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Picture this: it’s the middle of dance class and the time has finally come to go across the floor. The teacher says, “Okay dancers, let’s improvise!” For half of the dancers in the room, this is the best news they’ve heard all day and they are thrilled by the opportunity to showcase their personal style, while the other half become paralyzed by the sheer thought of moving without prescribed pathways and patterns. No matter what your stance, improvisation is valuable and widely used in multiple facets of the dance field, so comfort and practice with it are crucial.
Improvisation comes in many forms and manifests in so many ways. Born out of the African Diaspora and Social Dance Forms, improvisation originated as a community practice. It has since evolved to become an important element in both commercial and concert dance; commercial dancers are often asked to improvise in auditions to give directors and choreographers a taste of their unique personality, vocabulary, and flavor. At the same time, many choreographers in the concert dance realm use improvisation to generate new movement material within collaborative processes and this material often evolves out of improvisational scores, which are sets of rules or prompts that the choreographer creates. These many uses prove the value and importance of improvisation for anyone studying dance. On the competitive circuit, there has certainly been a trend toward dancers improvising on the stage, which is an exciting step forward. But what are judges looking for when dancers improvise, and how can dancers take their improv. to the next level? As we jump into competition season, we asked three IDA judges to share their tips and tricks for improvisation, as well as their own experiences as dancers, teachers, and choreographers who have reaped the benefits of practicing this unique and important form of movement.
Judges agree that practicing improvisation has enormous benefits for dancers. IDA Judge and owner of Harvard Academy of Dance in Massachusetts, Kimberly Soel, explains, “Studying improvisational movement is one of the most important things you can do as a dancer. Not only does it inherently free the body from habitual movement patterns, but it also helps a dancer develop their own unique style.” In addition to allowing dancers to pinpoint their signature style, IDA judge and teacher, Christina Fuschetto, notes how improvising is a great way for dancers to work on transitions. Often, judges and teachers comment on the over- abundance of tricks in competition routines, pointing to a lack of smooth transitions. By moving improvisationally, dancers can hone their attention to transitions in class, which can ultimately translate to set material on stage. A third benefit of practicing improvisation is development of the ability to think quickly. IDA Judge, Jacqueline Baligian, notes, “If [improvising] in a group, you really get to work on spatial awareness and being able to think quickly enough on your feet to adjust to anything, which is then great for when you are onstage and may have to think quickly enough to move as to avoid collisions.” Even if all of your competition routines are set, the ability to adjust in the moment is crucial for any dancer and a valuable lesson that improvisation teaches.
But despite these benefits, many dancers fear and dread improvising. Luckily, there are ways to alleviate the stress surrounding this vital practice. Christina and Jacqueline both mention the importance of letting go of judgment and suggest facing away from the mirror. Jacqueline explains, “I feel like we judge ourselves so much when we are looking in the mirror and that can create inhibitions and [allow] insecurity to creep in. Then, we become blocked.” Kimberly offers additional strategies from a teacher’s perspective to move past these challenges. “As a teacher, I watch my dancers very closely as they are improvising to see if they're getting stuck. If I see this occurring, I try to switch things up for them by either turning off the lights, giving them different prompts, giving the ‘no tricks or turns’ rule, giving them a prop to dance with, giving them directional patterns to explore, or pairing them up with another dancer for contact improvisation.” If the teacher doesn’t give a prompt, it’s important for dancers to be able to give themselves prompts, so all of the above are great places to start!
Once dancers can find comfort in improvisation, the possibilities are endless and exciting! Jacqueline remembers being moved to tears on multiple occasions watching dancers improvise and notes the beauty of those moments when she “see[s] dancers so committed emotionally and to the music that they get lost in their own little world and NOTHING distracts them. It's as if it's an out of body experience that comes from a place so personal.” The power of movement is amazing, especially when dancers get to connect with their most personal way of moving, as opposed to matching the aesthetic of a choreographer. In terms of what allows audiences to be moved toward a place of deep emotion, there are many ways for dancers to connect. Kimberly explains that she specifically looks for “dancers who avoid the big tricks and push themselves to explore different movement patterns. It is so easy for dancers to fall in to the same traps of repeatedly doing tricks they're ‘good’ at performing such as turns, flips, aerials, etc. because they are so prevalent in the dance industry right now. Dancers are bombarded with images of others being rewarded for those kinds of things so they believe they need to do them in order to be successful. It is much harder for a dancer to dig deep in to the feeling of a piece of music and bring that to life.” Dancers should focus on finding their own style and movement that feels good, as opposed to doing what they think an audience wants to see. By staying true to themselves, a dancer’s genuine passion, energy, and talent can shine.
At the heart of improvisation is self-expression, so it’s important to feel comfortable before beginning. Kimberly brings up the role of the facilitator to make everyone feel comfortable, noting that before beginning, “We talk about creating a completely judgement-free zone, a space where we support, encourage, and raise each other up, and a space where it's safe to share.” Similarly, Jacqueline reminds dancers that “there is ‘no wrong way.’ You really can't make a mistake when improvising. Just breathe, move, and let the magic happen.” It's amazing what can manifest when dancers allow themselves to let go of what they think they know—that is how we grow to the next level as performers and, ultimately, artists. Finally, Christina encourages, “Have fun and pretend you are the only person in the room…dance for you!” Nobody moves the way you do, so allow that to radiate as you find joy through improvisation!
Photo Credit- Samantha Litwinenko // Cherilyn's School of Dance - Pleasant Valley, NY
Dancers: Lia Sellati, Madison Kiggins, Rachel Owen, Samantha Gresis, Miranda Gendron, Brie Bownas