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6 ways to boost improvisation while using choreography

Depending on the type of dance you do you will find there is always some contention between the ideas of improvising and set choreography. Often the dances emphasizing social dance and freedom associate a street cred with being able to improvise cool moves on the spot. Tango is just such a dance. But over the last few years a new trend word formed that started to make long figures a taboe. Improvisation has been the kid on the block with a seemingly huge chasm between what people percieve as improvisation and what they actually want for their dance.

For the sake of what is written here improvisation is understood to be ‘the art or act of improvising, or of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation.’ (from oxford dictionary). SO when taking the above quote it implies creativity in coming up with something without previous preparation. This would imply that only someone born dancing tango could improvise. For all the people who had to learn dance at some point, it makes sense that we have in many ways prepared to go out social dancing. Often with the use of repetition of patterns however long or short. Improvisation  is an extreme, as is choreography. Both are tools if used correctly further your dance.

The same dictionaries take on choreography is:


‘1. the art of composing ballets and other dances and planning and arranging the movements, steps, and patterns of dancers.

2. the technique of representing the various movements in dancing by a system of notation.

3. the arrangement or manipulation of actions leading up to an event’

Its also interesting to look at the definition of choreography. Coupled with some improvisation exercises, this choreography definition seems to describe the advice i would give to anyone wanting to learn a dance. The first point defines the type of dance, in tango we have sacadas, giros and forward ochos that are mini choreographies combined with improvising for social dancing. If a tango dancer starts locking or breaking is becomes another dance form. These small arrangements of steps help us to build body memory and good combinations of tango ingredients is often where the improvisation lies. While notation is not necessary in Argentine tango it is useful to have a systemised approach to the technique. Keeping in mind how this fits together with the bodies ‘natural movement’ ability and equilibrium in movement.

With all this i find a single message pertinent. Its the reality that no exercise is perfect and no term like improvisation will make you a perfect dancer. Instead its about remembering that most exercises are good for achieving a specific aim and aren’t able to be universally performance enhancing. This is the case with terminology like choroegraphy and iprovisation. They are each tools to be used for the greater good of the dancer. Each individual will need more of one than the other, good and bad doesn’t come into it.

1. Musicality building, Make a list of: 3 vocabulary items you would like to improve AND 3 orchestras or pick a music type e.g. waltz, milonga, tango (the more different the easier this is)

Once you have these things listed, go to your three pieces of music. Firstly listen and define what each individual piece means to you as a dancer and secondly how they are different from each other. Next create a short figure including your 3 pieces of vocabulary. The less extra steps and the more close connected your three vocabulary pieces are the easier this next step will be. Take your mini choroegraphy and dance to the first piece of music, express all the things you picked out in the previous steps. Do this for the second and third pieces of music. Once you are done you can change the order of your vocabulary in the figure making a new mini choreography. You can repeat the process again and again with new variations and totally new vocabulary.

2. Mapping exercise – Visualise a line going across the floor from one side of the room to the other. Choose a set of rules that define how you move along this line. The more rules and some combinations are harder than others so mix them up but be aware fo this. Possible rules include

  • The follower always has to step on the line. The leader always has to step on the line. Neither the follower or leader may step on the line but this must remain between the two of them.
  • Follower can only do forward steps, or forward and backwards steps or any mix of forward, back and side steps. This can be applie to leader and the couple as seperate rules.
  • Follower must do 3 free leg movements for every step she takes along the line. 3 free leg movements can be exchanged for shifts of weight or  volcadas, colgadas. Leaders can also take on the use of the rule.
  • Every second vocabulary step must be one of the following: sacada, barrida, giro, gancho, boleo, etc.
  • Laastly you can change the shape on the floor from a line to the line of dance for social dancing or crazy shapes for performances and fun.

3. Copy your leader – When out at a social dance leaders can dance directly behind another leader they admire and for one dance try to emulate the steps and style this leader dances with.

4. Followers musicality – A musical follower is a beautiful thing, without her its very hard for a couple to be musical and without awareness of this its very easy to blame the leader for not dancing on the music. As a follower if we rely on our leader to give us the music we become passive in the dance and in our movements. Instead the exercise is to actively listen to the music and connect this to what your partner brings to the dance. So take a moment alone, list 10 pieces of traditional tango music by different orchestras. Search out the differences between these 8 pieces, how do you feel? what sort of steps would you imagine doing? Is there a strong rhythm/melody/patterns/singing? Just this simple exercise will open your ears for the next time you are dancing.

5. Musical choreography – music is made up in patterns. A simple one is the introduction, main body of the music, variation (often with violins or speeding up) and an ending. Recognizing the structure of the music can help to improvise. When you know when an ending is coming because you picked out the variation, you can find the last note with a great step. Another pattern comes in the phrasing or rhythms.

6. Repetition is the key – Create a small figure that is something you would like in your dance. perfect the technique and feel of the step. Once you have this (might involve help from a teacher), repeat the movement over and over again until you have it in your brains memory. Then add a second combination and do the same. Repeating over and over again. Slow build up a repertoire of repeat short choreographies and list them with names for reference. Each time you go to practice, go through the list repeating all your memorized figures until the flow easily. If you still have time left add NEW ones to the list. You will soon find that these short sequences come out into your social dancing, often with variations which is ideal for improvising.

Patterns are key to building body memory and perfecting movements for dance. Improvising on the learned patterns to bring more life and expression into the movements is magical, but without preparation this will only feel a mess. Instead see improvisation along with choreography as tools for helping you achieve your objectives. We shoudln’t be ruled by a term that will go out of fashion in a few years.