Discover how to improve your solo jazz dance with 3 essential habits. Learn how to improve and help you refine your solo jazz movement and style.
1. Film yourself, film yourself, film yourself
The great Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in their latter years would spend large parts of a studio budget on months of pre-production and filming of dance rehearsals. They knew that only through watching themselves back on camera could they see how their movements and dance actually looked. At times Fred Astaire would insist on having three cameras filming him from three different angles while dancing. That allowed him to see what the best angle for the movements and the best viewpoint for the dance was. Both of them had the experience of watching themselves back on tape and in so many movies. They could learn more about themselves and perfect their dance: style, lines, and angles.
Fast forward to 2020 and we can all do this, practically for free, yet take it for granted. So here’s my first advice:
Go buy a simple tripod or gorilla clamp for your phone and record your practice sessions
Why is it important to film your solo jazz practice?
Be your own coach
It is wonderful to have a private Solo jazz dance class, to be tête-à-tête with the teacher in a dance room. You can always rely on that he/she will make notes on what is working and what not and will help to make adjustments. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Some of us are lucky enough to practice alone in a dance studio with mirrors, though some only have space in the living room with no mirrors. Even with a mirror, you don’t see a true representation of the movements you are actually making (not the ones you think you are making).
It’s very hard to look at yourself from the distance in this scenario, to see yourself from the outside. Simply start a new practice habit, film yourself and review it later. Be your own coach. If you are learning solo jazz dance online this is especially important.
Discover your strengths and weaknesses, to improve your solo jazz dance
From my own experience, I can tell that I improved so much from being my own dance mentor. After each practice, I have the same habit. I go for a little ritual. I take a coffee on a square next to my home and watch the videos of my practice. Even though I was not always happy when I saw the videos, it taught me a lot. Certainly watching the playback taught me throughout the year to accept myself, to love myself and my movements more. It also helped me improve how I worked with my face and arms. I used to have this black depressive look on my face while I concentrated so hard. I went through the acceptance phase and together with it started to learn more about what makes my dance mine, what are my strengths, how I can improve and control every part of my body from my face, to my fingers, to my toes and arms.
Filming yourself while dancing is the fastest step to seeing where your weaknesses and strengths are.
Additionally, reviewing practice videos taught me to improve a lot of elements in my solo jazz dance and in my swing dancing And Lindy hop. For instance, for a long time, I was unhappy with the work of my arms and palms. They were dead, not expressive and most of the time in a fist position. Noting that on the video and wanting to change helped me develop different ways of practicing and focusing on just that element of my Solo Jazz dance.
Here is an example of one of my personal practice sessions. Here I work on another element that I always wanted to improve - rhythm dancing. I created a task for myself to use swinging 8th note as much as I can.
Take the first step towards your own style in solo jazz dance
As much as making a video of my dance practice helped me to see the potential for improvement, it can also help us find our “diamond”. That thing that is so unique to only you, that makes you different and makes you you, - your strength. It is precious to recognise your strengths.
We are all very good at going to a dance event and judging others. We have an incredible ability no matter what level of the dancer we are to see the faults in others and recognise them: “oh he’s very stiff”, “she keeps repeating the same moves”, “he is off time”, etc. Equally, we can see the good things: “wow, his footwork is so precise”, “her arms are like wings” or “he just delivers the dance so well!”. This means we inherently understand for ourselves what we like and don’t like in dance. It’s easy, so let's make a practice habit of it when we work on our solo jazz and let’s use it to our advantage.
Film yourself, watch the recaps and give yourself an honest review of your dance movement and how you would like to see it improve.
Simply doing this does not mean it will improve, but you will know what you need to work on. Ask yourself, what is the ideal image of yourself on the dance floor or stage? What are the key things in your solo jazz dancing you need to improve and what habits do you need to develop them? Next, practice to work on the element you chose to improve again. By making it a practice habit, you can go deeper into this process and advance. This will open a path of refining your style.
If you really want to add focus, and intensity to this system, plan on releasing your practice video online. When we are learning solo jazz dance online, and taking online solo jazz dance classes we feel alone and safe. This is great, but sometimes a bit of judgement can be good, to help you focus. Nothing will make you focus, and try to refine and improve your dancing more than this. Anyone that follows my Instagram page @secretsofsolo will see how many practice videos I release. What people don’t know is, that for every video I release, there are 20 others that I don’t release.
In some small way, these are mini-performances, and knowing that I will release the video puts me in that mindset. Which is the exact mindset you need, to push you to improve your dancing, and ask the hard questions.
2. Set goals and time limits before practice
Online solo jazz dance classes are great, and I really believe Secrets of Solo is an amazing way to learn solo jazz dance. But it has one downside. Although I have done everything to create a system to work through, I can’t tell you when to start each day, or how to frame a practice session.
