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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