After years of slightly embarrassing moments in front of peers and master teachers, I decided the time had come to develop a thorough improvisation syllabus based on advice from as many great hoofers as possible. I’ll be sharing some of that work with you. Here are the first exercises I present to my students.
Beginning Improvisation Exercises
(Appropriate for students of all ages and levels, unless otherwise noted)
Exercise 1: Group Nursery Rhymes
Goal: Get feet connected to brains, and get students moving!
Choose a song that everyone knows. My suggestion is “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for the first time you try this. Remind them that there are no rules except to dance one sound for each note in the song. Sometimes this will take more than one try, especially if you notice dancers adding extra sounds. Encourage them to leave space during the silence in the song.
If you have very young students (I start them at age 3 with this exercise), have them sing and dance at the same time. If you have intermediate dancers or adults, they can dance without singing.
Exercise 2: “Fancy Dancing”
Age/Level: Beginning Students, ages 3 to 7
Goal: Learn how to dance in an improv circle
All dancers begin in a circle. Choose a fun song that the kids can relate to, with a steady tempo and a good beat. One by one, dancers enter the circle and “show us their best moves” and dance as long as they want! Encourage them to do ANYTHING they want, not just tap dance. This gets them thinking about moving things other than their feet!
Exercise 3: Toes Only, Heels Only
Ages/Levels: Beginners of all ages
Goal: To eliminate the pressure to come up with impressive footwork when a beginner doesn’t have a big vocabulary
Once again, make a circle. You have two variations that you can try with this exercise, both of which help relax self-conscious beginners.
Variation A: Repeat Exercise 1 as a group, but using only toe drops or heel drops. This can also be done one at a time so they can hear their taps, though you’ll need to pay careful attention to their self-consciousness and be sure to encourage them!
Variation B (ages 6 and up): Have each student choose their own nursery rhyme and tap it out with toes or heels. Make the rest of them guess! This is challenging, but fun.
Exercise 4: Pass the Buck
- Image via Wikipedia
Goal: To learn how to “pass” to the next person
All dancers begin in a circle. Choose a fun song with a steady tempo and a good beat. One by one, dancers either enter the circle (young kids and advanced dancers) or dance in place in the circle (ages 6 to adult) and “show us their best moves” and dance as long as they want! Encourage them to do ANYTHING they want, not just tap dance. This gets them thinking about moving things other than their feet!
When they are finished, they must gesture with a foot, hand or eye contact to the person they choose to go next. If the “passing” is too complicated for your little ones, you can verbally prompt them to pass it to someone, or simply progress one at a time around the circle.
Exercise 5: Bars, Meters & Counts
Goal: To create music awareness while dancing and practice structured improvisational trades around a circle
Begin with a very structured 4/4 song that does not have any strange segues or extra measures. Have all students beat their hands on their legs, clap or snap to the beat. Continue their time keeping, but have them now count out loud – “1..2..3..4”. Be sure you do not have them count “5..6..7..8”. This is a cardinal sin in the music world, as you’ll find out if you dance with live musicians! Explain to your students that each set of four counts is a measure, or a bar. I often use this with my elementary students who are learning addition and/or multiplication. They love when they know the answer to “How many counts are in four measures?”
Once you have explained the concept of bars/measures and counts to them, try dancing four measures. If this is too tough, they can even use toes and heels like before. Have them help each other by counting out loud and holding up fingers for the number of measures that have passed. Everyone loves a little help from their friends!
Note: Remember that each student should begin on count 1 of their first measure and end on count 4 of their last. This will help with students transitions to one another. You can also require them to “pass the buck” once they’ve finished their turn.
I hope these beginning exercises give you some ideas for your own classes, or even your own individual improvisation work. Let’s find that creative genius hidden inside your students (and maybe even you)!
For more information or to purchase a complete copy of the syllabus, please feel free to comment below or email me at sarah.mason@PennAcadArts.com.
Sarah Mason is the owner/Artistic Director of PA Academy of the Arts, a family-oriented performing arts school in central Pennsylvania offering training in dance, theatre and music.
Born and raised in Chicago, Sarah was the Founder of world-renowned Footprints Tap Ensemble. She is respected from coast to coast as an exceptional dance educator, having taught for over 20 years. Sarah continues to perform as a tap artist, both as a soloist and with her ensemble, Jade Dance Project. She is also the proud mother of two little boys, and the wife of a professional musician.
Sarah’s Dance Dynamics teaching tools, including her unique and easy-to-use tap improvisation syllabus and more, are featured regularly in the TAPography section of Dance Advantage and can be purchased on her website.
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