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.”

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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