How to Dance
I twirled, flowing from one movement to the next. Lifting my arms I spun around, then dropped to one knee just as the music ended. I was thirsty, so I walked out of my family room, and went to get a glass of water from the kitchen. When I got back, my younger sister bombarded me with her usual question: "How do you dance like that?!"
"Like what?" I asked, not yet frustrated. "I"
"But you're so good! And you can dance with other people watching," she complained. I normally dance with my sister in the room - no one else is watching - but she can't do even that. So every time she complains, I begin my oh-so-familiar lecture. It gets annoying repeating it over and over to my sister, so I'll only tell you once.
The main thing to remember is that it really doesn't matter how much experience you have. You can get someone who has no talent and has been taking lessons for three years, and someone who's a natural but is just starting. I've taken lessons once, but stopped because I didn't like the teacher and class. The only thing that I remember goes something like: step, step, step, twirl. But I hardly ever use it when I'm dancing - if I use it at all. Yet dancing is what I love to do, so I remain a dancer. I don't worry about people watching me because I know I'm dancing for me and not for them - they're not an audience, they just happen to be there.
If there are people watching you, you shouldn't worry about what they think. I know that's the kind of advice that seems easier in theory than in action, but really, it's not. You have to keep in mind that there are many different kinds of dancing - modern, ballet, jazz, lyrical, tap, and so on. When you are dancing freestyle, you automatically base your dance on an existing style. Since there are so many different styles, there are many different ways you can dance. Everyone has their own opinions; there will always be people to tell you you're terrible, and people to tell you you're wonderful, (and then there will be people in between who just don't care.) Case in point, two of my friends have totally opposite ideas of dancing. We go to a school dance and I stand there amused while they trade insults about each other's dancing, saying that the other person has no idea how to dance right. They go around in circles for a few minutes, until I get bored. Then I end up joking, "You're both terrible, OK? Now shut up already!" I haven't lectured them, and I doubt I'll need to. They each dance their own specific way, not worrying about anyone else or what movements they have to come up with. In improv dancing you make it up as you go along.
When you're dancing don't worry about what you're going to do next. It's like writing a freewrite: don't pick your pencil up off the paper, just write whatever comes to mind. The same thing applies to dancing: just keep moving, whatever you do will be fine. My friend has a big glass window in her family room. When it's dark outside, you can see yourself reflected in it. I loved to dance while watching myself in the window - it was easier to choreograph spontaneously if I could see what I was doing. I still do that; but instead I use the mirror on my dresser or the sliding glass doors in my family room. The same thing may apply to you. Do you ever wonder why ballet dancers always have that big wall-covering mirror in their dance studio? Probably for the same reason. If you don't have a huge mirror (which most people don't) then you can use sliding glass doors instead. Just dance at night with the lights on. Don't worry about other people seeing you; you're in the privacy of your own home - not on public property.
But for improv dancing to truly work you have to let yourself go. Fly free - don't hold yourself in. Listen to the words and dance accordingly. Dancing isn't all spins and flourishes, add a little acting. Ever seen a ballet? They dance while they act; you try the same. You don't have to add anything elaborate, but a little hand movements won't go amiss. Think hula dancers - they tell a story with their hands.
Actually listening to and "feeling" the music will also help. To start, let the music play and stand there for a few minutes, just listening. Start swaying to the tempo, and spin when there's a flourish in the tune. I tend to prefer ballet-type music, so my music will actually have a tune. But even so, you don't want to be jumping around during a slower part of the song - it just won't fit. After a while, start to dance - whatever way you like. However, I recommend dancing to a tune. Anyone can dance to the beat, but a tempo doesn't have a soul - a melody does. Let the music enter you and become yourself. Let the music control you and not the other way around. Fly to the ups and downs, spin around curves.
You can even dance in your mind. Let's say you're sitting in the car on a long, boring road trip. There's music playing, a song that you like. Try creating scenery in your mind; I picture the shoreline, though a plain room will suffice. Then picture yourself in that room, standing, doing whatever. Hear the music flowing around you, directing you; and start to dance. Dance however you would normally, but instead of doing it physically, you're dancing mentally. This is a good mental exercise; plus the car ride will be over before you know it.
Dancing mentally gives me the same escape from life that dancing physically does - just without the exercise. When I'm dancing I don't need to worry about any current problems I have. All I think about is dancing. You can do that too, and it'll make dancing easier. Focus only on the music and your movements, ignore everything else. Doing so separates me from the stress that I get from the everyday world, leaving me feeling refreshed and content - and happier. They say exercise makes you happier because of some chemical that gets released in your brain; I suppose that has something to do with it. But mainly, it's the feeling I get - like flying way up high and seeing everyone down below you. Like having some important task that you know you can do - and in doing it you change the world for the better.
That's the secret, really. I don't believe dancing takes a special talent - it doesn't even take lessons. All it takes is the willingness to forget everything else around you, and to let the music direct you. Don't listen to the music - become it.