Is Improv Boring?

by Palika of Heavy Hips (With kind permission) Palika sums up the overwhelming connection between committed dancers of improvisational choreography.

bellydancers with stcicks

This level of surrendering the ego to the group is present in other areas of life I’ve been privileged to be involved with. The military at its best fosters this ethos. It is present in times of great stress and anxiety when people pull together to do great things, such as rescue teams at human or natural disasters. It is something special.

What is Boredom?

Boredom is a state of mind originating from inside of us – it’s not coming from the outside and impressed upon us. Improvisation is about going deeper into who you are and what you want to invest in and what you value in your short life, and it requires paying lots of loving attention – and that takes bringing the mind and body back to this moment again, and again, and back to “how am I relating to this group right now?”

This is hard because most of us spend all of our time in our minds being some place other than here – defending, judging, rehashing stories that keep us small and wasting time in “if only this… if only that… consciousness”. There are so many desirable skills that can uplift us to attain when you’re talking about improvisation – I like to inspire my students to really want them.

How do I do that? Well I present the art of improvisation as the ultimate art of mindfulness, flexibility, responsiveness, personal and communal responsibility, and commitment to the well being and excellence of the group.

What’s Improvisation About?

Improvisation is about staying unified and invested in the same outcome of well being for all regardless of what chaos and unpredictability is around us. It is an excellent model and philosophical statement about valuing the needs of a group over the needs of any one individual and investing in everyone’s value; not reifying some over others.

In improvisation every dancer is striving to match the other in mood, in musical interpretation, in energy and most importantly in every single detail of the movement. This means every nuance of wrist angle, arm angle, speed and flow of arm transitions, angle of face and head, how weight is shifted from foot to foot or hip to hip, foot placement, etc.

I also choose a combo of 3-4 steps that are drilled by the members of the group until it’s so smooth you cannot tell it isn’t choreography. Both leading and following take very specific skills and require attention to very specific problem areas.

bellydancers with swords
Pedralta World Fusion Belly Dance Swords

Successful leading and following necessitates immaculate technique and pinpointed attentiveness to every detail AND the desire to move as one affiliated, committed and faithful organism.

How is Solo Dancing Different?

Solo dancing is the realm of expressing individuality and your distinction from the group, but improvisation is the realm of ‘we are one.’ And how can I serve that ‘one’? Being a member of an improvisational pod necessitates service consciousness – a willingness to set aside your own ego limelight (distinction between soul light) to illustrate for the world and to practice for ourselves how to be a community member, how to forego prioritising your own desires over the success of the group.

So I talk like this to inspire my students. And the truth is our culture is so ‘me, me, me’ and it actually promotes a lot of competition and fear. Competition because we are fearful that we won’t get “ours”, that no one will notice us as special, and fear that there aren’t enough resources for everyone.

But there are enough resources for everyone – provided we don’t reify a culture that says rising to the top regardless of how many heads we step on, or necks we break is worth it, because then you might get to be the one on top, who unfairly has more than they need at the cost of others, – but you do it because you can.

The reason there is not enough resource to go around, and fullness and light shining for everyone is because some take more than their share.

I believe improvisation is a fabulous spiritual practice and a model for teaching us that we all are valuable, that we can work together to take care of everyone in the group in a loving way, and that we can prioritise”intention to unify” instead of “intention to single out”.

Our capitalist world shouts at us constantly to produce and consume from just the opposite consciousness and most of us – when we sit still and feel – are exhausted, depressed and feel ripped off by that paradigm. Through this radical practice of improvisation in our local dance classes, we can promote and practice unifying and trusting – and being trustworthy. Personal and communal responsibility is what we are practicing when we become followers and leaders.

For Leaders

  • Can I be counted on to change the movement on the ‘one’ (beat)?
  • Can I give clear cues in enough time for the followers to catch?
  • Am I staying true to the technique that we all learned and committed to?
  • Do I try to stand out?
  • ‘When I lead do I try to show I am a better dancer or technician than the others?
  • Do I hog the lead?
  • Can I be counted on to put moves together in a complimentary way?
  • Can I be counted on to make my pod mates look fabulous and feel comfortable?
  • Do they trust me?
  • Do I inspire confidence as a leader?
  • Do I know the repertory?

For Followers

  • Do I pay attention and am I ready to respond to minute changes?
  • Do I attempt to match the mood and tempo of the pod leader?
  • Do I try to stand out?
  • How do I respond if the leader loses the count or loses the one?
  • Do I take turns and share the lead?
  • Can I be trusted to follow meticulously and cooperatively?
  • Do I pay attention, do I pay attention, do I pay attention?
  • Do I know the repertory, thus have the skills to follow?
  • Do I try to sabotage the unification of the pod or can I be counted on to act for the group 100%?

These are some of the questions for both jobs of improvisation and if you don’t have a certain level of technical proficiency you simply can’t be counted on for the duties of leading and following.

It is much deeper than just repeating some moves over and over. Heavy Hips has a large repertory that we improvise with. And the size of improvisable repertory is absolutely correlated with attention to detail and meticulous, consistent technique.

The benefits, challenges and skill sets to be mastered with regard to choreography are a worthy pursuit in their own right as is improvisation – maybe we shouldn’t always compare them to see which is better.

Perhaps both are worthy of our deep listening and our practice. But for me ATS offers very special and relevant gifts for these difficult times. Learning to trust and learning to be trustworthy are the bottom line spiritual components of improvisation – and these are hardly boring human qualities or boring pursuits.

Just some thoughts to share.

Blessings, Palika