The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Improvised or Unpracticed

Improvised or Unpracticed

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

In the tap dance world that I grew up in, to be an improvisational dancer was the highest level of achievement. With the highest level of achievement at stake, many a conversation turned to what it meant, who was doing it, and how to get there. I was in many of these conversations. There were a variety of opinions and each one brought with it a vision for inspiration, a path for training, and a list of required resources that one would need along the way.

One underlying question was how improvised someone’s dancing actually was. Or to say it another way, how prepared was someone’s dancing. The goal, of course, was to have dancing that was completely spontaneous, not preplanned at all, and still coherent, even inspired. Only if this was the case could one say that they were really an improvisational tap dancer – that what came out of them when caught off guard, unprepared, or even under stress was good tap dancing. This ethic was, and to a degree, still is pervasive in the tap dance world.

As expressed in a song performed by Sammy Davis, Jr., there is a clear line between choreography (preplanned dancing) and “real” tap dancing. There are stories from back in the day that recount what would happen to new tap dancers when they came to New York City. All the local cats would come down to see the show this new dancer was in. After the performance, they’d circle around to the backstage door and challenge the new tap dancer to see if they “could really dance.” The assumption here is that anyone could learn a set of prepared movements, practice them, and perform them well in a show. The real judgement of ability is what happened when they had to deal with a new scenario – one in which their rehearsed dancing would not necessarily be applicable.

Can you dance?

Since this was a topic of focus, there were obviously theories of how one should train to become an improvisational tap dancer. My mentors had plenty of ideas, but less tactical than philosophical. It’s taken me north of thirty years to understand why. To become a particular kind of dancer is to form your preferences, and somehow your natural choices in your dancing towards the kind of dancer you want to become. This, so that when we come to dance, the dancing that naturally comes out of us is the kind we would want.

When the subject turned to training many would say something like, “You have to live this,” referring to the level of immersion required. Some might say, “It’s all about the basics,” referring to the never-changing fundamentals that undergird the dancer’s development. Still others would say, “You have to care about this,” alluding to the disposition towards one dancing that was necessary to enter the cycle of change willingly and with hope.

Ultimately the reality would surface. Yes, there were specific, tactical things, every dancer could do to become more like the dancer they wanted to become. At the same time, these philosophical pointers unveiled the significant relational aspect. The change could not happen outside of the context of relationship. Apprenticeship, community of practice, even one’s own relationship to the craft and pursuit, played a formative part in the journey. Practice the steps all you want, something would still be missing without the people. To press this point with students and teachers I often say, “Everything in Tap Dance Land is about people.”

Practiced Improvisation

Here’s a straight-forward question, then. How do you practice becoming a different kind of dancer? In Tap Dance Land there are two spaces that work together to facilitate change: the studio and the stage. The studio is a private place used to interrupt old habits, experiment with new kinds of dancing, and practice establishing new habits. The stage is a public place used to test the new habits in a context of performance. Go into the studio and try dancing differently. Hiccup. Trip over yourself. It’s all good because no one is watching. This is training after all. Go to the stage and test the new dancing out in front of a paying audience; sense how naturally the new choices are coming; track your growth as an improviser. Go back into the studio and repeat.

Over the course of my journey, I’ve spent hours upon hours in the studio experimenting with the choices I make dancing. Today I can observe and change my approach in an improvised performance. Subscribers to my Studio Notes got a bootleg video last week that was a pristine of example of this. I started a tune – a duet with a pianist – thinking one way, and it wasn’t really working. So, I began searching for a different way. Once the opportunity showed itself, I took it, and the entire performance changed.

Here’s the Thing

If all the dancing that comes out of me is exactly as I would like them to be then I have no reason to engage in this conversation. If, however, I want the spontaneous dancing to be different than what naturally comes out, then the question of change will come up. When thinking about this in the context of spiritual transformation, there are parallels that we can draw. Being an improviser in tap dance or in life, does not mean being unpracticed. Rather it is discovering the practices, processes, and parts we can play within it all to better facilitate the change we would like.

There are also differences. In life there is little delineation between the studio and the stage. Unless we are specifically engaged in one of the spiritual disciplines of disengagement (fasting, silence, or solitude, for example), we will likely feel like we are on stage. Our choices will have risks associated with them and impact more relationships than just the one we have with ourselves. At the same time our entire day may be seen as our studio. It is the place where we might be able to interrupt habits, experiment with different ways, and attempt to establish a new habit of thought and action.

Training for improvisation doesn’t mean living from our authentic selves and relying on some kind of magic to change us while doing nothing specific in the process. Rather, training for improvisation means engaging in the process of change, discovering the good and the bad of what is working inside us, and doing our part in positioning ourselves for change.

You may have noticed that I used the word positioning, as opposed to some other more active word. That is because a change at the deepest level of the person (that of the spirit) is not fulfilled through direct effort. Exactly how our own spirit changes from one kind to another – from desiring some things to desiring others – is a mystery. We don’t know precisely how this happens. However, we do know that through in-direct effort we might position ourselves to be more easily changed.


Earlier I mentioned the importance of people in all this. There is a considerable role to relationship in this entire journey. One way to see this is in the willingness of loved ones to change for each other. Desire what is good for a loved one? What are the chances that you will do what you can so that you can give what is good more naturally? Even if that requires a change in you. Highly likely, I suspect. Across generations this looks like the willingness to pass on, learn, and apply wisdom – to give, receive, and work out what is good. Within a single generation this looks like encouraging one another, working out challenges, and holding each other to the standard of execution everyone agrees on.

The ideas of following and immersion – even the disciplines of disengagement and engagement – are all relational. Who will we follow? Where will they lead us? In what relationships will we immerse yourself? How will they affect us? How will we affect them? What discipline will we engage in to interrupt or attempt to establish a particular habit of thought and action? These are all relational questions that require practice to work out.

All this in the hopes that we might become people who when we come to act, the actions that comes out of us are exactly what we would hope for in any circumstance.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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