Improvisation is still one of those areas of dance which mystifies some studio dance teachers and terrifies dance students (mainly older students.) Most of the time you’ll get an, “I love improv” or an “I hate improv” from the crowd as there is generally no ambivalent feelings on the subject.
Usually, the younger we are the more uninhibited we are and the earlier we introduce improvisation as more than just “freeze dance,” the tendency will be more of a joy to freely move vs. being self-conscious as to what to do next. It will also inadvertently start to build a sophisticated movement profile and palette for little ones as they develop into more mature dancers down the road. For youngsters, it’s easier to just move and not think but the older we get the more our brains get in the way. Sometimes as a dance teacher I have to tell my older students, “stop thinking, just do it and move” and that goes with executing choreography too, so you can imagine the terror that comes with not having the steps laid out for them.
Introducing improvisation to junior and preteens however, can be really fun and a joy to watch as their young, uninhibited bodies move through space loving and living dance and simply moving how they feel. We lose that simplicity and love of moving sometimes along the way, so introducing easy, fun and effective improvisation exercises can get them invested in it and continue that clear-headed approach to improvisation as they get older.
Stick with basic exercises in the beginning. Think simple and fun; nothing that is too complicated to follow or might be intimidating. You want them to understand exactly what you want them to do so they don’t have to look around the room for cues. Be clear in your directives and don’t inundate them with information. You don’t want to turn your dancers off to this new way of moving before you even begin! Get them excited about it. Add it before warm-up or as an ending to technique class. Maybe once a month make an entire class out of it. Take the cue from your dancers and soon enough you’ll be dancing through space, freely, creatively and instinctually.
Below are some of my favorite, simple improvisation exercises I use with my own beginner juniors and preteens. Go slow! Enjoy! Add variations on a theme for progressions and watch the spontaneous movement unfold!
Fruit Salad: Stand in a circle. First go around the circle and name a vegetable or a fruit. Next go around the circle and replace the name with a sound that reminds you of the vegetable or fruit. Then go around the circle make the sound and add a movement that reminds you of the vegetable or fruit. Finally, go around the circle doing only the movement. This is a great exercise to get everyone comfortable moving in front of one another and create some smiles too.
Who’s Next? Stand in a circle. Have one dancer start with a simple movement or gesture. Then immediately after completing the movement, the dancer must look to either side and say the name of the dancer they are looking at. The latter dancer must then immediately do a gesture or movement and repeat the steps of the previous dancer. The dancers that don’t respond immediately must sit in their spot or stand in the middle of the circle until the game is over. Movement Telephone: Stand in a circle. Have one dancer begin by making a movement with a sound. Each dancer around the circle takes turns to quickly mimic the combination as well as they can until it reaches the original choreographer. Then the next dancer begins. This continues until everyone in the circle has had a turn to make a combination.
Paintbrush: Pick one body part to initiate all movement from and take it through space as though each body part is a paintbrush of a different color painting their canvas through space.
Moving Images: Present an image (i.e. artwork, a photograph, magazine clipping etc.) to the dancer and allow them to create movement based on what they see and feel. Partner Up: Share weight with another person. This activity allows each person to begin feeling comfortable touching and sharing weight with another person. *tip: have dancers move very slowly and start on a low level to avoid injury and build comfort level before changing levels
Guide Me: Have one dancer stand with their eyes closed and have their partner use touch, sound or voice to motivate movement from the dancer. *progression: take it to different levels, then through space
Manipulation: *(more advanced) Teach a simple eight to sixteen count movement phrase. Ask dancers to manipulate the phrase with repetition, speed, level changes, traveling and changing the order of the movements.