“Improvisation, within the context of performing arts, is a very spontaneous performance without specific or scripted preparation.” – Wikipedia
I have a story to share about a recent experience I had with confronting my fear and having to improvise.
While teaching at Lindy Focus XV, Hillary-Marie, a fantastic tap dance teacher, invited a few of us to play around after class in a relaxed tap jam.
I am a huge fan of tap dancing. I come from a rhythmic back ground of Ballet Folklorico, I try to study and dabble with tap when I can and I’ve performed some tap choreographies with Nathan Bugh. Although on-lookers may mistake me for an intermediate tap dancer, I think it is my basic sense of rhythm and other dance abilities like good balance and poise that give this false impression. Let’s just say I know enough about tap to know how far I have to go in order to actually be good.
Jamming after class in a small room with Hillary-Marie, Ramona, Pamela and Nathan was fun and a great exercise for creating conscious noise with my feet.
I will also say it is hugely inspiring to witness the other’s I mentioned show their ideas and absorb what they are working on.
Mid-way through Lindy Focus, Hillary-Marie messaged all of us asking if we would be up for doing a little improvised tap demo during one of the band breaks at the evening dance. At first, I was so excited to even be on this message invite but then I dropped into a serious, self-evaluative state.
Am I good enough to do that?
Am I worthy of tap dancing next to these people?
Do I have anything prepped or planned that I could fall back on?
I came to answering NO for all of these questions. Wait. I have not even begun to tell you about my fearful thoughts like, “what will other’s expect or think of me if I go out there and fail?” “As a teacher, if I mess up or somehow don’t impress, will that hurt my image?” Yeah (sigh) all these horrible, fearful thoughts were flapping in my head. ( Ha ha, flapping, get it? Tap – Flapping? Ugh…)
I sort of said I was interested but never really gave a firm confirmation. Then the night was upon us and I was standing there back stage with Hillary-Marie, Ramona and Nathan feeling my heart start to pound in that panic sort of way. I was really nervous. I was going to do it?
“What am I doing?!?”
I thought to pull out but Hillary-Marie wouldn’t let me.
“How can she have so much faith in me?” I kept thinking.
All of us were going to improvise our solo moments. As far as I knew, no one had prepared anything.
However, I can only assume that the others just have, oh I don’t know, a few more YEARS of experience with tap dance than I do.
The only, loose plan, was to end in unison doing the BS Chorus. At least I knew that little bit of choreography.
OK. So here goes nothing. My heart is pounding. I already feel hot and sweaty even though I haven’t been dancing. My throat is starting to feel tight. The lights are bright. And everyone is watching, in silence so they can hear our sounds. Ramona goes out first. I can’t even watch, I can’t even look at the crowd. I keep my focus low and I go inward to hold on to the beat as if it were my life jacket.
Now I know you are wondering, “Why is Evita nervous? She performs all the time and seems to enjoy it.”
Yes, but not when I’m improvising, at tap dancing; a skill I am not proficient in.
So . . . what happened?
Well, I discovered my strength and courage again. Some inner Flamenco dancer who confidently stomps coo-ka-rachas across the floor possessed me. I remember listening to this beat inside me for consistency, like breathing, and then I remember hearing a rhythm in my head, and following that direction, what ever movement felt right to do next. It was like an experiment, a journey, an exploration. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I waited and I listened as the next sound struck. Committing fiercely to each step helped me know where I was in my balance, helped me hear myself, and even helped me lean into the flow of where ever it was I was going next.
I have not put myself in that position for a long time, nor have I competed or done anything to make me feel that nervous in a while.
That evening I proved to myself I still have the ability to let go of judgment and go powerfully into the moment.
From the outside I probably did not look like a tap dancer. I also know I did not make very elaborate, difficult, rhythms. But I did dance. And I did honor the beat. And I did not fall down or trip over myself.
So it actually happened. I was so amazed to be out there playing next to these other talented friends who I admire so much. I am grateful because doing this pushed me, stretched me and scared me. And I grew a little more as a dancer because of those feelings.
Many students request help with improvising and ask about ways to confront their fear. This is really difficult to teach. Here are 5 points that you can work on.
You first need a collection of skills to open the door for improvising. 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 your home base. You can return to it 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.
• Technique for transitions
This can mean physical and mental transitions. For example good balance and strength in your body so you can choose to hold yourself on one foot as long as you need. And knowing if your jazz step starts on an 8 or a 1. You also need to know clearly the length of an idea or a step. Then you can choose to shorten or lengthen it. Also, be perfectly clear about weight shifts so you are ready for the next step. Don’t get lost in-between your feet.
• Understanding of body and flow
Know your body and feel what it’s like to never stop moving. Think like Thai-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 rhythmic choice. Better to “arrive” on your new chosen foot. Understand how your strength can lend itself to leaning, pushing, dragging or suspending steps. This goes back to shortening or lengthening ideas. Also, utilizing 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.
At the most fundamental level honor the beat or the tempo. 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 different instruments. 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 or most commonly seen when we start on count 8, like a pickup beat ).
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. But that’s the fun and joy of going out dancing and continuing to learn right?
I am in my 18th year of dancing Lindy Hop and I’m thrilled to share my recent experience of confronting my fear, jumping into the deep end, and continuing to explore improvisation.
Keep going. Keep trying. Start out by inviting a few friends to improvise in a little jam circle after class. And believe in each other. Don’t let your friend back out. Thanks to Hillary-Marie, I didn’t let my fear cut me from experiencing one of the most impactful improvising moments of my life.