What is Improvisation?

Improvisation is the foundation of dancing tango, but you might ask exactly what constitutes improvisation.  Of course, we all understand improvisation in a general way, so we might ask where, exactly, do we draw the line between improvisation and not improvisation. A quick definition of improvisation is that it is combining the position and momentum of your partner, with a rhythm heard in the music, and a move that you know well, to choose an appropriate move – and all this done step by step. If your partner is not ready for that step, select a different one. A certain step does not imply the next step – each step is chosen individually.

It has been said that there are 2 sins in tango:
Anticipation is the sin of women; Hesitation is the sin of men.  It’s all too easy for a man to detect
anticipation in his partner; there is a millisecond when she has a thought, such as where to step next, or whether she made a mistake, that feels like a disconnect, or a lack of trust in herself, and causes him to pop into consciousness about her movement, which interrupts his dance.  Men hate it when women anticipate, and most women do it.  As beginners, women may take a step which was not led, but women dancers learn to anticipate faster as their skill improves.  However, the men still know if they are anticipating – and don’t like it.

Hesitation occurs when a man has a millisecond break in his flow, as he has a conscious thought: what to do next, whether he did the last move correctly, or what the music will do next.  Beginner men may stop to think, or may do some weight shifting while they plan, or even change their mind mid-step; experienced men learn to react faster, and think shorter, but a woman can still feel the millisecond break in continuity.  And she doesn’t like it.

For both men and women, true dancing is a right-brain activity; it is about being, not about doing.  Dancing is about feeling the music and your partner, and expressing it in movement.  Dancing is not about planning, or remembering a step or adjusting your posture or technique or placing your foot; these are all left-brain activities, and are about doing (not about being). 
Left-brain activity – what we often call “thinking” – is an interruption in dancing; it is not dancing.  Conscious thoughts disrupt the flow of improvisation, and the shifting from right brain to left brain can be felt by one’s partner, and it engenders a feeling of insecurity, or danger.  We can stay dancing only if we can keep our mind clear of “thinking”, however brief the thoughts may be (if our goal is to be improvising).

Unfortunately, we can’t be improvising all the time; sometimes we need to stop dancing and think for a moment.  If I step on my partner’s toes, I need to apologize and do whatever is necessary to not do it again.  If I can’t feel the other dancers near me, and must look to see where they are, to navigate safely, then I need to consciously plan my movements and directions.  When I’m learning new movements or techniques, I can only hear, interpret, test, adjust, and memorize – in my left brain; then the new material can make its way, over time, into my right brain, and I can dance it.  Appreciating and acknowledging my partner, as well as recognizing my own accomplishments and shortcomings, all happen in the thinking, in the left brain, usually after the dancing.

Consciousness – dwelling in the left brain – is a necessity in the dancing world, but improvisation – dwelling in the right brain – is where the real joy of dance is to be found.  Think when necessary – and only when necessary – and then get back to dancing as soon as possible. Don’t miss out on the pleasures of dancing, while spending all your time thinking while dancing.