My Dorky Dance Love Part 2: AKA Life Lessons I’ve Learned in Improv

Hello world, and happy National Dance Day! Today I attempt to tackle the topic of some life lessons I’ve learned from having an active improvisatory practice and how this has shaped my interactions both in and out of the dance studio. In a previous post, I talked about the positive and singular environment that improv creates. Today, I’m going to talk about how this environment has taught me a bunch of life lessons that have been useful both in a dance classroom setting and in my “real world” interactions. So often we, as dancers, abstract our “dance world” experiences from our “real world” experiences. I put these both in quotes because why can’t the dance world be a part of the real world? Certainly, the dance world can feel like its own microcosm with a unique set of guidelines for interactions, but I’d argue that these are all influenced by, and also continue to influence, our real world interactions. So, some life lessons I’ve learned from improv:

1. Allowing yourself to fail can facilitate growth, and failure can be a beautiful thing.

As a student at an elite college, I don’t often get to experience spaces where failure is safe. I love Brown and feel that the environment there is generally genuinely very positive and supportive. That doesn’t mean there’s not a tremendous amount of pressure not to fail, if for no other reason than to match pace with your peers. The same is true of much of the dance world. We spend a fair amount of time striving not to fail in class, on stage, or otherwise. Improv is one of few spaces I’ve been in where it has felt safe to fail, and I’ve failed a lot and grown so much from it. I’ve discovered a lot about what works for my body, what doesn’t work for my body, what feels good, and a lot about both my choreographic style and my natural movement style. In life, allowing myself some room for failure has shown me what I really love doing, and has helped me start to make a path that will actually work for me.

2. You can say no.

Perhaps the real life implications of this are obvious. Hopefully the real life implications of this are obvious.  I find that it is much easier to say no with body language than with words in a number of situations, be it in dance or otherwise.  Thus, for me, an improvisitory setting has been an excellent way to develop tools for saying no.  Often when you’re improv-ing with a group of people, another person will approach you to dance with you.  Clearly, sometimes this is not desirable, depending on what your intentions are/what you are feeling.  It’s easy to fall into the same habit of feeling guilty about saying no to someone as I personally fall into in my interactions outside of a dance space.  But so often my improv is a practice that I do largely for the purpose of fulfilling my own goals and doing something that is fulfilling to me and not necessarily everyone else, which means sometimes saying no to others.  Saying no with movement and body language can be as simple as turning your body the other way, or just walking away from someone in the space.  And I must say, owning my intentions like this in my improv practice has helped me develop mechanisms for being better at owning my intentions, knowing what is best for me, and sometimes saying no in my non-dance interactions as well.

3. You are constantly making choices. Being conscious of this can be a powerful tool.

Everything you do is a choice.  Whether that choice is something you are consistently aware of or not, whether it is an active or a passive decision, you are constantly making choices.  Our passive choices are a product of our habits, and our active choices are often a product of a more conscious thought process (I also think the binary of active versus passive choices is a bit reductive, but somewhat useful here at least).  Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the different utilities of subconscious decision making and conscious decision making in my improv.  I have a lot of fun existing in a sort of flow state where my body is generating movement and I’m not really bringing that movement generation to the forefront of my mind.  Rather, I’m letting my habits take hold and work for me.  On the contrary, it often feels very rewarding to play with movement generation where every motion you create, down to the tiniest unfurling of a finger, is a conscious decision that is rapidly stated at (what I envision as) the forefront of your mind.  These are two incredibly different modes of thinking, and both are definitely useful.  Being able to reach a flow state is an excellent practice in developing and honing habitual movement, which is certainly a practice in technique.  Making conscious choices about movements is more of a practice in noticing habits, and often working against them, which can be a powerful tool for creation.  Outside of a necessarily dance context, this is so important for how we notice and interact with the world around us.  Our worldview is nothing more than a habit; our biases are often so deep-seeded that they are subconscious choices that we often are unaware that we are making.  How do you even begin to work to undo bias if you cannot recognize that you have a bias? This is where being constantly conscious of making choices can be a powerful tool.  Even as you’re just walking down the street, if you heighten your awareness and attempt to articulate in your mind every decision you’re making it can be incredibly revealing about what habits you’ve formed in your daily life.  And this can be incredibly revealing about where your prejudices lie.  And this is how we start to undo them.

4. Your body and your movement are worthy and powerful as they are.

For me, personally, as a human and as a dancer, this has been the most powerful and important part of having an improvisatory practice.  I’ve struggled with both body image and knowing my worth/ability as a dancer for a very long time.  I only really started making improv an integral part of my dance practice in the past year, and I’ve noticed a huge difference both in how I perceive my body and my dancing.  In a perfect world, the goal of improv is not to create a specific aesthetic of movement, but rather to see all of the incredible things that our bodies are capable of without having to ascribe to aesthetic standards.  Naturally this doesn’t always happen, as dancers are trained in aesthetic standards and these don’t go away (and maybe they shouldn’t, at least in some contexts; honing an aesthetic can also be a powerful tool, if you don’t use it in an oppressive manner).  But even still, the idea that your body is enough to create movement without any aesthetics or techniques superimposed on it is empowering.  It helped me look at my body and my dancing in a very different way.  I think I’d spent a large number of my dancing years attempting to be something/ascribe to an aesthetic standard that my body never would be, and my current practice has helped me finally get to a place where I can be okay with having a body that will never be that.  Outside of dance aesthetics, knowing all bodies are valuable is certainly something we (as a society) could be better at in numerous ways.  In line with this, the way I think about my body and other bodies due to improv has shaped the way I talk about ableism and accessibility in other contexts.  It has helped me notice more and more when we do not value different bodies, and it has shown me the importance of changing the language around this.

5. Bodies talk. Pay attention to them and respond to them.

Improv has made me compassionate and empathetic like nothing else.  Both watching others improv and dancing in the space with them has brought a heightened awareness to what exactly people are feeling and trying to relay to me with their bodies/body language.  We spend so much time privileging the spoken and the visual ways of sensing others, but we have so many other sensory abilities that we rarely tap into on a daily basis.  You have to tap into this when you improv.  Touch, and even the absence of touch, are incredibly powerful somatosensory tools.  Without going into the neuroscience of it all, your skin has an incredible amount of sensory ability and an incredible capability to respond to touch.  Additionally, it has an incredible ability to respond to a difference in touch, meaning when you just experienced touch and are no longer experiencing touch, your skin reacts strongly to that.  This can make the slight negative space between bodies that are not quite touching each other a very powerful sensation.  All this to say, we have ways to listen to the people around us that do not involve speech in the traditional sense of the word.  One of the most important bits here is that this can be a way of giving agency to people who do not necessarily have spoken agency.  We can listen to the bodies of the people around us to understand what the world might not give them the space to say with words, and help uplift them so that they can hopefully be given the space to say this.

6. If you don’t like the environment around you, you have the agency to change it.

Someone said this to me in a class the other day, and it really stuck with me.  The caveat here is that this is very dependent on situational power.  Sometimes the world does not give people enough agency for them to be able to change their environment.  But, oftentimes we can at least change something.  In an improv setting, this can be as simple as facilitating the creation of more group movement if that’s something that you find interesting.  Or even just moving to a different space in the room where you feel like you have more room to move.  This can take any number of simple or complex forms.  And this is true of contexts outside of a dance studio as well.  Really, most of the other things I’ve said add up to this in some way or another.  They all deal in working to find the ways we can recognize what we don’t like about our surroundings, and discovering tools to change that.  So maybe improv is (among other things) a tool for facilitating change, and for bringing that change outside of the dance studio and into all of our interactions.  It’s important to remember that everything we do, whether it be in or out of the dance studio, contributes to our environment.  Nothing happens in isolation, and every action matters.  I feel as though trying to create change can feel like such a large, amorphous feat that it seems unattainable.  Remembering that the smallest decisions we make have an impact makes it feel slightly more within reach.

This is an incredibly long-winded post, but really it only begins to scratch the surface of the utility and power of improv and dance as a whole.  So on National Dance Day (and every day), let’s be more aware of our surroundings, our choices, our habits, and the people around us.  Let’s remember that bodies are never just meat sacks; rather, they are humans who are conveying ideas (be it consciously or subconsciously) constantly and who have very real and very whole livelihoods.  Let’s use today (and every day) to see dance as not just an aesthetic product, but also as a way to understand our world and ourselves.  This art has made me empathetic, compassionate, passionate, aware, strong in many ways, and so much more.  Here’s to celebrating all of that, and here’s to working towards making both the dance world and every other facet of our environment work better for everyone in them.

For funzies, and because it’s relevant, I’ve included a video of me improv-ing in Central Park after a particularly inspiring class recently.  This is playing, thinking, moving, decision making, growing, changing, and so much more.  Improv is a powerful tool, as is dance as a whole.

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