Ann Holder, First Florida Freestylers Guild
I am the first to admit that in my early freestyle days, the idea of creating an improv absolutely terrified me. Getting up in front of a class with a beginner dog had me shaking in my shoes. I had no confidence or trust in my dog’s ability to be a partner and no trust in my ability to be creative. I was fortunate to be a student of Joan Tennille and Elaine Nabors. As our training classes progressed, they guided and encouraged me to try the impossible. The class time was a safe place to experiment and they always found something of value in our work. I gradually discovered that improvs were a wonderful way to uncover new movements and ideas. When I began teaching freestyle classes, I knew I had to incorporate improvs as a means to help my students grow in understanding how to use the concepts.
In a beginner class, the concepts are a lot of words that the students do not really understand. It is only through using the concepts that they begin to experience how they become tools for expression of movement artistically. The other critical value of improvs is in the discussion that follows each presentation. If the instructor only critiques the improv as good, terrific, or so-so, there is no information gained. The improv must be discussed in terms of how it was used to express the concept and the intent and how it solved the problem. Improvs must have a structure—a beginning, a middle end and should be short but solve the problem. An improv that ends too soon or runs on and on makes it difficult for the spectators to understand what the team is saying.
All my classes have an improv as the creative part of the lesson. For the beginners I stay with the novice level concepts and use an intent from the definition along with the requirement that they show the dog to its best advantage. I expect them to use the novice level training skills and the strengths of the performance space because these aspects must become ingrained in their thinking. For example, I might use the concept that there are two kinds of lines and ask them to show me a happy dog (joy). That may sound too simple but these are teams in the making and wanting to work together is critical for success. This is how trust and work ethic is built in a team. If you cannot show me a happy dog, there are big problems in the relationship that must be solved before the team can progress.
I never have to coerce my students into participating. They all want to go first because if someone else uses your idea, you must come up with a new one. No one can copy what another team has done. Sometimes I use music but most of the time I don’t. At the beginner level, each team is working on developing their team BPM so it is an opportunity to use your team rhythm and gives me an opportunity to watch each team individually. As each team grows in trust, the improvs become easier and generate new movements.
Joan Tennille has suggested that we video each improv with that person’s phone camera so they can see themselves and save the good material that happens. I think this is an excellent idea and will start doing it when classes begin again in the New Year. I would encourage instructors and freestyle students to make improvs a regular part of every class. If you do not attend a class and are training individually, just choose a concept and an intent and see what develops with your dog.