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The Art of Improvisation Pt. 2 – Why Dancers are Researchers and Vice Versa

Hi all, it’s Fabian from the team that thinks! (not saying the others don’t)

In my previous post I talked about the necessity of improvisation. Specifically, in choosing life decisions and also revising presentation slides the day of the deadline. Here, I’d like to show different perspectives of improvisation. So I’d suggest reading my previous blog first (which eventually means you have to read the blog before that). I promise this is the end of the chain of blogs 😅.

I’ve illustrated several examples where we need to improvise in life. As an analogy, I said that sometimes in our path we would end up hitting a wall. But sometimes it is not about hitting a wall along the way.. Sometimes you start with one. Here in, everyone’s improv skills are really tested no matter which team you are in. Often times, we will pick up work that we’ve never done before. The test is not to perform perfectly, but to adapt and find the best way to approach the wall. The goal is to pass the wall, whether you climb, go through, or go around. I think a good improviser would find the path with the least energy. This is why people often associate successful people as lazy, when really, they are efficient and creative.

Having said that, I've been afforded ample opportunities to do tasks that I have never done before. For example, in research, I was preparing a presentation about agroforestry, which I said was not my expertise. Our CEO Tak told me, “you can be an expert in anything in three hours”. A fresh graduate like me instinctively panicked, how can I claim expertise in a field within such short amount of time? I realized that I grew up being taught that expertise takes years. Which is true. However, Tak was emphasizing an important skill – learning how to learn. In psychology, this is called metacognition of learning, which you can learn! That probably sounded confusing, but there are several ways this could be illustrated.

Tak told me in his early days of finding a job, he never said no. I thought to myself, this can only backlash at some point. He told me he took a Job as a truck driver, without knowing how to drive one before. He simply admitted that he can. Although he almost destroyed a truck, he learned. A lot. More than just truck-driving, but also how to manage an organization. Now the moral of the story is not to take dangerous job descriptions, but to have courage. Courage to learn something new, because this way your brain will get used to learning. And slowly you develop that metacognition.

Buzzwords aside, I’d like to draw parallels between the world of research and the world of art (something Tak also wrote about here!).

As a dancer, I enjoy seeing how researchers and dancers are not so different. When I took my first dance class in University, I was very fortunate to have a well-rounded modern dance teacher, who teaches two separate lessons: technical and creative. One week she gives technical lessons, where we learn the foundations of modern dance (which essentially is ballet) and learn a choreography to practice the techniques. We learn to follow steps and essentially be a copy-cat (sort of). You can also put your own twist to choreography, but that’s a different story for now. Every other week, she gives creative lessons. Here, it’s almost as if we were told to scrap what we learned and just dance inside-out, to free-flow and move without limitations. Imagine entering a class thinking your teacher will guide you, but instead being told to step back, sit down, and individually come to the center of the room to “move freely” in front of everyone. It was intimidating. But not long after, it felt liberating.

There are always chauvinists on both ends - improvisers (more commonly referred as freestylers) on one end and choreo dancers on the other. Freestylers are a big part of the street dance scene, especially in dance battles. Freestyling is widely agreed to be a separate skill than picking up choreography. Not to say one is superior than the other (unless you ask a freestyler). Simply there are choreo dancers who cannot freestyle and vice versa. From here, I became more and more convinced that creativity and technique are two different skills, which would apply to other artforms as well (research included!).

Another example would be in music. Choreography would then be similar to playing an existing song, strumming the right chords based on or pressing the right key according to the music sheet. While improv would be... not following any of that, doing a solo, letting your fingers slide between frets with seemingly no rules. Of course in reality, improv still has some borders. Improvisers have a broad vocabulary. Just like in speaking, we can grow to become more articulate the more we expand our vocabulary. Freestylers out there have a large database of movement to choose from and it’s as if their brain just preselects movement as they dance, matching motion with music without hesitation. The guitar soloist knows which frets to hit. The researcher knows which information to read. Or in presentations, which words to say on the fly.

In psychology, this is called Crystallized versus fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence involves knowledge that comes from learning and past experiences, while fluid intelligence refers to the ability to solve novel problems. The discussion can definitely be more complex than this, but that is the gist of it - knowing something versus knowing how to use that something. No matter which group I am with, the researchers, dancers, guitarists, I’m slowly appreciating more and more the two types of skills they own and recognizing who belongs in which ends.

Going back to the Agroforestry presentation I had to make, obviously the goal was not to beat someone with a PhD in Agroforestry in three hours. Instead, the goal was to know how to take the essence of a field, cherry-pick the most useful information, and package it to something digestible to an audience. If anything, presentations by experts are often too difficult to understand by laymen. Crystallized intelligence here would be having the expertise in the topic, while fluid intelligence would be knowing how to speak about it no matter who the audience is.

With all that said, there are several lessons to take here. I think gave me the courage to take on new things. More importantly I think there’s one final skill to learn – letting go. In dance battles, you’ll see dancers trying to show their best moves within one minute. The pressure is real, and you see that although everyone is very skilled, the best performer is the one that is the calmest under pressure. Performance anxiety is usually the biggest wall. So in life, sometimes you may not even hit a wall along the way, but you accidentally make one because of anxiety.

Tying it back to my post about uncertainty, I think life is always unpredictable. I learn that sometimes we may not even know what we are actually going to learn. But it’s okay to not understand things immediately, it’s about how you can remain calm under those situations to make the most out of it. So I hope you’ll take interest in improvising, whether you’ll learn the skill or at least admire those who do – dancers or researchers, we are all performers of our own kind.

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