Variation or improvisation?


At academic meetings the themes of ‘improvisation’ and the ‘individual’ are common, but what does this actually mean in the context of a chain dance? Here I summarise the three logical constructions that could be termed ‘improvisation’.

First construction

… non-Western music, in which one cannot really distinguish between improvisation and composition, cannot be said to represent either concept.

Nettl 1974:2-3[1]

The widest usage of ‘improvisation’ is as a comparative statement between two opposing forms, one which is more planned and fixed (as in western classical arts) and one which is more varied (such as jazz music), however this does not help with the understanding the improvisational process.

Second construction

The second construction is where the performer pushes and breaks the rules and boundaries, by including alternative ideas, either unplanned or more often intentionally to be ‘creative’. By definition this is not part of ‘tradition’ which is built on the concept of maintaining the established rules and conventions.

Third construction

… improvisation has a relatively small role and a lower grade.

Martin 1980:397–8[2]

Apparently limited and “poor” when compared with improvisation in solo or couple dances, the process of improvisation in chain dances is experienced by both local interpreters and audience as an intentional creative activity that expresses the aesthetic norms of the communities sharing a given dance culture area.

Giurchescu 2014[3]

For chain dances, and social dances, the logical understanding of improvisation is about using the space within the constraints of the rules and boundaries of the dance. This is the unplanned combination of the possibilities. The idea that the most common combination is the ‘norm’, that researchers as observers judge the variations against, leads to ‘improvisation’ being part of the processes for variation, something that potentially all performers do to some extent.

Performers with more skills achieve less common combinations that we might see as ‘new’, but viewing in this way will never lead to a defined point where variation becomes improvisation, this will only ever be in the judgement of the observer.

Chain dances involve a communal group dancing together. So in this case ‘improvisation’ can be about the group, not only just one individual, and is based on the process of reacting and interpreting within the chain. We can consider the idea of ‘initiators’ that lead the group to spontaneously change the group’s performance.

Our publications

Green, Nick (2016). Community chain dances in Banat: uniformity or variability, is this about the group or the individual?


  1. Nettl, Bruno (1974). Thoughts on improvisation: a comparative approach. The Musical Quarterly, 60: pages 1–19.
  2. Martin, György (1980). Improvisation and regulation in Hungarian folk dances. Acta Ethnographica Scientiarium Hungaricae, 29: pages 391–425.
  3. Giurchescu, Anca (2014). Contextual determination of improvisation: A case study of Vlach chain dances of Northeastern Serbia. Abstract submitted to the fourth symposium of the ICTM study group for music and dance in Southeastern Europe.