Editor Speak | Improvisation and Inspiration

Photo by Richard Turbeville and Scott A. Oxhorn

The modern dance classes I took as a child started with every dancer taking a turn in the circle, improvising to whatever word the teacher called out—red, bumblebee, wooden. I loved it. In high school, I improvised a 30-second or so solo at winter guard competitions, flag and all. But now, the word “improvisation” and its variants fill me with a cold fear.

When I signed up for my first Egyptian belly dance student showcase, my teacher informed us that we should 1) pick a song; 2) listen to it; 3) listen to it again; 4) see numbers 2 and 3. Every time she performs solo (and she’s a pro), she improvises—preferably to live music.

Aside from being in absolute awe of her, I said to myself, “No way. I’m choreographing this thing from beginning to end.” And I did. When I danced to live music a few years later, I did the same thing. No problem; the band played the song just like the recorded version on their website. The next time I danced to live music played by the same band, something wasn’t just like the recording—a dropped phrase, a truncated chorus, who knows? The music didn’t do what I expected it to, so I abandoned the choreography I’d painstakingly put together in my living room. But I kept dancing and smiling and no one in the audience was the wiser.

Was it the hours of practice that kept me from breaking apart into tiny bits like the crust of the baklava being served at the restaurant where we performed? The skills I’d learned as a child? Perhaps the bigger question is why I put myself through this, and continue to do so. Probably for the same reason Darby Jones attended her dance classes no matter how tired she was because of her leukemia (see “Dancing for Darby”), why Caroline Poppell’s students smile with such joy while they dance on the beach in Haiti (see “Dance With Destiny”).

Because . . . dance. —Heather Turbeville