What is so great about a live class is you arrive, you warm-up, work on something, and most importantly it ends. Usually, the class ends with a recap and the teacher saying “great job, see you next week”. You don’t get this in online learning, and although subtle, this difference is essential. Here is how my online learning used to go. I’d open a video, try a few moves, realize it was difficult and maybe give up. How sad is that! I'd love to emphasise on how important it is to leave each practice session with a sense of growth, a sense of development no matter how small. As Tony Robbins says “The fastest way to happiness is growth”
The fastest way to happiness is growth
Prepare for the next practice
No one will give you that “great job” with online learning, and online dance classes, so you have to do it yourself. So here's a little advice on habits. Before you practice, even the day before, open up some videos, find a move, or choreography, or frame you like, and set an intention. “Tomorrow I will spend 30 minutes learning this one thing” or “Tomorrow I will learn that thing” (with no time limit, instead of goal setting). At the end of your set time, no matter how the practice went, say “Well done, you came and practiced” to yourself, and feel good about it. And that’s the key, you will leave the dance session feeling like you did something. There is nothing else you need to do.
To become a better dancer you just need to show up and practice, consistently, no matter how short the session
It is not important what level of dancer you are and even if you practice only 10 minutes a day - you will improve. You will be better than yourself who didn't do that. Will it be as much as someone who practices for two hours a day? Probably not. But better than your former self, 100%, and, to emphasise, it gives a sense of growth, a sense of the development, happiness and a desire to do it again. You will be the dancer you want to be, in just small daily steps.
A wise man doesn’t compare his development in comparison to others but in comparison to the person, he was yesterday.
3. Write down everything you do while practicing solo jazz
We have a great tracking system on Ksenia's Secrets of Solo. It shows what you’ve already learned and gone through and gives a sense of progress. We get our little gold tick after each lesson. For those that don’t know, you get a certificate when you complete a full course. But maybe 8 weeks down the road you won’t remember how a practice session actually went.
Start taking a journal or make it a habit to keep notes about your dancing on your computer.
Take 2 or 3 minutes after each dance practice session for a quick “resume”. What did I practice? What did I learn? Why didn’t it work? Was I distracted, if so why? How can I remove distractions and focus? Did I have a clear intention before the practice? Did I have a goal and did I accomplish it? What’s my goal for tomorrow's dance training?
Tracking your progress
This simple method of tracking and monitoring practice will keep you informed, motivated, and goal orientated. You will be able to look back at any time over the year, and realize “Yes, I did a lot of work, I have improved, good job”. It is exactly this motivation we need to show up the next day, and the next day again. Who wants to go back to the thing that makes them feel bad and lower their self-esteem every day? Though we do have to understand why something made us feel bad during the practice, in order to work on it, we still need to leave each practice session feeling good.
How to improve your solo jazz dance, just do this:
Set fixed-length sessions, with goals, film them and write it down after.
A great habit to improve your solo jazz dance. This way you can become your own coach. You’ll see what you have worked on and you’ll see where you are putting your time. Comes a time when you feel low and like you are not improving, you can go back 3 or 6 months and watch that old training video. When you compare it to today’s one you will see the changes. After all you’ll get that sense of accomplishment that is missing from online dance teaching. It will indeed motivate you to practice, which is the only thing you need to do.
Just small regular, consistent, focused dance practice sessions, with recorded feedback
Finally, if you are a premium member to Ksenia's Secrets of Solo, send me one of those practice sessions and ask me for advice. Personal feedback will help you more than anything to improve your solo jazz dance. What do I think are the key things you should work on? We are all terrified to film ourselves but know that no one is judging you. We are all on the same road, just different parts of it. So someone further down the road will only see themselves five or ten years ago. Doesn't matter if you are a touring solo performer next year, or can now simply bounce in time, as long as it’s an improvement for you.
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya
Here are 6 major tips and ideas that will help you work towards a wholesome solo jazz dance choreography rather than create just another combination of some classic jazz steps rearranged in a different way. To make sure that each decision in your choreography is a choice and you are saying something with it it is important to think of this tips.
"The Art of Starting or The Magic of Inspiration"
When we talk about creating choreography in solo jazz dance, or creating absolutely anything, there is always a presence of the Mysterious and Charming Angel of Inspiration. I think nowadays there is quite a sober attitude to the magic of inspiration as the main source of any creation. I really like the quote from composer John Williams, who created scores for Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones:
The romantic notions of how inspiration comes are just that - notions. Composing music is hard work. Any working composer or painter or sculpture will tell you that inspiration comes at the eight hour of labour, rather than as a bolt out of a blue
Another idea concerning inspiration is from the famous Russian writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. I noticed this when I was very young. He spoke about how every day he would sit in front of a white piece of paper. He would sharpen his pencil almost as a ritual to get into the “zone” and think, wait, until the idea or a phrase came, to write it down. The key here is to actually start doing whatever you decided to create. Come to the studio, take a brush, sit in front of the piano….
