When in doubt, improvise. I used to follow this principle a lot. Not anymore (spoiler, you’ll find out at the end of the article why).
Improvisation – or the ability to adjust, adapt, play along, roll with the punches – is a fundamental skill. It helps you correct course when the expected outcome doesn’t happen. It helps you when the cards aren’t playing that well. It helps you mitigate the risk when the odds are against you.
We, humans, value predictability a lot. That’s why we build our lives around specific scenarios, around fixed patterns that we try to enforce. We plan for a career, for a family, for a purpose. We train, we learn, we invest, we do all these things which, in our mind, must have a certain outcome. Our entire life revolves around certain things that are bound to happen.
Sometimes they do. When we experience this, our human nature, again, tilts the balance in our favor, putting too much weight on our own preparation, skill, experience, and so on. When it doesn’t, we blame the circumstances. Bref, when things go right, it’s because of something we did, when things go wrong, it’s because fate.
And in this continuous dance, we must somehow manage the fated situations that are throwing us off course.
Before learning to dance Argentine tango, I didn’t know improvisation can be taught. It was after I understood the subtle dynamic and the energy exchange in this small miracle, that I started to position myself more on more outside of the fixed outcome area.
You see, tango is made of two forces: the leader, and the follower. The leader draws the dance, puts the intention out, and the follower leans into it, performing and sending back subtle cues. If the dancers are good, if the music is nice, if the setting is balanced, they enjoy a beautiful connection. But most of the time none of the conditions above are fulfilled. Most of the time the dancers have different experience, different techniques and expectations. Surroundings aren’t always the best and not always music is well balanced.
So, what you get, most of the time, is a more or less choppy interaction, with a few occasional peaks.
But the trick is to make the most of the choppy interaction.
As a leader, when you sense the follower doesn’t answer the way you wanted her to (maybe she didn’t understand, maybe she doesn’t have the skill, or the experience to respond as you expect), well, you adjust. You prevent the choppiness by saving the move, resorting to a different step, re-aligning with the partner, doing some plain caminar, and so on. This is how you communicate. This is how you improvise.
I used to try and have the map of my movements, as a leader, with 3 steps in advance. I was literally projecting myself 3 steps in advance all the time, thus leaving room for any unexpected maneuvers. Almost never my projections were correct. Almost always I had to do something else, to adjust.
But the fact that I positioned myself ahead with 3 steps,, meant I didn’t expect any fixed outcome. I just aim for that place, but I know it may never happen. And in this space, in this area between the current dance, and my mental projection 3 steps ahead, all the magic happens.
Everything there is improvisation. And everything there is fluid, balanced and harmonious.
I don’t “improvise” anymore because I finally realized everything we do is improvisation.
We’re all just trying to figure these things out as we go along.