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Getting comfortable with improvisation

Even sitting down to write this was uncomfortable. Why did I dream of writing something entitled “getting comfortable with improvisation”?

Maybe because improvisation is that way, too. For me at least, it doesn’t start out comfortably. I fumble and wonder what I am doing and why. I look around at my surroundings, which are usually a stereo, three white walls and a fourth wall, all mirrors. There are probably windows that I do not bother to look out of. I might remember the one time I looked out of a dance studio from a window high above the ground. I had been in a room with 30 or 40 sweaty dancers and one sweaty teacher, and it had occurred to me that I might be missing something on the ground below, but that I preferred the work. Inside. And recalling all that, I would then remember why just dancing it out is something I continue to do.

I used to make a career out of avoiding improvisation. Coming up as a contemporary dancer, improvisation was something you were supposed to know how to do. Workshops around the subject popped up, ever more numerous, but it always made me uneasy. Being social anxiety ridden, maybe it was the expectation of intimate contact with virtual strangers that bothered me most. But also, I didn’t know what to do. I was used to being given choreography, and suddenly I was expected to draw something up from within myself. I couldn’t begin to try.

When I eventually fell in love with flamenco and heard that improvisation was central to it, my stomach was constantly in knots. Part of the problem though, is that I did not understand the word “improvisation”. I think I have come a long way from the idea that to improvise means to do anything. In a way, to improvise is to produce something out of what is currently available. What do we make of what is right in front of us with the tools we have at hand? And, very recently a flamenco teacher said something along the lines of: “tenemos que intuir” or “we must intuit/use our intuition” when it comes to flamenco dancing specifically. That helped me connect a lot of dots, and suddenly improvising was not the impossible art of creating something beautiful and interesting out of a vacuum, but rather the work of developing a capacity to listen, to divine, and to take risks, hoping that your action aligns beautifully and interestingly with the actions of those going for the ride with you. And that takes experiencing. You have to do it, which many times feels like an act of courage in itself in a world that expects you to be an expert from the womb. Many people do not like to be beginners, myself included.

I went into the studio with a couple of friends the other day. It was a joyful occasion on many levels. The first was, in these COVID times, and with me being extra careful, the joy of being in the room with people I love. I’ve been around plenty of strangers, co-workers and straphangers, volatile and benign. But in the studio, I was with friends. Friends who I love. It felt surreal, and it felt like my eyes were betraying me. The line between virtual reality and actual reality really has been blurred over the past year. I wanted to squeeze myself and them – and eventually did. I wondered out loud if one friend had always been “this tall”. I tried and failed to remember when the three of us had ever been in a room alone before.

I think that session started out much the same way most of my solo sessions start out, minus the frustration, but with the addition of unvoiced questions. The verbal battery that I generally use to assault myself in isolation was neither welcome nor allowed here.

And it occurs to me that moving with these two friends, being able to get to that place of comfort in that particular improv session probably had a lot to do with safety. Not the safety of familiarity necessarily, since there was so much that was unfamiliar. The music we used was not familiar. We had not seen each other in the same space in many months. Our bodies were different. Our perspectives had changed. We were different. We had been through different things, different trials. But we were comfortable with each other. There was one courageous step after another to reveal parts of ourselves. We were coming together, three individuals, and we had made a commitment for that one hour to exist as equals in creation, to encourage one another, to support one another, to search with one another, and we had not really decided on a destination. We just went. Of course, no one took video. Isn’t that always the way?

This session held the imprint of genuine collaboration, and I think that is why it was so important to me. In the dance world, we often fall prey to hierarchical and judgy behavior, which can feel paralyzing and discouraging, and often turns art into a quest for perfection and status rather than all the things it could be. Here, we were not living up to expectations around levels, technique or tradition; we simply welcomed each other and – with some gentle coaxing – were able to eventually welcome the spontaneous eruption of emotion through sound, voice and limb.

to be continued...

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