A lesson in improvisation, switching between lead and follow

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I know, a lesson in improvisation sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it was a private I really needed!

In trying to work toward truly improvised dance, I need a better understanding of the core elements and the possibilities. I also need to find ways of freeing myself from auto-pilot. I can kind of do that when dancing quickly, but slow dance tends to gravitate back to my core vocabulary …

Maeve had a three-part solution to this.

First, thinking about all the various possibilities in the first moment. Maeve broke this down into direction (pivot) and space (step), with changes in height as another variable. She said you can lead direction first – pivot the follower before a step; lead space first – lead a step before a pivot; or both together. The pivot can be either direction and any degree of rotation. The step can be forward, back, left, right or diagonal. And the same for each subsequent movement – the same possibilities exist – and that’s just within close embrace.

When you add in a sliding embrace, then even more becomes possible, like movements where you end up at right-angles to each other.

Second, to try anything I hadn’t done before. For example, to take a familiar figure, change her weight midway through and then figure out how to resolve that. That led to some impromptu sacadas, a kind of Americana where we were on the same feet instead of opposite ones, a made-up contra-giro, a very nice planeo and several other unexpected things.

Some of the time, I would try something and there would be an obvious way to continue it. Other times, I’d literally have to stop and think about what would or wouldn’t be possible from there. Sometimes I couldn’t find a way out – but reversing it was always one solution.

Third, we swapped lead and follow. Sometimes Maeve would lead something which would illustrate a possibility I hadn’t yet found. Other times, she would lead me into a particular situation, stop and hand the lead to me so I had to figure out a resolution.

We did some of it to tango music, and some of it to non-tango music, which made it easier not to feel constrained. That part was more like a gentle contact improv session.

Even incompetent following is really helpful

Maeve gave me my first ever lesson as a follower almost a year ago now, and I found it incredibly valuable. I’ve had a few other experiences of following here and there. I’m not, at this stage, attempting to actually become a dual-role dancer. That is a long-term ambition, but feels like way too big a stretch at this stage. I’m currently using following as a tool to help my lead.

Every time I do some following, it gives me a whole new appreciation for the skill. Trying not to anticipate, learning to do nothing when nothing is led, the mindset of always aiming to move into the space the leader has opened … and let’s not even talk about the balance required. My balance in pivots leaves a huge amount to be desired, and following robs you of the leader cheat for balance issues: if I’m ‘falling’ in a particular direction, I can just lead a move in that direction to recover. Followers don’t have that luxury!

But it also gave me yet another level of appreciation of the art of simple dance. Following is just a lovely sensation. Things which seem basic when leading them don’t feel so when following, and I don’t think that’s just because I’m a very incompetent follower. Once a follower gets beyond the stage of learned figures and starts actually following, they need neither know nor care whether or not the leader is leading a particular figure.

As Maeve was improvising, I couldn’t get distracted by trying to work out what she was leading in terms of figure – I could only follow the current step, pivot or change of weight. When she asked me afterwards if I’d recognised something specific, I had no idea what she was talking about: I only remembered the feeling of following individual movements. So it again underlined that it’s all about the how, not the what.

The road to truly improvised dance will be a long one, I know. But it’s also a really exciting one, and this lesson really opened my eyes to the fun that lays ahead!

Image: Shutterstock

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