Dance Improvisation “Cheat” for Overthinkers
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Dance Improvisation is Hard
Do you struggle with dance improvisation? Many people do, myself included. It’s one of those things where you either “have it” or you don’t. That’s not to say that you can never get good at improv if you don’t have it from the start. You can get good at anything you want to, if you put in enough effort. I simply mean that improvisation comes naturally to some, but for a lot of people it’s a huge struggle.
Why is dance improvisation so hard? Because it’s a mind game. In technique class you train your physical skills, but in improv you train your mental skills. You learn to be creative on the spot, to release your filters and “just dance,” and yet somehow to keep enough filters on to make sure you’re using a variety of movements, dancing to the music, using your whole body, following the prompt… It’s enough to drive you crazy.
But it’s a Skill You MUST Learn
Full honesty right now, I hate improv. I love to dance – give me choreography and I’ll dance like there’s no tomorrow – but ask me to improvise and I just want to disappear. I would love to just accept the fact that I’m bad at improv and choose to never do it, but it’s not that simple.
You can’t just choose not to participate in improv. That would be like sitting out of the fouette combo because you’re bad at fouettes. You’ll be asked to improvise in technique class, at auditions, when you’re getting choreography set on you, and hey, even when you go to a dance party with your friends. There’s no avoiding it.
Improvisation is an essential skill that’s just as important to your dance training as pliés at the barre or leaps across the floor. Okay, maybe we could argue about the relative importance of technique versus creativity, but dance at its core is an art form. You need that creative/mental side to balance out the technical/physical side.
My Dance Improvisation “Cheat”
“How to get good at improv” is a post for a later time. I still have to figure out the answer! For now, I want to share a trick that I use when I’m improvising in a group. It helps me appear to be creative, musical, and confident without the mental pressure of actually improvising. That’s why I call it a “cheat.” You’re not actually making up movements as you go, but you’re not doing pre-planned choreography either. Here’s how it works:
- This only works in a group setting, where at least 5-8 people are improvising at once. This will not work for jumping into the middle of the circle on the dance floor!
- It works best with modern dance or one of the less structured genres. Specifically, it helps to be able to face any direction. So when you’re at an audition and they ask for two 8-counts of jazz improv at the end of the combo, you’ll probably want to stay facing the front and not do this trick.
Place yourself near the middle of the group if you can, so that there’s at least one person or a mirror on every side of you. Plan one movement before the music starts to be your starting move.
The music starts. You do your first move. While you’re doing your first move, look at someone else and see what they’re doing. Finish your first move, then copy what they did. While you’re doing your second move, look at a different person. Keep copying one move at a time from different people. That’s all there is to it!
Hold up… does this really work? Won’t it be totally obvious that you’re copying everyone and not really improvising? Nope! Because you’re only copying one move at a time from each person, you’re creating your own unique phrase. There’s no way anyone would catch on unless they replayed the improv session in slow motion, watching you specifically. But if you’re still not convinced, there are measures you can take to make sure your secret is safe.
- You don’t need to copy them exactly. Maybe you see someone do an arm swing and you think, “Well, my leg is in the air; I’ll swing my leg instead.” Or maybe you see someone do a backbend, but you choose to bend forward. Maybe you see someone do a move in place, but you modify the move to change directions so you can look at someone else for your next move.
- Don’t look at anyone for too long. I’d say one second is the longest you should look at any one person. Glance quickly and get the gist of what they’re doing, then just copy it and move on.
- Throw in your own moves here and there. While you’re doing all of this, hopefully you’re still allowing yourself to get inspired when something strikes you. You’re only copying others to get ideas and relieve the pressure of coming up with your own movement. If movement starts coming to you on its own, go for it!
Too Much Thinking?
This might sound like a lot of thinking. Why go through all these steps when you can just… dance? Remember that this “cheat” was born out of an over-thinker’s need to fake it till she makes it. It’s not The Solution to dance improvisation and it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to help people who struggle to shut their brain off (like me) appear confident and creative in their improvisation. Embarrassment only makes it harder to release the over-thinking, so it’s okay to minimize the embarrassment of improvisation by “cheating” a little.
I hope this is helpful, and I hope that someday soon I’ll be able to write a full post about how to get better at dance improvisation. Leave a comment below if you try this trick, or if you have any improv advice of your own!
Photo by Kelsea Hower Photography