Archive for August 2012
Okay, kids. It should be clear by now that I’m a firm believer in practicing things. And in my opinion, the most important thing to practice is improvising.
It’s also the hardest thing to practice. After all, isn’t improvisation just “winging it”? Don’t you practice improvising by just making yourself improvise something?
Not in my experience. Not unless you’re a born genius. To me, “just winging it” is the surest way to get discouraged. What happens is, most of the time you just come up with a lot of incoherent junk that makes you feel incompetent. What you need is some sort of plan.
Here is the big secret to improvisation: it’s nothing more than composition. Designing or inventing things. Only difference is, it’s faster.
So to practice improvising, you practice composing. And you keep composing until you can compose quickly, on the fly. And then everyone thinks you’re just winging it.
So here is an activity to try if you want to practice composing things. In this case, a bit of choreography.
First, as always, pick out a piece of music. Keep it around three minutes or less.
Now sit down with a pen and a piece of paper, and your song playing. Set it to repeat.
First thing you’re going to do is map out your song with numbers or symbols or whatever makes sense to you; map out the entire song. We’ve done this before, check out some of the other posts in the “dance practice” category if you can’t remember what I’m talking about.
As you listen to your song, on a separate page start jotting down a list of dance moves that sound like they would fit with this piece of music. Make one list for basic moves and another list for breaks. This is just to get your brain working. Also, having this list handy will help you if your brain should suddenly stop working!
Now, go back to your map. What you want to do now is just close your eyes and listen to the music. As you listen, imagine an amazing dancer dancing to your song. Like a little YouTube video of your favorite dancer playing in your head. Watch your video and see if you can catch what this awesome dancer is doing. Anytime your imaginary dancer does something brilliant and you see it clearly, write it down. Try to write it down on the appropriate spot on your map so you remember where in the song that awesome piece of dancing fits. Keep filling in the blanks as ideas occur to you.
If your ideas suddenly dry up or your imaginary dancer runs off to take a water break, then take a peek at your list of dance moves and see where you can work some of them in.
Keep doing this until you’ve got your song mostly filled in. Don’t obsess about it – it doesn’t have to be perfect. This should maybe take you a half hour.
Now dance it out. You’ll find that some of the stuff was easier for your imaginary dancer than it is for you. Fix anything that’s awkward; fill in any gaps.
Ta-da! There’s your composition. Congratulations! The best part is, this definitely gets easier the more times you do it.
For extra credit, learn the thing. It shouldn’t be hard to memorize, because you’ve already practiced it a million times in your head. Now, next time you go out dancing, ask the DJ to play your song. Then, all cool like, go off to the side of the dance floor and dance out your choreography like it’s no big deal.
And everyone will be amazed at your powers of improvisation!
My struggle with learning to lead continues. I’m making deals with myself about how many times a night I have to ask a girl to dance. And I’ve gotten to the point where I now have a small, select group of follows whom I’m not terrified to try and lead.
As nervous as I am about leading “real” follows, oddly enough I’ve never been timid about leading guys. Maybe it’s because I’m just more used to dancing with guys in general. Plus, when a girl leads a guy, it’s naturally sort of funny. The sight of a girly little lady trying to muscle some big brute around the dance floor is full of comic potential. So if something goes badly awry, everyone just laughs and goes on. Whereas when a girl is leading another girl, it seems like the leader has to actually be serious and lead properly. After all, we’ve complained about bad leads for years – the last thing we want to do now is become known as an arm yanker or creepy hand tickler.
I’m starting to process this notion that if I’m ever going to get to be a really good lead – beyond the level of “Isn’t that cute, two girls dancing together” or “We do this because there aren’t enough guys” – then I’m going to need to start thinking of myself as primarily a lead, not just a part-timer.
So I’ve been poring over videos of the Decavitas. Rebecka Decavita is my current dance hero. And now I’ve got a weird question:
Does it matter what you wear?
It seems like most of the time when Rebecka leads, she’s wearing pants. Is there a reason for that?
