This weekend I had the best time at an improv jam with one of my teenage tap students. Make no mistake, I did not force her to do this against her will. It was all her idea. Chloe and Maud Arnold (of The Syncopated Ladies) were leading this particular tap jam at American Rhythm Center, and if it weren’t for her, I probably would not have ventured down there. To be completely real and honest, tap improv still gives me major anxiety. Especially when it is with dancers who happen to be particularly amazing. Like most things in life, it’s something I know I need to just do if I want to get better at it. Plus, the idea that one of my busy high school dancers wanted to spend her Friday night this way was super inspiring to me. I was not nearly that cool at 16. So in a true “fake it till you make it” fashion, I put on my big girl tap shoes and agreed to take her. As it goes nearly every time I venture out of my comfort zone, it was a good life choice.
The whole idea of having to improvise anything in life usually makes me a little uneasy. I still use a paper planner. I love “to-do” lists. I like to have my days mapped out, and I really don’t like it when someone springs last minute plans on me. However, I have noticed that lately, due to a number of factors, I am forced to fly by the seat of my pants more often than I’d like to. The more experience I have in any particular area, the easier it becomes. For example, I have taught about 9 billion beginning jazz classes in my life, and am pretty sure I could do that blindfolded. Improv in contemporary class? No sweat. Making a delicious home cooked meal from whatever random ingredients I have in my kitchen? Piece of cake. (Or we could just eat cake for dinner?) Things I am trying to get more comfortable with: being more intuitive and less rigid with my yoga teaching, being able to teach more styles and levels of dance without having to spend hours on lesson plans and choreography, and tap improv.
As young dancer, improvisation wasn’t really part of my training. I went to class, learned the steps (I also wrote them down), put them into a dance, practiced it a ton, and then performed it. As for tap, I’ve only really been working on improv for a few years, and it can be really intimidating sometimes. I definitely think we get more inhibited as we grow up. This week and last, a 5 year old (yes she was actually 5) showed up to improv in a room full of adults, and she was without a doubt the most confident person in the room. She stomped her little patent leather tap shoes, twirled, high fived everyone, and KILLED it. It’s a part of class my youngest students look forward to, while many of the older ones will do anything to get out of it. I get it. As a “mature” dancer I feel fairly comfortable in my own skin in most cases. But being put on the spot to tap dance by yourself is sort of like having to come up with a quick and witty comeback. In your head it sounds amazing, and when you actually say it out loud you slur your words and say something like “YEAH YOUR MOM….” At least that’s how it usually feels to me.
There are perks to being a good improviser in life, and I’m discovering them little by little each time I venture into that uncomfortable place. Newsflash to the world: I’m doing it a lot lately, and I’m kind of ok with that. As a newer yoga instructor, I used to map out my sequences pose by pose, and minute by minute. These days I usually have a general idea of what sort of class I am teaching, and the mood and feeling I am trying to create in class, but for the most part it comes out a little bit differently every time. Sure, there is a greater chance of saying something stupid, but in general, it allows me to really pay attention to the needs of my students and make adjustments accordingly. Same thing with dance classes. If I didn’t just spend 2 hours on choreography, I feel much less tied to it having to be exactly as I had planned. I can get my head out of my notebook, stop trying to figure out what happens on count 4, and see what is actually going on with the tiny (or in some cases taller than me) humans I am teaching it to. As far as my own dancing goes, I just got home from my weekly improv class. The perks of that? It’s fun. It’s active. The other dancers are nice. I think that maybe my feet are starting to sound a little more like music, and less like stupid comebacks.
As I attempt to improve my improv game, I’m giving you permission to do the same. Do something fun and spontaneous instead of planning ahead. Be present in life instead of trying to force things to go the exact way they play out in your mind. Do “you” unapologetically, or try something completely out of your element. Unless it’s for a big audition solo or pay raise evolution or something….you should probably have a game plan for that. 😉