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Improvised Dance

  • Contents: Joy of Dance
  • Description
     Dance Instruction: Improvised Dance 
     Target Audience: Experienced social dancers
  • Author:
  • Genre: Social dance

When the dance floor lies in front of you, smooth and slippery, the music flows through your ears, and you whirl around with your partner, the joie de vivre felt in your heart might manifest itself in a spontaneous, improvised dance. This type of dance is the essence of this web site - Joy of Dance!

This page only treats improvised social dancing with a partner. This implies that it should be possible to practice the dance with a dancing partner that you meet for the first time, and that the played music might not be known in advance.

A prerequisite is that the new, improvised elements must build upon skills and modes that are shared between both the individuals taking part in the dance.

It is unavoidable that spontaneous dancing sometimes causes mistakes and turbulence, and possibly that you also temporarily loose the phrases or beats in the music. If this happens infrequently it is nothing to worry about, but if you feel that this is repeated so often that you or your partner get frustrated, you might consider going back to the basics and from there find a new and lower level which you can practise more smoothly.

How can an improvised, smooth dance be developed? Let us start with the most fundamental question:

What is dance?

The basics for the dance itself is not often discussed. I once participated in a weekend class in Argentinean tango, where the teacher started with defining the basics for his tango:

  • Beats. Follow the beats in the music
  • Style. Aim for elegance in dancing, including appearance and clothes
  • Improvisation. Avoid choreography – aim for improvised dancing

This is close to my own opinion, which I would formulate as follows:

  • Keep a relation to the beats in the music
  • Be at one with your dance partner
  • Form your dance in harmony with the music
  • Be spontaneous and playful

Probably most dancers agree with this. The most fundamental issue for me is to follow the beats in the music, strictly or freely, but never independently. The dancing pair should preferably dance in harmony with each other and develop a smooth dance. If you can not only follow the beats but also express phrases and other characteristics of the music in your dance it is great, and if you can build improvisation upon this it is even better.

However many dancers have probably experienced that their attempts to improvise have resulted in all but harmonic dancing and consequently avoid it.

When is the right time to take the risk of leaving the safe, well known dancing platform and go out into the unknown by doing an improvisation, possibly resulting in an unpleasant interruption of your dance? If you feel that your dancing is beginning to feel boring, it is definitively time. Start out gently and carefully by doing something minor in a different way. Try it with different dancing partners, and find variants which run smoothly. If a variant results in an unwanted interruption, misunderstanding or problems continuing with the dance afterwards, modify it and see if it works better. After a long time and many attempts you will develop a feeling for which variants you can try in different situations and with different partners, and this might also eventually, perhaps after many years, include a feeling for whether a variant that you have not even tried before will work.

If you experience that a dance that you previously found boring has become inspiring again, that is a sign of success.

What is improvised dance?

The meaning with improvised dancing is for me to dance spontaneously and playfully, without giving up the relation to the beats and expressions in the music. It should be a reciprocal action between rhythm, you and your partner, the music and the musicians.

This type of dance should evolve from the feelings of the dancing pair. I have occasionally met instructors who instruct the participants in a class to improvise, e.g. in a particular part of a dance. I have not felt successful in attempts to follow these instructions, probably because the improvisation does not develop from my own mind.


I believe there are similarities between dancing improvised dance and playing improvised music. I believe the musicians when playing improvised music have a lot of phrases in their toolkit, which they can take pieces of or combine in new ways as they play without any need to think about it.

When leaving a well known dancing routine to do something new, you might experience a feeling like having gone out in the deep water and suddenly remember that you can not swim. Also fundamentals, like following the beats in the music, can be problematic. And improvised dance is not only intended for one part in the dancing couple. As leader it includes not only accepting, but also encouraging, influence from your dancing partner. To do this and still maintain the usual leader responsibilities, like avoiding to touch other dancers and be inspiring to your partner, is not that easy. And this shall be done whilst you, in your dance, visually express phrases in the music that you might not have heard before.

I have from time to time associated this feeling with my limited experience of running a two person canoe through white water. This is mostly done with the stronger person in the stern. The stern person has the responsibility for maintaining the course and speed of the canoe, but the stem person, usually the female, is the person with the best sight. So the stern person has to keep the overall responsibility of course and speed, watching the water flow and the best way through the white water. But at the same time it is necessary to carefully watch the stem person movements and anticipate what she probably has seen, and be prepared to adapt influence from her. This is not easy, but extremely fun and satisfying when it works.

