Six strategies for teaching improvisation

SUNY Brockport professor Bill Evans incorporates short improv studies into technique class.

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.”

Game Time

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

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via YouTube

For all the time we spend talking about feet, we think it's time we did a deep dive into toes. Those little piggies bear a lot of weight, endure painful blisters and help your students soar across the classroom day after day.

So, to show our toes the love they deserve, here are five exercises that are all the self-care you need this week.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
JP Tenuta with Monika Knickrehm in a Level 6 class at The Academy of Movement and Music. Photo by Mike Dutka, courtesy of The AMM

The culture of your dance studio should be a major consideration when it comes to hiring new instructors. After all, teaching experience isn't the only thing that matters! You'll also want to make sure an interviewee fits with your overall philosophy when it comes to interacting with students (and parents!) and teaching dance. Here are some great tips that can help you find the right match.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

A bow can mean a lot of different things in the dance world. Bowing after class as a group is a sign of respect, an individual bow or curtsy to your teacher before leaving is a sign of gratitude, a bow at the end of a performance is a way to honor the audience for their time that evening, and an encore bow—well, that might be about giving ourselves a pat on the back for a job well-done. No matter what your dancers are trying to convey through them, bows are an important part of dance etiquette that they will need to master.

Check out these three tips for teaching bows that will have your dancers and their manners looking fab!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox