Improvisation Toolkit Volume 2: Structure
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(Mar 22, 2010)
When you try to improvise, do you:
- feel boring and repetitive?
- "scribble" when you try to do more than just the basics?
- wish your dancing looked planned and polished?
Many dancers try to make their performances interesting by adding more "stuff": more moves, more layers, more complexity. All too often, that degenerates into a sloppy mish-mash of moves called scribbling. And it's a quick way to lose your audience's attention!
Interesting dancing doesn't need more stuff - it needs structure.
The improvisation Toolkit uses practical, step-by-step exercises to help you organize your improvised dance, so your audience can follow your train of thought.
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So, within this genre of dance, improvisation is the toughest aspect to learn. This is because it means the dancer needs a solid repertoire of dance moves that she can recall readily because they're ingrained in her muscle memory. You don't want to be bothered with worrying about the movement itself, if you're trying to keep moves coming as the music progresses. You also need to understand a lot about the structure of dance, how it is understood by the audience. And of course, it's finally all about the music and how the dancer can express herself with it.
Not surprising then that improvising should come about gradually. Instructional videos have traditionally given a learner the components. But that done, they ask you to "just dance". This was the situation until Nadira Jamal's Improvisation Toolkit came along. Volume 1, released in December 2008 and took up movement recall. This second volume focuses on structure - which may sound boring, but is far from it.
What it's about
Improvisation Toolkit 2 gets right into how you can structure your dance. Improvisation doesn't mean you can just "scribble" or come up with random moves, even if they fit. There must be patterns and arrangements. Human beings feel comfortable with patterns, sometimes seeing them where they don't even exist. Strucureless dancing would leave both dancer and audience confused and dissatisfied. This video is a deep exploration of various aspects of these patterns to make up the whole structure.
How it works
Dancer and instructor, Nadira, uses exercises throughout her DVD to make sense of improvisation. Those familiar with Vol 1 and her Taktaba podcasts will know the style of these exercises. They're logical, almost mathematical, and very practical. In fact, you could think of this video as a workbook on belly dance improvisation. The exercises are guided and then fill-in-the-blanks. Exercises also get increasingly complex as we get deeper into the subject.
The menu that you'll find as the DVD opens up runs into 7 screens. Even though everything is detailed and accessible separately as is the style of menus on belly dance DVDs today, it still gives you some idea of how much content there is here and how specific it is. The warm up is the same as on Vol 1 - which is fine. We begin the instruction with several chapters on continuity and how to use it to aid improvisation. Nadira's movement analysis and understanding of audience psychology come into their own as she takes up exercises on how to keep repetition fresh. Some of this will be familiar to those who have seen the Taktaba episodes and been through the AAAB, etc exercises though the exercises here are different. Repetition with entire combinations is also taken up, with the exercises getting quite complex and challenging as more segments are left for you to fill in. Another structural concept Nadira explored is Theme and Variation, a particularly satisfying format for audiences. Nadira shows you how to incorporate a theme and make variations on it - again with examples and exercises. Lots of them.
Next, there is a section on the compositional skeleton, chunks that you can take from a choreography or your safety riffs and using them. Nadira shows you how to create combinations on the fly with these. The final section is a Plug and Play Choreography. This is where parts of the dance are given, and some are left for you to fill in. This begins with an analysis of the song's structure.
There's also a movement glossary on this video.
What the quality is like
If there's one place this video falls short it's on production quality. It's far better than a no-frills video but nowhere near other well-produced ones. The sound is uneven across the video, though it isn't inaudible anywhere. Nadira talks a little too fast in some places. In this volume, the camera is too close on Nadira and often you see her turn towards the camera a fraction too fast. The exercises are actually a lot of fun and the video very well conceptualized - if it had been slickly produced, it would have been a killer. Luckily, belly dancers are very tolerant of less-than-ideal quality and I don't expect these minor points to make a difference because the content is great.
Who's it for?
Much like the first volume, this instruction could benefit any level of dancer who feels she needs help with improvisation. I happen to think it'll be particularly nice for learners who are just past absolute beginner stage. Seasoned dancers may find these exercises very helpful when conducting classes. If you have the first volume, you'll probably be wondering whether you need this one. Well, the aspects of improvisation taken up are different so if you're not yet comfortable with improvising, yes.
There are three major strengths I see with the instruction on this (and the previous) DVD:
1. It's analytical and logical and explains things so they make sense
2. It's practical and makes improvisation doable with exercises
3. It's usable because it enhances your understanding of the audience's understanding