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The Skeleton Technique

The Skeleton Technique

 

How to mine what you already know to create fresh ideas

When I was a kid, I borrowed a songwriting book from the library, and its advice surprised me.

It said not to write your songs from scratch.
 
 

Instead, it said to start with an existing song and then keep changing it until it’s no longer the same piece.
 

To me, that sounded like cheating, but it turns out it works! A lot of really famous songs have been written that way.

And the same concept can help you generate fresh ideas for your dance.
 

Listen Now:

 

Or Read the Transcript

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!

When I was a kid, I took out a book about songwriting from the library, and its advice surprised me. It said don’t try to write a song from scratch. Instead, start with an existing song and then keep changing it until it’s no longer the same piece. To me, that sounded like cheating and so I never really tried it. But it turns out that’s actually a really common technique in songwriting and a lot of really enjoyable and famous and even good songs have been written that way.

While I never did try that with music, I did find an adaptation for the dance. The value in this idea is that creating something from scratch can feel daunting, but we can mine what we already know to create new ideas. That’s the concept behind skeletons. This is a topic that I introduced in my second instructional video, the Improvisation Toolkit Volume Two, and if you have that already you’ve heard me call them compositional skeletons. These days I just call them skeletons.

So, what is a skeleton? Well, it’s what’s left if you start with a combo and then take away all the movements. You might have traveling patterns left over, a particular timing, a particular usage of different body parts, or using different movement qualities.

This may make more sense if we talk through an example. So let’s say your combo is just step-hip-forward and then a shoulder shimmy turning. If you take the moves out, you have traveling forward with a sharp accent on every other beat and turning with a vibrating movement. But that’s not the only interpretation. You could say that when you take the moves out, you still have traveling forward with a focus on the hips and then doing something in place with a focus on the upper body.

So there’s no single correct skeleton for any combination. It’s what you see and you interpret. So why does this matter? What can skeletons do for us? Well for one thing they make a great creativity prompt. It lets you create and new interesting combinations without having to pull them out of thin air. You can think of them sort of like Mad Libs for your dance. If you’re feeling uninspired or if you’re in a playful mood and just want a jumping off point, these are a great place to start.

Skeletons are also great for creating structure in your dance. If you use the same skeleton to create different combinations within the same piece, it creates a sense of unity and continuity that helps the audience follow your train of thought, and that makes your dance more interesting.

Skeletons are also good for quick decisions. When you’re improvising, reusing a skeleton to create new combos is a faster and less stressful way than trying to create them out of thin air. But it goes deeper than that. Skeletons can also teach you about the ingredients that go into the dance. If you watch other dancers and try to identify the skeletons that they use, that will give you a lot of insight into how they put moves together, what compositional elements they favor, and how they interact with the music.

Focusing on the skeletons can also help you make the dance your own. Other dancers are a great source of inspiration whether you’re watching YouTube clips or live performances or learning combos in class or in workshops, but we don’t want to be cookie-cutter copies of each other. But if you identify the skeletons in the other dancers’ work and explore different ways to use those skeletons, that can help you integrate the aspects of what you like about that dancer and her material, and make that a part of your own style instead of copying her stuff wholesale.

So how do you get started? Well the first thing is to make it a habit of identifying the skeleton when you encounter a new combo. If you see another dancer do something you love or you learn a combo in class or in a workshop, just always ask yourself what would be left in this combo if I took the movements away? If you’re having trouble identifying that, a great idea on a video at least is to turn off the sound. That can help you focus on what she’s doing instead of the big picture.

Then play around with fleshing out that skeleton and creating your own ideas. You can do this in different ways. You can take your time and sit down and brainstorm, or if your focus is improvisation you can just put on some music and repeat that skeleton over and over again, trying on as many ideas as you can. A good way to start it just by marking out the skeleton itself with no moves, so just walking your way or gesturing your way through it, and then try plugging in some different ideas.

You can do all of this in your imagination as well. No dancing, just picturing the skeleton and how you could fill it in with different moves. This is a great way to spend dead time like waiting in line at the grocery store and it’s surprisingly effective because half of the work is coming up with the idea, not just executing it.

 

Your Turn

If you try this technique, let me know how it goes!

Got a question or topic that you’d like me to talk about on the show?

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?

We work with skeletons in depth in The Improvisation Toolkit Volume 2: Structure. We break down examples from live performances, identify the skeletons and then practice using them to create new combos in the moment.

Check it Out 
 
 

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