Quite often I hear comments equating the lack of an improvisational quality in someone’s dancing with “doing choreography.” When someone says this, they don’t mean that the dancer has planned the entire dance movement by movement in advance. What they usually mean is that the figures they’ve learned are being repeated without connecting them to, or finding inspiration from, the music, the dancer’s partner, or even the dancer’s own body. What I find ironic about this is that when I started learning my first improvised partner dance (salsa), I was frequently complimented on the improvisational nature of my dancing and the distinctiveness of my salsa “voice,” yet much of what I had learned about how to improvise and develop my own movement personality came from my experience learning choreography.
I started dancing modern, jazz, and West African in college, and I danced these exclusively for a couple of years before I was introduced to improvised partner dancing. Learning choreography is a major aspect of these dances and was therefore one of the primary skills (yes, it’s a skill) that I had to learn, both in classes and in the university dance company. What I quickly discovered is this: Learning choreography is not about copying or imitating movement. It’s about finding the connection between the movements of the form and your unique body, between the artistic vision of the choreographer and your unique expression. This is a constant ongoing process. To a good choreographer, learning the steps is missing the point entirely. To him/her, you have “learned the choreography” when it has made its home in your body.
This was a real awakening for me, and it made dramatic changes in my dancing that my teachers immediately noticed and commented on. Before, I felt like I was trying to force someone else’s movement into my body, which felt like a losing battle and an impossible goal because it was. After I had this realization, I began to search for the feeling, the intention, the essence of each choreographed phrase in a very personal way. This is exactly what I have written about the somatic element of musicality: “The physical aspect of the dance is not about putting something in the body; it is about encouraging something to arise from the body.” It is “the body experienced from within.”
You can copy the exact placement of hands and feet, perfect the lines, make sure your technique is perfect, but these are less important to the good choreographer until the end when you’re refining. What is most essential to “getting” what the choreographer wants is finding where the movements and phrases come from and what drives them to change and transition to something else. This happens on several levels. It is a very physical, very technical thing, but it is also mental, emotional, relational, and musical. Each feeds into the other. Sometimes the choreographer insists on a very specific motivation for a movement while other times he/she offers a general point of focus and asks the dancers to find their own imagery or experience of these moments. Each of these cases has very specific physical repercussions that will affect how the choreography feels and looks to both the dancers and the audience.
A bad choreographer won’t address these aspects at all. A good choreographer will express healthy frustration when these aspects are sacrificed to achieve nice technical lines. When he sees the movements are merely being copied and technically performed, he demands a return to the impulse or essence of what he had in mind when he improvised and refined the choreography. And quite often the choreography is improvised and refined in concert with how the dancers are learning the choreography, molded to fit the impulses of the group, inspired by their bodies and expressions. When the performance day(s) arrive, the dancers have to call upon all the work they’ve done finding that artistic vision in their bodies so that they can connect with it again in those unique moments of performance. That is the only way the dancers can make the choreography look and feel alive to the audience.
So for the dancer who has experience with good choreography, the rote repetition of steps during an improvised dance would not occur to them. Their body and mind would not be used to such lifeless execution of movement. If someone is mindlessly repeating something they learned in class without connection to their partner or the music that is currently playing, they’re not doing choreography. Rather, they’re failing to find a connection between the form and their own unique body, movement, and expression. And this failure is common to both bad choreography and bad improvisation.
Of course this doesn’t mean that choreography and improvisation are the same. There are indeed very key differences. Dancing choreography is embodying a shared artistic vision directed by another through a finalized form so as to make it visible and thereby felt by an audience. Dancing improvisationally is embodying your own vision as it unfolds in a series of unique moments, in a way that can be felt and responded to by another person, and that allows for their embodied vision to be felt and responded to by you. From this flows a series of differences that give choreography and improvisation unique forms. But it would be a mistake to equate choreography with stale figures and improvisation with creating in the moment. A dancer can dance choreography with life and freedom, a dancer can improvise on autopilot without purpose, and vice versa. Good (and bad) choreography and improvisation are similar states of body and mind applied to different forms.
There are so many lessons here for how we teach and learn. So often I hear that salsa dancers shouldn’t teach/learn shines, tango teachers shouldn’t teach/learn complex figures, swing teachers shouldn’t teach/learn performance routines, or they will ruin their improvisational skills and become robotic dancers. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding. Dancers ruin or improve their improvisational skills based on whether what they learn teaches them new ways of perceiving – which is to say new ways of hearing, seeing, feeling, interacting – not just new ways of moving. The “what” has to be connected with the “why” to achieve full understanding, rather than superficial rendering, of the “how.”
The greatest lesson I learned from giving various choreographies a home in my body is how clarity of mental and emotional attention and intention leads to precision of physical and musical execution. Lynne Anne Blom and L. Tarin Chaplin express this beautifully in their book, The Intimate Act of Choreography: “Regardless of what intention it may have, a choreographic phrase has a personality, an identifiable movement ‘face.’ The phrase has an ‘ishness’ (as Carol Scothorn would say). It is about something. With or without actual meaning, it is expressive; it has flesh, whereas a movement combination often has only bones. A choreographic phrase seeks to touch the viewer, to communicate a sense, vision, idea, style, texture, or quality. It has an attitude about it, an aura of uniqueness, a selfhood.”