The art of making a choice
When you go into the creation process on your solo jazz dance choreography you will face one big task - making a choice. Making a choice can be the hardest thing on earth if you have no idea of what is the end picture. Equally it can be quite exciting and enjoyable if you know in which even approximate direction you are going and what you are trying to say.
The creation process is the process of cutting and editing to limit the choices even more in order to use only what is best fitted to the end picture.
Another insightful though on making choices. We might think that when we create choreography that we have an infinite amount of possibilities and option. It might frighten us or vice versa excite. But that is not the truth. As Jonathan Burrows writes in "A choreographer's hand book", we can only do what we can do and we can't do what we can't do. Very simple idea though so unusual and insightful to think that in creation we are already limited in fact. This idea help to manage how I work with my body and with my skills. Similarly help me in how I envision the choreography and how much I decide to push the boundaries or not.
Below I am going to describe in great detail 6 tips on how to on how to create a choreography in solo jazz dance. Although I number each idea and present it in a linear way in this blog, it's important to mention that it doesn't really happen linear when I work. The thought process and direction of attention described in each stage can overlap and happen in a moment. What is important, is to think of these point, ask yourself related questions to make sure that each decision in your choreography is a choice.
1. Analyse of the music
Composing of any art form relies on the same processes. In some sense it is a task of making choices, which is the hardest task of all, I think. From the world of body movement, we chop and cut and choose until we refine what fits the best way to our idea. By making choices I mean the process of narrowing down and limiting your options that will lead you to harmonic and wholesome piece. To help make choices when creating a choreography in solo jazz dance we can use our intuition and creative sense or if those are sleeping - guidelines.
Stage I: Make a general overview of a song
Majority of the time I start with the tune for my solo jazz or any other choreography. I hear a song that inspires and moves me, that makes me want to dance. If you are starting with the music as well, to create a routine or a simple choreography, first of all pick and analyse the structure of your tune. I will give an example of how I work with standard jazz tunes.
- listen to the tune a few times;
- figure out what’s the form. If it’s jazz, blues, something else
- get to know your AABA form or any other form AB, ABC, ABCD etc;
- figure out the solo parts:
- how many solos
- what instruments are soloing
- how long is the solo (ex. over 1 form or more)
- are solos purely for 1 instruments or is there a dialog of 2 or more soloists
- do musicians trade 4’s
- are there any other fills, shifts, bridges
I'd love to give the example of my latest choreography Broad Way, because the memory of creating it is so fresh. The structure of the tune “Broadway” by Oscar Peterson is AABA, it’s a jazz tune. I have the “head” melody of AABA, then guitar solo with some lovely piano fills over 2 AABA forms. Then piano solo over 2 full AABA forms, AAB and then back to the “head” A part, looping the last 4 bars three times for the ending of the tune.
Stage II: Make an Emotional Analysis of a jazz song
Sense your jazz tune from the “emotional” point of view:
- what’s the VIBE (dramatic, funny, lyrical, etc)
- what’s the COLOUR of the tune (dark - light or maybe it has a specific color as well). I like how by feeling or seeing the color in your imagination you can evoke certain emotions. That can help in choosing the pace of the dance, the costume.
- what is the MOOD (in what mood does the song put you, which mood does it create; for instance melancholic, enthusiastic / driven, joyful, preoccupied, humorous, romantic, mellow, etc.)
- what is the DEVELOPMENT of the tune: where is the up and down of the energy and drive; where is the main point from which the tune takes off (or maybe it doesn’t really take off and go on the same level of the intensity?)
When this thought process happened, you know your tune, you have your mood, you can go into the details.
To me, the first association with the tune for my solo jazz choreography “Broad Way” choreography was “orange sunrise”.The bright color, bleeding on to the grey world. Fresh, free-spirited awakening feel of the sunrise. The joy and tenderness of the beginning of the new day. Combining with the feel of the movement that I wanted to use, inspired by my studies in Senegal. The image of the sun rising on the horizon, that image that one can see in the painting of African savannah. The image that I saw every morning in Toubab Dialaw, waking up at 6 am and stretching, greeting the sun, preparing for the day of classes in Ecole Des Sables. So the keywords are orange, sun, beginning, awakening, tenderness.
Stage III: Go into the Specifics of the jazz tune
When you are diving deeper into your tune, ask yourself if there are any particular interesting RHYTHM BREAKS that the drummer does, maybe you can learn it, scat it and create the dance move exactly to that rhythm.
A great inspiration for the footwork, phrasing and rhythm are RIFFS. Notice where, how many, what kind of riffs you have in a tune - maybe you can visualize them in your dance.
In the tune “Broadway” by Oscar Peterson you can hear a very strong riff / melody played by the piano in the “head” in all A parts. Listen to the first AA (B) A (00:10 - 00:51) and the very last, closing A (04:04 - till the end). I learned the melody and dancing it. I find riffs fascinating, powerful and groovy.
Listen here to "Broadway" by Oscar Peterson . Listen and feel are there any particular licks or runs that are catchy and strong.
In my “Broad Way” solo jazz dance choreography there were tons of them for me. Just to give a few examples:
1:07- 1:11 - those hanging notes, swinging brushes of movement. As you can see I really love to give adjectives and / or verbs to what I hear that helps me find the right voicing or movement;
1:42 - 1:50 - a wonderful repetitive run of guitar licks. Staying on one little phrase for a certain time can be really powerful;
2:46 - 2:54 & 3:24 - 3:42 - are one of my favorite moments, 2 parts of intensifying runs. A repetition and persistence of sorts:
One of the most powerful rhythms to me are PAUSES. Pay attention if there are some significant pauses in the melody, complete silence, breaks. What are you going to do with them is an artistic choice at each one.
The universe of the CONTEXT can open many doors to your search for the language you will use, costume, mood, story. Investigate if there is any interesting BACKGROUND OR STORY about the tune. Possibly it signifies an important event, describes the story of a person, move or action. If the tune represents a musical era or change of musical tradition, a way of playing you can implement it in your dance.
When you compose a part of the SOLO ask yourself which way does the soloist choose to play his part, what is the musical approach:
- has he chosen to be discreet in his playing;
- does he create a fountain of notes and tricks;
- did he invade with huge drops of chords;
It’s always interesting to dive into the state of the musicians and imagine his body movement. When I hear a certain musical phrase, I imagine did the pianist gently touched the keys as a raindrop or slammed them with a fat tension chord. Then I would listen deeply if he or she chose to play a phrase with loads of space spreading the notes to resonate or he decided to attack the phrase with a lashing rain of triplets. And then I myself as a dancer can choose to support, mimic or oppose it. Sometimes just enough to grab the feel, sentiment and use it, not necessarily dancing the exact solo part.
You can see in this little section guitar is playing lots of notes but I chose to step halftime, because the phrase for me was about the low key and preparation for something that’s about to come, so I prioritised it. Watch here: 1:52 - 2:00
2. Visualise choreography as a whole
There was a time when I started creating my own showcases when I was doing it like a Lego construction. I would just build it step after step, eight after eight, using all the vocabulary I have got in my bucket until it’s all used. This was my dance childhood and to be honest I do not consider that a choreography. I would more likely call it a routine.
A choreography to me is something bigger, that has an overall thought, perspective, refined language, chosen image, symbol and etc. The first piece that I created in a different manner was “Four Women” (song by Nina Simone). It grabbed me with its ritualistic repetitiveness, almost a mantra- like melody and the strong story. That is when for the first time I envisioned the whole frame of the piece from the beginning till the end, distinguished the parts and imagined the language I would use for each part in order to underline the differences and at the same time support the common ground. Once this work of envisioning the whole piece was done, then I went inside into each part to find the movement and rhythm.
In the song “Four Women” there is a strong narrative, a story of four different black females. To tell that story in the movement I used the cue from the lyrics and chose to dance the piece facing 4 different directions, for each woman:
Aunt Sara(h) - facing the audience with my back
Safronia - profile to the right supporting the words
Sweet Thing - profile to the left
In suspense, transition before the last story of Peaches, who to me was a representation of all the female characters in the song, I chose movement in a circle uniting the first 3 female characters.
Peaches - facing front to the audience
For instance, this choreography of mine, “S T A G E S” had already a very clear development and dramaturgy in the song “Shiny Stockings”.
It had clear ¾ part followed by 4/4, repeating this way twice. ¾ feel carried a sort of explorative mood, where 4/4 part, in contrast, had this confidence. Then the tune goes into double-time feel, that brings excitement and playfulness. After it jumps into a powerful drum section, that has this ritual, madness and challenge feel that takes over the dance and movement to bring it to a higher level. It goes to acceptance and then drops to a slow peaceful jazz feel, where you are swimming in comfort. The final part of the tune is the free-spirited improvisation, where you are in full control and you do not need the beat to carry you through and show you the way. You are the beat itself. Once I heard this and saw the mood of the dance developing through my movement and emotions, I could compose within each part, but the frame and the full development was there.
Envisioning the whole piece, even if you are not sure about the end or start helps you to create perspective, development, and unity without it looking like a broken mosaics of elements stuck together. It helps you create a framework within which it’s easier to work on details. It limits your choices, which is a good thing.
I like to watch my choreographies in my head, in my imagination screen. There you can do anything and you can direct as well.
3. Use improvisation as a way of choreographing in solo jazz dance
I love to start with the improvisation. Sometimes it’s just an improvisation, sometimes I have a specific task for myself depending on the tune. I always film my improvisations so that after the rehearsal I can take a look at the videos and see what speaks to me, which parts I like in order to keep them for future development, or maybe none of it is there yet and I would need to keep searching. With the pieces that I like, I start forming, sculpting and making it mine. By the way, I do not always start from the top. Sometimes there is a part in the middle of the tune that I feel and hear and ready to choreograph. I go with the flow. It doesn’t have to be chronological.
For "Broad Way" my first few improvisations were with a task to use as much traditional African movement as I can. Then I found some moments that really felt groovy and with the music and used it in the choreography.
Improvisation helps me compose with big brushes rather that mili meter by mili meter of steps. It as well helps me avoid being too “mathematical” and predictable for myself. But to go with the feel, mood, color, musical phrases that vary.
4. Find specifics for your solo jazz choreography
Many of the methods I use now are actually to avoid the “mosaic” and “step-based” ways of choreographing (ie. to use all the new steps you know), in other words again to limit your choices. Step-based, mosaic dance pieces all look very similar. Just some groovy stuff put together and that’s it. And if you raffle the steps maybe you can make 10 more routines out of it. That doesn’t interest me. How to make one choreography different from another. Find the specifics for each one, the language, the core. Examples of the specifics:
- Compose a piece of 16 eights and then use only that material for the whole piece. Mix and match it, change rhythms, rotate, bring it up or down...but use only it. Many world class 1h contemporary pieces are based on a short movement sketch that is expanded with different tools.
- Make the core of your choreography for instance step variation (ie. make the fall of the log the star of your dance and play with it in all possible ways throughout) . So many benefits to this one. You will open the door to your own curious and innovative laboratory. Your piece will become more personal and creative if you will start playing around and with your "focus move" instead of using tons of others steps.
- Your specific might hide in using directions. All you do for this or that reason you do it using 360 space.
- It can as well be a a choice of a certain specific and constant quality (ie. fluid, soft, robotic, angular, rigid, sporadic, etc)
Think of it, it’s like songs. There are only 12 notes but how many different songs there are and what makes one song differ from the other… - the chord progression and the key. It’s a limitation of sorts.
5. Search for emotional movement
In my teachings of solo jazz dance I juxtapose emotional movement and physical movement. Physical movement is just an action of the muscles and body. It does not carry any other layer. Emotional movement carries a lot of information around the physical movement about the environment, mood, energy, intention and so on.
Create the environment and situation or a task for yourself. All of a sudden you will see how from that seed of context the new world with it's rules, qualities, colours and characters will grow in your imagination. The great Konstantin Stanislavski, the creator of the method, the technique for actors, taught the difference between an EMOTIONAL & PHYSICAL MOVEMENT. Physical movement is generic. For instance, if I ask 10 people in the room to lift their hand, they will all lift the hand in almost the exact same manner and way. Emotional movement carries a little story - the intention, the purpose, the reason, - all of which create the emotional state. So the magical question is “WHAT FOR?"
Experiment with the emotional movement
Make a quick experiment: you are going to lift your arm, just before ask yourself “what for am I going to lift my arm?” and quickly answer with a VERB (i.e to greet a friend, to touch the sky, to catch a fly, to grab a mosquito, to say goodbye etc…), then right away do the action.
Did you notice, how the physical action turned into emotional action with no words needed. Repeat this several times and change the answer to the question, meaning change the intention. The more you do it, the more start to inhabit the situations with more details. For instance, where are you, who are saying good bye to, do you like this person, are you going to miss him or you are happy they are going away, is is a quick good bye or a long one, when are you going to see them again , etc.
I use emotional movement when I dance any dance form and solo jazz included. Sometimes my subconsciousness and muscle memory bring out interesting ideas without me even thinking. Other times I find them to make my dance my own story and create a different feel, world, impression. I do believe that physical movement by itself in the arts is boring. The dance step for itself can be just a flashy moment but that’s all. When the movement carries something more, even if you can’t put it in the words, it’s much more intriguing and curious.
6. Plan your tension curves
Tension curves are the most essential component of the storytelling in any art form: beginning - development - conflict - suspense - resolution (- post finale). Most often used in narrative forms of art, the idea of tension curves & overall dramaturgy can still be present and powerful in dance.
In the case of the majority of swing dancers, we choreograph to an existing tune. If the tune is good and has a beautiful overall dramaturgy in itself we just need to open ears, listen to it and use it. But not all the tunes have it, not all of them have curves of moods, a relationship of tension and release, resolution and so on. That is where we need to be more creative. Simple tools for choreographing the emotional tension can really bring your piece good development, for instance:
- big moves - small moves;
- energetic part - easy/ slow/ relaxed part;
- busy/ noisy part - still/ quite part;
The idea of the dance piece is travelling through curves of drops and lifts. Contrasts that are getting bigger and more dramatic this way. Creating overall dramaturgy is so precious to me and it's something I try to consider in all the pieces I do.
Remember, repetition is good
Sometimes we are scared to be boring if we repeat the same things within the choreography several times. We should eliminate that fear. Listen to swing or jazz tunes. Things get repeated all the time! All the A sections of the AABA form or famous and beloved by everyone: riffs.* What will we do in the swing without repetitive phrases in music!? They give us several chances to unite with the musicians and “hit” the right moment with our move. And only because they repeat 3, 4, 5 times we can have an opportunity to catch it and surf on the wave of musical heaven.
I was like that at the beginning of my composing journey. I wanted to put all the steps I know to make it exciting. And then I read somewhere that you need to repeat a step, a thing, at least 2 -3 times so that viewer can actually acknowledge and process it. Have you ever noticed how during the jams, competitions or shows, the biggest applause is happening when a dancer, musician repeats, sits firmly on a move/ note and drives it like a groovy, fundamental steady Ferrari. Once again, no need to use all the vocabulary you know in the world out of fear to be boring.
•Riff if a repetitive phrase that is often played by the horn section as a support for the solo. It creates a strong groove, helps to develop and to swing the tune.
For instance "Broad Way" I repeated the whole junks of all the A parts of the "head". I wanted them to be recognisable and clear as the melody. I call those moments " coming back home". After a journey of the whole choreography, I came back to my "home" dance phrase. As well a repeated many other moves for several bars (learning from Oscar Peterson) and following his phrasing.
These are some of the ideas and methods I use when I work on creating a solo jazz dance choreography. Sometimes I would leave this knowledge out of my studio if I an in a state of flow. I would invite the method if I am stuck in my creative process. It’s good to keep learning and be curious in order to approach each new choreography from a new angle, with a new vision. For me, it’s essential to keep developing, challenging and surprising myself within each new choreography. To create a new character, be in a "new for me" mode. I would style each one and say something with it. The more you develop, the more your choreographies do as well!
Next time you create and feel like you are creating the same jazz routine over and over again, follow these 6 tips. They will guide you to new territories. Equally they will help you create choreography that is not a generic lego constructed of moves, but actually a wholesome piece.
To learn more about improvisation, solo jazz dance and dance in general with Ksenia Parkhatskaya consider signing up for Secrets of Solo online dance classes. You can check subscription plans here.
In this post, I am going to share a few valuable tips to improve in your solo jazz dancing. I took it from my own experience of studying dance since I was 6 years old as well as diving into Jazz culture for the last 8 years.
I highly encourage you to learn, practice, soak everything you can from teachers, other dancers. Take whatever you are learning and then see if you can run them through these ideas below. Here are 7 essential tips for learning & growing, finding your voice and style in an improvisation - based solo jazz dance styles.
1. Search for your own style in solo jazz dance
To have a style, your own recognisable style, is to be on top of the jazz game. Unlocking the secrets of your movement, your body and bringing out your own style can be a long process. But it's a journey for a treasure worth taking.
We all have different bodies hence moves will, of course, look different on each one of us. We all have our own character and image: funky, classy, elegant, “powerhouse”, playful, serious. Maybe you are dancing on heels, in sneakers, in a skirt, in baggy pants, etc. Depending on many of these factors the movement will look different. Search for yours. For your energy, your look, your mojo. Each of those great dancers had their own definitive signature style. Just to show a few:
2. Try every solo jazz movement from the other leg
We all inevitably develop preferences of specific side or leg. It's important to be balanced in your body, movement and dance. You don't want to be a person who is only turning on the right leg and only kicking high with your left. We should work on being a balanced "two legged dancer".
This will really open many doors and help not to limit yourself in a dance. Not having a strong preference of a side or a leg for a turn or certain step will noticeably help you learn other people's choreographies. My advice is to always try movement and combos from the other leg and to the other side. It might be uncomfortable in the beginning, but, believe me, it will pay off.
3. Find one more variation for a solo jazz step
Creating variations is the first step towards improvisation. Variation is a slightly different version of an original or basic step. There are many tools on how you can play with a given solo jazz dance step to create a variation. To name a few: tool of direction, rhythm, rotation, volume and others. How are you going to tweak a step?
You have a universe in your body and yourself, - the universe of ideas. Play with them with those ideas. Learn from me, from others, but give yourself a precious present: "give birth" to your and only your variation of a step or a move.
"What if" I do it this way?
I have a whole course on variations in 4 volumes that is called "Variation Lab". Each volume is dedicated to 1 step: cross step, fall off the log, box step and charleston step. I propose about 14 variations of each step in a course as well as tool on how to play with it.
4. Be a musician
We all hear music a little bit differently. What do you hear? Your teachers way is not the only way, it's just a way. What is your take? Take a move and play with accents or timing.
5. Play, play, play!
Playing is a fundamental element of "being in jazz" and being in a jazz state. Jazz is about creation, exploration and not only replication. Replication can be helpful in the process of learning. Try not to take copying as the final result.
How do we learn to play in solo jazz dancing? For instance, you learn my choreography at the end of Acquaintance with Kicks chapter. Practice it. And then change some parts, change the moves and components places. Compose your own little piece using this material: same music, same moves. Take it apart and recompose.
Dancing is playing!
Improvisation and playing are sister categories. Improvisation is the essence of jazz. And improvisation is being in a state of a play: researching, risking, making a move, deciding.
In a few words, how do we approach improvisation? Learn the new material (a step, rhythm, movement), it's technique and then let it go in a flow of your dance. Put on a song and start dancing, occasionally inserting the new material you learned in your improvisation. Through improvising you will unlock your style and your vision of the dance.
You can explore this topic deeper in my blog How to practice improvisation in solo jazz
7. Enjoy and don't judge yourself too hard
Feeling of joy is so important when creating and dancing. I am not talking you have to be all "happy-clappy", just in case. I am talking about the Joy of dancing, exploration of your movement, the joy and inner longing for connection with music, the joy of discovery. You got to enjoy it, otherwise, how would you ever encourage your self to practice, to create?
If you don't enjoy it, you simply won't do it
Few words about judgement. Be nice to yourself, my dear reader, give yourself some time for growing, searching and developing. The big changes don't happen overnight and don't expect that after one heroic attempt to go practice you'll skyrocket to the moon. What will happen for sure, is that you will be better than you were before that practice and that is undeniable! Practice makes you better. Regular practice will make you Top! Hence film yourself while working on something. Watch, reflect, make notes in your head and try again. Always with love and curiosity.
I hope these 7 tips will help you learning and growing in your jazz dancing. Do you have your own tricks that help you improve your dancing, practice?
Hope you will find those tips inspiring and motivating to get up and go polish the diamond of your solo jazz dance! If you are learning from my online courses, you can share your experiments and practice with me at Jam Circle Forum and get my feedback. In case you are still not a member and would like to learn and grow in solo jazz dance, join Secrets of Solo dance school today and don't leave your dreams for tomorrow. You can check out subscription plans here.
Everything we do in solo jazz dances is an improvisation, unless it’s a performance or choreography. We are going to look closer now on how to actually practice it. There is an ocean of things to practice in solo jazz dance styles. Again, limit yourself. Don’t practice everything. Everything means you won't really improve significantly in any element of your dancing. You will most likely just repeat what is already habitual and in your muscle memory. This of course is still great to do, and fun, but not practice in the true sense.
Limit yourself to:
- a musical phrase (a phrase of 2 bars, 4 bars or 8 bars…watch the “Pillow” section in “Secrets of Improvisation course”)
- a particular step
- a style (say if you want to work on ragtime or bebop). Within that limit yourself again to footwork, rhythms, or phrase lengths
- a part of the body (say, arms, isolations etc.)
- a type of step (say slides or turns or floor footwork, areal steps, tricks, breaks etc.
My whole course “Secrets of Improvisation” deals with just that. How to limit yourself and how to develop each limitation. Here are a few examples of limiting yourself.
Example 1. Limit your solo jazz dance improvisation to a particular step
You want to practice being creative in the basic footwork you already know. For instance limit yourself to a basic Charleston step only. In this case I would like to think of the Charleston basic not as a step, but more as concept. When you think of that as a concept it is more open to be modified. I created a 4 volume course that is fully based on this idea of limiting yourself to only one solo jazz dance step, it's called "Variation Lab".
Remember, that within each step we can work with:
- Form (Visuals. How this step looks: maybe you add crosses, you turn this step somewhere, you make any segment a split, etc. )
- Time (meaning musicality, rhythms)
Then you go ahead and dance Charleston basic step playing let’s say with rhythm only, searching for what is called variations of the step. While doing it don’t worry about other elements. You are practicing, you are focusing on a particular task, this is how you will improve.
Remember that when we talk about time, we can look at the cake of subdivisions: from the whole note to its smallest divisions. You can use all of this range to “rhythmise" your step. I like to think about it like that: every step has it’s 0 or default rhythm. For instance, with Charleston basic step you hit on every beat, every quarter note 4/4 and it lasts for 2 bars (or one 8 in dancers terms). From every 0 or default timing you can play with the time to - “minus” (less steps, more space) or + “plus” (More footwork, less space)
(Minus) “ - “ means we decrease from quarter notes, and create pauses with half and whole notes.
(Plus) “ + “ means we increase the amount of footwork inside basic step to triplet of a half, 8th note, triplet of a quartet.
With this idea of minus and plus we do not change the length of the step, we change the time within the step. Charleston basic will remain to be an 8 count step, but what we do inside it with the time and with the footwork will change.
Here is an explanation of the Subdivision Cake:
6/4 triplet of a half (6)
Triplet of a quarter (12)
I am going to demonstrate that to the metronome. You can go ahead and practice with me.
Try to play with this step to it’s limits, until you don’t know how to variate it anymore. Find your variations, repeat it, get comfortable, try it to different tempos. Make it yours!
Then put on a favourite tune, start improvising (just dance whatever you want, no limits) and at some points insert this new variation of yours into your improvisation. Next practice don’t forget to use this variation again.
Et voila! Your unique new creation is in your pocket, in your system.
Here is a demo of "Time Plus" improvisation within Charleston basic step from my course Secrets of Improvisation. I came up with those variations playing with subdivisions, spotlighting more notes, adding more footwork.
Example 2. Limit your solo dance improvisation to a jazz form
Practice feeling AABA
This is something bigger than an 8 count step. Let’s talk about standard jazz form: AABA or the »American Popular Song Form. Most jazz standards or songs we commonly know are 32 bars long. As swing dancers we think most of the time in 8s, than a full form would 16 8s. Which steps do we know that are 8 counts? Charleston basic, swing out, break. In this case AABA in total is 16 swing outs or 16 Charleston steps.
Pretty much all the A’s in a standard swing tune have the same melody, with small variations at the repeat of each section (Musicians often say A1, A2, B, and Final A) Take a look at super common standard tunes like: Sweet Sue, I’ve found a New Bay, Blue Skies, Bye Bye Blackbird, Jumping at the Woodside, Esquire Bounce and so many others. Just take a quick listen to "Honeysuckle Rose" by Ben Webster Quartet. Released: 1944.
- A (of 4 8s)
- next A that is pretty much the same (of 4 8s)
- then we come to a bridge, B part (of 4 8s). Bridge is different, contrasting. You can hear it. It’s a sort of a break from the main A theme. A release. A dive into something different.
- wrap it up with A (of 4 8s)
And in total 32 bar unit, or AABA!
Dramaturgy of AABA jazz music form
AABA has a certain dramaturgy: tell a story, support, suspense/ tension/lead up, finale. Each part, each A and B has a dramaturgy as well within the four 8s. I like to think of it like that:
- first 8 - set a tone
- second 8 - repeat the tone (maybe with a little twist)
- third 8 - suspense, tension, lead up to …
- fourth 8 - release, grand finale! break
After the theme AABA, musician take turns to play solos. When we say play solos over the form, we know that the form is 32 bars and it means they play a solo over AABA.
How can we practice it and how it helps improvisation?
To feel AABA is to know where you are in the music, where are your breaks, high and low points. To feel it means to know pretty much from the first note how to frame, place and ornament your improvisation.
I always use the idea of dramaturgy within AABA and within 4 8s. I know I will be on the wave with the music if I do:
- Charleston basic (set a tone)
- Charleston basic with variation (repeat with the modulation)
- cross over (suspense)
- break (grand finale)
Here is your practice if AABA is a new info to you:
Listen to different tunes (you can use the examples i gave above) and count out loud bars or 8s.
Sing the phrases together with the melody. You will see a phrase is also one 8 count.
- Dance 3 8s of some step (can be basics step, box step or any other) and SCAT the 4th 8 which is a break. Do that several times with different tunes.
- Dance 3 8s of some step, than SCAT and DANCE exactly what you scatted for the 4th 8
- Dance first 8 some step, second 8 variation of that step, third 8 think of a different “suspense” step, scat & dance the break for fourth 8.
Use this formula for the whole tune to practice your AABA feel. Sometimes you will here that some tunes have “injected” 2 or 4 bars bridges/ pedals in the middle of nowhere, or sometimes common an extended “tag” at the end of the form, which may or may not be repeated at the musicians discretion “I got rhythm” being an example. Don’t be scared, move on. Just recognise them.
If you are familiar with AABA jazz form, use only exercises 3, 4 and 5. Go ahead and try other forms.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you are interested in more detailed examples with demonstrations, I explain all of this in my 3h online course “Secrets of Improvisation”. There I talk about:
- how to start improvisation or back to basics
- cake of subdivisions
- use of all the subdivisions in the jazz footwork
- explain how to limit yourself to a step (with the example of Charleston basic step, Fall of the Lod, cross over/ behind)
- how to phrase your improvisation
- give few exercises to use in practice and on the dance floor (ex. Pillow)
- arrange practice with a live musician
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya