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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

Improvisation, the Specificity of the Ask

An arm draped over my shoulder, accompanied by a gentle nudge…If my improvisation partner offers a movement proposition, I join, possibly suggest a variation. I pay attention to the point of contact, body part, amount of weight I am receiving, noticing where the contact moves. No time to think about what happens next. Before any single thought crystallizes, we are on to the next moment.

Moving without contact, our cues are visual. We steal fragments of each other’s movement. I notice space between, body positioning, texture of movement, phrasing, repetitions, rhythmic patterns that emerge. I like to try and log these, remember them and use as anchors, reminding my partner that we are spontaneously creating a shared language.

With a perceptive and willing partner, those shared markers do emerge. With a perceptive and willing partner, those shared markers do emerge. Those shared markers are interspersed with lots of flowing rummaging about for the next moment of crystallized connection.

No need to think about why I make any one movement proposition. Anything can mean anything The alpha dynamics of the encounter never occur to me, except with a partner that tends to dominate, hijacking an idea and immediately creating persona variation or simply leading all the time.

Most dancers enter duet dialogues with the assumption that the shared objective is to just move together. Enough said. We will figure it out. I never thought about the specifics of the ASK.

What does ASK even mean? With an equine partner, the ASK determines the content of the conversation.


In 2003, I began training in Natural Horsemanship ground skills, taking my improvisation skills into the equine arena., I had been creating performances with dancers and ridden horses and wanted to learn how to create movement dialogue directly with the animal, no rider.

Initially, my improvisation skills - multi-focused noticing, shaping the space between moving bodies, remaining adaptable, absorbing the energetic feel of the animal - – served me well. I devised a kind of movement mirroring. This mirroring activity clearly attracted the horse’s attention, even at a great distance. Seasoned horse people were fascinated by how easy it was for me to get the animal’s attention - a momentary, flicker of curiosity. “Human moving in an unfamiliar way.”

If I paid attention and stopped sponging at just the right moment, dropped my agenda and softened my attention, often the horse would come closer. Repeat the process, then walk away, and I might even find a horse following me. Beginners luck! I had no idea why this would happen.

Not quite mirroring, surely not imitation, I called this dance of shaping space between, aligning bodies and energy a kind of sponging. Translating sponging in the studio, I assign one mover as the animal or prime mover. The sponger is doing a kind of spatial and energetic tracking that reads as bodies moving together but not doing the same activity, a kind of visceral unison. I want the follower to step away from the conventions of imitation, follow just the pelvis, don’t imitate arms and legs. Pushed further I ask for just pelvis tracking on pelvis, following from the side or behind, eyes glued to that low center of gravity. One pelvis tracking on another. Now, now, now. Follow no matter what. The follower has no time to think, or fix or refine. Pure survival mode.

There is a kind of ruthlessness to this form. The lead mover has all the power. Only one dancer has a vested interest in creating a movement dialogue. I am stripping away dancer assumptions. We are practicing equine thinking.

With a horse - and I suppose with a human partner as well - relentless sponging and tracking can become a form of ask. Horses are tremendously sensitive animals, very attuned to our human energy or intention, spatial proximity. They know when you have entered the pasture and can sense if you are just sharing space or entering with the intention of haltering them. They read intention.

With tracking or sponging, the prime mover can simply ignore the partner and ignore the persistent attention. At some point animal or human would eventually ask “What do you want?” The attending intention IS a form of ASK.

So, in our studio research, we began to pay attention to “What am I asking for in a duet encounter?”

There are multiple levels of Ask when dancing with a horse. Basically, we are managing our own expectations. What do we expect from our partner?

In a human duet improvisation, our assumption is we will receive some level of attending from our partner. It is always surprising to encounter an improvisation partner who does not listen at all. With horses, the kind of Ask we choose, determines the ensuring rules of engagement.

Risking huge oversimplification, one might think of three levels of ask:

No Ask: Let me share the space with you.

Just Notice Me: Notice me but I am not asking you for anything.

I am the Leader: I am asking you pay attention to me, yield to my leadership

No Ask: Blend in

​​We enter a pasture without an agenda other than to share the space. We choose movement that reflects the energy of the animal, a settled stillness or ambient grazing. We are basically devising our own grazing behavior. No expectations. For agenda-driven humans, this is a difficult state to maintain. Horsemanship training suggests taking a book into the pasture. Another form of a pasture No Ask is devising movement that demands focused attention on yourself – a difficult ballet adagio with lots of sustained balances; a movement score that completely focuses your attention on yourself. The intentional physicality of the movement establishes contrast, and the horses become an ambient backdrop for the human behavior.

If-Then Score

​​We can allow equine movement to completely shape our movement by creating a set of kinetic rules based on the positioning and movement of a specific animal: The angle of the neck determines shaping of my torso; the phrasing of biting, tearing and chewing grass creates a rhythmic phrase for me arms and hands. I align my body with the head-tail alignment of the animal. Slow going. Enter the mind of the equine.

In the Pasture

Horses know the sound of your car when you arrive. They know what you are thinking as you enter their spatial bubble. As we enter a pasture with grazing horses, we are shaping their behavior. In the pasture, the No Ask score is best preceded with doing nothing. Sit quietly, allow time for the grazing energy to re-settle, allow the animals time to deduce that you are not there to disturb, direct or disrupt. Then develop the score gradually, energetically remaining as consonant with the grazing as possible.