To be able to maintain this task, it is useful if not necessary with well trained basic skills. This includes both dancing techniques, such as balance, mobility and body movement, and many variants that you should know so well that you do not even need to think about them if you suddenly find you need them. With good dancing techniques it will be easier to repair and possibly also utilize a mistake that otherwise could have been annoying. The dancing knowledge does not least include the ability to read and influence from your partner's intents and capabilities.

There is one other prerequisite that I find necessary, and that is predictability. If the music is not predictable at least to some extent, it will be very difficult to express it in the dancing, as you will need to build your dance on your expectations. It is not necessary to know the music in detail, but if you can predict the framing of the music you might get the time necessary to adapt to the usual “tricks” from musicians, like ritardandos and extra beats.

The same is true with the dance. If you become predictable for your partner by being easy to read, e.g. by clearly showing how you move your body, it will be easier for your dancing partner to influence you and being influenced by you. This can be trained within a dancing couple, so signals between them will be quickly understood. But if you want your signals to be understood by someone you have not danced with before, it is necessary to practise this for a long time with many partners.

I have occasionally danced with women who become very keen to observe the leader’s signals when the dance becomes more varied. A quick response is nice, but if it becomes too quick it might give a nervous feeling. When leading a dance the leader will or at least should expect a normal reaction time from his partner. If the lady becomes too alert the leader will need to be very careful to not do anything that could be taken for a lead action unless it really is one. I believe also that it will strain the lady to be that alert. By being a little more relaxed it will be more fun and also easier for both parties to express their own feelings in the dance.

It is the leader’s responsibility to give the lady as much room for improvisation as she wishes. But at the same time it is important for the lady to observe and respect the room she has been given, as the leader at the same time has to take responsibility for not disturbing others as well as adapting the dance to the music.

In other sections on this site there are tips and examples on dancing techniques and variants that are supportive for this improvised dancing.


Almost all music builds on beats, bars and themes. The beats are like the water flow in white water, they provide the momentum in the dance and do not give room for hesitation or interruptions. The phrases in the music usually build on multiples of eight bars. To follow the music it is necessary to follow the beats, sometimes the bars, and in some dances also these groupings of eight bars. To follow the beats does however not necessarily mean to take one step for each beat, but that the steps and the beats have a relation.

It is easier to improvise if the dance just follows the beats in the music. If the dance builds on long phrases it will be more difficult. Assume for example that the basic dance is built up on eight bars with three beats in each bar, and something unexpected happens in the second beat in the third bar, it will require good training to immediately find and communicate a solution which on the remaining five bars plus one beat leads to a harmonic end.

The easiest dance to improvise among the old Swedish dances is probably the slängpolska. Although this music builds on three beats per bar, the music is smooth and it does not matter which foot to use on each beat.

Foxtrot is also relatively easy. The base sequence in the dance is fairly short and spans over just three beats (slow, slow, quick-quick), and the music itself is forgiving. You can for example start in the middle of a bar if you wish, as the dance uses three beats in a dance with four beats per bar.

Bugg is also easy because it uses simple basic steps.

Jive has a similar length on the basic steps, but the steps are more complicated. The dance typically use both variants that run over six and eight beats, and the music is as forgiving as in foxtrot. Although dancers always strive for ending their variants when the themes in the music ends, the dance itself does often overlap the eight counts in the music. The music is in other words easy to use for improvisation, but the steps are more complicated and require more practice.

Tango exists in many different flavours, but good tango dancers seem to be able to improvise in the dance beyond the limit.

Waltz has no dependencies on phrases, and should for this reason be easy to vary. An obstacle is however that waltz uses a three count that spans over two bars (until one turn is completed). A variation can for this reason easily lead to sore toes.

Schottische uses the same bars as foxtrot, and it works fine to dance swing to faster schottische music. The schottische has a relatively long phrase of sixteen beats. An improvisation should adapt to this phrasing.

Hambo and mazurka have an even longer phrase, and furthermore use three counts in each bar. It is necessary to train until an intuitive feeling is developed for which corrections are needed to lead to an elegant completion of each phrase.

Snoa is a forgiving dance, but the even and odd beats in the music do not sound the same, something that I think should be mirrored in the dance.

To sum up, different types of dances and music have different levels of complexity when trying to improvise. In many dances it is needed to develop an intuitive feeling for what is needed to allow for improvisation without loosing beats, phrases or the style of the music. A route to follow to get this feeling is to practise different variants many times, and dare to try these in new situations. By doing this a feeling will be adapted for which parts of different variants that can be used from certain positions to maintain the phrases and style of the music. This must be practised for a long time, until the brain is no longer needed to find the steps. Often a phrase is broken up in your head without you needing to think about it, and each broken part has several possible solutions from which you or your partner randomly choose one. From where you then are, new combinations become possible. You can start this process by active thinking, e.g. choosing the first two bars in schottishe or the first three bars in hambo, and vary them in different ways, but always at the end attach to the common dance.


The tango teacher referenced above mentioned style as the second most important element in his dance, and with style he also included clothing. I must admit that I am only concerned with the feelings within the dancing couple, and the satisfaction the pair can feel when they feel that their dance is harmonic and fun. To achieve this, it is important that the dancing techniques are good enough for what you want to express in the dance. If you for example do not have full balance, have to take a step before the beat because you lost your balance, or only with difficulty can turn as quickly as is needed, this will have a negative effect on improvisation and your own satisfaction with the dance. To be able to improvise the dancing technique should be a tool, not an obstacle.

A small example

Suppose that you dance hambo, where the length of the phrase is eight bars with three beats in each bar, that is 24 beats. Suppose that the leader intended to turn the lady counter clockwise on the third bar, but that the lady for some reason responded late, and in the beginning of the fourth bar stands with her back in the dancing direction and standing on her … yes, you will not have time to find out! What to do?

The least good alternative according to my own opinion is to increase your dancing speed to win back the lost time. Better is to ignore the remaining turns, just take normal polska walking steps on the beats until the next phrase begins. But the best solution is to adjust the dance and bring in or develop a new variant that adapts to the new situation. If possible this should be so fast that the lady is not at all aware that this was not the original intention. And ideally, the leader does neither need to know!

This is an example of how this could happen:

The lady should from the beginning use right step, left step, right step during the counter clockwise turn. If she stands with her back in the dancing direction, she has possibly – intentionally or unintentionally – been late and is standing on her left foot on the third beat. The couple are in other words standing on wrong feet in relation to each other, and there are fifteen beats remaining until the phrase ends to do something with. The leader has to wait for the lady to finish her turn, which might be done at the first beat in the fourth time. If so the lady will be standing on her right foot on the first beat in the next bar. But that happens to be a good starting position for “bakmes”, something that the leader might feel and build on. The bakmes can be danced until bar eight in hambo, where the normal hambo can be re-established.

If on the other hand the lady has completed her turn so she has her weight on her right foot on the second bar, this is a good starting position for hamburgska. In this case, while waiting until the lady turns so she gets her face in the dancing direction the leader might instead of his normal steps use one walking step as in polska. From this position the leader can easily bring the lady with him in hamburgska. From this hamburgska, the couple might realize that they many times have switched from hamburgska to hambo at this bar (see Rundpolska in the "dalsteg") From that variant it did in this case only remain the switchover from hamburgska to hambo, which in this case resulted in a brand new variant.

The example above is constructed. In real life I could well think of many other solutions. When the situation occurs there is no time to think. Instead the dancing couple must use the capabilities that they have from earlier experience, and, as relaxed as possible, let the dance find it’s new forms.

Improvisation – Joy of Dance

If we are well trained in the basics of the dance and know a lot of variants so well that we need not think of them when using them, if we have a good dancing technique that make us free to dance whatever we want, and if we have found a good dancing floor, good music and a nice dancing partner, we have still to explain how to improvise – or?

What happens in this situation if the rhythm of the music suddenly changes? Or if the surrounding dancers force you to change your way of dancing? Or if your partner suddenly explodes in joy and starts doing completely new steps? Or if you have so much fun, that you feel that you just have to let your energy explode into something new?

In a such environment you will get many impulses making you, your partner, musicians and surrounding dancers influence each other. By practising techniques and variants, you can form a ground where these impulses need not to be suppressed, but rather can be expressed and built upon. The objective with this web site has been to share this with you. If you have not discovered this yourself, don’t worry. The only thing that is important is that you and your dancing partner enjoy your life and your dance. As in so many other situations in life, it is the road that is the target. Perhaps your most enjoyable dance in life will occur on your very first dancing course, or during your very first dancing summer!

Last updated: Oct 20, 2014