We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Composing while Dancing

An Improviser’s Companion

Melinda Buckwalter

Publication Year: 2010

Composing while Dancing: An Improviser’s Companion examines the world of improvisational dance and the varied approaches to this art form. By introducing the improvisational strategies of twenty-six top contemporary artists of movement improvisation, Melinda Buckwalter offers a practical primer to the dance form. Each chapter focuses on an important aspect of improvisation including spatial relations, the eyes, and the dancing image. Included are sample practices from the artists profiled, exercises for further research, and a glossary of terms. Buckwalter gathers history, methods, interviews, and biographies in one book to showcase the many facets of improvisational dance and create an invaluable reference for dancers and dance educators.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


pdf iconDownload PDF (49.2 KB)
pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

pdf iconDownload PDF (49.4 KB)
pp. ix-x

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (72.2 KB)
pp. xi-xii

I would like to acknowledge the artists, first, for their many years of dedicated work and for articulating such amazing ideas through the medium ofthe body and movement—and then, for their patience in conversing with me and redirecting me where I went astray in conveying that magic. The editing...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (68.2 KB)
pp. 3-11

If a dance is ephemeral, at least it is repeatable, but an improvised dance has the possibility of changing from moment to moment and that makes it difficult to talk or write about. As a viewer, you can say what it is you just saw, but in improvisation it will be different the next time around. How will it be different, and what remains the same? Improvisation is more about the thrill that comes from not knowing what it will be in the next...

read more

1. Materia Prima

pdf iconDownload PDF (178.6 KB)
pp. 12-31

A dance may have costumes, sets or sites, props, lights, music, and text as well, and these may have more or less importance, but (most would agree) a dance isn’t a dance without a moving body. In improvised dances, the material is not limited to set sequences or patterns of movement but includes a means of finding or framing movement for viewers as the dance occurs. For some dance makers who work with improvised material, it is the movement that although not set, defines the work...

read more

Interlude—So Many Influences, So Little Time . . .

pdf iconDownload PDF (52.0 KB)
pp. 32-33

There is so much movement influence in our lives that filters through us and becomes our dance “background”: not just our various teachers but other movement in our lives, such as sports, social dancing, injuries and rehabilitations, exercises, bodywork. Add to this the performances we’ve seen, which influence what we think of as dance and define what dance is. And the...

read more

2. Dancing Takes Shape

pdf iconDownload PDF (172.1 KB)
pp. 34-59

Form is the shape of something; recognition of form is a way we make sense of the world around us. There are many different ways to consider form in dance, for example, the shape of the body in movement, arrangement of bodies in space, or the shape a dance takes over time. Form is sometimes something we can name, like a twist or an arc, a diagonal or a trio, an ending or a rise to a climax. But form can also be the result of an organizing principle other than a spatial or temporal pattern,...

read more

Interlude—Notes to Myself: Wait!

pdf iconDownload PDF (50.2 KB)
pp. 59

The poet trawls the depths for material, not knowing what, just being magnetically attracted to the hunt. . . . Pulling stuff up in the net. That whole process of trawling, pulling in, collecting can be so juicy and thrilling. Being in love with the material and surfing that love crest. Not caring, just blending....

read more

3. Time Machines

pdf iconDownload PDF (103.7 KB)
pp. 60-73

Time slips through our fingers like sand through an hourglass. Pendulums swing, the earth turns. We measure time through movement. It’s not surprising that time shows many faces in dance improvisation. For example, rather than measuring the length of a dance by a clock, some dancemakers use cues from the body or the improvised material as the timekeeper for their dances, finding a felt ending as signaled by the body or an organic ending that comes out of the material. Body time is...

read more

Interlude—Notes to Myself: Living Backward

pdf iconDownload PDF (61.9 KB)
pp. 73-75

In T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Merlin the magician lives backward— growing younger with the years to his infanthood.14 Yoshi Oida in his book The Invisible Actor remarks that finding a good ending to a piece curiously creates a good beginning.15 He must have figured out how to live backward! It would be incredibly helpful in improvisation if while dancing I could flip back and forth—living forward sometimes and then living backward...

read more

4. Spatial Relations

pdf iconDownload PDF (135.8 KB)
pp. 76-89

Arranging movement in spatial patterns is perhaps the most familiar form of dance composition. Shaping the dance in space through floor patterns (lines, diagonals, circles, and so forth) and groupings (solos, duets, trios, quartets, or solos with choruses, for example )is what we have come to expect in Western concert dancing. Although improvisers use these patterns to organize dancing as well, some have...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (51.6 KB)
pp. 89-90

I first encountered ma while in college in the works of Eiko and Koma, in reconstructions of Oskar Schlemmer’s architectural ballets, and in the Japanese Noh troupe that came to campus. It would be years before I heard of ma, but at the time I was taken with what I described as an openness of...

