Improvising the Change We Need

By Cynthia Winton-Henry


Dancers who improvise together are onto something. We muster every bit of social intelligence and multidisciplinary craft to invent new worlds. The Bay Area is rich with improvisational forms. Among them are Contact Improv, Biodanza, Body Tales, Passion Dancing, Body Choir, Core Rhythms, Dance Jams, Five Rhythms, Contemplative Dance, Playback Theater, Trance and Sacred Dancing, Theater of the Oppressed, and InterPlay. As devotees to improvisational practice, we trade in many aspects of our western civilization for something else that many of us feel is saving our lives.

Improvisation as Social Transformation
A new book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy suggests that the spontaneous collective joy made possible by dance and drum is necessary to mend the social fabric of life. Sport and spectacle alone cannot restore our physical oneness. Ehrenriech recounts the west’s history of outlawing dance and drum rituals not only among Native Americans, African Americans, and indigenous world people, but also among dancing Northern European Christians. She attributes western civilization’s loss of empathy, joy, and body wisdom to repressing dance as a conduit of renewal, revolution, and power. The closing words to her book sum it up:

Walking along the beach in Rio we came upon members of a Samba school rehearsing for Carnivale–four-year-olds to octogenarians, men and women, some gorgeously costumed and some in tank tops and shorts–Rio street clothes. To a 19th century missionary or a 21st century religious puritan their movements might have seemed lewd or at least suggestive… Certainly the conquest of the streets by a crowd of brownskinned people would have been distressing in itself. But the samba school danced down right to the sand in perfect dignity, rapt in their own rhythm, their faces both exalted and shining with an almost religious kind of exaltation. One thin, lattecolored young man dancing just behind the musicians set the pace. What was he in real life? A bank clerk? A busboy? Here, in his brilliant feathered costume, he was a prince, a mythological figure, maybe even a god. Here, for a moment there were no divisions among people except for the political ones created by Carnivale itself. After they reached the boardwalk, bystanders started following in without any indication or announcements, without embarrassment or even alcohol to dissolve the normal constraints of urban life, the samba school turned into a huge crowd and the crowd turned into a momentary festival. There was no point to it, no religious overtones, no ideological message, no money to be made. Just the chance–which we need much more of on this crowded planet–to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.

History shows that movements of highly creative mobilizers can be dangerous. Spontaneous, ecstatic dance fosters a democratic freedom that most academics only dream about. Nobel Prize winning environmental activist Wangeri Maathei’s writes in her memoir, Unbowed:Confronted by a tense situation we would sing about the need to protect the forest and dance. This was a way to disarm the armed men in front of us–and it worked. We could see their frowns and scowls vanish and their faces soften. We were only women singing and dancing, after all, and those things didn’t pose a threat. As far as they were concerned we could sing and dance all day. What they didn’t know was that the singing and dancing made us feel strong.

A System for Improvisational Dance
It is one thing to dance freely, but leading improvised community performance and ritual doesn’t just happen. The art of collective freedom of expression in healthy communities is a high art. Think of herding cats. Think of herding feral cats. How would you create inspiring performance or ritual with fifty, sixty, or a couple thousand people without dictating every move?

In 1989 Phil Porter and I noticed that by affirming people as they improvise they developed personal authority, freedom of expression, increased ability to collaborate, and consistently made art that moved us. For us improvising was addictive, demanding and fun. It fed us intellectually, emotionally, artistically, and spiritually. Could people create excellent improvisational performances? Asking this question, we founded Wing It! Performance Ensemble, an entourage of trained dancers, poets, musicians, and actors who discovered ways to improvise evening-length multidisciplinary performances of solos, duets, trios, and ensemble pieces. Wing It! gave rise to InterPlay, our improvisational practice, philosophy, and leadership program, which now spans four continents and includes movers in Australia, India, Germany, and Africa. InterPlay also evoked new thought forms to express our physical experience. Terms like exformation, the physicality of grace, easy focus, bodyspirit, incrementality, and “dancing on behalf of” filled our vocabulary.

In our search for a systematic approach to improvisation, Phil and I honed very simple, open-ended, non-emotive structures within which members could successfully create in the moment. Using small incremental steps to teach improvisational solo dance, ensemble movement, contact, storytelling, and singing to persons of all ages, abilities, and life situations, we’ve seen improvisation allow people who don’t usually have a performance voice or platform offer their gifts to the wider community. Many InterPlayers are young or mid-life professionals without extensive art training who long for freedom of expression and a place to bring the challenges and joys of their life. Many have left mainstream religions and practices to find alternative tools for life and report life-changing encounters with something beyond us. These experiences seem to make them receptive to voices and visions. In spite of their higher educations, improvisational dancers often listen and respond to synchronous instincts.

The Leaders Behind the Scenes
As I meet gifted improvising community leaders, I realize that there is no name for those who improvise dance, song, story and music to restore and invigorate community health. Where are our awards and festivals? We are rarely reviewed in dance and theater articles since we don’t uphold western standards of “black box” theater or entertainment. Our sights are usually on the magic of the players. We hold a difficult tension between artistic excellence and community care, not giving up one for the other. Like jazz musicians, we’re less interested in critiquing culture than in remaking it. We yearn for the art of improvisation to be taken seriously as a craft.

Sometimes I bemoan having chosen an art form that is hard to describe and harder to remunerate. Improvisation is so fleeting, but its rewards are incredible. As a student in the UCLA Dance Department, my uncanny ability to improvise was noticed by a Master’s student who had me do a “structured improv” in her thesis performance. It felt like cheating it was so much fun. I felt integrated, aware of others, connected, and intellectually inspired. How could it be art if it felt so good? While I studied with master choreographers, I was never introduced to a master improviser. Unconsciously, I began turning technique and composition into tools for the art of improv.

Perhaps I didn’t recognize the improvisational masters because they must disappear so that the performers become the evidence of creative genius. Plus, their disciplines are so internalized that their dances only appeared choreographed. Great improvisers are gifted in dance, composition, imagemaking, environmental design, rhythm, song, storytelling, ritual, energy work, group dynamics, psychology, political and organizational development, non-profit and business management, marketing and communication.

Last year I was moved to physically gather some of the Bay Area’s formidable improvisational leaders. We had a common hunger to meet each other and get support. Many of us have been working for decades on mastering our art and teaching it to others. Many had started training programs to pass on our wisdom in a systematic way. Meeting with these colleagues, I recognized we are part of a larger movement of dancers and artists involved with social change. Improvisational dance, voice, and theater has changed our lives. We see it changing our world. We think we are onto something if for no one else but the crazy people who come play with us. But, I know we are hoping for something more. Even if as Ehrenriech says, it is “just the chance–which we need much more of on this crowded planet–to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.”

This article appeared in the May 2007 issue of In Dance.

Cynthia Winton-Henry is a cofounder of InterPlay and author of What the Body Wants. She is based in Oakland and teaches at InterPlayce on Telegraph Ave.