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The Art of Letting Go: How to freestyle in dance

Freestyle dance is an art in itself. When we watch someone dance, more often than not, it’s the raw, unscripted moments that leave us awestruck. That’s the beauty of freestyle dance – it’s an unfiltered expression, a dance of the soul, unique to the dancer. It’s like a painter’s brushstroke, distinct and telling a story only they know. While choreographed sequences have their place and charm, freestyle is where the spirit runs wild, unrestrained by sequences or patterns. How does one channel this freedom without getting lost in it? Over the years, amidst my various dance endeavours, I’ve found that while freestyling can be spontaneous, it often thrives on a subtle structure. I’ve played with countless methods, but three have consistently resonated with me and enhanced my dance: Rhythm, Concept, and Storytelling. And to answer the question “How to freestyle in dance?”, from my perspective – we will journey through each of them.

1. Rhythm – Carving Your Own Dance Path Through Music

Music and dance share a symbiotic relationship. However, while many listen to music, few truly hear it. When freestyling, dissecting the track, understanding its highs and lows, and allowing it to guide your movement is essential, if you want to move away from generic repetitions of the same moves, you always do. True mastery lies not in merely following the rhythm but in showcasing your unique interpretation of it. It’s about how you ride the wave, emphasize certain beats, and sometimes choose to defy them. Your dance becomes a visual representation of the song, punctuated with your individual flair.

To do this, you need to practise active listening. Listen to the music carefully, trying to hear the different instruments separately. Most music we dance to has many layers, and it is impossible to dance to all instruments simultaneously. So the art of this freestyle approach is to find your own way through all the instruments. When you decide to switch from one instrument to the next or how you show multiple layers at the same time becomes your signature and it will be different from everybody else.

This way of freestyling benefits a lot from having a good understanding of isolations and polyrhythms so you can add layers of details to the basic moves you use. An amazing example of how far this journey of showing multiple layers can go is the dancer Brian “Footwork” Green. Check out the clip below and pay attention how he showcases different parts of the music.

2. Concept – The Guiding Star of Your Freestyle

Dance can be abstract; sometimes, having a guiding concept can shape your freestyle into a coherent masterpiece. This is akin to giving yourself a delightful challenge or a puzzle to solve. Whether it’s a task like ‘add a pop on every snare drum’ or an abstract idea like ‘water flowing through obstacles’, a concept provides a thematic consistency. It keeps you grounded, gives direction to your movements, and offers endless possibilities to explore within its framework.

If that sounds too abstract to understand, have a look at Paradox exploring a concept called “Tracing,” where you either trace the shape of your body or your movement with your hands or other body parts.

Concepts can be as easy as “movements alternate between left and right” or as complex as “separate your body in three areas and change the instruments you dance to every 3 bars.” The creativity dancers display while coming up with their own concepts is crazy. I wrote a few articles about dance concepts here on the blog and published the book Dance Smart, which introduces 36 basic concepts.

Dance Smart at the Open Qualifier for Circle Industry 2020. Photo: Christian Poschner

3. Storytelling – Narrating Tales Through Movement

Every dance tells a story. Sometimes it’s vivid, with clear characters and narratives, other times, it’s abstract, leaving much to the imagination. When you approach freestyle with the intent to tell a story, your dance becomes a dynamic play. It could be a story of triumph, a portrayal of a day in your life, or even the narrative of the song you’re dancing to. Each move becomes purposeful, each transition is a plot twist, and your entire dance becomes a journey that the audience embarks upon with you.

With storytelling, there are two different paths you can follow. The easier one is, “How would you portray the story with dance.” Your steps, gestures and facial expressions are a danced version of the things happening in your story. Kinda like impro dance theatre. The second approach would be “how would the dance of a person experiencing the story look like.” Here you would immerse yourself in the emotional world of the story, but don’t mimic the story with your moves. Instead, you would interpret the dance moves with the emotional load from the story. Mostly people travel the spectrum between those two during their storytelling freestyle.

You can watch some great examples in the clip from Freestyle Roulette presented by Galen Hooks below.

Freestyle dance might seem like a world of chaos from afar, but once you’re in it, with the right tools and mindset, it becomes a universe waiting to be explored, one move at a time.

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Why we need to separate creation from evaluation

Why do many people get stuck when they try to create new moves or routines? The answer is simple, but its impact is often underestimated, and therefore, people tend to ignore it. Creation and evaluation (analysis, assessment) are very different processes:

In creation mode, you want the ideas to flow freely.
Creativity is what you need.

In evaluation mode, you need to analyse your results from creation.
Logic is taking the lead here.

A popular scientific theory says that different sides of your brain are responsible for these two different tasks. And they don’t work well together. So if you try to do both at the same time, you are doing both inefficiently.

I can not comment if this theory is right or not, because I lack the scientific understanding. But I know that I work better when I only create at one time and judge later.

When you get stuck in your creation process, try to get rid of the voice in your head that wants to evaluate immediately. Film yourself and do that later. You will see the differences.

And finally, let’s grab a Dance Espresso over this topic:

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Creating more Moves with Transmutation

An extensive vocabulary of moves helps you to look fresh in a cypher or on stage. Create multiple steps from the same source material by changing the details of a move. We call this transmutation.

This concept teaches you how to create similar moves that flow well together from one single original movement.

  1. Choose a move that you want to work with. It can be a move from your vocabulary or a move from someone else. We will flip it, so don’t worry about biting now.
  2. Change one part of the move. Either detail or a sequence. Just pick something to change. The result is your first variation.
  3. Go back to step #1 but with this variation as the move to change.
  4. Repeat as many times as you want.
  5. If your original material was from someone else, consider not using the first few variations as someone might call you out for biting. You should be safe after flipping it 3 to 5 times.
  6. When creating your variations, take your time & dig deep.

This easy way to works with moves helps you to create a consistent type of moves that is similar but not the same. It will help you to create more transmutations of the stuff that feels right and therefore enhances your performance on the dancefloor.

The idea for this concept came from the concept of melody variation in music. I already published it a while ago in the German language. Now it is back in English.

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How to create your own dance drills that make sense

In your role as a dance teacher, you always want to have the right tools ready to help your students to the next level. When you see them struggle with certain elements or whenever you introduce a new move, it helps to have a drill ready that tackles the problem at hand precisely. On top of that, you can create exercises for your own practice as well.

The general idea is to create a short set that includes the solution to the problem you have. Put the thing you want to practice in between other moves that already have the quality of what you want to reach.

If the goal is just to practice a particular move, create a short routine where you place the new step in between 2 moves that your students already can do well. In many cases, you can only do an old move and then the new one, when you immediately repeat the combination to the other side. This keeps the combo short and enables you to do more repetitions in the same amount of time.

When you want to develop a specific flow – let’s say you are teaching pretzels – you want to put them in between sweeps as they share the concept of swinging your legs around in a circular motion.

When they need to practice precision in rhythm, frame the new thing with an already known move, that shares that rhythm.

For freezes and acrobatics that require more strength and balance, create a dance drill that makes you do the movement on both sides but without a stop in between. There is an exception to this: when you practice a powermove that relies on keeping the circular momentum going, then practice both ways separated. But practice both. (Yes, I know – it’s not funny).

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Digging Deep & Deep Work

Today is not about business, marketing, music, or dance alone. It is about a mindset thing that is beneficial in all of those.

We live in a world of distractions. That sounds like an exaggeration, but is a brutal truth that results in a decline of real productivity and creativity. We think we are experts in multitasking, but we are not. We are experts in being distracted, which leads to a culture of superficiality. We wear “being busy” like a badge of honor when it is only a sign of lacking priorities.

As an artist and entrepreneur that is in the game to stay (without burning out), we shall cultivate a habit to dig deep in what we do. At least for all the things that matter (the ones that align with your bigger picture).

Digging deep means:

  • to give ourselves the time that is needed to work things out
  • to look at a topic from different angles
  • to do additional research when we miss information instead of assuming things
  • to ask questions
  • to find the reasons behind symptoms
  • to take ideas far

Deep Work means:

  • to commit to a specific task
  • to immerse yourself in the work
  • to shut out distractions (flight-mode is a lifestyle)
  • to spend enough time with a topic to allow our conscious and subconscious mind to get involved

You will only do your best work when you reach depth. So avoid today’s culture of mediocrity and dig deep when you create your art and set up your business.

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How to Start Your Freestyle with Micro-Structures

Out of the many possibilities to start a freestyle, I find “micro-structuring” to be one of the easiest and at the same time most versatile. The concept is straightforward and similar to last week’s “Structure through Timing and Topics“. Here is “how to freestyle with micro-structures”.

You take a short timeframe (I recommend anything between one and four bars) and define where you put your focus on any given time. If you are new to the idea of structuring your dance in general or have a hard time counting music, go with one bar for a start.

Now define your focus for every time within that bar. For example: on the 1 and 2 of the bar you do a step, and on 3 and 4, you work with an isolation movement. That only means you make moves that are based on steps for two counts and then isolation-based moves for another two counts. After a bar (or the duration you chose) you repeat the idea.

Your structure can be as easy the example above or more complicated: You could also choose a chest pop that starts a travelling movement on the 1. Glides with rotations that carry you through 2 and 3 and finish with a hard stop on the snare drum on 4. Now you accent only the head on the “and” before you come around to the chest-hit on 1.

