Tag Archives: improvisation

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

A Dance At Easter

Anticipation for Easter this year was enhanced by an invitation from Gail Ransom, a minister friend, to dance at her church’s Easter Service. Dancing as part of a worship service goes to the roots of dance itself, and sparks reminders of my past dancing career. Over 40 years ago, for a period of six years, I was a member of Festival Dancers, a dance company sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Detroit and directed by Harriet Berg, who is still holding forth as Ms Detroit Dance. We performed frequently during that period in churches and synagogues around Michigan.

IMG_1216The ministerial team at First United Methodist Church came up with inspiring music and ideas for my colleagues and I to play with as we developed our contributions for the Easter service.  Rather than choreographing a dance piece from movement phrases I knew or thought up, I decided to use InterPlay’s improvisational forms, and arrange them in a sequence and in formations that fit the music and this particular church space. This was a natural choice because InterPlay founders Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter created InterPlay over 30 years ago on the altars of churches in California as a way of creating dance sequences for worship services.

A week before Easter I met with three young girls, members of the church, and taught them the primary forms we’d be using – shape and stillness, side-by-side solos, and gesture choir. When the members of Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players joined me on Tuesday we worked out spacing and added a variation I’d call shape/travel/shape for each dancer to repeat until arriving at her assigned spot in the sanctuary. Inside these forms each of us created our own movement, connecting to the music and to one another.IMG_0332_2

The piece we were given to dance to was “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. It had won the 1984 Oscar for best song in the movie “Working Girl.” The river referred to and celebrated in the song is a river of women, hundreds of thousands of women, taking their places as productive and fully contributing members of societies across the globe.

I was delighted and surprised by the synchronicity between one of my deepest lifetime longings and an opportunity to dance it.  Having the eager and dedicated young women join us added another layer of meaning to the piece since they are the future. As the choir lauded the coming of the “New Jerusalem,” we dancers of various ages leapt for joy, and my entire being tingled with what I could only describe as ecstasy.

Music for Whiling Away the Miles

Finally  a rainy morning where I can lounge a bit in my version of the universal writer’s uniform, my pajamas. The past ten days have been relentlessly busy with mostly all good things, but going the speed of the body means at this point, some stationary down time. In the past ten days I’ve driven to Youngstown to Perform the Book with guest artist, Soyinka Rahim and Atlanta InterPlay leader Jennifer Denning at her family’s home church. I’ve driven to Racine Wisconsin for the Body Wisdom National Board Meeting and Leaders’ Gathering, capped off by performing a solo drive home to Pittsburgh. Last night I headed to WV with two members of the Wing and A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and was especially grateful to friend Amy for her willingness to drive us home.


Driving in my especially comfortable car is, for the most part, a delight. A sing-a- along with InterPlay musician James Schattauer kept me alert through miles and miles of monotonous turnpike terrain. James’s simple rhythmic tunes inspired me to try my hand at composing my own verses, and a likely theme that emerged was finding suitable food to eat at the roadside oasis. Here are the words to the song I came up with – “My body likes spinach, my body likes greens, My body likes spinach, my body likes greens, Like Popeye the Sailor Man, I too am a fan, But I must admit, I don’t like them out of a can.”

In defense of my “poetry” the purposes of this exercise, which I accomplished, were to amuse myself and to keep myself alert through a long day of driving. To get the full effect, you really have to hear the tune.

A Different Kind of Gypsy

In the musical comedy theaterTravellers_Decorated_Caravan_(6136023633) the dancers are called “gypsies.” I suppose it’s because the nature of their employment involves changing jobs and moving around the country often. The first year I was in New York, I lived in 11 different places around the city, including the times I arranged to sleep on a friend’s couch.

This week I’m falling back on those learned long ago gypsy skills – moving around the world with a spirit of adventure, and practicing the spiritual discipline of extreme flexibility. I’m been in North Texas on what might be termed “a book tour.” With the help of my sister who lives north of Denton, I organized one book event in Fort Worth and two in Dallas. Sandwiched in between I attended a women’s retreat at a ranch an hour and a half northwest of Fort Worth.highways

I lived in this area of the world for over 20 years but having left eight years ago, I’d forgotten the amount of time people here spend in their cars and how carefully they plan their trips to miss the rush hours and the logjams created by road construction projects.  As a visitor it strikes me that most every roadway is being worked on, or expanded to accommodate even more traffic. Toll roads are under construction to swoop people over the top of the current roadways and make money for the state and the construction companies.

I’m now at my next stop, Atlanta GA. doing a home stay with a friend as I prepare for a Warrior Mother Performing the Book event this evening at Charis Books and More,  http://charis.indiebound.com/ the nation’ s oldest independent feminist bookstore. If you’re in the area, please join me as I help Charis celebrate their 43rd year as one of the “must see” places in the Atlanta area.charis

Dancing For Life

When I awoke this morning I could tell I had danced last night. Some soreness in the muscles, yes, but the clarity and expansive feeling in my body – that’s the true, morning after reward. I try to dance some most days , but yesterday was a push beyond my usual. At the invitation of Lynn Coghill, members of our troupe danced at the 2nd Annual Gospel Liturgical Dance Festival at the Community College of Allegheny County – North Shore. We experienced an exercise regime called “Praisemoves” which involves stretching and holding poses while the instructor recites verses from the bible. It was quite a bit more challenging than it looked, which I was about to find out in the middle of the night.

A few hours after falling asleep, I awoke with muscle spasms in my legs. They were happening in both legs at once, though each leg had its own pattern. I learned on Medicinenet.com that muscle cramps or spasms occur when large muscles are overstretched or held in the same position for prolonged periods of time.  They also report that the cause may be an imbalance in the elements that muscle cells require; water, glucose, sodium, potassium, and magnesium. That’s probably why, when I came downstairs and ate some banana and drank a bit of milk,  (something I remembered Lynn telling me she does when this happens) the spasms went away. 

We met a liturgical dancer in her 50s and heard her inspiring story of how she has met the challenge of being diagnosed with rheumatoid  arthritis in her mid 20s. Though there are moves she cannot do, she is a beautiful dancer, and dancing her prayers has kept her living an energetic and embodied life.  

And while I was reflecting on how continuing to dance into my later years has kept me in touch with my body and feeling good, a friend sent me the Science Friday video about babies and birds matching movements with rhythm. It seems the impulse to respond to rhythm is innate. And though we don’t yet understand why, science demonstrates what we dancers know – moving to rhythm makes us feel good and gives us the experience of joy. And dancing ones prayers is the greatest joy of all.



United We Stand

Last weekend InterPlay Pittsburgh participated in the Building Change Conference: a convergence for social change. This three-day conference included skill-building workshops, panel discussions, community dialogues, a film festival, an art show, and an evening of performance art.

Our improvisational troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed Friday night on the theme, Changing the World 101.  Two hundred or so conference participants, award honorees, and friends witnessed our 20-minute performance that occurred in the center of an evening of short performances by singers, drummers, dancers, actors, rappers, and musicians – all who use their art as a tool to change the world.

Since our performances are made up in the moment and on the spot, it’s always a bit confusing when we say we practice InterPlay on a weekly basis. But how it works is that a week or two before a performance, we each meditate on the topic or theme, and practice accessing and telling our stories that seem related to it, or to words that people associate with the topic.

The words, “domination” and “fear,” were suggested by audience members when we asked what gets in the way of creating a world that works for all. This brought out a troupe member’s story of how her young son had solved the bullying problem at his school. She had told some version of this story before at one of our practices. But in the presence of witnesses, people passionate about social justice, this simple story became something much more.  As company members joined her, the message her son gave to the bully, (after he had rounded up enough kids for support), became amplified in movement and song. “Whatever you do to one of us – you do to all of us.”

And then, with support from our keyboard musician, the entire company formed a straight line, shoulder to shoulder in solidarity and began moving towards the audience. The song morphed into,“We’re standing together, we’re standing together.” None of this had been rehearsed. It came from the grand goal of the conference, of the Occupy Pittsburgh event that was to take place the following day, and of hundreds of events taking place around the globe last weekend.  I felt in my own body, the connection to my fellow performers, the support from the audience, and the power of standing together. We became, on behalf of everyone in the room, in the nation, and throughout the world, a metaphor and a mantra, for the Power that Unity brings.

Life’s an improv

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my facination with improvisation. After all, I’ve spent the last 16 years practicing and teaching InterPlay, an improv system based on helping folks unlock the wisdom of their own bodies. But in the last few days, improv has been following me around. Everywhere I’ve turned; the newspaper, a phone call with a friend, even an NPR radio show on my way to have my hair cut, there’s been something else about improv.

The first incident was a newspaper article about Moth Stories, announcing a performance in Pittsburgh last Thursday night. Moth Stories is a storytelling organization in New York City founded in 1997 by writer/poet George Dowes Green. The name comes from his experiences in his native Georgia, telling stories with friends on the back porch in the summertime, the moths being drawn to the light. The article mentioned that though the performers rehearse their stories, they improvise them each time before the audience,  otherwise the stories “seem like they are coming from a corpse.”

When I learned that the performance was already sold out I signed up to be on the early notification list next year and suggested they ask the group to do a couple of performances given the popularity of their work. Later I visited their website and learned that every one of their performances in New York City has been sold out in the first 48 hours.http://www.themoth.org/storytellers 

The next day, in a phone conversation with an InterPlay colleague, Soyinka Rahim, I learned that when she and I present at the Facing Race conference in Chicago Sept 24-25, using InterPlay, a group named Improv Edge will be sharing the podium. This sent me to their website http://www.improvedge.com/ where I learned that they use improv to teach business skills. According to their founder, Karen Hough, “improv teaches individual and group accountablity, thinking on your feet, saying yes to your colleagues and adding your own contribution.” Wow! I can’t wait to meet them.

The third incident involving improv happened on my way to get my hair cut the following morning. I heard Terry Gross interview Bobby McFerrin, the well known improvisational musician, about his new album, Vocabularies. http://www.bobbymcferrin.com/ Things I remember from that captivating conversation:

  • The importance of becoming completely comfortable in his own body, (something he learned from dancers), because the whole body is the instrument when we sing.
  • The stage has become his second home so he feels completely comfortable there and not intimidated by the audience.
  • His voice has become softer over the years because he has found that a softer voice gives him more flexibility as he improvises sounds.
  • He chooses improvisation partners that will bring out new aspects in him. He enjoys the element of being surprised by what emerges from these collaborations.

Amen and alleluia! Can I dare to hope that these three experiences are a sign that improv’s time has finally come. That our culture is finally getting it that life is about creating in the moment, and it’s a handy skill worth practicing.