Winging It: Train Your Students to Nail the Improvisation Category at Competitions

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

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