When I'm not improvising in the evening, I'm usually out social dancing. Mainly Lindy Hop, Salsa, and Bachata, at least once a week.
Ever since I started dancing, I've noticed that there is a lot of overlap in dancing and improv comedy. On a social dance floor, we essentially improvise our dancing. We can get better dancing and improv by using them as transferable skills.
Also, both are so much fun that I have to warn you, they are addictive!
Here are some of the things I've noticed . . .
Paul Z Jackson describes improvisation as 'freedom within structure', meaning that we can use structures such as games and dance moves as guidelines and do whatever we want within them. We know what's supposed to happen: create a scene or dance Salsa, and within that we can make our own combination of moves.
There are many different styles of dancing and lots of ways to do improv. In dance you've got Ballroom, Latin, Contemporary, Traditional, Ballet, Jazz, etc. etc. In improv you've got Short Form and Long Form, within which you find more niche ways of playing such as Theatresports or a Harold, and different schools teach them in their own way. The UCB Harold for example is a known style.
As we all draw from different experiences, no two dancers or improvisers are the same. You can get to know each other well and adapt to each other's style, yet you can't expect the next person to know the same moves or have the same interpretation of suggestions or the music.
I really enjoy mixing different styles and making them my own. If you see someone do something you like, try it out yourself. Don't worry about copying them exactly because you will be doing it your own way.
Practice, practice, practice
You can't learn how to improvise or dance by only reading about it or watching other people do it (though reading and watching help). There are lots of classes for different levels which I highly recommend you give a try. The best teachers create a friendly and social environment where you get to learn from them as well as your peers.
However, classes only get you so far, because in a class, a teacher usually gives you notes immediately and you get to try again. It's the socials that will test you and let you learn from each other. Especially as a follower I have to let go completely and not anticipate the next move when dancing with different people. The same goes for improv jams.
The first time you go out dancing or play improv will feel a bit like jumping into the deep end. Confidence will come with time and practice.
It's a whole body sport
When we dance and when we improvise, we don't discuss what we're going to do next. We accept each other's ideas and build on them as we go along in the moment.
Strangers and family
It's possible to dance and do improv with someone that you've only just met, as you're both aware of what is supposed to happen. It's actually very good practice to go out and meet new people, as you can really test yourself for how well you're listening to your partner without anticipating what they might do next.
When you spend a lot of time with people, share emotional stories and physical space, you get to know each other very well, your team turns into family. The more you get to know each other off stage and the dance floor, the more intimate your scenes and dances become, as you build trust and care.
Make your partner feel and look good
When you're playing as a team, you will only succeed if the whole team looks good. Make moves that you know your partner can follow and show them that you appreciate their presence.
A note on trust and safety: whether you've known each other for years or only just met, going along with someone else's suggestion can be the scariest thing to do and it's a big leap of faith. It's very important to always ask if someone wants to dance or play with you. Know what your partner can do physically, check in before a dance or show if they have a bad back or not. Dance and improv are consensual and forcing someone on stage or on to the dance floor and making them do things that they are not comfortable with is a big NO! When in doubt, keep your hands to yourself. Groping is not acceptable, neither on stage, nor in social situations.
You don't need to be the best dancer or improviser to be fun to play with. Having fun and treating your partner with respect, enthusiasm and forgiveness will do the trick and ensure that people want to dance with you again. And as you continue dancing and playing, you'll get better by default.
If you want to focus on yourself, go dance on your own or do stand up comedy. Those are fun activities too.
Look into each other's eyes
It's all about the contact and the energy that's between you and your partner. Use the tension that is created by making eye contact to set the mood of the scene and dance. It's also helpful to check in once in a while to see if your partner is still having fun.
Let go - Being in the moment
A social dance and an improv scene will be information overload, you've got to take care of yourself, your partner, the people around you (peripheral vision), listen to the music and keep going. If you're thinking about whether you've locked the door, what you're writing in your assignment or how you're going to get your to-do list done, you'll miss important queues.
Dancing and improv are very much about being present and mindful of what is happening right NOW. When you can get out of your head and into your body, the music, the scene, you'll find a flow of focus and calm which makes the world around you disappear and all of those pieces of information which first seemed overwhelming are now part of the spontaneous art form which only exist in that moment.
Some people are only ready to let go and dance when they've had an alcoholic drink or two. Alcohol can loosen you up and make you a bit less self-conscious, however, unfortunately it also makes you less aware of what's going on around you and will make you listen less and process slower. Therefore most improvisers and dancers wait with drinking alcohol until they're at the bar afterwards.
2 people scenes and group games
Improv and dancing can be done alone, with two people, and with whole groups. Each have their own dynamics and are fun in their own way. I personally enjoy a mix of all of them in one evening.
As you are playing or dancing in front of an audience, there is another added variable to pay attention to: entertaining them and doing what pleases them. At first it may feel slightly unnatural to turn so that the audience can see your face but with time and practice you get used to it.
Competitions tend to be more common in dancing than in improv, but improv competitions do exist. See my blogpost on Celebrating Success. When you choose to enter a competition, be very clear with yourself and your partner what your aim is, whether you want to win or whether you just want the experience of taking part.
Of course there are also differences between dancing and improv. If not, they'd be known as the same activity. Two of the most obvious differences are that in partner dancing you usually have a clear lead and a clear follow, whereas in improv the two are often indiscernible. Another difference is that there is considerably less talking in dancing. Some of the best improv scenes don't involve any talking at all, but none of my best dances have featured great conversation.
It's hard for me to imagine a life without dancing and improv and I do both at least once a week. Both are very freeing and meditational. If you are an improviser, I highly recommend you take a dance class. If you are a dancer, try some improv. If you do both already, good for you! Keep going!
There are also styles which focus specifically on the connection between dancing and improvisation. Have a look at Contact Improvisation and 5 Rhythms Dance.