How To

Improve Your Improv

Improvisation—generating spontaneous movement in the moment—can be a daunting and agonizing prospect for dancers who are used to being told precisely what to perform. What if you can’t think of anything cool to do and end up just standing there? What if you mess up? Will people laugh at your movement?

It may be scary at first, but improv is a tool that can alter your relationship to dance completely. You’ll begin to identify your natural movement patterns and become more comfortable moving in unusual ways—and maybe even come up with ideas for choreography. Whether you’ve never done improv in your life or loved it for years, here are some ideas to help you hone your craft.

Improv’s Practical Side

Improv devotees love the practice because it’s fun, unpredictable and challenging. But even if the idea of creating movement on the spot makes you uncomfortable, mastering the craft can take your dancing—in any genre—to new levels. “You’re not worrying about the sequence of steps, so you can explore who you really are as a mover,” says Brenda Divelbliss, who teaches modern and choreography at Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School in Cambridge, MA, and has taught at Bates Dance Festival and Harvard University’s dance program. Improv can help you understand what types of movement resonate with you and what interests you artistically—which can help you decide which professional companies you’re best suited for.

For choreographers, improv can be an efficient use of time when you’re looking to create new material. Additionally, you might discover certain “signature moves” that you will want to repeat—you can embrace these steps as part of your movement style, but be aware of overusing them. And even if you’re not a choreographer, you may be asked to contribute to the choreographic process. “Many choreographers in both modern and ballet companies look to their dancers for new ideas,” says Divelbliss. You could be given a few steps or a complete phrase and be asked to manipulate the movement, pushing the dance in a new and personal direction. Taking an improv class will give you the tools to do this.

5 Tools To Try

  1. Start with a structure. In an improv class, you’re likely to be assigned a topic to explore, such as weight, space, a particular movement quality (fluid or airy) or even an emotion. To practice, go into the studio and give yourself such an assignment. You can use music or create your dance in silence. Move with your structure in mind, and if you find yourself drifting away from your original idea, return to it.
  2. Watch improv. Your teachers may divide you into groups and have you watch each other improvise. Observing someone else’s practice will help you gain a keener eye for the things that make an improv interesting. You may also pick up new ways of moving by watching others. Take turns improvising with a group of friends, maybe even videotaping your movement. Watch each other or the tape and make notes about what worked and what didn’t, and have friends give you constructive feedback.
  3. Push for contrast in your tempo, levels and other aspects of the movement you create. Teachers and choreographers will give you notes as you move, but be aware of your tendencies when you’re practicing on your own. Developing contrast—and trying things that are new or unfamiliar to you—will make your dancing stronger and your choreography more engaging.
  4. Stay in the moment and the movement. If you’re given a set amount of time to improvise in class, stay focused the whole time. “Don’t judge or self-edit as you go through these explorations,” says Divelbliss. Give the unexpected room to emerge by allowing each movement to evolve from the one before and lead naturally into the one that follows. Shadowing and mirroring can be a great way to create movement when working with a partner or a group, but don’t spend time copying your neighbors—even if it’s embarrassing at first, you’ll learn more from taking risks on your own.
  5. Layer an improvisation by creating your own experience, even if you’re working on an assigned structure that a teacher or fellow dancer has given you. For instance, if the assignment is to work on timing and direction in space, but you know you have a problem transitioning through level changes, try exploring different levels as you work.

Keys to Success

The two most important components of a successful improv are staying true to the structure you set up, and staying open to how the dance can evolve. Within your chosen or assigned framework, allow the unexpected shape or movement to emerge from your creative center. You might just find yourself moving in a whole new way.

Try It!

Create an improv around one of these prompts—or combine several ideas for an extra challenge. Remember, you’re just moving in response to these words, so there’s no wrong answer!

Movement qualities:

  • Airy
  • Fluid
  • Heavy
  • Sharp

Time and space:

  • Direction
  • Level
  • Tempo
  • Weight shift

Body parts:

  • Fingers
  • Head
  • Knees
  • Pelvis

Joshua Legg is a technique instructor and rehearsal director for Harvard University’s Dance Program. He holds an MFA in dance choreography and performance from Shenandoah University.

Dance News
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
Dancer to Dancer
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