In the Round Pen

Bringing the No Ask score into a confined space such as a small paddock or round pen, completely changes the rules of engagement. Sharing a round pen space with a horse, the human agenda is dominant. After all, we put a halter on the horse and led him into the round pen. For most horses, round pens are used for training. Bring a horse into a round pen, the animal will expect to be told what to do.

Many horses, immediately upon entering a round pen, will begin circling in a trot or canter. Bring your undemanding energy into the space allows the animal time to notice you. If the round pen has grass footing the animal will graze. Dirt footing offers minimal grazing opportunity except at the edges of the round pen where grass often grows just beyond the metal fencing. Many horses lie down and roll. Confined space, lack of graze-able grass…the same relaxed state of shared peacefulness that occurs in the pasture, does not take place in a round pen.

Parallel Activity

Devising a parallel activity takes mobilizes your focus away from the animal, allows the horse mental space to relax. Maintain your soft energy, find an activity unrelated to the animal. I often search for small stones, then arrange them into a pattern.

A curious horse will come over to check out what I am doing. My self-absorbed activity has created a kind of indirect draw. The very next move is important. An extended hand, palm down, knuckles presented to a curious nose allows the animal to make the deciding move to connect. Followed by a friendly pat, I have identified myself as a non-predator.

Ask to be Noticed

Any one of several parallel activities might be an invitation, a direct Ask to be Noticed. Being noticed initiates a kind of joining that allows the animal to have a voice. You are not demanding attention. For myself, a naturally very impatient person, the following elements are crucial:Do less. Wait. Take the time it takes. Wait for the animal to “speak”

Sponging. Tracking. Lying on the ground. All useful strategies. With any one of these strategies there is persistence and patience.

Ask: Directing and Shaping Behavior

When I enter the space with the clear objective to affect or shape the horse’s behavior, I am asking the animal to listen and respond. Once a clear ask comes into play, I must be prepared to shift from choreographer-dancer mode into training mode.

Stages of Ask: Friendly

A horseman’s handshake. Scratch an area the horse cannot easily get to – back of the haunches, just under the tail. Coco Give someone an awesome stretch. Wait till you feel their body release into the stretch.


Fingers press gently into chest, asking horse to back up Stop pressing when the animal yields. Fingertips to side of haunches, asking for a yield to pressure. Stop immediately when the animal yields. The stop (release) is the reward. Wait. Wait until you sense the horse asking you to lead. Begin to walk. Expect the horse to walk with you. Your expectation shapes the response

Shaping the movement

​​Body: Please move this body part. Touch with directional intent, expect a yield to pressure.

Space: Move with me, go where I am leading.

Energy: Match your energy to mine

Walk / Trot and Stop: Allow the horse time to absorb the information. Make the horse right, by adjusting the timing of your stop to match his response.

Accepting leadership

The horse manifests acceptance of your leadership - not subservience but trust - by licking and chewing. When you see the licking an chewing it is a clear signal that you are understood, that you are the trusted leader.

When I think about the relationship of all of this to most improvised interactions in the studio, I am amazed at how little attention is given to noticing, checking in with a partner.

Even when dancing with seasoned improvisers who do not share this equine-centric thinking, I often feel their attention is on their own movement choices.

Taking the time to watch, hear, feel – in other words to physically listen – to one's partner is not a priority. They are focusing on their own dancing. The on-going process of listening to a partner takes the constant Go, Go, Go timing away from the interaction. Instead of engaging in clever kinetic banter, the partnership becomes about creatively building a conversation together.

I like to think of waiting as part of the dance. Thinking time is real. The speed of response is not as fast as possible but as fast as is necessary to maintain a relationship. Moving, but also constantly observing what your partner is doing. Noticing takes time. Take the time it takes.

In The Studio

All of this equine thinking might sound overwhelming but actually focuses decisions on external factors. One begins to make movement decisions that do not exist in the Whatever category but in response to real external cues.

Immersed in this dance practice for years, I found myself totally perplexed while improvising with a lovely dancer in the studio recently. The small phrases we were working with were simple, but my directive was just to release into playing. This is what brain was doing:

Holy crap! I could do any of 25 things in this moment.

How to decide?

Let me try for variations.

Clever but disconnected from my partner.I would love to be sponging but my assignment is to work only with my tiny phrase. I do not sense my partner is using me in any responsive way other than staying in very close proximity.

I am not sure if we are allowed to touch?

Try level changes.

Try slow motion.

Try freezing and do nothing

I do not sense that my decisions are causing any responses

What are the rules of engagement governing this duet?

After the Ask, what comes next?

I found myself doing MORE thinking than had I worked with clear definition(s) of my objective(s).

It did not seem possible to build anything together, discover development.

After the ASK, What comes next?

Which brings me back to examining the nature of the ASK. Asking is not an assortment of momentary suggestions. The ASK has an agenda. And it requires a follow-through. Once I get the attention of the horse I need to know what to do with that attention.

With an equine, if my agenda is only to be noticed, a touchdown, an experiment with no plan for what happens next, the attending is likely to be a short interlude, momentary or sporadic check ins. After awhile, the horse will learn that I will not follow the noticing with a request. Like a child being nagged, the horse will begin to ignore me.

Translation into Human Encounters

What seems immensely important with all, this human-equine contemplation is that we are accountable for choices, that we consider the outcomes of our actions and that we py attention for how we are affecting another person.

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