I am driving down a city street in fast-moving traffic. Out of the corner of my eye, I see an old man maneuvering the sidewalk. Just as I pass by he trips and falls prone, his body partly in the street. My blinker is on, and I start to turn before I start to think. I am changing lanes, making one U-turn, then a second. In a moment of pure response, uncertainty has vanished. I pull up at an angle, using my car to shield the body of the old man from oncoming traffic. I find myself out of my car, talking to him. Other people have gathered, and two of us help him as he struggles to get up.
For such moments, intuition, awareness and action are aligned. This is improvisation at its best. My earliest memories of this kind of awareness are as a child, dancing. As a dancer I have improvised throughout my life. Nine years ago, I began practicing Zen meditation. Since then, Zen has informed my improvisation, and improvisation has fed my Zen practice.
Improvisational performance is a risky endeavor. With or without a score or structure, the outcome is by design unpredictable. For the performer, it can be heartstopping. Like a skydiver who doesn’t know whether or not her parachute will open, I never know whether I will really connect to the other performers, myself or the movement I am doing.
In improvisation, as in Zen practice, I can be aware and changed by what goes on each moment. A response is called forth from me when I pay enough attention to the situation at hand (other dancers, space, sound, light). Whether that response is brilliant, pedestrian, inspired or funny, it doesn’t feel like mine; it’s simply the response needed for that moment. When I choose to improvise, one of the greatest challenges is to give up my desire to strategize and instead to stay in the open-ended situation in which I have put myself. I must counter the urge to reproduce what is safe and familiar. It is not that I plan nothing but that I am willing to surrender my plans to what is called for by the situation at hand.
Why not plan, or choreograph, the dance? I am not against choreography, and I’ve choreographed many dances in my life. For periods of time choreography has seemed like a safer bet, with an outcome that is not only more certain but more crafted and thought out. So why take the risk to improvise? Because for me movement that is crafted and thought out can be too predictable, too designed. It can lose its subtlety and spontaneity. The choreography goes on, regardless of what is really happening in the room. By choosing to perform without a set plan, something unplanned can happen: a movement, an interaction, a random choice about space or speed that occurs in response to the present moment. This can change everything.
I started improvising in my creative dance class when I was nine years old. I always knew what to do next. I was absorbed by the image or structure of the dance. Whether we were snakes or birds, I was freed of myself, able to be completely new: squirmy, slimy or feathery in ways I didn’t know as me.
But what gets in the way of my improvisations now are those nagging judgments that dog our choices as we make them—which my friend Christina Svane calls the “Chihuahuas of the mind.” Some days they won’t be quiet and make us doubt everything we are doing. Midstream in a movement, along comes a thought: “this is clumsy” or “you can’t dance this long with your back to the audience” or “this must be getting boring.” It’s hard not be thrown off course by their yapping. Christina talks about teaching these little beasts to Sit! and Stay! I prefer to attend to them as I would to a cough in the audience, to notice them respectfully and carry on.
There is much talk in Zen about the need to practice, and it’s essential to improvisation also. I have students with very little technique or experience who move in remarkable ways. I love to watch them, but their palette is limited. The range of choices available to them is small. When I am improvising and I sense what should happen next, I want to be able to do it, to have a wide array of choices of how to move. It helps to know my instrument well and to be in tune. Practice lets me know what I can count on. It can seem unmagical and redundant at times, but it opens up possibilities when the dancing happens. As Mark Salzman says in his novel The Soloist, “You cannot make great music; you can only prepare yourself for it to happen.”
I did not take to Zen practice easily. I began after my dad died—when I understood in a way I had never fully fathomed before that one day I too would die. I saw my days going by in a blur, and I wanted to have more experience of my life. So I kept sitting, and gradually I learned to pay attention. I began to experience more sound, more color, more sensation. As I ate an apple, I noticed the white flesh against the red skin. Slowly, slowly I learned to notice the feeling of my breath—whether it was quiet or rampaging in my chest. I felt discomfort, uneasiness, tensions that in all my years as a dancer I’d barely ever noticed.
I began to open myself up to clenching feelings—anger, fear, envy—that I’d felt before but resisted to the best of my ability. As thoughts arose, I noticed those Chihuahuas constantly nagging, judging myself and everyone else. And I began to see my thoughts as slightly separate from myself, with some space between them, rather than as linked together in the endless river that had filled my mind for most of my waking hours.
I am finding that Zen practice offers me what I wanted: I am present for more of my life. But as it turns out, that is only part of what Zen offers. As I became more attentive (again slowly, slowly), I could sometimes see my thoughts and feelings as simply thoughts, simply feelings, rather than as “the truth.” I began to observe the feelings in my body and the thoughts in my mind as I might observe the color of the trees and the sounds in a room. These experiences didn’t always come to me as internal and external, or as self and other. As my experience of self became less fixed, I didn’t feel such a strong need to protect it or to shore up my self-image.
As I practice Zen I find myself willing to tolerate a little more failure, discomfort and embarrassment, which has opened up great possibilities. I can play around, try new things and ways of being. As with the old man who fell in the street, I can respond to the situation at hand rather than sticking to a strategy to look after my own well-being.
I notice this in my improvisation and in my daily life. I surprise myself. Improvising, I can dance the hollow of my bones or a leaf blowing in the wind or the feeling of my partner’s weight resting on my body. I can become all of those things. I feel more fluid and undefined, a part of my surroundings. At the very best of times, I don’t dance the dance; the dance dances me. To me, this is freedom.
I fall onto my partner’s back, and she shifts to assist my roll and slightly increase its momentum. I tumble diagonally across the stage while she runs in a circle, sliding to within an inch of my knees as I roll to sit up. I feel her breath on my cheek. And someone in the audience laughs. We stand up facing each other. I turn away from her, then fall backward, caught in a perfect “spoon” of her body. We walk forward, knees bent, two left feet, two right feet. We stop mid-step and start backward. I think, How are we going to get out of this? We hesitate, then walk forward again. Midway she falls to the floor backward. I stand center stage, frozen, alone, off-balance. My back is cold. The music is louder. . . .