Getting your dancers to find their rhythm in a group improvisation can be tough, but they’ll grow closer as a team.

Dance competitions call for meticulously polished routines, stunning costumes and bold performances. But the newest category hitting the competition circuit is just the opposite. It’s incredibly stripped down in presentation and movement and is centered around mess-making and risk-taking.

Once reserved for the classroom, improvisation is increasingly making its way to dance competition stages, for groups, duets and soloists. It offers students a chance to test their individual artistry and decision-making skills in a high-pressure environment. But though improv is rooted in spontaneity, it’s a skill that needs to be fine-tuned. Readying it for the stage, instead of using it solely as an exploration, is a unique practice.

The Rules

Generally, improvisation at competitions is open to soloists, duets and small groups of all ages. Time limits range from 45 seconds to 3 minutes. At some events, dancers are allowed to pick a dance style during registration; other competitions leave the category open to interpretation. Most competitions give dancers a 10-second preview of the music that has been selected for them right before they take the stage, and each entry dances to something different. After that, it’s in the dancers’ hands: Whatever they create onstage is what they’ll be judged on.

How It Will Benefit Your Dancers

Many competition dancers are very Type A—they’ve spent their training years perfecting their technique and learning how to execute choreography with exacting detail. Improvisation encourages free thinking, allows them to discover their own way of moving and forces them to get a little messy.

Putting that onstage heightens all of those ideas and adds bigger-picture elements. Instead of moving freely, students have to think about how their dancing is perceived by the judges and audience, and they have to shape the piece in the moment, while staying in tune with the dancers around them. “Group improv is all about listening—it’s always a conversation,” says Open Call judge Calen Kurka.

The challenge of improvisation onstage is different for each dancer. Shy personalities may be most timid; technicians may fall back on generic steps; outgoing students may try to overpower the group. “With improv, you really have to check your ego at the door,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina, whose dancers have been competing in the improv category for two years. “We had to talk to some dancers about making sure they were equally involved with everyone around them, feeling the people around them.” The biggest change Curtis sees in her dancers is that they learn to work better together and become closer as a team.

Knowing how to improvise in a high-pressure environment, in front of judges who are critiquing, is also essential to dancers who are auditioning for summer intensives, college programs and professional companies. And many choreographers use improv as a way to generate movement. “A lot of dance construction revolves around improvisation,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Choreographers want to see how the dancer uniquely puts themselves inside what’s being made.”

Putting improv on a stage requires students to create the piece in the moment while staying in line with the group.

From the Judges’ Point of View

The most successful improv, says Parsons, is one that makes him forget he’s actually watching an improvisation. Before dancers take the stage, he suggests circling up to talk about how the music makes them want to move, be it with big, sweeping limbs or punchy gestures. “A huge part of improv is connecting with the music,” says Kurka. “In the first couple seconds onstage, I want to see how they’re going to use the music to bring up artistic concepts.”

It’s also important that dancers use pure movement that’s individual to them, instead of strings of technical steps and tricks they’ve learned in class. “I want to see the dancer, not codified movement,” says Parsons. “I love seeing people move from their most internal and authentic place.”

If they’re going to add more technical elements, it’s important that they “fit into the conversation,” says Kurka. “It’s about recognizing that turns make an audience feel a certain way, maybe signifying freedom. Or that extending a leg can have tension.”

Susan Barr, who owns Above the Barre Dance & Gymnastics in Berea, Ohio, says she encourages her dancers to include “about 80 percent pure movement and only 20 percent technique.” Finally, there should be some kind of arc to the piece, which might include a build in movement, intensity or structure.

Though there’s no actual right or wrong when it comes to improv, the dancers certainly won’t create a successful product every single time they take the stage. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of the practice: It’s a heightened dancing experience that depends on trial and error. And the most gratifying part of that, says Barr, is watching students overcoming their fears, and, eventually, walking offstage and telling her they can’t wait to try it again. “When we first tried this, I was so nervous for the kids,” she says. “But when they came off with smiles on their faces, I knew it was the right thing.” DT

Kristin Schwab, a former dancer, is pursuing an MS at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. 

Are Your Dancers Ready?

Competition isn’t the time for dancers who have little improv experience to experiment. CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis reserves this category for her highest-level dancers, ages 14 and up. “You need dancers who are mature and creatively very open,” she says. Curtis doesn’t hold dedicated rehearsals, and instead works with her group once a week after class for 10 to 15 minutes to give them critiques.

Tips:

Improv for the Stage

  • Have a beginning “Do you want to start on the floor or standing?” asks Above the Barre’s Susan Barr. “They should always have a beginning in mind, and take a position.”
  • Think of what usually makes dances successful Encourage dancers to use the whole stage and vary the heights—on the ground to the space above their heads—and textures of their dancing.
  • Designate one dancer as the leader in group improvs “We always had one person who would pick a motif, maybe a gesture, that dancers could repeat,” says CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis. It doesn’t mean that they’re the star of the show or that they even have to stand at the front—they’re just helping guide the dance.
  • Set goals for the dance “It’s always good to come into the space with specific tasks,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Things fall short when everyone’s just moving for movement’s sake.” Maybe dancers have to include a section in slow motion, perform a series of movements in unison or have a moment where everyone is touching. Having a loose checklist helps them generate ideas in the moment.
  • Less is more “Not everybody has to be onstage the whole time,” says Curtis. “Sometimes you’re a part of the process by not dancing, or just being in the space and standing there.”

Thinkstock; courtesy of Open Call

Don't miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

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

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

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

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox