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
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
My students very often are interested if I practice solo jazz dance: what, how and how often.
I am a solo jazz dancer, that’s my life, love and profession. Oh yes, I practice. It’s the best way to discover things and improve. I practice solo jazz dance physically and mentally. As often as I can. Normally I work on the weekends: jazz festivals, swing dance festivals, dance intensives. That leaves me 2 - 3 days during the week when I dedicate 1-3 hours per day for my self-practice. Love it! I can develop new ideas, do some new exciting stuff, just be always in form. In addition, I go to other dance classes: afro, tap, house. It is a practice as well. That gives me a gigantic source of inspiration and a different point of view! In this blog, I share some general practice tips with you.
Before I thought that practice can happen only when you are in the studio, physically dancing. Though mental practice is a way as well. Watching videos, listening to music and rhythms, imagining yourself dancing this or that way is a great way to improve. They say that mental practice is almost as effective as physical.
Let’s talk about some general practice tips for physical practice for I am sure we all can do the mental part very well :
Book a space, schedule your solo jazz dance practice!
When you are self-employed it’s so easy to change your mind. One second ago you want to practice, another second you see it’s sunny and decide to go out for a swim (well. if you are in Barcelona like me :). When you book a studio, schedule it, will be harder to change. Usually, I book or find a studio. Sometimes I do it at home. But the act of dedicating time and going somewhere for a specific amount of time where you can do nothing but dance is motivating and organising to me. Number one of the general practice tips.
My solo jazz dance practice plan looks like this:
- Warm-up & get in the zone
- Little improvisation to get in the mood and feel my body
- Do the task• (will talk about that below)
- Finish with improvisation
- Quick cool down / stretch
I come to the studio and start by warming up. Maybe 10 -15 min will go just for stretching and feeling my body. Where am I today? What body am I working with for the next hours? Some days you are more stiff or tired than other days. It’s good to take this in consideration and to respect that. I have my own little selection of exercises for warming up, I am sure like every dancer. I make sure to breathe deeply while stretching to warm up from the inside. Put on my favorite tunes to get in the mood always helps.
Set a task!
Once I am warm I go straight away to practice tasks. Some important things while practicing, that I learn from other great people: musicians, dancers, artists. Kenny Werner made a big change in my life with his lecture on practicing in jazz. It's more 1h+ but it's one of my top lectures on jazz. Here is the link: A Master Class in Jazz Performance and Creativity with Pianist Kenny Werner
Here are some of them I always use or try to remember as a guide:
1. Have a focus in your solo jazz dance practice
I find it quite important to set the goals of my solo jazz dance training in advance. I book my studio for ca. 2h usually. It’s not much time to allow to bounce off the walls and do nothing. When you practice alone, clearly you are the only one who is in charge. If you don’t set up a task/ schedule/ timing, no one will. Be your own boss! The best way to practice is to limit yourself and not to practice everything. Practicing everything, in the end, is not practicing. You work on something small and that significantly improves the overall dance.
Here are some of the common reasons/ tasks for personal training that I use:
- Practicing/ remembering choreography
- Composing something (be in sketches or a new chore or a little routine)
- Working on rhythm, time signatures
- Working on something new; be it movements, style etc..
- Working on quality
- Practicing dancing to different speeds
- Practicing improvisation.... etc.
Define what you want or need to do, set the goal/ task and time! For example, Practicing/ remembering choreo or a few of them, reviving overall choreos, 1h. Or working on time signatures, get sketches for new choreo in 3/4, 1.5h.
2. Don’t judge/ punish yourself for not standing up to your expectation immediately
This one I need to remind to myself quite often to be honest. One day the things flow and everything works. The other day, you can’t invent anything, all you do seems to be boring, you can’t even make a proper turn and not stumble. It’s ok. Accept and move on. Maybe make the practice that day short and go have a tasty coffee with a friend. The word immediately is important here. If you have a solo jazz dance practice date with yourself regularly, say 2-3 days a week for 1 - 2 hours, you’ll see the improvement! It’s just not possible not to improve! Regularity is the key.
3. Play! Make solo jazz dance practice a game
That is super important! If the practice is something boring and hard you will simply never practice. Make it your personal playground. For me, I don’t have to put much effort into making it a game. I love to dance so much that simple action of moving my leg to music makes me happy.
Here is a video of my practice.
Hope these were useful general practice tips on how to practice solo jazz dance! And what's your experience with practicing? Would be happy to read your comments.
I will continue with Part 2: How to practice improvisation in the next blog post.
Written by Ksenia Parkhatskaya