read more

5. The Dancing Image

pdf iconDownload PDF (108.8 KB)
pp. 91-104

The dancing image can be considered from the outside or from the inside: as an exterior image, what is seen from the audience’s perspective, or as an interior image, what a dancer works from to motivate movement. While there is one image, there are two different perspectives. In this chapter we’ll progress from the outside in. Note: Practices that begin with an external perspective often lead to investigation of theinternal and vice versa, making for messy categorization. Use this...

read more

Interlude—Invisible Dances with Mary Overlie

pdf iconDownload PDF (50.5 KB)
pp. 105

The invisible dance workshop started with some promising workmanlike methodologies, practices, doings, and demos—astonishing demos. Here is truly an edge, the boundary between dance and the pedestrian. Coming and going between the two, practicing dancing and disappearing back into the ordinary. It was slipping back into the ordinary that made you invisible. And...

read more

6. The Possibilities of Music

pdf iconDownload PDF (238.0 KB)
pp. 106-117

When many people think of dance, they think of music. And if they enjoy dancing, they probably remember the marriage of music and dance that occurs—the feeling of being magically moved by the music’s rhythms, that place of not knowing whether it is the body moving or the music moving the body....

read more

Interlude—Notes to Myself: Listening

pdf iconDownload PDF (50.2 KB)
pp. 117

There seem to be two parts to listening with the body. First, there is listening to the phenomenon, but then there is listening to the body’s response to the phenomenon to see what flash I get. I tend to listen and then calculate. But instead I could learn to hear what the first flash is and pay attention to that. For some reason I often put off acting on the first thing I hear, but when...

read more

7. The Eyes

pdf iconDownload PDF (91.3 KB)
pp. 118-130

In some dance traditions, especially those of India and Asia, eye movements are choreographed. In contemporary Western concert dance, while the gaze is an acknowledged part of the presentation of a dance, it is often left up to the individual dancer to figure out where he or she will look while dancing. A choreographer or dance teacher might give some cues, like...

read more

Interlude—Notes to Myself on Catching It Out of the Corner of My Eye

pdf iconDownload PDF (50.3 KB)
pp. 130-131

I have to catch it out of the corner of my eye because movement patterns happen mostly subconsciously. If I look directly, I am not seeing the subconscious ones, only the conscious ones. I want to see my habit patterns, not my made-for-TV moves....

read more

8. Partnering Science

pdf iconDownload PDF (122.1 KB)
pp. 132-141

In contemporary culture, science is often used to validate experience, as in, “It is scientifically proven that . . .” The following dancemakers have found other ways to relate to science, using it to inform rather than confirm. Science instead becomes a partner that suggests new ways of thinking about, working with, and articulating an avenue of inquiry....

read more

Interlude—Notes to Myself on Not Knowing

pdf iconDownload PDF (50.7 KB)
pp. 141-142

As an improviser, I’m building something, but I don’t know exactly what. I’m only knowing it as I build it. There is a phase of not knowing, and that can feel extremely disconcerting because generally in our lives we know what we’re about or at least have plans. We may be fooling ourselves, but we operate as...

read more

9. The Magical Object

pdf iconDownload PDF (124.2 KB)
pp. 143-154

We take objects for granted—a banana is a banana and a shoe, a shoe. But is that all there is to it? Molly Shanahan, a Chicago-based dancemaker, writes: “I think about how objects appear in my life and in my home and how they transform over time: that rock from the 2002 trip to Lake Huron, which I remember less in accuracy and more in the sense of how my body feels/felt in the instance of noticing . . . the...

read more

Interlude—The Objects Begin to Speak

pdf iconDownload PDF (51.7 KB)
pp. 154-155

Walking along the road with my dog, Nellie, I asked myself about objects— I wanted to teach myself about them. Lisa Nelson says that objects communicate to us, we take instruction from them. I understand that in a sense, but I don’t feel it yet. What can I learn about objects right here, right now? I am on the road, and I follow the path. The path...

read more

Epilogue: Developing Your Practice

pdf iconDownload PDF (71.9 KB)
pp. 156-159

This is a book of artists’ practices—to be more precise, a snapshot in time of any given artist’s development of his or her work.1 These practices didn’t spring out of the blue—the work that went into informing them, sometimes years of it, remains unspoken of here except for a few biographical details and some context. While these methods, structures, and scores imply a certain permanence on the page, their practice requires living breathing bodies to inhabit them...

read more

Meet the Artists: Dancemakers’ Biographies

pdf iconDownload PDF (123.6 KB)
pp. 161-186

Twenty-six dancemakers and their approaches to making work are covered in this book. This section gives some background information on each, including the context in which I encountered their work. Unless stated otherwise, the artists have reviewed my writing on their artistic process for this book. In some cases, with permission, I have reprinted portions from...

Glossary of People and Terms

pdf iconDownload PDF (92.7 KB)
pp. 187-200


pdf iconDownload PDF (71.7 KB)
pp. 201-210


pdf iconDownload PDF (62.7 KB)
pp. 211-216


pdf iconDownload PDF (283.7 KB)
pp. 217-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780299248130
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299248147

Page Count: 231
Publication Year: 2010