Dave Mekelburg
Anything goes at the Improv Jam, which goes on tomorrow night at 8 p.m. at the Betty Pease Dance Building, Studio One. (BEN SIMON/Daily)

In one corner, four or five guys in beanies, zip-ups and Vans are b-boying. Across the room, slim girls in dance pants bend and snap out jazz dance moves with easy precision.

But it’s what’s happening in the middle of the room that has everyone’s attention. A paraplegic couple is moving on the floor, bending with the music while a few dancers weave around and between them. They are just as much a part of the dance as anyone else – an essential part, even, because they move in ways no one else can, and with a boldness that even the dance majors can’t seem to muster.

This is the Improv Jam.

The Jam is what you might call “free improvisation,” a dance without rules or particular direction. You can dance however you want. You don’t even have to “dance” – “move” might be a better word. You can also play the drums or the piano, sit and draw, write or just watch. It’s not structured, and being “productive” isn’t on anyone’s mind.

Alex Springer, a Dance senior and the head of the University’s Dance Student Assembly, is here. If anyone runs the Jam, he does.

“Improv Jam is about creating an environment where people can be unique, but also part of a community,” Springer said.

That community finds its roots in the Dance department, part of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. It may be the most unknown school within the University. Just ask dance senior Jenny Thomas.

“When I was a freshman, I had people asking me, ‘You’re in dance? You mean the dance team for football, right?’ ” she said.

Not exactly. Thomas and her classmates are in an exclusive arts program competitive with some of the nation’s best conservatories.

Things are changing in the department. A new chair and a slew of fresh professors and students who are eager to make changes are having a real effect on the program and its place at the University.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the department, but it’s the students’ role to be ambitious and take them,” Thomas said.

That doesn’t seem to slow them down, with constant innovation and programs from both the department and its students. This week alone, there was a movie screening, an alumni reunion and a master class, all of which speak to the flurry of activity slipping past the rest of the University. Not to mention the student initiative demonstrated by Improv Jam.

The Jam is part of an effort to encourage a spirit of shared learning within the department and to combat the friction between dance and the rest of the University. Friction or, perhaps, a lack of respect.

“Once, I was in a program with a lot of LSA students, and I remember one of them saying to me, ‘Dance? That must be nice,’ as if it was so easy,” Thomas said.

It goes both ways. Aidan Feldman, who has a double major in computer science and dance, sees it in another perspective.

“It’s funny, but the engineers I know seem to appreciate dance more than the dancers appreciate engineering,” he said.

Banishing this prejudice is one of the goals of Improv Jam and the environment it tries to create. And it is a remarkable environment. The air crackles with energy, and there’s something more: freedom. It’s all part of building that innovative atmosphere, Springer said.

“If someone wanted to go out there and just yell ‘Fuck you!’ that would be absolutely fine,” he said. “It’d change the environment and become part of the dance.”

He’s not kidding. At one point, a folding chair was dragged onto the floor and thrown down. The dancers reacted by moving to it and stomping on it aggressively – a sort of dance battle. It’s a freedom to invent that many dance majors aren’t able to experience anywhere else.

Said Dance sophomore Marlee Cook-Parrott: “We do technique all day. This is a chance to not be controlled, to create new things, to learn from each other.”

Everywhere you look in the room, there’s evidence of this. People seem to do whatever comes to mind at the time, some together, many alone.

“Everyone just does their thing in their own space, someone else’s space, whatever,” said Scott Tolinski, an LSA junior and b-boy.

It’s a liberating thing to see. “It’s as if they forget they’re being watched,” said an LSA freshman who experienced the event for the first time.

Said Dance sophomore Sam Stone: “No one judges you here – ever.”

It’s quite a claim, but for Improv Jam the proof is on the dance floor.

Improv Jam

Tomorrow at 8 p.m.

At the Betty Pease Dance Building, Studio One

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