you the kind of dancer who freezes up at the very mention of improvisation in the dance studio? If so, I feel you! I spent so much of my training and early career being absolutely terrified of dance improvisation. I would improv when I was forced to, but it never felt good, organic, comfortable, or authentically me. I always felt like I was always:
- copying what I had seen on dance videos, or caught other dancers doing out of the corner of my eye,
- trying to guess what the teacher expected from my dance improvisation and do whatever I thought they would like,
- recreating movement I had learned in technique class, by putting steps together in randomly in a way that didn’t make sense to my body,
- planning out every movement, gesture, shape, or step in my head before my turn, to the point where it was less of an improvisation and more of a mental choreography exercise, or
- hiding in the back and praying no one was paying any attention to me or my dance improvisation failures.
When I was a student at the MFA program at the University of Maryland, however, everything changed. First of all, I had amazing faculty who provided the kind of structure I needed to actually feel comfortable with improv and improve my dance improvisation skills. They used creative and specific dance improvisation exercises that helped me to feel as though I was accomplishing a movement task, not just flopping around aimlessly. They incorporated improvisation into many different aspects of the program, from choreography classes to technique classes to theory classes, rather than isolating it as a (very nerve-racking) event of its own. They encouraged a regular dance improvisation practice outside of class, in the safety and comfort of our living rooms or solo studio time, if you were so lucky to find it. And perhaps most importantly, they recognized that we all had our own movement backgrounds and encouraged us to explore what made our movement and improvisation unique.
My experience at UMD changed everything for me, in so many ways, but especially in terms of how I approach dance improvisation! I am beyond grateful to my teachers and mentors during that time, especially Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig, improvisers and educators extraordinaire. In the roughly ten years since graduation, I’ve had the opportunity to teach improv to a lot of students. I’ve had to figure out how to help them become as comfortable with dance improvisation as I grew to be with the right experiences and mentorship. From those experiences, I’ve developed ten easy ways to improve your dance improvisation skills, whether you are an uncomfortable newbie, or an experienced improviser who can’t get enough.
Why is improvisation important for dancers?
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. You can learn more about the importance of dance improvisation and find great exercises to help you improve your improv skills at this blog post: Your Ultimate Guide to Improvisation in the Dance Studio
Ten easy ways to improve your dance improvisation skills
Don’t look in the mirror
It seems simple, but in my opinion getting out of the mirror is honestly the best way to improve your dance improvisation skills. When you allow yourself to be distracted by your image in the mirror, you end up breaking the natural flow of your movement. You get stuck in how things look through the distorted perception of the mirror, rather than focusing on how they feel. Chances are, when you choose movement based on how it feels over how it appears to you in the mirror, it will actually look better to the audience – and create a more authentic and joyful experience for you, too!
Don’t live in the past
The beauty of dance improvisation is that it unfolds second to second in the present. It is one of the few activities we can participate in that is 100% embodied in the present moment. That can be scary – but it is also incredible freeing! Try not to reflect on or recreate past improv moments that felt “good” to you, or to copy moves and phrases that you learned in technique class. Instead, focus on how you are feeling right now, and how you can bring new energy and life into your present improv experience by making original movement choices.
Let your breath be your guide
When we are nervous and anxious, we often hold our breath. That’s true in life, and somehow it can become even more true when it comes to dance improvisation! But in life and in dance, and especially in improvisation, holding our breath is almost never a good idea. Breathing calms our nervous system, and helps us think rationally and clearly. Moreover, breathing can help shape and guide our movement, allowing us to flow naturally from one movement to the next. Before you start improvising, take some time to breath deeply and consciously. As you breathe in, initiate a movement, and as you exhale, follow the momentum of that movement into something new. (You can also try the reverse for a challenge!) Check in frequently with your breath during your dance improvisation to make sure you aren’t holding your breath, breathing shallowly, or forcing an unnatural breathing pattern.
