Friday, February 5, 2010

Teaching Tip - How to Introduce Improvisation

I've been working with my teenage advanced dance students lately to strengthen their improv skills. In the past, the word improv was always met with moans and groans and lots of fear. But, the director and I both agree that our most advanced dancers are not dancing with their hearts, and seem to only give about 85% when they are supposed to be dancing full out. They are merely doing the steps, without much passion or energy.

After dancing at a convention two weeks ago, they returned talking about the improv they did. For most of them, it was terrifying and very difficult to let loose. But, they were in awe of some of the dancers who collided during improv, and turned the accident into choreography and continued dancing. I think it clicked for both them and me - improv might be our answer to get them to loosen up, feel the music in their bodies to let it speak to them. The music tells you what to do! Improvising also allows dancers to practice freeing the body from habitual movements.

In response, I've decided to include a time of improv into each lyrical class for the rest of the year. I saw huge improvement in their competition rehearsals after just one time, so I am very encouraged! The first time, I used a passionate song and taught them choreography to the verse (Sarah McLachlan's "Stupid"). They improvised to the chorus and really let loose. I didn't give any guidelines, except to enjoy dancing, like a child would. It worked - they were all over the room, some even fell down because they danced so hard! The fear of improv has diminished and I think they are learning to love it. has a post from a teacher who has some great ideas for structured improvisation in class. has some basic tips on how to introduce improvisation into your class.
- Encourage first-year students to study improv so that their composition skills and technique can develop simultaneously.

- Focus on specific skills to make improv less overwhelming for newcomers.

- Make sure students are aware of other dancers throughout the exercises to avoid collisions.

- Help students expand their movement vocabulary by pointing out movement habits.

- Emphasize that each dancer should be responsible for his or her own body weight.

- Keep the atmosphere open, so that students can speak up if they’re uncomfortable.

- Help students to switch their foci between movement details and larger choreographic patterns.

- Maintain spontaneity through disorientation exercises. Ask students to perform segments of choreography backwards or experiment with inversion (recreating steps as if they’re happening upside down).

- Allow time for written or verbal reflection at the end of each session.

- Encourage an egalitarian environment in which students can learn from one another.
Teachers - I'd love to hear your ideas and experiences teaching improv. Please leave comments!

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