Freestyle Helps Us Break The Mold
It’s no secret that cultivating a freestyle/improv practice can assist dancers of all backgrounds in their technique, artistic voice, creative fulfillment, and book-ability. All professional dancers are regularly called on to improvise: in class, in audition rooms, and on the job. Freestyle strengthens your body awareness, rhythm, balance, and stamina, which all work seamlessly with your understanding of the music. Dance improvisation can help you bust through mental barriers when your choreography feels stagnant. Getting comfortable with improvisation can also give you a better handle on your essence, or ‘you’-ness, which is essential, both to booking dance jobs, and to sparking a little creative joy when you need it. A good freestyle unleashes your personality and unique relationship to movement. When freestyling becomes more second nature, it can seal the deal for us in an audition, or save the day when we, on occasion, forget the choreography.
I learned to glean inspiration from the music, the ground, partners, and props. I learned to let myself play.
Case Study #1: Meet SupaMan
Back in February, on break from a vigorous teaching schedule in Barcelona, Jeremiah 'SupaMan’ Haynes sat down to Facetime with me on the subject of freestyle dance. Haynes is a native New Yorker who first fell in love with dance while attending Long Island City High School, taking arts classes, and discovering styles like Popping, Litefeet (then called Getting Lite), and the Harlem Shake. He has gone on to win battles, perform in music videos, commercials, TV, and film. He has danced for Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, and even originated a role in the Warren Carlyle-directed Broadway show: Cotton Club Parade (later renamed After Midnight).
SupaMan—a name inspired by the song ‘Superman’ by South African DJ: Black Coffee—found his unique voice and sturdy work ethic in the freestyle scene, and now works hard to bring freestyle philosophy to gigs, studios, and dancers across the world. His training sessions last for hours, drilling foundational moves that will be reanimated and transformed in a long freestyle back-and-forth. As a teacher and friend, he has helped me all too recently deepen my own freestyle practice, unlocking a host of creative benefits and a strength in muscles I don’t usually think about.
Supaman emphasizes that, while classes in studios can help you reach your highest level of technical movement and choreography pickup, training in freestyle helps you reach your highest level of independent growth as an artist: something you’re going to need for a long dance career full of highs and lows. Having a freestyle practice you can call on for any song, in any room, with any parameter, boosts your confidence, mental well being, and sense of inner play. Freestyle requires an innate ‘trust’ of the artist’s instrument and past practice, in order to create something unique in-the-now. The experienced freestyler can naturally release the ‘worry about it being good’ and move swiftly on to the next choice without dwelling on what came before it. In other words, you get out of your head by not over-analyzing what’s coming next, and for over-analytical people like me, improv is a game changer.
Case Study #2: It’s Never Too Late To Learn To Freestyle Dance
It took me decades to break the mold of the ‘competitive studio dancer’. I worked really hard from a young age to pick up choreography from every teacher I could find, and I resisted exploration and freestyle because it was just too daunting. I didn’t know how it worked! I would choreograph by nitpicking every choice for hours, trying to ‘get it perfect’. I would perform a combination roughly the same way, every time, afraid to experiment and try something new. I was determined to be an honor roll student of dance and was missing out on the creative excitement that made me want to dance in the first place (picture 3-year-old-pre-dance-class me, spinning and bouncing around my parents’ living room with the world’s biggest smile).
When I entered the professional dance realm, I got more accustomed to improvising in auditions, although I often felt like a poser, bopping reservedly with a forced face between high kicks and pirouettes.
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Everything changed when I moved to Vancouver, Canada and trained with contemporary improv heavyweights like Joshua Beamish, Amber Funk Barton, and Modus Operandi (a training program led by world-renowned Tiffany Tregarthen and David Raymond). I learned to stop analyzing, let go of the results, and take more risks. I learned to glean inspiration from the music, the ground, partners, and props. I learned to let myself play. That new playfulness helped me choreograph more of my own work, go deeper in class, and turn more heads in auditions. I started getting callbacks for movies and commercials. I made it into the Cirque Du Soleil database after a particularly vigorous two day call (involving more improvisation than choreography, I might add). Most importantly, I was experiencing the joy and freedom of my own, unique artistic voice. That voice would be called on more and more throughout my career, and it would expand exponentially as I met and observed creative people who specialized in other dance forms.
Which brings me back to Jeremiah Haynes, who continues to champion the art of freestyle and integrate its powerful creative results within commercial and studio environments. He points out to me that competitive studio atmospheres can push young dancers into cookie cutter templates, while a commitment to freestyle, on your own, and in your community (via sessions and socials) “broadens your mind to a lot more options”.
Case Study #3: Improv Encourages Bravery
Lisa ‘L Boogie’ Bauford fondly remembers dancing under red and blue lights in a juke joint in Gainesville, FL at five years old. She remembers the hype of everyone around her, encouraging her to keep freely grooving, and she’s been chasing that feeling ever since. Lisa grew up ‘learning all the new moves’ at dance clubs and in crews, training and battling in her hometown of St. Petersburg, FL. While I was honing my technique in structured tap, jazz, and ballet classes, deep in constant comparison with my peers, Lisa was pouncing on every opportunity to dance, to entertain, and to “see people having a good time and smiling”. While I was learning how to dance like everyone else, Lisa was forging ahead, bravely as herself. Her bravery helped her compete and win freestyle hip hop battles in Tampa Bay and New York. She was, on more than one occasion, the only woman in the competition. But all the inner physical and creative work she had done as a student of the freestyle arts (and as a strong, black, gay woman determined to keep dancing), primed her to take the courageous path less traveled, and it paid off. Lisa originated the iconic role of ‘Starlight’ for iLuminate off Broadway and on tour, and brought her unique talents to Enigma Dance Crew (of America’s Best Dance Crew fame), the Kanvas Choreography Showcase, and the Hip Hop Nutcracker yearly tour. She can be seen premiering a fresh character for iLuminate’s Happy Hour, opening at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas this year. Lisa uses dance both to entertain and foster change for marginalized communities. She worked for years in Florida youth development, and also founded an all-female crew that performed in the Tampa LGBT community. She continues to teach hip hop technique and choreography all over the US, Pacific Islands, Europe, and Asia. Her fiery freestyles and brave pep talks have brought me joy and helped me embrace my own inner beat since 2015.
Dance improvisation can help you bust through mental barriers when your choreography feels stagnant.
Your Improvisation Journey:
When we improvise, we practice on-demand performance growth and increase our value as working artists. We also tap into a sense of creative play that can be deeply satisfying unto itself. Learning to freestyle on our own and among our peers in the dance community can even provide a fast track to new levels of bravery, self-confidence, and inspiration.
The best part is, you can start today. Stay tuned for tips in part 2 on how to build your freestyle practice.
main photo: Lucia Joyce © James Jin