By Jennifer Hoi Yin Johnson

I was ready to shower halfway through the class, but we had another hour and a half to go. We all situated ourselves into a circle and Raymond, my professor, asked, “Are you guys ready for a little improvisation?” My stomach sank to my knees as something blocked my airway.

Although this was my second time taking modern dance, this would be my first attempt at improvisation. In improvisation there would be no teacher telling me what to do; it would be just me—my thoughts and my body—out in the open, vulnerable and randomly dancing with no objective or purpose. I thought of everyone scrutinizing my movement, my body, my soul, and thoughts of inadequacy flooded my mind. Modern dance was totally different than ballet. In ballet everything you did was either right or wrong. I’d grown up making ballet my passion, but my body did not share the enthusiasm. I was neither rail thin, nor endowed with a wonderful turnout. So I braved modern dance.

My professor’s reassuring smile caught my eye. He said, “I know what you guys are thinking from the horrified looks on your faces. Don’t worry. Eliminating judgment and being aware of ‘you’ are essential for improvisation. We’ll work on it.” I thought he was talking directly to me, forgetting the other fifteen people in the class. I knew I had not the creativity of Martha Graham’s genius, but I always danced around my living room. The difference was that in my living room it was for fun, and alone.

We spread on the floor, and as I practiced my belly button-spine connection, Raymond calmly stated, “I will put music on. Just listen to it—feel the tempo, see the notes. Embed the music within your mind’s eye, then into your body.” The swirling scales flew through my ears as I desperately tried to hold onto them, my mind trying to connect my body to the life of the score. I began scheming how I was going to create my own masterpiece while three-dimensionally using my body. My professor’s voice gently broke our concentration, shifting us into movement. “Remember to eliminate your judgment. Act on impulse.” As I began to move, I saw everyone else moving in their own way. I began to panic. What if I don’t move right? What if I look ugly? What if I don’t understand like everyone else? It was a grueling hour and a half as I was both self-conscious and trying to eliminate judgment. I came to the conclusion that opposites don’t coexist well.

I was sweaty, tired, and dreading the next day. I began picking up my bags as a hand touched my back. It was my professor. I froze, then heard him say, “Beautiful job today. I can tell you’re really trying to rid yourself of judgment. You’ll do well.” He smiled, and after a few more good-byes to the other students, he walked out of the room. I marveled at his perception. I began to see I could really learn something from modern dance, something that would help me to have confidence and assurance in myself. My fears dissipated into a flutter of hope.

My professor’s simple comment seemed to be a breakthrough. The remainder of the year I worked my hardest, implanting movement deep into my body, initiating from my core, and eliminating any kind of judgment from myself, and what I thought to be from others. My professor became a friend, someone I could talk to about my fears. My body began to agree with my passion—because my passion changed. Ballet was still important, but there was something inspiring about focusing on the connection between my body and spirit, the awareness of self, and freedom to create with few limits. All these things came as I moved forward each day with hope and support from my professor, and more importantly, from myself.


About Jennifer Hoi Yin Johnson

Jennifer lives in Provo, Utah, with her wonderful husband where they both attend Brigham Young University. She enjoys dancing with BYU Dancers’ Company and moving through all that life brings

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