Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The value of improvisation

I've been reflecting on my teaching style as I consider job searching out here in my new home. Since I've only worked independently before, I was always able to teach my way, and now that I'm considering other options, I have to reflect on how much of my way is negotiable. Stumbling across this interview with Amber Richard, where she strongly touts improvisation as a means of discovering your personal style, brought the issue home for me, and I knew I had to write about improvisation in dance.

My teaching has always focused on improvisation. There are a lot of reasons for this.

I believe that the best and safest way for a student to learn tricks and transitions is "organically." That is, I can explain to you where to put your hands and how to distribute your weight all day, but if you get swept up in the music and discover a move yourself, it's going to be 1000% more solid than if you learned it by explanation or imitation.

I've been pole dancing since way back when it was more closely tied to the exotic dance industry, so improvisation is a way to pay homage to the strippers and gogo dancers, who improvise every time they go onstage. Because there's no way of knowing what song is going to play, who else is going to be onstage and in your way, where the customers are sitting, whether the pole will be covered in lotion, or dozens of other variables. So I had my students improvise much in the same way I wouldn't let them use the bottoms of their feet-- for "authenticity."

And most importantly, I always, always knew that every dancer has a unique style, a personal interpretation of the art form, and you'll never discover yours by my telling you how to move when. When you improvise, your subconscious takes over and your body finds its own way to dance-- a way that is entirely you.

I've taught more private students than anything else. I concentrate most of the lesson on learning tricks. Whatever the student has been working on, or whatever they're ready to progress on to, switching when one of their body parts becomes too sore from fatigue or pole burn and its time to move to another. And then, for the end of class, assuming the student isn't already too fatigued, I dim the lights, put on a great song, and let them improvise.

I often will advise on handy sequences, but I've never worked (or trained) anywhere that required me to teach (or learn) a "routine" in a regular lesson. Obviously, preparing for a performance or competition or learning a "solo" (in aerial terms) is another matter. But I'm just talking about a normal, day-to-day pole class. The concept of a rote routine to me seems foreign to the art of pole. Like it's something that's been imported from gyms, and other forms of dance, where dancers are expected to perform in ensemble. Pole is a rare form of dance in which you rarely see synchronization. In fact, you rarely see more than one performer at once, and if so, it's usually two. It is extremely individual. It can always draw from jazz and ballet, but will never be like them. A stage full of pole dancers moving in unison is certainly feasible and occasionally executed, but it is more of a gimmick than a trend.

I imagine some stricter teachers might gasp at the idea of letting inexperienced dancers improvise. "They'll hurt themselves without my guidance!" But I think the opposite is true. I'd rather my students execute their repertoire at their own pace than try to keep up with a routine they probably don't fully grasp. I'd rather them have a chance to (and learn how to!!!) "B.S." for a little while (ie, dance conservatively to stall for time) if they need to catch their breath or wait for their sweat to dry before jumping into something they might not be experienced enough to get out of if something goes wrong. Of course we all, for both health and legal reasons, tout "listen to your body" all day long. But I find people are more likely to listen to their bodies when they can listen at their own tempo.

I have my own favorite pole dancing songs, but a private student bringing their own song is even better. Not only are they inspired by the music and familiar with its structure, but they will quickly learn the lesson of "overdoing it." It's easy to get excited, run out of breath, and sweat too much to execute a shoulder mount when your favorite song is playing. But the ability to both pace yourself and recover from over-extension is what separates the men from the boys in pole, and I want my students to be on that page from the beginning.

If I'm working at a place where I'm required to choreograph routines, I do it. It's good for me, both in terms of choreography (since I don't compete, I don't have to design too many solos) and for learning how to simplify for beginners (since I sometimes get carried away and choreograph what my brain wants to do and not what a novice is capable of). But my favorite thing to do is to say, "OK, here's a song you know, here are 5 moves you know. The rest is up to you."

Put on your pole outfit and your favorite song. The rest is up to you.

Photo of Amber Richard from Midwest Pole Dancing Competition.

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