Introduce Improvisation to Your Students at an Early Age (and Watch Their Dancing Change)

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.

Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

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."

Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

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.

Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

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.

Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

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.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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