Saturday, August 3, 2013

Improvisation - A Way of Life for Dancers

According to Websters, improvise means to invent, compose or perform with little or no preparation or to make and provide from available materials.

According to dancers, to improvise is to turn on music and let it take your body wherever the rhythm leads you...or wherever your emotions lead you. We include improvisation time in each of our dance classes, as it helps with so many facets of movement and is a very liberating thing to do in an art form that is normally taught in a highly structured manner.

I've often said that teaching dance to kids or adults with special needs is no different than teaching it to anyone else, but there are certain things we have learned to factor in when teaching our classes. Our students thrive on structure - then again, so do most people, so strike that out as a difference! But some of our students may not be quite as quick to adapt as other people are, some of them thrive on a set-in-stone routine and variables to that routine can create issues for them.

"Change the World" was choreographed around a bench. As with any dance piece, spacing was critical in "Change the World" - the spacing of the dancers in context to each other, in relation to the bench and in relation to their place on the bench when they were sitting on dancing on it. Each kid who actually sat on or danced on the bench knew precisely where on that bench they had to be - we rehearsed it over and over. We had little issues with spacing on the bench...Anna G and Anna C start the dance off sitting on the bench with their backs to each other and their knees drawn up to their chests; Anna G frequently forgets that she has to split the middle with Anna C and doesn't leave her enough room. Carolyn, Katie and Connor or Zach have to sit side by side on the bench and sometimes they don't space themselves out well enough to leave room for Katie, the last one to take a seat. Peyton has to do a cartwheel off of the bench, has to do an aerial coming toward the bench and land right beside it and Haleigh has to run the length of the bench and land in Peyton's arms for an incredible lift - spacing is everything on each of these moves.

When we were invited on July 11 to perform in LA on July 25, we were assured that the prop department would find a bench exactly like ours.
Our bench
We sent photos and measurements of our bench and expected to find one just like it when we arrived at the theatre. We thought we might even get the Travis Wall/Mia Michaels bench but alas, when we arrived at the theatre, we were shown a rickety wooden bench with slats that were loose and that couldn't hold any weight at all.

At our first rehearsal, we didn't use the bench other than as a prop to plan spacing around. They prop department promised a better bench for Saturday morning's rehearsal. But all they did for Saturday morning was bolt down the slats on the bench, which did nothing to make it more usable as something for a dancer to run down, stand on and leap off of. So, as dancers do, we improvised.

We found a quilted leather bench in the lobby of the theatre and asked it we could use it - it was three times as long as the bench we had used, but it was the best we could find.
Anna C and Lauren in the recital
Suddenly, all those hours of rehearsing precisely where the Project UP kids should position themselves on the bench went out the window and we panicked just a bit, remembering how very uncomfortable our five kids are with the notion of changes to their dance routine. They wanted to do their dance exactly as it had been rehearsed - no deviations to the rehearsals were expected by the Project UP kids.

I was worried...would they be able to re-space themselves on a prop so much larger than the one they were used to? As is usually the case, I worried for nothing. Our kids, pros that they are, handled the different bench without a problem - even when, in the actual performance, Peyton misjudged the distance to the bench when he did his aerial and ended up behind it instead of in front of it; he improvised a really cool slide down the length of the bench to end up where he needed to be.

People with special needs are sold-short and underestimated all the time - even by me, someone who works with them and loves them. Just because they may need more time to adjust to changes doesn't mean they can't. There hasn't been one challenge we've put in front of our kids that they haven't mastered - ever. They are capable of improvising as quickly as the rest of us are...give them a chance and they'll prove it to you!

The performing arts - especially dance - is proving to be excellent therapy for people with special needs. It gives them a chance to express themselves, be part of a team and enjoy the thrill of an appreciative audience. But more than that, it gives them a chance to think on their feet, to experience situations that challenge them so that when they accomplish the challenge, their self-confidence is increased...which translates to so many other aspect of their lives. I'm no behavioral therapist, but I think Elianna's dad is right when he says our program is "therapy in disguise."

Now that I really think about it, improvisation is a way of life for people with special needs. They have to improvise coping skills to overcome the barriers their conditions present them with so that they can navigate a world that isn't designed to accommodate them very well. Think about all the ways they have to their communications with others, in the way they adapt in social situations, in the way they work in the classroom...literally in every aspect of their lives, they have to improvise to get where they want to go. As a society, we should work harder to eliminate those barriers that cause them to have to improvise so much...but we should also learn from people with special needs how to improvise better to make the most of what we have and invent, compose or create something from whatever we have available to us. Like I always say, I learn more from people who society tells us are "less than" than I've ever learned from anyone who is "normal!"

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