Improvisational dance connects me to my most abstract and distant desires. It fuses the intention of mind and body in a way that I haven’t yet found an equal for. The specialness of improvisational dance lies in its closeness to play. Through the act of listening to and acting on the impulses of the body and mind, we can connect deeply to our inner child and all of the other parts of us that spend their lives mostly in the shadows. We can give voice to the dark parts, the small parts, and the parts that find it hard to verbalize.
Improvisation is a skill that dancers always end up utilizing. It may be the most important skill a dancer can have. No matter how long a dancer spends rehearsing a choreographed dance in a studio where conditions are controlled, that dancer ultimately performs their dance on a stage, outside, in a museum, or in any other number of spaces where the elements that could affect them are out of their control. Being familiar with improvisational dance practices gives dancers the freedom to navigate spaces or situations that they may not have had a lot of time to prepare for.
And yet, improvisational dance is not the focus of most dance curriculums, even for young children for whom it comes most naturally. Any improvising that does occur in creative dance programs for children aren’t named as such, and seen as a stepping stone to the more important task of learning ‘real’ dance moves with names.
This glossing over of improvisational dance in mainstream dance curriculums does a huge disservice to the dance community as a whole and to individual dancers most acutely. If dance teachers and practitioners gave the rigor and attention to the study and practice of improvisational dance that it deserves, we’d have a cultural gem with as rich and varied a history as improvisational jazz has accumulated since its outset.
Fortunately, more and more resources are beginning to amass for dancers who are interested in learning to improvise or to push their improvisational practice to the next level. Dancing Cards and Collective Dance are great examples of concrete contributions to the improvisational dance community that allow practitioners to develop a regular practice and to dialogue with others who are experimenting similarly.
I recently spent some time using the collective dance submissions on dancingcards.com to fuel my own improvisational dance practice. The suggestions that I used got me out of the studio and interacting with the world around me. They allowed me to expose strangers on the street to my improvisational practice in an organic way, and they spurred me to try things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I highly encourage anyone who is interested in improvisational dance to find some spaces in your community where you can experiment with the tasks below:
Dancing in Water
Imagine you are standing in a puddle of water about 2 inches deep. Shift your weight on one leg. With your free-floating leg, begin to draw shapes on the surface of the water. When you lose your balance, switch legs and repeat the task. Eventually include your arms to draw three-dimensional shapes with the leg. Continue to draw your way through space.
Dancing with a Wall
Make the wall your dancing partner. Use the surface of the wall to play with pressure, gravity, tension and release. You can use the support and stability of the wall to practice pushing against and catching yourself. Explore the differences between being close to and far from the wall and allow this to influence the choices you make.
Practicing improvisation with these tasks pushed me to open my mind and think of a task that I could contribute to the project. There are so many different ways to improvise and settling on one task to submit was challenging. I played around with a few different ideas before settling on the task below:
Slow Motion Ascent or Descent
Moving slowly is extremely difficult and often helps us to recognize patterns of movement that we may not have been aware of at a faster pace. Adding the task of ascending from or descending to the ground adds another layer of difficulty, as it forces us to choose pathways that allow us to continue moving as slowly as possible.
For this task, take as much time as you possibly can to either ascend from a supine position to a standing position or descend from a standing position to the ground. Try not to allow any parts of the body to become 'dead' or stop moving, but instead see if you can allow the slowness to be activated in every cell of the body so that your full intention is in moving slowly in one direction and then the other.
You may find thoughts and feelings arising about your ability to execute this task 'effectively'. Allow them to come and go without judgment, feeling confident that your body will find a way to accomplish the task and that practice will make the process smoother each time. My descent below has been sped up for brevity, but the original task took around five full minutes to complete. Ascending can often take much longer than that.
I encourage you to use the improvisational practices above in your own practice, whether you've been dancing for decades or are just beginning to explore improvisational dance. If you are interested in submitting your own improvisational dance task to Dancing Cards and their Collective Dance project, you can do so here.