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Improving Your Improv

From a young age, “improv” has been a scary word for me. It was hardly ever taught, and usually discouraged because it can be distracting during choreography sessions (which is fair). However, I still struggle when the choreographer at an audition says, “and then you’re going to improv for 100 counts of 8 - show me what you’ve got!” All of a sudden, 25 years of extensive training leaves my body and I freeze.

When I teach and utilize moments of improvisation in my choreography, I see the same look in at least half of my students’ eyes. So, I came up with what I call “The 3 S’s of the Scary Improv Snake: Spatial Awareness, Self-Expression, and Sameness in Style”. Let’ssss begin…

Spatial awareness is listed first for a reason. It’s incredible to me how many dancers think it’s a good idea to take over someone else’s dancing space, forcing the other person to adjust. I’ve posted on social media about this, asked dancers in person to please be mindful of it, and taught it to my kids in master and technique classes. Usually it’s in one ear and out the other, because people are more focused on getting the attention they want than being a team player. The reality is that some choreographers respond positively to “taking charge of the room”. But in my experience, those who audition or take class like this also perform like this, and then become a dangerous player on stage. I’m not saying you should hide in a corner, but observe the space you have and shine as bright as you can within it.

“But Greer, how do we teach this when they just won’t listen?!” Wow, I’m so glad you asked such a great question! It starts with instilling community in a dancer’s mind and heart from the very beginning. Teaching boundaries, collaboration, respect, and mindfulness all at the same time. The hands down best physical way to teach this, that I’ve found, is flocking exercises. Having the dancers in one tight, space-less clump travel to different parts of the room with different instructions and organically finding leaders to follow. When they must “lead with the elbow” and there’s literally no elbow room, the dancers must work together to make space collectively and safely, all while traveling and using their periphery - no talking! Funny enough, I didn’t do this exercise until I was sixteen; however, the the environment in which I learned supported a hierarchy of age by allowing the older dancers to claim their warm up spots and desired positions in the across-the-floor lines. It was an unspoken rule, but one that was barely broken. This also instilled respect and spatial awareness, but wasn’t actually a teaching point. Unfortunately, something like that can turn into a bullying platform, so I highly suggest actually talking about and teaching the ideas.

When I’m giving out scholarships, awards, or running an audition, I count out the selfish dancers from the start. Even if they are exactly what I’m looking for and leaps and bounds above everyone else in the room in technique, style, ability, etc., if they do not understand how to be spatially aware, then they do not understand how to be a professional yet. The truth is, those who stand out from the crowd by being in the crowd and still shining so bright are the true winners in my book. Most of the dancing jobs we get are to be part of an ensemble. You may have a featured part, but hardly any shows these days need soloists, except ballet, where you usually start in the corps and work your way up; therefore, being a team player is literally your job.

The second “S” in the Improv Slither is Self-Expression. This seems obvious, because without choreography to remember the movement should be inevitably self-expressive, right? Not necessarily. Often, dancers try to do what they think the choreographer wants to see, or worse, tricks. Improv is not synonymous with tricks. I repeat and paraphrase: IMPROV DOES NOT EQUAL TRICKS! Pick one go-to “wow” moment: throw a back handspring, kick your face, do a slow layout for four counts of eight or show off your gumby-like flexibility, but only once, and then dance. Don’t just do 50 pirouettes into an illusion into a triple sow cow. That’s not self-expression, that’s an energizer bunny.

Put your special skills on your resume, and then make me want to know more about you - key word being YOU. What’s your point of view? Where are your acting beats? Who are you underneath it all and how do you relate to the story? What we forget is our job is to tell a story, be it linear or abstract, fully developed or just a moment in time. If you’re trying to book a job, which inevitably means “stand out,” then in my opinion, this is the key to booking it. Dancers who are phenomenal and story-driven are well rounded performers. Too many tricks and you become a one-trick pony, pun intended.

Sameness in Style is the third and most difficult S of the Scary Improv Snake. Seems simple, but when the choreography is out of our comfort zone, we tend to revert to whatever we’re comfortable with for the improv sections. We’ll just get through the choreography and then show off whatever style we actually prefer to do. This makes the overall performance disjointed and confusing.

Now take this one with a grain of salt - if you’re doing a hard-core hip hop piece and your strong suit is ballet, don’t try to fake a hardcore hip hop freestyle. Instead, utilize your strengths to continue to tell the same story. So, use long, beautiful lines, but keep your center grounded and maybe repeat a small section from the choreography after doing a beautifully suspended developpé. And if you are a ballerina going in for a lot of hip hop then take hip hop classes often. Your body and muscle memory are incredible tools, and the more you allow them to soak up inspiration, the more movement versatility will be at your disposal. It’s better to feel silly in a classroom setting for the sake of having more natural material than to panic when the time comes at an audition to step out of your comfort zone.

All of that said, the best advice I ever got on this topic was twofold: practice and breathe.

Practice. Rent a studio for an hour, turn off the lights, play all different kinds of music and just dance without judging yourself. Take classes in styles that are not natural for you, and just dance without judging yourself. Take classes that are totally your style and make strong, potentially wrong choices and just dance without judging yourself. Self-doubt can be recognized in an instant, and I guarantee the choreographer thought you were doing just fine until your face told them you weren’t.

Breathe. Don’t try to cram everything you can into one breath. Take your time, use your breath, and relax. Trust your technique and talent, that’s what the “practice” part is for. When it’s time to dance though, allow your body to do the work and just focus on telling the story - your limbs will follow suit if you truly open yourself up to the opportunity.

Happy dancing, friends.

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