Why is improvisation important for beginning dancers?


One of my biggest regrets as a dancer is not becoming comfortable with improvisation at a younger age. Early in my dance training and career, I shied away from improv as I found it intimidating. I was embarrassed to improvise in front of others, especially my teachers. Improvisation left me feeling vulnerable and exposed. As a perfectionist from a young age, I felt uncomfortable moving freely, without a set combination or choreography to master. It took me a long time and lots of support from teachers and mentors to get past these initial challenges and become comfortable improvising. Now, as a teacher myself, it brings me great joy to help young dancers and beginning students learn to love improvisation.

Improvisation has exploded in popularity in the dance industry in recent years. It is increasingly important for dancers of all skill levels and dance styles to be comfortable improvising. Dancers – even beginning level ones – may be asked to improv at auditions or during convention classes and workshops. Guest choreographers may ask dancers to improvise during rehearsal as a way to create movement to use in the 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.

Improvisation can also help novice dancers learn about dance technique and artistry. Students can explore elements of dance technique, such as alignment, coordination, and use of weight, through improvisation activities. This allows them to discover how technique works in their own bodies, beyond just replicating steps. Beginning dancers also benefit from improvised explorations of important dance concepts like level, pathway, energy, shape, and dynamics. Improvisation can be used to help students develop artistry through exercises focused on self-expression, embodying a feeling or mood, character development, and musicality. Students can also begin to explore elements of choreography and choreographic tools through improvisation.

More importantly, students learn important social-emotional skills through dance improvisation, including adaptability, decision making, confidence, accountability, and communication skills. Beginning dancers especially will develop grit and persistence as they work through the challenges of dance improvisation and become confident improvisers.


What are some challenges that beginning improvisers face?


However, dance improvisation can be difficult for many students, especially beginners. Those who are new to dance in general, as well as experienced dancers who don’t have much experience with improvisation, may face challenges such as:

  • Difficulty moving spontaneously, as opposed to performing combinations and choreography
  • Feeling silly when asked to make up their own movement on the fly
  • Feeling vulnerable when doing their own movement
  • Being uncomfortable when watched by a teacher or other students while improvising
  • Getting stuck in their own movement habits
  • Feeling as though they need to emulate the teacher’s style instead of doing what’s comfortable for them

Because of these challenges, beginning students are likely to “improvise” by copying movement they’ve seen before on TV or in performances, or stringing together dance steps and patterns they’ve learned in class. As educators, it is our job to help our beginning students overcome these challenges, so they are able to find their own authentic style in improvisation. We can do this by exposing them to a range of dance improvisation tactics and techniques that can help them become more comfortable when improvising. By following some best practices for teaching improvisation to beginners, we can provide the support and encouragement our students need to become confident and successful improvisers.


What are some tips for teaching dance improvisation to beginners?


Beginning students require clear and specific instructions when it comes to dance improvisation. – something that we as teachers do not always provide. We can have a tendency to think that being open-ended with our improv directions can make students more comfortable because it allows them to “Just do what they are feeling.” While advanced students might thrive with this freedom of movement and express, beginning students especially can freeze up or become uncomfortable with vague instructions. Because they are not sure what to do, when beginning dancers are told to “Just improvise!” they often 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 our beginning dancers improvise comfortably and organically.

Here are my best tips for teaching dance improvisation to beginning students:

  1. Be specific.  It is important to give beginning students a clear task to accomplish through their movement. Having a clear understanding of what they should do as they improvise can make beginners more comfortable. It can also help them discover new ways of moving and break out of their typical dance habits.
  2. Consider the age, development, and skill level of the dancers. In order to be successful as improvisers, beginning students need exercises that are easy for them to accomplish. Focus your improv activities on concepts and skills that match their current level of dance technique and artistry, as well as their social and emotional growth. For example, beginning students may not understand prompts like, “Lead with your trochanters” or “Use momentum to travel across the floor.” Prompts derived from contact improvisation may not be appropriate for middle school students, as they are experiencing changes in their bodies and may be uncomfortable with others in their personal space – I learned that the hard way!
  3. Have a learning objective or goal in mind. When you are designing or planning dance improvisation activites 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!)
  4. Give clear directions. Beginning students will likely not know what expected of them when first introduced to dance improvisation. By providing clear directions for each improv activity, you can help students achieve the desired outcomes and reach their full movement potential.  Describe the learning objective and instructions throughly and in an age-appropriate way. Use language that beginning students understand, including terms for parts of their body and dance concepts. 
  5. Demonstrate the prompt or activity, if appropriate. A physical demonstration of the exercise can be very helpful for beginning students. They may especially need to see the activity in action to fully understand the learning objective and directions. 
  6. Encourage students to be creative, and even a little silly! Beginning dancers 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. Moreover, students of all ages, but especially young students and beginning dancers, learn through play. 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. 


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


When designing dance improvisation prompts and activities to use with beginning dancers, it is important to focus on simplicity and clarity. Keep your learning objective simple, focus on just one task, and be clear with your directions. Below you will find two of my favorite dance improvisation exercises to use in classes with beginning improvisers. You can find 23 more in The Holistic Collection of Dance Improvisation Prompts & Activities.


Environment Dances

The primary objective of this activity is to help dancers embody different qualities of movement by engaging their imagination. Direct the dancers to imagine that they are improvising in a very specific environment, such as on the moon, under the sea, in a dense jungle, or while trapped in quicksand. Before the students dance, engage them in a discussion about what the environment would be like, what the inhabitants of the environment would be facing, and how these would impact their movement.

This exercise can be adapted by encouraging dancers to:

  • Explore different body parts, floor pathways, spatial directions, shapes, and qualities when moving.
  • 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.
  • Alternate between locomotor and non-locomotor movement.
  • Watch others as they move and “borrow” a movement or idea from them to incorporate into their own movement.
  • Physically connect with a partner at different points during the exercise.


Level Changes

The primary objective of this activity is to help students transition through different levels as they engage in original movement. 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. (High level means 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 and rhythms.
  • Initiate movement with different body parts.
  • Move with different qualities. (Examples: staccato, fluid, strong, light, bound, free.)
  • Move as if they were in different environments. (Examples: on the moon, underwater, inside a volcano, etc.)
  • Embody a character as they move.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. Alternate between locomotor and non-locomotor movement as they change levels.


More dance improvisation resources

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