I know this sounds like a dumb question. But after all, the follows are the ones who are spinning around a lot, and girls wear skirts partly to emphasize those spins. Is there something about the solidity of legs in pants versus the mobile quality of skirts that makes this dance look better? Is there something objectionable about the look of two skirts swishing around? Or would that look even cooler?
Part of the problem, as always, has to do with shoes. I struggled for years to find shoes I could dance in that also looked good with skirts. Now I’ve found my perfect dance heels, and I’m so used to them that I feel awkward dancing in sneakers. Yet I’m pretty sure flat shoes are better for leading. Well, there’s no way I’m going to try convincing myself that my buttery old Aris Allen oxfords should be worn with dresses. That would be too hideous. Do I now need to begin the hopeless quest for a decent-fitting pair of pants?
I had this idea for years where if you’re dancing with a guy and he’s wearing a hat, if you want to steal the lead from him, you snatch off his hat and stick it on your own head. Then you wear the hat as long as you’re leading, and when he takes the lead back he gets the hat back as well. Isn’t that cute?
So I’m pretty sure that what you wear should have something to do with what role you’re playing in the dance. But I’m just not sure what that means. And I’m not so devoted to learning to lead that I’m willing to become a full-fledged cross-dresser to do so. Pants make me look nine feet wide. But sneakers-with-a-skirt makes me look like Alice from the Brady Bunch. So what do I do?
Compare these two men:
I just wanted to observe that the man on the right is no more obnoxious and terrifying to parents today than the man on the left was in his day.
Today, a lot of parents cringe at hearing the faint sounds of hip-hop emanating from their kids’ headphones. That is the same way parents in the 1920s reacted at hearing the sound of jazz pouring out of the Victrola in the next room.
And, in both cases, with good reason. Not only are the words as indecipherable to the ear, and rhythms as unsettling to the nervous system, but both kinds of music carry the same criminal undertones.
Remember, early jazz musicians were not nice people. Jelly Roll Morton was a pimp and a drug dealer. Louis Armstrong practically grew up in prison. Sydney Bechet was convicted for assault and deported from England. Gangster rappers have nothing on these people.
So whenever folks try to make you feel like a dork for preferring hot jazz to whatever bunk they’re playing on the radio these days, you can be reassured that eighty years from now, only dorks will be listening to hip-hop. In 2092, hip-hop will be “retro,” and those who listen to it, dance to it and study it will be considered specialists and eccentrics. Rap will be a subculture, just like swing is today.
And those of us who are still listening to jazz? Well, I guess we’ll be like Beethoven fans or something. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
So my sister dragged me and some other folks out to salsa last night. I was sitting there with a non-dancer friend of mine, watching the dancers, and he asked me a question.
“This dancing thing,” he said. “What’s the point?”
Of course, I laughed.”There has to be a point?”
“No, really,” he said. “I mean, other than romance or whatever. What’s fun about it?” He seriously wanted to know.
Spotting a potential dance convert, I immediately switched into proselytizing mode. After I blathered on for a few minutes, I started organizing my thoughts. And here’s what I came up with.
“I think for the leads,” I said, “the fun part is dreaming up stuff that matches with the music, and then seeing if you can transmit that to your follow and get her to do what you dreamed up. And for the follow, the fun is in seeing if you can stay totally open and responsive to the lead while keeping in control of your own balance and movement.”
“Oh,” my friend said sagely, “connection.” Well, he hangs out with a lot of dancers.
“Yeah,” I said, with that give-your-life-to-Jesus tremor in my voice. “Connection.”
“Sounds sort of like a game,” he said.
“Exactly!” I said.
And I guess that’s definitely a huge part of the “point” of dancing for me. It’s that game of follow-the-leader. I think I approach every new dance, and every new dance partner, like a game of skill.
Oddly enough, that seemed to make sense to my friend. “That makes sense,” he said.
Well, I don’t know if I actually made a convert, but I didn’t do too bad.
So now I ask you. How would you answer my friend’s question? What do you tell non-dancers about why you love to dance?