Interview with “Improv Roulette” Founder, Elizabeth Joy
One of the most fun, creative and inspiring things I did in 2014 was to participate in an Improv Roulette event. It really was unlike any other dance experience I’d ever had. You can read all about it here, including my combat veil to “Living Dead Girl”! Yes, I know you’re shocked!!
Naturally, I wanted to find out more about the person who brought this concept to the bellydance community – so I tracked her down for you.
Elizabeth Joy: Hello, I’m Elizabeth Joy. I live in Providence, RI. I’m an active member in the Providence and Boston performance communities. I’ve been studying various facets of belly dance since 2007. I am currently primarily studying with Neylan of Providence and Aurel of Boston.
M: What styles) of bellydance do you primarily perform and study?
EJ: My mother is Lebanese and my father is a jazz musician. Music and the arts were always important in my family. Because of my mother’s heritage, I was introduced to the sounds of Middle Eastern music at a young age, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally signed up for a class.
I would consider myself a lifelong student. Every year, I can feel myself progressing as a dancer… and realizing how much more I have to learn. I am currently studying Gypsy Caravan style Tribal with Neylan as well as a myriad of Middle Eastern studies with Aurel, although her current focus is modern Egyptian with an emphasis on how it was influenced by classical dance training.
M: As some DBQ readers may recall, I came across your “Imrov Roulette ” after reading about it on Sophia Ravenna’s blog. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to actually attend one in Tucson. For our readers who aren’t familiar with Improv Roulette, can you describe the experience for us?
EJ: Yes. Improv Roulette is a multidisciplinary collaborative performance experiment. Performers of any type get together quarterly to create spur-of-the-moment reactive performances. They use the environment, as well as other performers to create these pieces. Improv Roulette sets up a safe, casual setting that allows performers to creatively explore, without the pressure of performing a polished piece.
Improv Roulette is for any type of performer. Belly dancers, singers, guitarists, bagpipe players, puppeteers, acrobats, etc are all welcome. It is for the seasoned performer as well as the budding student.
M: One of the things I really enjoyed about the experience was there was no way to prepare. You had to just let go and approach it as play – which is something we often lose sight of when we train as dancers, in my opinion.
EJ: Exactly. I know that I am very much a person that wants to feel prepared…. but I feel a great sense of freedom in letting go and just experiencing and reacting to the music and the “audience” and my performance partner.
It lets in a sense of freedom and honesty and as you said, play. I once took a choreography workshop (ironically) with Cera Byer and she made a great comment about how we don’t play enough. We jump right into choreographing without giving ourselves and chance to explore first.
It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it.
M: In your experience what has been dancers’ first reactions to the idea of participating in Improv Roulette?
EJ: It depends on the dancer! Some dancers jump at the opportunity to meet and collaborate with performers that they’ve never worked with before. Other dancers are understandably timid with the idea of getting up and performing without the ability to prepare. I acknowledge the act of courage that it takes to participate in this experiment, even with it being a safe and welcoming environment. It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it. I would be willing to bet that the once hesitant participants would agree with my statement.
M: I think one of the really important factors in the event’s structure is that everyone who comes in dances. There is no audience other than fellow participants, so we all walk the same tightrope in turn.
EJ: Yes. That is a very important element. I like to joke, “No spectators, only victims.” Everyone, regardless of their improv experience, will being trying something new at Improv Roulette. Everyone will be challenged and everyone will be supported by the performance community in attendance.
M: The online comments preceding our Improv Roulette event were full of “I have to get better at improv first” kind of statements. I agree, just showing up is an act of bravery to some degree. When it comes to creative endeavors, I think it it scares you a little (and you can’t foresee any serious harm) you should definitely do it. This was such a great way to push personal boundaries artistically – and really liberating.
EJ: Well the best way to get better at something is to do it! Because Improv Roulette is not a formal performance, it really is a good place to get improv practice in. I agree that if something pushes you out of your comfort level, it’s probably worth trying. I am primarily an improv performer in my solo work, and yet I still feel a great sense of freedom in the Improv Roulette experiment. It takes me out of my general process of working on a piece and allows my body and mind to just react.
M: Agreed! How did the idea for Improv Roulette come to you?
EJ: Well it really came out of me experimenting by myself in my living room. I enjoyed exploring my movement to unexpected songs. But I was missing the element of interacting with others. This is, I think, and important skill that performers need to practice. Knowing how to instinctively play off of the audience or interact with a collaborator really brings a technically accomplished performer into the realm of entertainer.
M: Bellydance is definitely a style where being able to “entertain” as well as perform is so important!
EJ: I agree. I think it’s Nadira Jamal who wrote a wonderful article about having both hard skills and soft skills.
M: It seems that Improv Roulette has escaped your living room and is spreading! Where has this concept gone so far and where do you see it headed in the future?
EJ: Yes! I wanted it to be as inclusive as it could be so that very first Improv Roulette was not in my living room! I rented out a beautiful yoga studio just north of Providence and invited all of the performers in every discipline that I knew. And only six people showed up. Just as you experienced, people were a little intimidated by the idea. But as the participants shared their experiences, interest grew. And it’s still growing. In 2014 I began working with other community builders to start regional Improv Roulette chapters across the country. Right now we have three official chapters with a few more in the works. I am specifically working with organizers that are active members of their current performance communities and really believe in the concepts of collaboration, community, and creative spontaneity. I
M: Do you have any non-dance practices that you routinely use to feed your creativity?
EJ: I do! I have a career in textile design and a background in fiber arts. I am often creating sewing/dyeing/fabric manipulation projects both for dance costuming as well as other end uses. I also have a love for gardening and when I’m not in rehearsal, I’m usually digging in the dirt… that is when it’s not covered in two feet of snow.
M: Did you have any closing thoughts for our readers?
EJ: Well first and foremost, that you for the opportunity to be interviewed. Your blog and DBQ are always informative and enjoyable. I also appreciate the chance to tell more people about Improv Roulette. I really believe in the power of collaborative experimentation and the power in taking creative risks. I believe that Improv Roulette gives performers the opportunity to discover something about themselves and their work. It really is work, constantly growing, so we’d might as well feel the elation that comes with taking risks and discovering something about ourselves in the process.
For more information on Improv Roulette please visit here.