You've seen enough “So You Think You Can Dance" dance-for-your-life moments to know that improvisation is a powerful tool for a professional dancer to possess. By introducing it to your students at an early age and establishing a dedicated practice, you'll see benefits at the studio level, too. Your dancers will shine onstage despite choreography blank-outs or costume malfunctions, stand out in improv rounds at competition and explore their own choreographic impulses, secure in the knowledge of how their bodies move.
So what's the best way to tackle improvisation in the studio? “A big mistake a lot of teachers make is starting a mile down the road, rather than at the starting line," says Matthew Farmer, dance department chair at Hope College. “Approach improvisation classes with the same mind-set as a ballet class. You wouldn't ask a student to do a grand jeté without knowing how to tendu."
Glen Meynardie, who teaches improvisation at three studios in Louisiana and at conventions, says that gauging the room first is crucial: “Understand the level of the dancer you're working with and how comfortable they are." Just because students are in an advanced technique level doesn't mean they'll feel confident moving without set steps. Start small—for example, ask them to improvise for 8 to 16 counts to begin, rather than for several minutes.
Here are 10 exercises that can become part of any dance class—whether you're a longtime improv practitioner in need of a jump-start or you're finally ready to take your first crack at it.
Just breathe Meynardie begins class with a mind-centering exercise, using breath. “I focus on how the breath connects to movement and how the body naturally moves with its breath," he says. Spending time on breathing helps dancers slow down and focus. Plus, it allows them to get in tune with their pulse—their own natural rhythm.
Walk it out Though it may seem rudimentary, begin improvising with students walking around the room. The simple motion of walking and deciding when to stop and go gives them a chance to make basic choices. Then add elements in—ask the class to jog, run or hop, again beginning and stopping on their own time. Taking a walk also serves as an easy warm-up.
We're following the leader Choose a student to be the leader, and instruct the others to follow her or him. Ask the leader to move across the space and make choices regarding levels, dynamics and movement size and shape. “Sometimes it feels threatening for a dancer to dance in front of others," says Jochelle Pereña, a teacher at the Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California, “but with this exercise you don't see the dancers behind you, or how they're interpreting your movement, so really it becomes a duet."
Be prop-ular Adding props to improvisation exercises may help dancers be less nervous and inspire movement ideas. Pereña starts with partner activities that are “low-threat" and includes a prop as a buffer. Try a scarf, for example: One student is in charge of moving the scarf in different ways—playing with levels, folding and releasing the scarf, varying speeds. Her partner watches the scarf and finds ways to interpret the movement in her own body. Both will concentrate on their own tasks and forget to watch each other.
The old bait-and-switch Add restrictions to any exercise to keep it fresh. “If you notice during an improv that your students tend to use arms a lot, tell them this time around that they cannot use their arms," says Farmer. “Or if everyone is staying at the same level, say: 'This time, stay at a low level—your body can't go above my waist.'" Though improvisation can be a time for dancers to perfect a signature move or develop a style of their own, keep pushing them to find new moves, too—the opposite of what may feel comfortable.
To explore new shapes, challenge the group to travel from one side of the room to the other without performing any one move twice. Force them to change their speed and make new choices about which limbs to use. Or instruct the dancers to move through space, taking turns to call out “Switch!" With each switch, they must do the extreme opposite of what they had been doing. They'll have to think and move quickly—with no time to focus on being “pretty" or perfect.
Think…negative Ask students to explore negative space with partners by making a shape around another dancer's body, filling in the unoccupied space surrounding that body. Give them eight counts to change shapes. Add more dancers or fewer counts to vary the activity.
Give your vocabulary a workout Saying new movement words, beyond typical dance terms as the dancers improvise, can get their imaginations running. “Use energy words, like 'burst,' 'melt' and 'sizzle' to change how a dancer is moving," says Pereña. At the beginning of class, ask the group to brainstorm words on a theme.
Do the iPod shuffle Music can be a great tool, but variety is key. Mix it up, but don't rely on music for every minute of class. Allow your students to dance in silence or to improvise to nonmusical recorded sounds, like running water, animal noises or fireworks.
Dance homework Simple homework assignments will allow dancers to find movement in everyday life—and try those moves on for size later in the studio. Pereña suggests asking your class to observe everyday things that use momentum to better understand weight and thrust. Another easy homework assignment? “Ask your students to take an iPhone video of themselves improvising somewhere," says Farmer.
Embrace the unexpected “Teaching an improv class means you, too, will be actively improvising throughout the whole class," says Farmer. “If you plan a lesson and your students grasp that concept and run with it, you'll have to change your plans, or the class is going to be really boring." Be flexible and take cues from your dancers—what they need and what they're really enjoying.