If You Hesitate, You Lose


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What soccer goalies can teach belly dancers about improv.

When I was in grad school, I attended a university language program in Poland. One of the friends I met there was a professional soccer goalie.
And he told me something about soccer that completely changed the way I approach improv…

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This was professionally transcribed, but it probably still has some errors. If you catch any, drop me a line at nadira@nadirajamal.com. I’d love to hear from you!

You’re listening to More Than Steps, the podcast where we geek out on how belly dance works, one coffee run at a time. I’m your hostess, Nadira Jamal.

When I was in grad school, I spent a summer in Poland. I was there to visit family, but I started off my trip at a language program at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, just to brush up on my language skills. One of the friends that I lived with in the dorms was a professional soccer player. He told me something that’s really stuck with me. See my friend was a goalie and what he said was that when a goalie is trying to block a kicked ball, he has to decide where to jump before the other players foot even touches the ball. The ball just moves so fast that if he waits to find out what directions it’s going to go in, he’s guaranteed to miss. Instead the goalie has to guess where the ball is going to go, leap for that area and hope it’s the right choice.

Improv is a whole lot like that. The thing is when we’re choreographing, when we’re planning our dance in advance, we’re trying to find the best idea. So we brainstorm different options, we try several of them out and select the one that we think is the best, but in improvisation we have to do the opposite. Instead of thinking and trying to find a good idea, we just need to find any idea and then make it into a good one. We need to run with our instincts. So why is that? Just like a goalie when we’re improvising, we don’t have time to consider our choices. If we stop and second guess every idea we’re going to miss out on our opportunity and we’re going to be late. Or if we start our idea but start second guessing it and judging it while we’re doing it then that leads us to scribbling, switching moves randomly looking for the right one. Or sometimes doing our moves without full commitment because we’re not confident that they’re good enough.

So how do we fix that? The thing to remember is that with improv the key is to run with your first idea, because often that first idea actually is a good one, but even if it’s not perfect you still have options. If it’s not the best idea but it’s decent, just tweak it. Let’s say you were expecting a consistent beat but instead you got some funky accents, well keep doing the move that you were doing but just tweak the timing. So maybe you were going to be doing some step hips, maybe you turn that into step hips with some downs on those funky accents. If your idea turns out to be pretty off; well, just morph it. Let’s say you were expecting an accent and instead you get a soft phrase, you can change that movement into another move with a similar trajectory but a different quality.

For example, if you were doing a side to side bump to catch those accents, but you decided you need a soft move instead, that bump can morph into a circle really easily. You just start your circle in the direction that you were bumping. The same is true in the opposite direction. Now you may be thinking, but my instincts are usually wrong. The thing is they’re probably better than you think. Often when you think that your first idea was bad, that causes you to prejudge it. You end up doing it kind of half-assed because you think it’s bad, but if you did that movement with full commitment and full technique, often it looks pretty good. Also, your instincts will get better with experience, so even if you’re coming up with ideas that are only iffy, so-so, okay, over time you’ll start making better and better choices.

Also, remember that when you’re moving in the moment, you’re accessing a different part of your brain than when you sit and preplan. So often you’ll come up with your most creative and interesting ideas on the spot and not when you preplan. Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t ever course correct. If you’ve lept off a cliff and it turns out to be a terrible idea, you absolutely can drop that idea and switch to something else. The key here is that we want to do it gradually. We use that morphing technique to transition into your newer idea instead of stopping suddenly or flailing around to get your way there.

All of this takes practice, but with time it will become second nature. Even as you’re learning, every little bit helps. So running with that instinct will immediately improve your dancing because you won’t get that scribbling and flailing. So start saying yes to your ideas instead of second guessing and judging, run with your first instinct. Not everything will be perfect and that’s okay. Own it, tweak it or morph it and it’ll turn out great. Because just like my friend the soccer goalie, if you hesitate, you’ve already lost.

Thanks for listening, for more geektacular resources, visit bellydancegeek.com.

Your Turn

Do you struggle with hesitation and second-guessing yourself when you try to improvise? Do you have any tips for trusting your instincts?

I would love to hear from you.

Leave a comment below, or better yet, leave me a short voice message. Maybe I’ll even play it on the air!

Want More?

Trusting your instincts takes practice. But just figuring out where to start can be overwhelming.

If you’d like to build your improv skills step-by-step, check out my instructional video, The Improvisation Toolkit Volume 1: Movement Recall, now available on DVD and to download.

Check It Out

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