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  • Katherine Kiessling

1/3 stillness. 1/3 existing. 1/3 new.

Adopting a mantra of improvisation to navigate change.

"Grounds for Sculpting Dance" feat. two ferocious dancers creating movement for Grounds for Sculpture's dance day

⅓ stillness. ⅓ existing. ⅓ new.


The rule of thirds is a fundamental principle of improvisation. I was first introduced to the concept my freshman year one sweaty Friday morning in Memorial Hall, a place that would become my home away from home more than any dorm or off-campus house for four glorious, miraculous years. The concept is simple: an improvised dance should spend a third of its time in stillness, a third of its time developing existing movement, and a third of its time generating new ideas. My brain distilled/paraphrased this doctrine down to “⅓ stillness, ⅓ existing, ⅓ new” to run as white noise in my brain as I moved. I never felt more grounded or creative or present than when I was living this life of thirds. I feel like I lived my fullest existence when I allowed this mantra to guide me.


After graduating, I lost this mantra. I let the things I had controlled, or at least shoved away, consume me. Depression and anxiety and fear became all consuming. I recoiled from living in an effort to somehow just make it through each day. I isolated instead of moving towards the contact, another doctrine from another improvisational course. But I had glimpses of the joy of this life of thirds. I felt it when sharing the dance with students or improvised a ridiculous string of clever puns with a friend until we were laughing so hard that breathing became impossible. I unconsciously run to it when I get restless in my office chair or I feel anxiety kicking in causing me to do my own small dance to expel the negative energy and regain focus. And now as the world faces unprecedented isolation to combat a relentless pandemic, I am ready to tumble back into it, and I think the world should too.


Talk to anyone about how they are doing, and they say they’re taking this one day/step/moment at a time because that’s all we can do. They’re rolling with the punches/making it up as they go/improvising and seeing how it all turns out. We can only be present. We are literally improvising all the time now because our world has been turned upside down. But just because our normal order has been disrupted does not mean we are living in chaos. Improvisation has structure. The way we approach improvising with this new normal can have structure.


⅓ stillness.


Work from home vibes.

I initially resisted attending to this third. Partly because it seemed counter intuitive to be motionless in a dance improvisation course, partly because I hadn’t come to terms with my own discomfort at being still. But stillness is one of my favorite thirds, if not my favorite. Stillness invites not only being seen but seeing. It’s an opportunity to observe, refocus, reconnect, and ground. Invite a third of stillness into your life. Turn your notifications off, stop scrolling the overwhelming number of news updates, and just be still. Disconnect so you can reconnect. Observe what it’s like to be present with yourself. Check in to see how you are doing. Refocus your thoughts and energies, and try to ground yourself in the present moment instead of worrying about the future. Take time to observe how the world is still revolving under you. Spring is here. Feel the sunlight pouring through your window. See the gentle breeze make the budding leaves dance. Acknowledge how life is still blooming around you and take note of how you can incorporate this into your personal practice. Let yourself root so you can bloom.


⅓ existing.


The act of being seems impossible right now, but I promise it’s not. It is just a matter of developing your existing movements. How can your schedule evolve to these new circumstances? Not radically upend, but rather adapt? Did your morning routine consist of showering, applying a multi-step skin care regimen, putting on a bomb outfit, and grabbing a banana on your way out to your car to head to work? Do it still. Shower. Apply the Glossier serums and SPF face cream. Put on a fresh set of clothes (even if it’s a clean pair of PJs). Grab that banana to eat on your two minute commute to your new office aka the dining room table. Do not be afraid to exist as you were. You can adapt and evolve. Developing your current existence should be a goal regardless of whether or not you are isolated to your house. It is how we grow as individuals and achieve our goals and dreams. It is how we work to better ourselves daily. It is how we pursue a life of learning. Do not abandon yourself and your growth out of fear or out of sudden change. Find a way to develop and evolve your existence.


⅓ new.


Because puddles were made for splashing.

From stillness and developing our existing comes the discovery of something new. New is probably (definitely) tied with stillness as my favorite third. It’s playful. It’s surprising. It’s invigorating. We will all discover new things to incorporate into our existence - we already are. Everyone seems to be leaning into creation, be it to fill the void of social distancing, generate a feeling of connection, find an outlet, or simply fill up feeds with the light of creativity. I see it in the Tik Tok dances being choreographed in kitchens, in the screenshots of Zoom meetings between friends looking for friendly faces and a source of laughter in all of this. I see it in the incredible work of teachers and parents redefining what it means to teach. I see it in businesses discovering the possibilities in remote work. We are all finding new things each day. Take note of the new, see how you can play with it the way a small child would. Explore it until it becomes part of your existence.


Then maybe give yourself time to be still in it, or maybe allow yourself to return to the third of developing the existing. Find the playful dance among the three, in whatever order or pattern they want to flow. Challenge yourself to see the structure in all this. We are all improvisers. We always were. Now is the time to embrace this identity - so go forth and play.

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