This blog today has been prompted by my good friend Shelby, who shared with me an Improv video a friend of her posted from a University in Vancouver. My initial thought was too tell you how much I disliked it, considering their age and assumed abilities, but instead I am going to use this as a starting point for this blog and a chance to share my philosophy on improvisation.
I personally am a big fan of improv exercises in all levels of dance classes. I use them right from the get go with my 3 year olds in class, basically letting them do free movement as different animals or fish to the music with freezes. Then it continues right on through with my Senior Competitive students, who do it as part of their regular class work.
Growing up within competitive dance studios I was never introduced to improvisation in any form of dance. Then at my University dance audition we spent about half an hour breaking down structured improv sessions and I detested every moment of it. It was not until my very first audition for a professional dance job that I really knew I was lacking a skill required to be a professional dancer. It was a jazz audition and I was through about 3 rounds of cuts before they told us to improv for the first 30 seconds of the song before the combo. So I did a pirouette and a kick some sassy walks and then worked into the combo. I didn't even know there were other options of things to do besides my "tricks"!
I literally can't think of a tool I have used in my classes since that has helped my kids advance to where they are today in terms of style and movement choices. It's not about how many pirouettes they do in the improv, in fact sometimes I restrict them from doing "tricks" at all. It's about total body awareness in movement, taking risks and moving with what comes out of it. It's the most rewarding performance time for them, and I get to be their audience every class.
Last year I even had a structured improvisation group as a Competitive routine. We rehearsed spacing changes, and structured stops in the music when the rhythm and movement needed to change, but that's about it. Every competition the dance was different, and it made it so much more enjoyable to watch as a teacher. I also learned so much about these kids as real dancers in the process. This group was with four of my most advanced students, as I think improv is a skill like any other form of dance that needs to be cultivated in class before sharing it. However, I don't discriminate who get's to do improv in classes regardless of their technical abilities. Sometimes I find that different kids shine in improv with their free movement and stylistic choices, and I focus on their strengths as dancers from then on.
Improv has helped me to identify what my students are good at, and also what they need to improve on, and thus I can choreograph routines accordingly for them = makes me a better teacher!
We even attended a competition last year that offered an improvisation solo category. They got to hear a piece of music twice before just going on stage and performing to it. I only had two students do it last year, but this year I have entered 7 of my kids in this category who I think could gain a lot of confidence from this kind of opportunity at a competition.
I would actually like to challenge other competitions, especially in Canada, to offer a category like this so we can actually give kids more of an opportunity to have experience doing things they will have to do as a professional dancer at auditions. We need to train our dancers to be better prepared for what the dance world will actually require of them. It's not always about just doing split jumps across the room, it's also about the "dancing"!
I would also like to challenge more studio teachers to try using improvisation as part of their daily teaching practise for their students. I feel it has given my kids an unmatched confidence when it comes to contemporary choreography work, taking classes with other teachers, and in general just with their dancing. I'm not talking improv exercises about being a tree, but letting them explore contemporary movements without the grilling of just the tricks you think make them better dancers.
I want to share a video of one of my student's, Savanah, from last year when she competed in the contemporary improv solo category at a competition. She was 12 years old at the time, which seems young for such mature movement, but I find it a real compliment that everyone comments on the way she moves already at her age. She really focused on musicality and listening to what the words were telling her to do and going from there.
Savanah of course has grown in all aspects of her dancing and improv skills since then, but it's definitely not a bad starting point!
Savanah's Competition Improv Solo