teaching thoughts: improvisation

As a student dancer, I learned to dance (like the majority of students do) through the vehicle of choreography. Later, as a “mature” dancer, I had to struggle hard to become comfortable with improvisation. Now, when I perform, I am probably 75% choreographed and 25% improvised within any given piece. I almost always do have choreography (or at least a skeleton of one) that I follow, and I deviate from it as I please according to the needs of the performance. For example, on a theatre stage I am less likely to deviate from the choreography whereas in a party setting, I am less likely to stick to it at all after the first few bars. I’m also fairly comfortable just jumping in and improvising extemporaneously. This skill was hard won. I don’t want my students to be disadvantaged by a fear of improvisation in the same way I was – and yet I see it happening. Looking back at my teaching career, I see that over time I have put more and more emphasis on choreography and less & less on simply dancing. Developing improvisational skills is included as a unit in the occasional lesson plan rather than as an integral part of my teaching curriculum. So, after a lot of thought, I have decided to push my own boundaries and experiment with my teaching methods by not teaching choreographed dances to my classes this semester. Instead, I want to focus on technique, short combos, and “putting it all together” (developing a tool kit for improvisation skills).

To quote David Geer in Taken by Surprise: a dance improvisation reader.

“…virtually all improvisation takes place on a firm foundation of training and practice – think of JS Bach’s public improvisations on the organ – through which a vocabulary of conventions and possible variations is committed to movement memory and deeply explored. Call it magic, or spirit, or skill as you wish, but the spark that sets improvisation in motion comes on top of committed labor. Without the fuel of training, the spark would have nothing to burn.”

Just think for a minute about what he is saying here. When we think of improvisation, we generally equate it to the equivalent of “aimless noodling” We think airy-fairy movement, weak & slushy movement. We think “la-dee-da” movement. We think that those who can’t dance, improvise instead. Oh, so wrong! Good improvisation –  improvising WELL –  requires that you be on the edge of your seat as a performer. Having all your tools at hand and ready to call upon at a moments notice. Being poised and ready to be surprised, to accept the surprise, internalize it and express it within the vocabulary of your dance form. In this case,  beledi (or sharqi as you please).

“…a vocabulary of conventions and possible variations is committed to movement memory and deeply explored.” …What does this mean to the bellydance student? Well, this is exactly what we do in class each and every week. We build our tool kits. We drill and commit movement to muscle memory. We learn conventions: holding our pelvis in a certain way, holding our wrist in a certain way. We explore variations. For example: how many ways can you trace a circle in your body? When was the last time you did that in class? Last week, maybe? J  How big does your tool kit have to be? Well, that depends on your performance venue. If you want to dance at student dance parties & haflas, you will drill and practice those movements and variations that you have learned up to now in class – and if you are a beginner or intermediate level dancer, you may be counting them on two hands. However, nothing prevents you from practicing and drilling and putting those handful of movements into your muscle memory, and then calling on that muscle memory in improvisation. Advanced students will do the same thing, only they will be counting their tool kit in the dozens instead of on their two hands. If you are a professional performer, you will naturally have many years of training under your belt, and a very large kit to call upon. Your audience will have a much higher expectation of you than they will have of the student. An audience will be very generous with the student performer, but will naturally expect to see the results of years of hard training in the professional.

“…the spark that sets improvisation in motion comes on top of committed labour.” What does this mean to the bellydance student? Practice practice practice. And then practice some more. Practice your movement vocabulary. Practice it to different rhythms, different tempos, different elevations, in different postures, in different moods, at different volumes.

What does this mean in my classroom? Well, we’ll have to wait and see – it will be a bit of out-of-the-box teaching for me, along with a good solid on-going dose of consideration & thought. Hopefully my students will come away feeling more comfortable with improvisation and I will come away with sharper honed teaching skills. A challenge for all of us!

Mr. Greer says it best: “Without the fuel of training, the spark would have nothing to burn.”

1 comment

  1. Great post! I am learning this is so very true of musical improvisation, as well. One can have a “good ear”, a natural affinity, but that will only carry you so far. You have to know the techniques, you have to know the music theory behind the style of music you are playing. And then you have to be able to translate it. I find this so much easier to do with my voice than with my hands at an instrument, but the principle is still the same, isn’t it? Practice, practice, practice, and build that tool-kit!

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