By Elaine Buchignani from Swing Dance SCT
Even after you’ve learned dozens of steps and a few routines, it can still be daunting to improvise. You may watch other dancers and wonder how they can come up with so many moves in a row all while smiling and hitting the music. Of course, practice is a huge part of improving your improv skills, but there’s one more crucial element - flow state.
You know that feeling when you’re so fully absorbed in an activity that the little voice in your head quiets down and hours pass in an instant? That’s flow state, and, yes, it feels amazing to achieve while dancing. Below are five exercises that have helped me find that sweet spot where I can both practice my dance skills in a concrete way and practice finding flow.
1.) Repeat a step
One of the fastest ways to unlock creative flow is through constraint. To start, pick one step and dance it for an entire song. This will get old fast, so then allow yourself to change things about the step when you feel inspired to do so. Experiment with changing the rhythm, shape, or arm styling of the step. Then do it all again with a new song. Most importantly, lean into what feels natural and interesting.
For more of a challenge, try doing the same exercise with two steps, then three. I even use this constraint when I’m solo dancing at a social or in a competition. It’s my trusty, go-to shortcut to get into flow state and enjoy myself no matter who might be watching.
2.) Follow an instrument
Pick one instrument in a song and dance only to that instrument. For example, only dance when you hear the piano and try to match your movement with how the piano sounds and feels. This is a very creatively open exercise, so don’t stress about dancing in any particular way. The goal is, first, to become more aware of the instrumentation in swing songs and, second, to once again find inspiration through constraint.
As you try this exercise with different instruments, notice how the same steps can be done in different ways to fit with the slide of a trombone or the strum of a guitar. As they say, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
3.) Focus on a body part
Dance to a full song while focusing on only one body part or area. This is a great way to connect with parts of your body you might forget about when you’re busy executing steps. I like to do this exercise while looking in a mirror to discover new lines and shapes.
After each song, take some of your favorite movement discoveries and integrate them into your dancing. For example, if you find an arm movement you like, pair it with a jazz step or two and repeat it until it feels natural. Remember, they body needs repetition to develop muscle memory!
4.) Choreograph 8x8s
Uh, this is the opposite of improvisation, right? Right! But what better way to discover your own creative voice than to create your own original choreography? And 8x8s is shorter than you think (that’s just 8 counts times 8).
Don’t stress about making something totally fresh or complex. After all, classics are classics for a reason. Start simple, like three and a break, then follow what sparks your interest. Relaxed, happy brains are creative brains.
5.) Film yourself improvising
This exercise is the most intimidating, so I recommend trying the other four first. Once you’re starting to feel comfortable improvising while looking in the mirror, then it’s time to break out the camera. I recommend only filming yourself for a minute at a time so you can easily watch, keep what you like, improve where you can, and repeat the process multiple times in a single practice session. Iteration is key!
Now, if you’re like me, you get nervous filming yourself even if you’re completely alone and no one will ever see it. Why? Who knows! But here are my work arounds. First, keep in mind that dancing will always look less impressive on film, especially if you don’t know how to work your angles. Your dancing will look more flat and slow than you’re expecting. Don’t let the illusion discourage you!
Next, if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety about this exercise, give yourself permission to delete takes without even watching them. Do that as many times as you need to get the jitters out before filming yourself for real.
Finally, always look for what you DO like before you look for what you don’t. You deserve a positive learning experience!
I hope this helps you on your solo improv journey. Happy dancing, friends!