Help, I Have to Freestyle!

Author Jen Jones Donatelli at the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders tryouts (courtesy Jen Jones Donatelli)

It was the audition of a lifetime. I’d always dreamed of being a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. Though I knew the odds were probably against me—I’m a little older and curvier than the average NFL cheerleader—this year I decided to go for it. With more than a decade of dance experience under my belt, I figured I could survive the audition. Plus, the first-round format seemed simple enough: We’d freestyle for about two minutes in groups of five, and those who caught the judges’ attention would progress to the next round. Piece of cake, right?

Not so much. Once I found myself under the bright lights of Cowboys Stadium, reality set in. As “Call Me Maybe” blasted over the speakers, I completely froze. I started doing the same four eight-counts over and over—along with an unflattering squat move that came out of nowhere. It was humbling, to say the least.

Whether you’re a dance teamer or a ballerina, freestyling can be intimidating. “Suddenly you have all this freedom, and you don’t know what to do with it,” says Caroline Rocher, a dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But if you want to dance professionally—or audition for a college dance program—improvisation is a must-have skill. Directors in all styles and environments “want to see your personality and how you move,” says Rocher, whose audition for LINES required dancers to improvise after learning a series of combinations. “You need to be prepared.” DS talked to the experts about how to master freestyling.

Feel the beat. 

Shaping Sound co-founder Teddy Forance recommends listening to music as much as possible to get into the freestyle groove. “Being able to dance to any music is huge,” says Forance, “because odds are every audition will play something wildly different.” Take time to play around on Pandora, familiarizing yourself with different styles of music.

In her Beginning Improvisation for Dance Majors class at The University of Arizona, instructor Ariella Brown plays everything from jazz to lyrical to get dancers flexing their freestyle muscles. “I constantly switch up the music and ask them to adapt to and embody it,” Brown says. While dancers tend to match their movement to the music’s tempo and vibe, Brown also challenges them to push against it: “If it’s an upbeat piece, I ask them to dance slow and liquid-y. It’s about being unpredictable.”

Pull out your bag of tricks.

Though freestyling shouldn’t mean doing one trick after another—particularly those old standbys, fouettés—Forance says showing off can work at certain auditions. “If it’s a commercial audition and they need one or two seconds of a dancer doing something really striking, that’s when you throw in your power moves,” he advises. He adds that music video auditions are another place for trick-oriented freestyling, as video directors often want “a half-second clip of dancers doing spectacular things.”

Ashley Hammond and Kevyn Butler go with the flow in Ariella Brown’s Beginning Improvisation for Dance Majors class at the University of Arizona (Ariella Brown)

Make up a story. 

Coming up with a theme for your freestyle can help guide your movement and add a new dimension to it. “When I improvise, I try to work with ideas and images, not just technical steps,” Rocher says. “I try to tell a story through my movement rather than just making something up.”

This technique is also popular at The University of Arizona. Brown remembers a professor handing out lists of phrases such as “I’m sorry” or “I can’t breathe,” which dancers had to use as inspirations for their improv. Says Brown, “The people who took it to interesting artistic places were the ones who stood out.”

Make sure technique comes first.

In an audition setting, some dancers default to super-sexy moves in an effort to stand out while freestyling. But most directors aren’t interested in watching you bump and grind. They want to see that you have the solid technique necessary to pull off their choreography. Beautiful lines and clean pirouettes are more likely to get their attention than those moves you learned from The Pussycat Dolls’ videos.

Try something new.

Yes, you want directors to get a sense of your signature dance style. But successful improvisation also means pushing past your limits. “Going into your comfort zone and only doing what you know can be dangerous,” Rocher says. That type of movement quickly looks stale, and you’re more likely to repeat yourself. Instead, think of “exploring and challenging your body,” Rocher says. Or try channeling another dancer you admire—one whose style is totally unlike yours.

Get out of your head and into the groove.

Brown says many dancers overthink freestyling. Improv inspiration comes more easily when you stop spinning your mental wheels and relax into the music. If you have a hard time getting out of your head, practice freestyling in a low-pressure setting—on your own in the studio or with a few of your dance friends. The more experience you have, the easier it will be to let loose in the audition setting. “Practicing will get rid of the fear; otherwise, you’ll feel uncomfortable, and that will read to the person auditioning you,” Brown says.

Show your style from beginning to end.

Once you’re comfortable freestyling, you don’t always have to confine your improv to the “official” improv section of the audition, especially in commercial settings. “Don’t just stand there when you walk onto the floor,” Forance says—that’s the perfect time to bust out a few off-the-cuff moves before beginning the given combination. “People who kill it own the stage from the second they walk on to the second they walk off.”

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.

Keep reading... Show less

Leap! National Dance Competition offers dancers of all skill levels an opportunity to showcase their talents in an event where the focus is on fun and competing is just a bonus!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
The School at Jacob's Pillow's contemporary program auditions (photo by Karli Cadel, courtesy Jacob's Pillow)

Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.

Keep reading... Show less

When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.

In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.

The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."

Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.

Keep reading... Show less
Leah Morrison in Trisha Brown's If You Couldn't See Me, in which the soloist never faces the audience (photo by Julia Cervantes, courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company)

Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.

She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.

Keep reading... Show less
Blankenbuehler (far left) with the rest of the "Hamilton" creative team scontent-iad3-1.cdninstagram.com

So book your tickets to Tulsa already, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Your Body
Amanda LaCount showing off her skills (screenshot via YouTube)

There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

Mark your calendars, bunheads! On Monday, January 29th, at 2:45 PM (EST)/11:45 AM (PST), Pacific Northwest Ballet will be streaming a live rehearsal of Act II of Kent Stowell's Swan Lake.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
Tavaris Jones dancing with the Cleveland Cavaliers' Scream Team hip-hop crew

We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)

So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored