The Moment of Movement: Dance Improvisation

Blom, L.A. & Chaplin, L.T. (1988) The Moment of Movement: Dance Improvisation. University of Pittsburgh Press, USA.

Book Review

Chapter 1 – Movement, the Foundation of Dance Improvisation

The possibilities within human movement are endless. Movements can be unpicked within the parameters of space, time and energy. When looking at movement as the vehicle for dance improvisation, we should consider the kinetic-kinaesthetic event, the dancer and the form. Movement is the medium for dance improvisation and it is both ‘expressive and practical’ (page 3). The vast spectrums of human movements that are both seen and unseen are present in the dance improvisation within the dancer’s body, the creator.

Movement as Communication

Movement is crucial to the ways in which we communicate with other people. Verbal communication can be greatly enhanced and, or emphasised by our movement gestures and responses. The role of movement in human communication can naturally be mirrored in dance improvisation. For example, when two people are of the same opinion the authors note that they often ‘share postures or movement qualities’ (page 6), we can see a parallel of this in dance improvisation when two dancers mirror or shadow one another. The communicative aspect of movement is extremely important in dance improvisation as movements can express ideas, situations or emotions that are recognisable for everyone. We can all connect with and understand a dancer’s expression of frustration or anger through movement because movement has the capacity to express ideas and recognisable truths that are shared by everyone. Although people will interpret what they see by drawing from their own bank of personal experiences and knowledge, the principal emotions, ideas or situations will be shared by everyone.

The Creative Process

When describing dance improvisation the authors use words such as ‘spontaneity’, ‘with direction’ and ‘intentional and reactive’ (page 7).

An organic strategy or plan emerges to take us forward in time, yet it only becomes articulated as we move…..What we can do is examine the route it takes (and our consciousness of it), a route which is on the way to creating itself while being itself. (page 7)

The authors define creativity as ‘bringing something new into being’ (page 7). Naturally, the concept of what is ‘new’ is multifaceted; it will have many meanings for the individual and the group. Something can be ‘new’ for a culture, for an era of time, or, within the context or attitudes that surround its creation. The authors describe the creative process in four stages: preparation, exploration, illumination (the ‘Aha’ moment) and formulation.

Creativity in Improvisation

It is highlighted that the creative process or elements of the process are inherent in all creative acts or activity. However, it is important to understand that the dance improviser may not follow through with each stage of the creative process as outlined above. Some improvisations may be entirely exploratory in nature. In dance improvisation, there is also the possibility for the creative process stages to occur in sequence or simultaneously. What is important to note is that all creative activities have the unifying element of ‘creative consciousness’ (page 10). Creative consciousness is a state of being in the moment, alert and engrossed in the task while being open and receptive to outside influences.

Associations and Core Imagery

Movement has meaning and so naturally movements have the capacity to conjure up ideas, memories and images that, in turn, can become the heart of the improvisation. Imagery in dance improvisation can be changing and varied. Images feed into movements and then as movements develop new images may arise. Core imagery is also greatly influenced by kinaesthetic memory. Muscle memory provides the dancer with an immediate recall of previously experienced movements. Memory, images and meaning are encoded in our muscles and often certain movements can trigger what we have already experienced. Kinaesthetic memory is a form of intelligence that is now being given the appropriate credit that it deserves, thanks to the work of Howard Gardner.

Chapter 2 – The Experiential Body of Knowledge

Dance improvisation needs direct experience. It nourishes our kinaesthetic learning, our body learns through doing and through experience. The authors note that movement improvisation can only be ‘learned and known through experience’ (page 16). They also highlight that in order to have positive and meaningful experiences in dance improvisation, the dancers must be ‘truly involved’ and ‘committed to the experience’ they must be ‘willing to take risks’ (page 17) and also be open to the suggestions of others. This chapter highlights that kinaesthetic awareness, phrasing, forming, relating, and abstracting all contribute to our kinaesthetic learning or our ‘experiential body of knowledge’ (page 17).

Kinaesthetic Awareness

Kinaesthetic Awareness is awareness within our bodies as we move. Our bodies are sensitive and intelligent. In dance improvisation, our bodies gain knowledge and understanding through exploration and experience. The body retains knowledge also known as muscle memory. Through time and with practice our kinaesthetic awareness of how our bodies can move will deepen and this will enrich our experiential body of knowledge base.

Phrasing

Phrasing is not only connected to the special relationship between music and movement. The authors highlight that even without music the body has its own innate sense of phrasing and timing.

‘…..the body simply responds to its own knowledge of movement linkage and organisation. It knows how movements belong together and creates phrases without being consciously directed to do so. The quality and subtlety of this knowledge increase with movement experience and can be cultivated through guided improvs.’ (page 19)

Forming

In dance improvisation, sometimes form appears as a result of preliminary instructions given by a leader. It may also develop in response to an image. Form can also begin to appear as movements are being explored as it is human nature to organise and shape ideas, to structure successful and enjoyable movement patterns and phrases.

Relating

One’s experiential body of knowledge is also inspired and invigorated when group improvisation takes place. The authors refer to group improvisation as ‘relating’ and highlight that these experiences can be extremely valuable for the dancer as they offer the opportunity to collaborate, to learn and to be inspired by others. Once the dancer feels at ease with himself or herself, within the context of dance improvisation, group improvisation work is an enjoyable and natural progression.

Abstracting

Abstracting happens naturally within dance improvisation. As a dancer explores an image or gesture in a dance improvisation an abstraction of the original will occur. In dance improvisation, sometimes the dancer can move from the literal to the abstract and at other times the abstract to the literal. Every art form possesses many possibilities for abstraction. In dance improvisation, the authors suggest that beginners may wish to start by abstracting images that have a basis in movement, an embrace or a collapse for example.

Chapter 3 – Beginners’ Questions

This chapter adopts a question and answer format and is very useful in providing preliminary information and reassurance for people who are new to dance improvisation. The chapter covers many aspects from what to expect in dance improvisation classes to how to interpret, understand and deal with different situations and encounters. This chapter concludes with an interesting summary of what the authors feel are the goals of a dance improvisation class.

Chapter 4 – Creating a Conducive Environment

This chapter concerns the role of the leader in creating a safe, creative and productive dance improvisation environment. The authors note that it is the relationships between the leader, the improvisers and the evolving improvisations themself that all work together to create a healthy, fruitful environment. Naturally, in line with the leadership of any art form, leaders of dance improvisation classes need to be skilled and knowledgeable dancers and improvisers themselves. Furthermore, leaders need to be sensitive, understanding, creative and open minded individuals who are able to create a safe and accepting environment where trust and respect for others is paramount. Only through creating an environment of trust and mutual respect will participants feel able to experiment and take risks. The authors highlight the following paradoxical qualities that a dance improvisation leader should embody. A dance leader should be ‘structured yet flexible, in control yet unobtrusive, sensitive yet not easily over-whelmed, patient yet time-conscious, idealistic yet realistic.’ (page 49) Furthermore, the authors highlight that leaders require the personal characteristics of ‘creativity, a sense of humour, and the ability to guide and elicit responses.’ (page 52)

Chapter 5 – Leaders’ Concerns

This chapter tackles some of the practical and artistic concerns that may face a leader of dance improvisations. What and how much language to use when giving instructions, the best way to begin when working with dance improvisation beginners, and the question of whether or not the leader should join in with the movement are just some of the many important questions that the leader must address. This chapter provides some advice and examples for early group improvisations. The importance of generating a discussion after improvisation work is also highlighted, alongside the offering of advice of what to do when things are not going according to plan.

Chapter 6 – Formats

This chapter looks at four ways in which leaders can present improvisations. ‘Continuous Feed-In’, as the title suggests, is a format style in which the leader provides the group with instructions throughout the progression of the improvisation. This format enables the leader to adjust instructions as necessary as the improvisation develops. Furthermore, participants do not need to remember too many instructions before the improvisation begins. The authors also note that ‘giving one new instruction at a time heights immediacy, [and] limits undesirable intellectualisation…..’ (page 85)

On the other hand, a ‘pre-structured’ format means that the leader presents all instructions to the group before the improvisation starts. The advantages of this approach are that improvisers have, in a sense, greater freedom as they can work through the improvisation in their own time. It is also possible for participants to ask questions before the improvisation begins and this may be a preference for many people. Furthermore, in group improvisations, participants have the opportunity to share thoughts and ideas beforehand and this will naturally enhance a participant’s sense of contribution and ownership.

In the format of ‘demonstration’, the leader teaches the group a particular movement shape or phrase which acts as an initial stimulus and point of departure for the group. The benefits of this approach are that participants have practised the required skill before the improvisation starts. Furthermore, everyone starts with the same movement and this unison ‘provides a bridge between role imitation and complete freedom.’ (page 87)

In ‘Open Content and Structure’, individuals are completely free to move in a way of their choice. This format can be with or without a leader. If a leader is present they can have the role of moving within the group and of opening and closing the session. Inner listening, kinaesthetic awareness and individuality are very much fostered within this approach.

Chapter 7 – Music

Music and dance have a very special relationship. Music is composed for dancing and dancing is choreographed to music. Music can be useful in dance improvisation work as it can provide an interesting stimulus. Music can foster images, emotions and feelings. It can translate ideas about rhythm and notions of style and mood. It is for these reasons that some leaders feel that music can also be too prescriptive, especially for beginners to dance improvisation. Some leaders feel that it is very important for participants to nurture their own inner music and movement relationships.

If using music, the authors suggest selecting from a wide range of periods and composers so as to avoid the repetition of stylised, habitual or automatic movement responses. The music of other cultures is also an inspiring source as its unfamiliarity calls for participants to find new and less habitual ‘aural-kinaesthetic’ associations. Having participants work with and against music can be interesting in dance improvisation. Furthermore, working with musicians, so that both the music and movement is improvising together is a very interesting exploration.

Chapter 8 – Create Your Own Improv

This chapter discusses the use of stimulus in dance improvisation. Ways in which to structure the improvisation, the importance of clear instructions and ways in which to end, edit and present an improvisation are also discussed. The authors provide a very articulate and clear example of five different ways for a leader to introduce the improvisation theme of ‘Journey’ to his/her group.

Chapter 9 – Advanced Challenges

Advanced challenges are often needed for experienced improvisers who have been working together as a group for a long. This chapter provides some fresh insight and new ideas for dance improvisation. Increasing objectivity; increasing awareness of others; culling and editing; stretching the boundaries of style; expanding exposure and challenging the leader are some useful areas to consider.

Chapter 10 – In Performance

Dance improvisation can be an intimate activity of self-exploration and discovery; therefore, in many settings, especially for beginners to the art form, it may not be appropriate for the performance platform. However, for experienced dance improvisers, the presence of an audience and a performance space can present a new experience and challenges which can be both exhilarating and intriguing. Dance improvisation in performance is both process and product and so it is important for the leader to think carefully about how it can be guided and presented within a performance capacity, so that a meaningful experience is created for both movers and audience members.

Chapter 11 – Special Situations

In this chapter, the authors provide suggestions for how to work with different personalities and characters within the dance improvisation class. Increasing sensitivity, awareness for others and ideas for how to get shyer personalities involved are all discussed.

Chapter 12 – Specific Populations

This chapter provides some ideas for leaders of dance improvisation when working with the following groups of people: choreographers; dance educators; children; actors; senior citizens; people with disabilities; visually impaired people; hearing impaired people and slower learners. This chapter concludes with a brief look at dance therapy.

Chapter 13 – Academic Issues

Dance improvisation is integral to the art of dance. Within higher education, careful consideration has to be given with regards to the assessment of dance improvisation studies. Thoughts on how to structure sensitive and meaningful assessments are discussed, in addition to providing benchmarks for what dance improvisation students should be able to do after one or two semesters of classes.

Chapter 14 – Sources

This concluding chapter is very valuable as it clearly describes numerous examples and ideas for dance improvisation.

Personal Opinion

As a beginner myself to dance improvisation, I feel an affinity with the goals of movement exploration, play and creation. The idea of transferring one’s processing, analytical, thinking self into your experiential, experimental, explorative, curious and kinaesthetic learning self is of great importance. Following gut instinct and intuitive choice-making is also a valuable goal for improvisation classes. Discovering identity in movement and allowing yourself to become part of a group’s journey while maintaining a strong sense of self is extremely valuable. Furthermore, developing a good awareness of the capacity for movement to be expressive and communicative is also a very important goal. Allowing the body to experience, learn and find its own expressive voice so that it can replenish and invigorate itself and offer inspiration and a connection with others is, in my opinion, key to the goals within a dance improvisation class.

‘The Moment of Movement: Dance Improvisation’ by Blom and Chaplin is a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful read. Dance improvisation is discussed very naturally and there are many practical examples and ideas given to illustrate points made. The role of the leader, within a dance improvisation class, is also an important focus of this book. It is interesting to note that the authors advocate that the leader is not a participant, for the most part, within a dance improvisation class. The authors believe that it is important for beginners to connect with their own moving bodies both individually and as a group and the leader has the role of guiding and shaping this process. In my experience of dance improvisation, I feel inspired, reassured and invigorated when a leader participates in the movement activity. It is exciting and interesting to see the movements of a more experienced improviser and a sense of equilibrium and unity is created for me, no one is observing but guidance is given from a moving participant. However, I can clearly appreciate the value of the leader being both active and passive in the movement when leading. The most important things are balance and sensitivity which will come through experience, knowledge and a love for dance improvisation.