Guiding Serious Play
Six strategies for teaching improvisation
Our first improvised dances didn’t happen in a studio, but during playtime, when we twirled around the living room or outside in the grass. “Long before any of us ever took a ballet class, we just danced from the heart,” says Thom Cobb, associate professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “That is why improvisation is so thrilling.”
Improvisation is an essential skill dancers of all styles should become comfortable with. It helps them discover their own way of moving and enhances their awareness while dancing in a group. Plus, those comfortable with the task will be most prepared for college and job auditions, where they may be asked to improvise, or rehearsals with choreographers who use it during their process. Here, Cobb and others share strategies for helping students approach the sometimes intimidating practice.
Dance without “Dancing”
Cobb has found that one of the reasons dancers have difficulty improvising is because they’re worried about how they look. During students’ first classes, he asks them to move using pedestrian movement only. They’ll begin by walking through the space, stopping and starting as they please, while he calls out tempo and direction changes. Starting class this way also helps students learn to move without using steps they’ve already learned in technique classes, like arabesque and pas de bourrée.
Review the Basics
Space, time, shape, motion and energy—these concepts may seem simple, but with novice improvisers, it’s best to review what each means. “My first classes deal mostly with space, because it’s a dancer’s clay—our active partner,” says Juilliard choreography professor Janis Brenner. “We investigate direction changes, using near and far space and making lines or curves through space.” Discussing each principle separately gives students room to fully explore the range of movement possibilities within each.
Build Off Established Choreography
Bill Evans, visiting professor and dance artist at SUNY Brockport, finds students aren’t as afraid to improvise when given clear instructions. Dancers can modify your choreography by playing with the sequence, rhythms and energy, taking as many liberties as they’d like, including inserting their own movement. “When I do this with my students, they become more engaged in problem-solving,” says Evans, “ingeniously finding ways of making stationary patterns travel and enjoying surprising transitions.”
To lighten nerves, Dale Andree, adjunct faculty in the college and high school divisions at New World School of the Arts in Miami, stresses the importance of creative but serious play. In “Follow the Leader,” she picks one student to lead an improvisation, while the others copy their movement. This game develops a keen sense of awareness and helps dancers learn how others move.
“The Alphabet” is one of Cobb’s go-to exercises. He has students dance, while saying each letter aloud in their choice of volume and tempo. Students’ movement should be inspired by how they say the letters. Sometimes, Cobb shouts out qualities. How would a cheerleader or witch say and dance the letter G?
Connect with Music—or Don’t
Music greatly influences a dancer’s improvisation. Using it can help your students open up, as long as it doesn’t overpower the class’ focus. “I stick with music that creates an atmospheric space,” says Brenner. “It shouldn’t be overly rhythmic or loud, have too many preconceived associations or intrude on the movement idea we are working with.”
As an investigatory exercise, Cobb asks students to improvise to one piece of music and again to another. Then, the class discusses how the different sounds influenced their movement choices, mood, timing and quality. He adds that working in silence, though, is often the best way to get students to delve into a more personal exploration.
Guidance vs. Direction
Asking your students open-ended questions, instead of giving directions, leaves more room for them to explore. For instance, “How can you move by leading with your elbow?” instead of “Move your elbow slowly in circles around your partner,” provides endless possibilities. “I give them parameters, but really they can move their body however they feel most comfortable,” says Andree. She adds that providing imagery helps students delve into deeper studies in texture and movement quality. For instance, the image of mud “is wonderful for getting students to feel weight and a sense of suction or the idea leaving imprints in the ground.”
Critiquing students’ proficiency during class isn’t important. Instead, Brenner and her students chat after each exercise so everyone can discuss their experience and learn from one another. Remind dancers that there is no right or wrong when it comes to improvisation. After all, discovery, not a finished product, is the goal. DT
Jen Peters contributes to several dance publications. She is a Pilates instructor and former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Photo by Rebecca Puretz, courtesy of Bill Evans