Again, your structure can be as straightforward or as sophisticated as you wish. For beginners, I recommend making the differences between the elements very clear. Like, Steps on one part, hand styles on the next, then isolations and so on. If you are more advanced, you can do more stuff at the same time and shift only the emphasis from one element to the other. You could keep doing steps all the time and add isolations for the first half of the bar and switch to counter-movement in the second half.

Go crazy with your ideas but don’t fall into the trap to make your structure too specific, so that it becomes choreography.

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Structure your Freestyle with timings and topics

Creating a structure for your freestyle before starting takes a lot of pressure away in the actual thinking process during the dance. Some people will argue that it is not freestyle anymore when you structure it beforehand. We choose to ignore these naysayers for today as we still don’t choreograph the round ahead of time.

What we do is we decide ahead of time for how long we will dance. Then we split the time into parts of the same length and give every piece a simple topic.

For example, we dance for 16 bars (meaning 8 8-counts) and keep every topic for 4 bars (2 8-counts). Now we choose the topics “work with isolations”, “travel through the whole space”, “use some floor work” and “incorporate some pops for accents”.

Choose the lengths of the whole freestyle and the time of your parts as you wish. Make the topics as easy or complex as you want. If you want to, you can only create a series of topics and change when you feel like changing. It is your dance, and the concept should help you create it.

If this comes easy for you, I recommend you choose the length of your themes considering the song structure of the music you work with. So your changes are aligned with the changes in the music.

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Adding depth with decorations

Today’s topic is how to make your moves more sophisticated by adding decorations to the body parts that are not having an active role in the movement you are doing.

What do I mean by active role? A leg that you are standing on has the job to support your body weight. Therefore you can not use it for something else because you will fall. The other leg, however, might carry no weight at this time and can be used to create exciting shapes or positions that are not present in the first move.

To identify the body parts that have no essential job in the move you are doing you can look at the following points as a starting point, but soon you will be able to spot possibilities to add decorations quickly.

  • A leg that does not carry weight can always be used.
  • Arms that are just swinging loosely or do a repetitive movement can do something more spectacular.
  • The upper body can be utilised if it does not have its own movement going.
  • It is the same for the hip, chest, shoulders and head.
  • You can also add additional layers by adding a bounce to a move that does not have one.

So what to do with these lazy body parts? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Just add an exciting pose for them.
  • You can foreshadow where they will go by bringing them already half-way there.
  • You can add a countermovement by putting them in the opposite direction of where they will go next.
  • Add an isolation.
  • Add a pop.
  • Add a wave.
  • Anything else you can come up with.

There are a lot of possibilities. If you only use some of them, your moves still grow a lot. Try to find your own ways of decorating your moves. This is a big step towards creating a recognisable style.

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The imaginary material of the floor

Another idea that helps you explore new possibilities and transform your freestyles or choreographies is to work with imaginary attributes of the floor.

What this means is you style your movement with the goal to create the illusion of dancing on a certain kind of underground. It can be defined through simple adjectives like:

  • sticky
  • slippery
  • muddy
  • hot
  • cold
  • dusty
  • unstable
  • magnetic
  • burning
  • everything you can come up with

or by a more vivid image:

  • dancing on raw eggs
  • in a swamp
  • in the desert
  • on a frozen lake
  • stepping on chewing gum
  • and whatever more you can imagine

You will execute your moves in a different way if you immerse yourself into the idea. This concept is very close to storytelling, but it gives you just one idea to work with, instead of a whole plotline.

The only tricky point in this one is that it only works if you commit and believe in the image that you want to create. That is not a thing for everyone, but I strongly recommend you give it a try, as being able to believe in your concept/story/idea will help you to improve your performance-abilities a lot.

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Four Corners

Four Corners is a concept that helps us to break free of a static front and helps us to explore different directions and rotations within a step or a freestyle round.

Here is how it works:

  • We envision ourselves standing inside a square or rectangle.
  • When dancing, we try to hit the corners of the square with every move.
  • The order of the corners does not matter.
  • In the strict version, we need to hit every corner before we can hit a corner a second time.
  • Sometimes it’s also ok to chill and hit corners multiple times, when you are not in the mood to keep track of which ones you already touched.

When you want to drill one specific move: take only this move inside the rectangle and find all directions and rotations possible.

Or be free in the selection of your moves and use it as the design criteria for your freestyle.

The concept is very similar to the Pendulum, that I covered earlier. Both give you a guideline for your dance by defining the directions. If we look at this idea close enough we see that the geometric shape does not make a difference. You can use a triangle, a star, an octagon or whatever with the instructions above. Play with it or make it a group activity and challenge each other.