The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 6: The Improvisational Element

Improvisational ElementWe usually think of improvisation as creating something without advanced planning, like a kind of free association. But when it comes to musicality, I have come to see improvisation in much more holistic and nuanced light. Now I think of improvisation as a process that gives life to our dancing. Architect-philosopher Christopher Alexander’s work is what first opened my eyes to the idea of a life-giving process. In The Timeless Way of Building and his other works, he describes a way of being and doing that results in buildings that have and allow for life, and proposes that this creative process applies to all of nature’s (including humanity’s) endeavors. I believe that the improvisational element is this specific process that creates the greatest life in our dance, by allowing the other elements of musicality to flourish.

What is life? Not all of Merriam-Webster’s definition applies to our discussion, but a central theme is “the ability to grow [and] change” and “the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally.” Let’s talk about life in the context of human movement: Your body is at its healthiest when you are able to move in any direction as the environment and the moment require. This ability comes from the presence of, and balance between, stability and flexibility, which we can define simply as the abilities of the body to support itself and to respond to its environment, respectively. When stability and flexibility are either weak or out of balance with each other, movement is restricted and options become limited. But when they are strong and balanced, they allow us to improvise positive changes that continue to open up options and thereby sustain life.

The same applies to our mental, emotional, and spiritual lives. We are constantly called upon to improvise in our relationships, our work, and our creative endeavors. We are healthy and full of life when we can go in any direction as the environment and moment require while still supporting ourselves. Dr. Daniel Siegel, who gave us insight into our primary emotions in Part 3 of this series, writes that the imbalance of stability and flexibility leads to either rigidity or chaos. Rigidity is safe and orderly, but results in boredom, sameness, and inflexibility. When we are rigid, our ability to respond to the moment is impaired. Chaos, on the other hand, may be novel, but it is random, anxious, and out of proportion. When we are chaotic we change moment-by-moment, but that change is not appropriate to the moment and impairs our ability to support ourselves and others. Life – what Dr. Siegel calls integration – happens in the river that flows between the banks of rigidity and chaos.

This perspective can enlighten our understanding of the improvisational process that brings life to our dancing. The greatest process is one that enables us to go in any direction as the environment and moment call for while maintaining the order that supports us and our relationships.

So what are the directions that we may be called to go in? In dance, they are our creative, emotional, and somatic impulses as well as those of our partner in response to the music. They are the energy and demands of the dance floor (i.e. “floorcraft”). They are the physical adjustments that allow for comfort and communication between leader and follower. They are the cultural forms of the dance that provide the structure for communication and expression. And they are the things that don’t go as expected that become part of the context of the dance. Borrowing a concept from improvisation in theater, being able to go in any direction means being able to say “yes” – and “yes, and…” – to our partner, the music, the floor of other dancers, and whatever the moment brings. Saying yes is a commitment to letting ourselves be affected, allowing our direction be guided by the moment and what it gives us.

When we train or practice, we are ideally trying to expand our ability to go in any direction (within our dance form) and to open up more ways of traveling in these directions. The method we use to train or practice for this is most often, ironically, by placing limits on the improvisational process: controlling where our impulses can go, the idea being that with training we can positively guide where our subconscious takes us in the moment when we don’t have time to think. Deliberate practice like this is very effective. The problem is that we often take the limits and control of practice into the realm of rigidity. We then have a hard time letting go of this rigidity in the heat of improvisation that requires flexibility and openness to create a dance that has life. The solution to this problem is a method of deliberate practice that enables a creative balance of stability and flexibility in our dancing.

We don’t want to be rigid when we’re improvising, but we also don’t want to be chaotic. Improvisation is not about doing just anything. As we saw with the creative element, each dance has a structure that channels our impulses in specific ways. Our dance form is a stable system made up of the movement, the partner connection, the music, and the dance floor that support our improvisation. There is also a structure that develops as soon as the dance begins, with each moment having a relationship to what went before it. Ignoring these structures results in chaos, and this chaos is just as detrimental to improvisational as rigidity. The more we support our environment and its structure, the more it supports us. We saw this with the relational element: The more we listen, the more we learn what we really have to say.

Rigidity and chaos happen on the physical, mental, and emotional levels, and these levels mutually influence each other. On the physical level, rigidity or chaos happens in the body and is often improved by working on technique and coordination to create a stable, flexible, and balanced body. On the mental and emotional levels, a dancer’s attention and intention can be weak or out of balance. Ego, self-consciousness, boredom, unnecessary censorship, and fear limit our choices by making our attitude – and therefore our movement – rigid or chaotic. When we are focused on what other people think about our dancing, absorbed with our own ideas about the dance, expecting something unfair of our partner, or recreating what worked yesterday because we’re fearful of not finding something new to say today, we take ourselves out of our environment and out of the moment, making true improvisation impossible.

Throughout this series we’ve seen that it is difficult to explore one element without the others. This is especially true with improvisation. A lack of understanding and application of the other four elements is a root cause of poor improvisational skills. Without the ability to hear and respond to frames in the music (the creative element), feel one’s primary emotions (the emotional element), experience movement from within one’s body (the somatic element), and feel these same elements in one’s partner (the relational element), the ability to improvise is impaired. This impairment results in very physical manifestations (lack of timing, balance, coordination, and energy) as well as mental and emotional ones, but working on these symptoms does little to improve the ability to improvise when the elements themselves are ignored.

So engaging all of the elements – “gathering our senses” – is required for us to improvise, and improvisation is required to bring the elements to life. The influence flows in all directions all the time. Both rigidity and chaos prevent us from seeing, hearing, feeling, and responding to the life in and around us. Improvisation is the process that opens up our creative, emotional, somatic, and relational impulses and allows them expression. When this happens, our dance – like the music we move to – has health and wholeness, structure and freedom, rhythm and breath, beauty and joy.

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If you would like to more fully explore your own ideas about musicality and the concepts we’ve just explored in Part 1 of this series before continuing, check out The Five Elements of Musicality: Homework.

Here is the next post in this series: The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 7: Harnessing Musicality.

Note: I’ve been asked about how the improvisational element of musicality relates to choreography, so I’ve written the following article: Choreography as Selective Improvisation. Even if you’re not interested in choreography, you may be interested in reading the article because it clarifies many of the misconceptions dancers often have about the improvisational element in both improvised and choreographed dancing.

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