When Barbara Duffy was a young professional dancer with the American Tap Dance Orchestra, director Brenda Bufalino had performers improvise on stage during certain plays. “For a long time, I was just choreographing my improvisation,” Duffy explains. “That was cheating!” Duffy was afraid to improvise, but “something inside me really wanted that freedom. I finally realized it wasn’t about my skills as a dancer. It was what was going through my head, what I was telling myself.
Today, Duffy has written a book on improvisation, Tap Into Improv, and has taken her Improv class for tap dancers all over the world. The lesson: Improvisation is a skill that can be learned, and it’s a skill that’s becoming increasingly crucial for dancers in almost any style.
Improvisation doesn’t have to be scary: Dr Susanne Ravn, who studies dance improvisation at the University of Southern Denmark, suggests reframing your thinking:
- It’s not just about inventing as you go
We often think of improvisation as movement that happens spontaneously. In Ravn’s research, “that’s definitely not true. There is always some planning or preparation before improvisation takes place. She says skilled improvisers don’t just start improvising out of the blue; they may have specific ideas about improvisation or different topics they want to explore. She also says that while our understanding of improvisation places the intentionality of movement solely with the dancer, that’s not really the case either: dancers are heavily influenced by their settings and the people around them. “There’s something about moving with others where there’s a contagious effect,” she says. She suggests dancers embrace what’s available to them in the space, whether it’s being inspired by the quality of someone else’s movement or interacting with architecture.
- There is always context and expectations
There is sometimes a myth that dancers can really move the way they want by improvising. That’s almost never the case, says Ravn: There’s usually a context and an implicit expectation that will inform the movement. For example, a dancer performing traditional ballet steps at a contemporary improvisation jam may invent a movement on the spot and, in that sense, improvise, but she probably won’t appear to be improvising in this context. Knowing expectations can help dancers narrow down the movement options available to them, which can make the task less overwhelming.
- All dance is improvisation
Ravn suggests that dancers think of any dance as having an element of improvisation. Even the most tightly choreographed pieces leave room for a dancer’s interpretation and won’t look exactly the same every time they’re performed. “Any kind of dance performance comes with some kind of openness,” she says. This mindset can make what we traditionally think of as improvisation less daunting – after all, you do it every time you dance.
The improviser’s toolbox
Set a frame.
In many contexts, you will be given a task or exercise to help guide your improvisation. If not, invent something for yourself, suggests Ravn. Some of Duffy’s favorite exercises involve taking certain fundamental steps away from students (like blends and brushes), so they can get out of their comfort zone or require them to continually move around the room.
Find out what resonates with you the most. Amy O’Neal, who teaches hip hop, contemporary, improvisation and other subjects at USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, experiments with feel-based prompts (such as embodying the texture of a particular instrument in music) and intellectual prompts (like initiating different body parts in sequence).
Recognize your habits.
“Break your habits” is a common refrain in improv circles, and it can be a helpful way to think about improv. But it can also be suffocating. Duffy, for example, fought for doing the same steps over and over. When she started thinking about them differently — like steps she repeated because she loved them and was good at them — and allowed herself to do them without judgment, she found that her improvisation opened up and she relied less and less on these steps. If the idea of breaking your habits seems too restrictive, just try to notice them and explore them.
Moncell Durden, who explores improvisation in his hip-hop, house, and jazz classes at USC Kaufman, has an improv acronym: Intuitive Meditation Playfully Revealing Objective Variables. The “Playfully” part is particularly important for him: “I want to play in the sense that a 5-year-old child plays”, he specifies. “What are the colors? What sound ? What is this character? And to realize the depth of the narrative you’re creating, the world you’re creating, and to venture into what it is.
Face your fears.
Duffy begins many of his improv classes by asking students, “What is your biggest fear about improv?” A common response for tap dancers: being out of step with the music. To help them overcome this fear, Duffy will tell them to try dancing out of time, and often they find that it is difficult for them to do so. “It gives them the confidence to not worry too much about it,” she says. O’Neal does a similar exercise when his adult dancers express fear of looking stupid: “What do you even think a stupid move looks like? Let’s all act in ways we think are stupid. Let’s face it and reevaluate.
Why Learn to Improvise?
“There are countless professional and personal benefits to being able to improvise,” says Amy O’Neal, who teaches at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. “And if you are injured, how can you still safely explore your body or create under these circumstances? What if you had to improvise during an audition? What if something happens in a live performance that is beyond your control? Improvisation is also therapeutic; it is a space to learn more about yourself and to release or work through difficult emotions.
TEACHERS: For tips to help your students improve their improvisations, visit dance-teacher.com.