Don’t just string steps together
One of the easiest ways to improve your dance improvisation skills is to stop thinking of improv as stringing a bunch of steps together on the fly. When you approach improvisation as doing a bunch of steps you already know in a random order, the result is usually a dance experience that both looks and feels unnatural. What makes improv a unique practice, in my experience, is that it is organic. By “organic,” I mean that it comes naturally from what you are feeling and how you are motivated to move in that given moment. To help find your organic way of moving that goes beyond the steps you’ve learned in technique class, try exploring different improvisation prompts that challenge the way you think about movement and technique. Beginning improvisers might find the prompts in The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities helpful, while those who are super comfortable with improv might find the out of the box prompts in my #ChoreographyAdventures to be a fun and playful challenge.
Don’t be afraid of “failure”
I use failure in quotes here because honestly, I don’t believe there is any such thing when it comes to dance improvisation. Improv is all just a beautiful experiment, with few rules for right or wrong. But often, dancers are paralyzingly afraid of failing. We can be perfectionists by nature, and at times it is even that quest for beauty and “perfection” that draws us to the art form itself. But fear of failure can often get in the way to truly beautiful experiences that help us grow and learn. For example, I once had the amazing opportunity to take a master choreography class with choreographer Bill T. Jones. I’m almost positive the phrase he used to describe the movement that I created was: “I don’t particularly care for this one very much.” I was devastated in the moment, but able to bounce back quickly because I treated the class like an experiment. Maybe the results of my experiment didn’t impress Bill T. Jones, but I was still able to learn and grow from the process. And I have a great story to tell about it, to boot!
Practice as often as you can
Dance improvisation is a skill, and like with any skill, practice makes for progress. Spend some time as often as you can improvising. It could be grooving to your favorite song in your bedroom before bed, making improv part of your warm-up before class or rehearsal, or setting aside a half hour every week to play with movement. The more you practice, the easier it will be to improve your dance improvisation skills.
Get feedback when you are ready for it
Getting feedback from a trusted source can be a great way to improve your dance improvisation skills. When you are at a place when you feel comfortable improvising in front of other people, ask a friend or dance teacher to give you some constructive feedback. (PS: I’m also available for private coaching in dance improvisation, online or in person!) Just remember to take it all with a grain of salt! Everyone has their own aesthetic and taste, and what fits their vision may not be authentic to you. Take their advice where it works for you, but stay true to the dancer you want to be!
Give yourself a goal for each dance improvisation experience. I rarely, if ever, direct my students to “just improv.” Without a goal or purpose in mind for your dancing, it is easy to fall into old habits: planning ahead instead of enjoying the moment; trying to recreate past improvised movement that felt good; copying other people; or just repeating what you’ve learned in class. Some good examples of specific goals are focusing on how you use space, working on movement for a particular body part, changing levels and tempos throughout, or imaging that you are dancing in a special environment, like on the moon or under the sea.
Dance to the music – or lack thereof
Practice listening deeply to the music, if it’s provided to you, and connecting your movement to multiple aspects of it. Listen to the rhythm, the melody, the instrumentation, the harmonies, the lyrics, and whatever else you can discern. Try dancing to each specific part of the music, expressing what you hear in each layer with your movement. When you are practicing on your own, try using many different genres of music, from ragtime to reggae to classical to folk. This is a great way to expand how your move, challenge your movement habits, and improve your improvisation skills. You can even improvise in silence, responding to the pace of your breathing, the atmospheric sounds in the room around you, and visual inputs.
Don’t fall into a routine
Once you discover your organic and authentic dance improvisation style, chances are you might fall into a routine of moving that way every time you are asked to improvise. Challenge yourself to continually expand your movement style and find new ways of pushing your boundaries as an improviser. If you love moving on the low level, try incorporating jumps. If you tend to stay on balance, work in more inversions and off-balance movements. If you love hard-hitting and percussive movements, find your lyrical side. There is a way to express yourself in new ways, while still staying true to who you are!
What are some of way that you have learned to improve your dance improvisation? Share your best advice and tips in the comments!
More Dance Improvisation Resources
- Dance Improvisation Tips & Activities for Beginning Dancers
- 4 Creative Ways to Use Dance Improvisation in Technique Class
- Your Ultimate Guide to Improvisation in the Dance Studio
- The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities
Visit my Resources page for tools to help your reach your dance goals and support a holistic creative practices, sign up for my monthly newsletter, or join me on Facebook at The Holistic Dance Teacher.