This is an excerpt from Beginning Modern Dance With Web Resource by Miriam Giguere.
Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of movement. This means that you are inventing the movement as you do it. When you hear a song you like and begin to move to it, you are improvising. Playing, letting go, acting on impulse, listening, and trusting yourself are all part of the improvisation process. Very often improvisation in dance is structured around a movement task or an idea. For example, you might be asked to improvise for a certain number of counts during the combination at the end of class, with the guidelines that you travel low to the floor or move in a circular path. This same idea of structuring improvisational exercises can be used as a very satisfying way to dance in and of itself, but it is also often used as a way to generate movement to be used in choreography. Some choreographers improvise movement for themselves and then teach the material to the dancers. Other choreographers improvise with their dancers during rehearsal. The movement you create during the rehearsal process may be shaped and used in the choreography itself. This is frequently true in modern dance where it is common for a choreographer to highlight the individuality and specific talents of the performers. Some common improvisational structures are suggested in the following section to help you with your investigations, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. Your teacher will have many other strategies to help you develop movement ideas.
Moving From Visual Images
Photographs, paintings, sculptures, and videos can inspire movement creation. Pick an image that resonates with you or with the idea you want to make a dance about. If there is a spatial pattern evident in the visual art you have selected, begin to move in the space in that same pattern. Allow yourself many repetitions of the pattern and see how the movement naturally alters or adapts as you move. Perhaps there is a central figure or object in the image. Embody the shape of that figure or object. Allow yourself to respond to the position your body is in. Unfold the position, move one body part, or try the position standing, seated, lying on the floor, or traveling through space. Make a list of emotions that the art evokes for you. Move to each of these emotional states using the patterns or shapes you found in the artwork.
Moving From Words
Language can be a powerful force in motivating dance. You can work from a list of words - perhaps ones that suggest action, such as a list of words with - ing endings - or a text such as a poem or a monologue. Listen to the language as you read the text out loud. If it contains a rhythm, begin to move to the rhythm of the words. Try putting this rhythm in just one part of your body, such as your legs. Shift the rhythm to your arms or your hips as you continue to improvise. Make a list of the images in the text. Let these images guide your movements as you did with visual art images. Find the most meaningful words in the text. Describe the quality that these words have for you in movement terms. In other words, do these words suggest moving sharply, slowly, or low to the ground? Use these as qualities or guidelines for inventing movement.
Improvisation can also be based on a specific task or assignment. For example, move from one corner of the space to the opposite corner of the space beginning low and ending as high up from the floor as you can. Or move in a circular pattern in the space, but begin movements only with your left foot. Perhaps select a body part from which to begin traveling in the space. If you want to change direction, you must begin with a different body part. A common improvisational task requires dancers to move on a grid pattern on the floor, making only 90-degree turns in the space. Any task like this can lead you to moving in new ways that you haven't tried before and help you to develop movement ideas.
People experience life through the five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Pick any one of these senses as a motivation for improvisation. Eat a bit of sweet chocolate. Respond with movement to the sensation. Now eat a bitter piece of dark chocolate. See if your body responds with movement in the same way. Smell perfume wafting in the air. Let this inspire your movement. Feel an ice cube and respond to the cold using your torso. Sensory experiences are rich with the possibility of bodily response.
Responding to Someone Else
Improvisation does not need to be done solo. In fact, it is quite often a group activity. You can respond to the movement of others in the space with you. You can alternate moving with another dancer, for example, as if you are in dialogue with him. Just like a conversation with words, your movement response is shaped by how your partner moves. If he moves toward you, you can respond by coming even closer or moving away. You can learn a movement from another dancer and change it by adding to it or deleting from it. You can sculpt the shape of another dancer's body and move in the negative spaces created by your partner's position.
There are as many ways to improvise movement as there are ideas for dances. Whatever stimulates you to make movement that suits your dance is an appropriate starting point. The more time you can give to moving without judging yourself, the more original your movement will tend to be. Improvisation should be like a structured play session where your body indulges in the creative process.
Learn more about Beginning Modern Dance.