Champion ballroom dancers Katia Hrstkova Bartunek and Lukas Bartunek (Dance With Me USA, LLC, courtesy the Bartuneks)
When you think "improvisational dance," the image that comes to mind probably doesn't involve satin heels and a ballgown. But in the ballroom dance world, knowing how to improv is key to success as a social and competitive dancer.
Why? Because tons of unpredictable obstacles arise on the ballroom floor, where multiple couples dance at the same time. Knowing how to improvise helps ballroom dancers navigate traffic by changing direction, increasing or decreasing the length of their steps, or slowing down the speed of a dip until the next couple moves out of the way. Improvising alone is one thing, though; improvising with a partner is another entirely.
Much like contact improv, ballroom dance depends on the connection between two partners. In order to seamlessly camouflage mistakes, both leader and follower have to be on the same page when they're improvising. As four-time World Championship ShowDance finalists and nine-time Czech national champions, Katia Hrstkova Bartunek and Lukas Bartunek understand that firsthand. "When we dance we have to cooperate, feel each other, look at each other," Katia says. She often describes the couple's dancing as a game of questions and answers. "My partner is the leader and I follow him but, I can decide how."
Strong improv skills can come in handy outside of the competitive environment, too. Katia recalls one paso doble performance several years ago when she completely forgot her choreography. "My mind was empty, so I just started spinning like crazy," she says. Her decision to improvise simultaneously disguised her mistake and alerted her partner that something was wrong.
Improvisation can also help ballroom dancers create and develop routines. When Katia and Lukas choreograph together, they usually begin with a vague structure—what improvisers would call a score. They might decide on a general pathway, including a specific turn, and then allow themselves the flexibility to find other movements that work naturally with their two bodies. "I know where I want to go, but how I get there can be changed," Katia explains. "The best things often happen by accident."
Looking to improve your improv? Katia and Lukas learned to improvise while studying contemporary dance—a good route to take. But social dancing is also a great option for those hoping to get more comfortable improvising. Most ballroom studios offer social dances, where professionals and amateurs alike hone their improvisation skills by dancing with different partners.