Improv study can boost students’ creativity, resourcefulness
by Bonner Odell
For dance students, the phrase “let’s improv” can evoke a range of emotions: anxiety, excitement, insecurity, curiosity, or all of the above. Educators are responding to the ever-growing influence of improv as a training tool by incorporating it into contemporary, hip-hop, and jazz lessons—or even focusing entire classes on the practice.
Improv provides students with time and space to explore movement and make choices that facilitate body awareness, musicality, and self-discovery, and better equips them for the unpredictability of live performance. (If the music cuts out in your solo, what do you do?) Improvising also gives dancers the confidence to approach new movement material with inquiry (instead of apprehension), and to infuse choreography with self-expression.
“Improvising as a group has allowed the dancers to grow in appreciation for each other’s uniqueness and artistry. It’s rewarding and touching to see.” —Katie Kozul
So how do you teach budding dancers to improvise? Dance Studio Life posed this question to three dance artists who teach improv in the studio, on the convention circuit, or both.
What is improv?
It is the process of creating movement spontaneously. Like any other skill, it requires practice. “At its essence, improv is ‘supreme play,’ ” says choreographer Mary Grace McNally, quoting Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch. McNally, who teaches improv classes at the Diane Kelley Dance Studio in Massachusetts, Seven Stars School of Performing Arts in New York, and Move: The Initiative, a biannual dance intensive in Rhode Island, says, “It doesn’t mean dancing mindlessly. The brain is as engaged as the body, and both are full of intention.”
Katie Kozul, a former dancer with Hubbard Street 2 of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, teaches a weekly Horton-based modern class at The Gold School in Massachusetts. Once a month she devotes all of the class to improv practice. “Improv is not a free-for-all, and above all it is not ‘show me what you’ve got.’ I tell dancers I do not want to see one turn, jump, développé, or kick,” Kozul says. “The goal is to listen to your body and the way it organically wants to move.”
Start introducing your dancers to improv as early as possible. “The later you introduce it, the harder and scarier it is for dancers to break through the idea of form,” says McNally. “The way 9-year-olds take my tasks and ideas is remarkable. They don’t yet have the experience of seeing trends at competitions, and their minds are expanding at really fast rates.”
This is not to say teens won’t take to the practice, she says, but teachers may need to employ more persistence and creativity to help that age group surmount their desire to impress teachers and peers.
Approaches to improv
Create a safe space. McNally gathers dancers in a circle and discusses her protocol for maintaining a safe and supportive space during improv. “I ask the dancers to keep their body language open,” she says. “No crossing arms or clasping hands.” McNally also asks students not to judge themselves or others, and to actively watch each other improvise. Class ends with a group discussion.
Break with the norm. Professional dancer Teddy Forance, who teaches improv and contemporary classes for Jump Dance Convention, instructs students to improvise for two to four counts of eight at the start and end of a combination. If they are standing next to a friend, he asks them to find a new spot in the room. His challenge: “Don’t try to be interesting; be interested.”
Engage the mind. Kozul frequently has students begin by lying on the floor, unmoving, with eyes shut. Using prompts like “Imagine energy circling around your fingers, your hands, your arms,” Kozul helps dancers connect to the energy within their bodies. Dancers are then asked to open their eyes and move as Kozul repeats the exercise. “Your arm is not just your arm. The energy extends out and away from it. Where does it want to take you in the space?”
Give specific tasks. Young dancers work well with a clear problem to solve or focus to hold in their minds, Kozul says. McNally asks dancers to move across the floor leading with one body part at a time or combining movements of unlikely body parts, like the left shoulder and right rib cage. “The goal is to trick our bodies so we can find new pathways through space,” she says.
Forance will inject random moments of stillness into an improv exercise, or throw out prompts: “Now you’re being pulled by two body parts at the same time,” “Try more abstract parts, like a single rib or the inside of the knee,” or “Create your own rhythm and phrasing; pause for the same length of time that you are moving.”
Employ games. Kozul and Forance both use a popular improv game known as Puppet and Puppeteer. Dancers imagine being manipulated by a marionette master who moves their bodies, one part at a time, by pulling on invisible strings. Sometimes, dancers can alternate in the two roles—one initiating the movement as the master, one following as the puppet; then both switch.
Be intentional with music. “Music can curb the awkwardness,” says Forance. “A good playlist is key when I’m teaching a straight improv class. It should have an arc: calm to start, climaxing two-thirds of the way through, then slowing again for the cool-down.”
Encourage group connections. Group improvisation games give students a chance to see and be inspired by one another, says Kozul. “Sometimes I start by having students walk through a space making eye contact,” she says, to combat the phenomenon of averting the eyes common in young people growing up in this age of social media.
“Improvising as a group has allowed the dancers to grow in appreciation for each other’s uniqueness and artistry,” says Kozul. “It’s rewarding and touching to see.”
Discuss. Forance prompts group discussion with opened-ended questions such as “How did that feel?” or “Did anyone feel awkward? Why?” He says students are often struck by their peers’ responses. “You can see them thinking, ‘OMG, they went so much farther with that than I did.’ ”
Improv to choreography
“Many kids have no idea how to go from being a dancer to a choreographer,” says McNally. “The pathway is improvisation.”
Creating their own pieces, or contributing to a competition or recital routine, can be an enormously empowering experience for students. McNally often has her contemporary students help generate the material she will use for their competition pieces. After teaching a phrase, she’ll have students build movement of their own on it, guided by prompts such as “play with making waves” or “you’re stuck in concrete and it is hardening.”
“They may take a few passes across the floor, improv in a circle, or go off on their own or in small groups to work,” she says. “I’ll ask them to set short phrases; then we’ll have informal sharing.”
McNally frequently uses a composition activity she calls Task List Solo. Students are given printouts of a movement sequence she compiled ahead of time, for example: Quiet down. Spiral. Hover. Leave and return three times. Spread out. Jump. Follow your head. Begin. Inevitably, a student will ask, “What does that mean: follow your head?” McNally will respond, “What does it mean to you?”
“We talk about going with the first thing that comes to mind, and I challenge them to think of multiple ways to approach a single task with their bodies,” she says. “I emphasize that this is a practice. It’s not about performing a solo.”
Bonner Odell has served as editor of In Dance, a lecturer at California State University–East Bay, and a teaching artist for Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MA in dance from Mills College.