The Horrible 4-Letter Word That Keeps You From Improvising!

Wed, Jan 9, 2008

Tap Resources

Why don’t you feel comfortable with improvisation?

It’s a question that I longed to understand for many years now. After all, the first time I saw the masters like Gregory Hines, Steve Condos, Jimmy Slyde, and Sammy Davis Jr. improvising in the movie Tap, all I wanted to do was to dance like them – to feel what they felt when they moved with the music.

After teaching for several years and talking to many tap dancers about it, I have finally been able to target the word that prevents tap dancers from improvising.

As tap dancers we rarely utter this word, instead we say things like… “improvisation doesn’t interest me.” Though if that were true, no one would have thought anything was special about Gregory Hines or Savion Glover. The truth is, we all love improvisation!

So what’s the word that prevents tap dancers from enjoying one of the highest expressions of our art form?

Your probably guessed by now that it’s the “F” word!

Wait! Not that one!



Turtle Shell

So what is so scary about improvising?

The Fear of Failure

This is a big one for most tap dancers. Ask a tap dancer to improvise and the first thing they will usually say is, “I don’t know what to do!”

What this really means is, “I can’t think of anything that I think is good enough.”

Do you notice anything strange about this statement? It’s an example of how we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to doing something new. Carefully study it and you will see that the person is really claiming two opposing positions simultaneously.


One the one hand, they are claiming to have no expertise or knowledge about improvisation. Yet on the other, they are implicitly claiming to know enough about improvisation to evaluate their own performance.

Ok…I can see your eyes glazing over!

Here is the point. It’s too early to evaluate yourself when you first start out. Do this, and fear takes over!

Improvisation, like everything else, takes practice!

That’s right…I said it! People are not born with the ability to improvise any more than they are born with the ability to do a time step. It takes practice.

When Savion Glover improvises a performance, he is operating from almost thirty years of “practicing improvisation” on a daily basis.

With improvisation – “The reason you can’t, is because you don’t.” (Most of us think it’s the other way around when we start out.)

If you want to learn how to “practice improvisation” submit your first name and email address below.

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Terrence Taps

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11 Comments For This Post

  1. Carl Says:

    Thanks Terrence, I think this applies to all dances where improvisation is such an integral part. It was sort of funny for me because the first tap thing I went to with tap dancers was an improvised tap jam. I’d been tapping for all of a few weeks on my own with the occasional informal lesson from some friends. It was intimidating indeed but probably easier because improvising was familiar to me.

  2. Taps Says:

    That’s great Carl! It feels so great once you learn to go with it. The problem is, most formal dance schools never even touch on it.

  3. Johnna Says:


    Taylor (age 7) who previously was very involved in competitive dance, won a free pass to participate in Bravo (a national dance competition). Last year at that competition Taylor received a judges award, “Terrific Tapper” and she also won “Petite Title”, thus being awarded a free solo entry.

    Taylor is insisting that she is she is going to IMPROVISE. She has picked her music and practices but does it different every time. I am extremely nervous to permit her to improvise in that competition when I know that 99.9% of the routines are heavily choregraphed by professional dance instructors. I did submit it as student choregraphy entry to even out the odds.

    I told Taylor in that atmosphere she is taking a risk, doing something different than what is typically done. The judges may detect that it is improvised and may not approve. She said she doesn’t care, that she wants to try it.

    I am proud of her for being so courageous, but as a mother I am extremely concerned that if the end result is not positive will it cause her F E A R in the future. Is she ready to NOT get raving reviews from the judges? What do you think of me letting such a little kid take such a risky step?

    We both know she can tap but, can she take the outcome if it is less than positve and will it bring out that F E A R that more mature people experience?

    I would appreciate your opinion and anyone else’s that may want to comment…

    F.Y.I. We still studio shopping in the Northern VA area. Taylor misses your classes and wishes she could still take classes from you..

  4. Taps Says:

    Hey Johnna,

    Even if she is going to improvise her performance, Taylor still needs to spend lots of time practicing her improvisation.

    Since it’s a competition, it may be best if she does a “hybrid” performance. That’s where some parts are choreographed and others are reserved for improvisation. (See my “Is Improvisation Important” series).

    That way the dance can have enough structure to ensure that the judges are satisfied.

    I wouldn’t worry about her developing a fear of improvisation. My experience has been that 95% of folks who are afraid to improvise, have never tried to do it for any length of time. If anything, a less than stellar result may encourage her to work harder at her improvisation…. She’s a tough one. I admire her courage!

  5. msjazztapper Says:

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more. Take a look at this article to see the truth about improving with live musicians — a real eye opener about the big F thing!

  6. Taps Says:

    Thanks msjazztapper. There is nothing like performing with live musicians. As a matter of fact, my wife likes it so much more when I perform with live musicians that she really doesn’t get excited anymore when she hears that I am performing with a track.


  7. Johnna Says:


    I read the article and I looked at the clip. Thank you…


  8. Johnna Says:


    Just to follow-up. I told you that Taylor ended up getting a gold (the highest award is a platinum the lowest a silver). She received very high technical scores but low choreography scores (there was no student choreography category as I was hoping, so she competed against adult choreographers). We were okay with the results but she could have done better…had she practiced improv a little bit more..

    The one thing I learned was even if she looked confident and great at home, it is not the same as being on the stage where the nerves got her a little because she knew that she wasn’t fully prepared (practiced).

    Well F-E-A-R has not set in, she is at it again. This time she is doing 100% improv to a Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”. It is a much better choice for improv (vs Dancin Machine by Jackson 5). She has been practicing a lot, at least an hour a day . She has also been listening to the music without tapping making sure she knows every note. It is a variety talent competition so it is doubtful that the judges will be tap experts. It should be good improv stage practice. Hopefully she will have positive results this time. She keeps repeating your words “You have to practice improv”.

    We will let you know what happens this time.


  9. Tristan Bruns Says:

    Hey Terrance-
    We corresponded before when you put my clip up, and I’ve been frequenting the site ever since as it is a great resource and community forum. I think you hit the nail on the head with this essay on the fear of improv. If I had only read something like this when I was 12. It would have made a world of difference. Very nice.
    -Tristan Bruns

  10. Taps Says:


    Man! I’m glad to see that you have been frequenting the blog since we met. It’s an honor… Glad you are enjoying the content. I am actually finishing up on the DVD that will accompany this article series now.

    Improv is something I am passionate about and I hope I can encourage more dancers to try it!


  11. Taylor B. Says:

    I just re-read the above post over two years later and am happy to report that Taylor (now almost 10) LOVES improv. It is her favorite part of tap and she is FEARLESS!! Her younger brother Patrick age 7, loves it also. It used to be nerve racking for me wondering what they were going to do when they improv. Now I don’t care, I just stay out of their way and let them have fun!

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