Improvising is one of the great skills of Jazz. Frequently students request help with improvising and ask for suggestions on how to confront their fear. It’s difficult to explain this and it takes time and experience.
You need a collection of skills to make improvising easier. Here are 5 suggestions from Evita:
Vocabulary to pull from
Even if it’s just basic Charleston or the 8 count Lindy Hop rhythm, you need to have a starting point that can act as a home base. You can return to this idea when ever you need and refer to it when you add variations. In tap dance it would probably be a simple time-step. For solo jazz you could even start with the Shim Sham as your base. Learning a handful of classic jazz steps will give you material to use and fall back on. And don’t feel pressured to use every step you know. Stick with one step or idea and just expand on it.
Technique for transitions
This refers to physical and mental transitions. An example of a physical transition technique is good balance and strength in your legs so you can choose to hold yourself on one foot as long as you need. An example of a mental transition technique is knowing whether your jazz step starts on count 8 or count 1. You also need to confidently know the length of an idea or a step. Then you can choose to shorten or lengthen it. Also, be very clear about weight shifts so you are ready for the next step. A common weakness with transitions is not committing completely to one foot or the other.
Understanding anatomy and body flow
Learn about your body and feel what it’s like to never stop moving. Think like Tai-Chi as an example of fluidity. Chain ideas together instead of thinking one step at a time. Resist “falling” to your other foot unless it’s a dramatic choice. Better to “arrive” on your new chosen foot. Understand how your physical strength can lend itself to leaning, pushing, dragging or suspending steps. This goes back to shortening or lengthening ideas. Also, utilize your body’s full abilities like twisting and reaching for full height and expansion. Learn about “Counter-Body” movement to prep steps and feel more natural. All those points will help your transitions appear more smooth.
At the most fundamental level, honor the beat or the tempo of the music. You must keep that in you always. Slowing down or speeding up should be artful choices. Listen to the melody as inspiration. Listen to the soloists and pick out different instruments to connect with. Learn about phrasing for different songs like Blues structure and typical A A B A chorus structure. Be able to recognize an interlude or a bridge. Be able to catch pick-up beats (also known as anacruses and most commonly seen when we start on count 8). Being familiar with musical ideas like those listed above will give you a mental map so you can find where you are in the music while you improvise.
After all that homework, don’t worry too much about messing up or being wrong. Go out there, whether it’s a jam circle or a competition, with the intention to play and have fun. Find yourself, reflect what ever it is you may be feeling in that moment because it’s your truth. And that will show in your dancing. That will come across as more confident and alluring than if you are consumed by fear and what-if’s.
Each of these topics could take years to build. How exciting! There is a lot of room to grow!
I am in my 19th year of dancing Lindy Hop and I feel like I am just now digging deeper into what it means to really listen to the music, my partner and be adaptable as I stay in the moment.
Keep going. Keep trying. And choose one of these 5 topics to work on at a time.