The Value of Learning to Improvise
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Say the word “improv” in a dance class, and dread comes across faces in the room when some dancers realize they won’t be told what steps to do. Yet the value of improvisation is worth the temporary fear.
Years ago, a friend asked me to meet in Brooklyn for a 3-day movement workshop. Terrified at the thought of spending 3 days spontaneously moving with a group of strangers, and certain that this type of thing “wasn’t for me,” I almost told her “no.” Realizing my art might be shackled by what felt like excuses to stay comfortable, I reluctantly agreed.
When I arrived everybody was freely moving through the space, some of them groaning and grunting. I was instructed to join them and had NO idea what to actually do. I felt oddly overwhelmed. Confused and nervous for reasons I didn’t yet understand, and embarrassing as this is to admit, tears came over me.
While crying in the back of the room, a flurry of thoughts entered my mind and I learned why I was scared. When asked to move from my feelings I became aware of what I was actually feeling. Mean voices popped into my head. I felt insecure and doubted my skills, worth, and path. I was unhappy. Somebody was saying cruel things to me, and the “Somebody” was me.
I’d never quieted my mind to listen to what it was telling me to do with my body, always creating what I thought would look good. This is an external motivation. So, what if the art I created internally, from my emotion and truth, was ugly?
I approached the exercises with curiosity and apprehension, still spending the weekend very aware of how my shapes looked. Determined to grow, I eventually allowed myself to get totally lost in my own movement. It was the most incredible, freeing feeling, and the breakthrough I didn’t know I was waiting for.
After much self-reflection and research, I began giving guided improv to my students. To my surprise many reacted in a similar way I did. There weren’t always tears, but the fear they felt was sometimes debilitating and the judgmental voices inside their heads got louder in the silence of their own instantaneous creativity. Insecurities, past lives, and current pressures collided into a chaotic crash of ugliness, rendering them staring in the face of choice: recoil or leap.
To recoil feels safe, but once you actively choose to recoil you become aware of a fear you perhaps didn't know existed. Those who chose to leap in spite of the fear - moving through it - experience the real magic and grow exponentially in ways they never imagined. Dancers learn to connect to instinct to bring a fresh, personal perspective to choreography, but improv benefits more than dancers.
Improvisation takes courage and curiosity, reinforcing that the possibilities are limitless. By training ourselves to overcome uncertainty and fear, using personal feelings and experiences for our art, we become stronger and more confident free-thinkers. Improv trains us to effectively bring images from our imagination to life without forgetting them in the process and our work becomes more instinct-based, unique and efficient. Incorporating improv into practicing your art allows you to pull out the strongest material because of your willingness to try new things without judgement. It’s a gift I wish I had given myself many years ago.
By letting go of expectation, and tapping into what’s really inside, your art becomes richer and more honest. Improv teaches that who you are can push your creativity to places it’s never been.
Column first featured in Collaborative Magazine