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To win those competitions was far from easy, especially when the format of both required a great deal of creativity and improvisation.
Angyil was invited as a wild card to the Red Bull Dance Your Style pre-finals, battling the city qualifier winners on her path to victory. Competing in 10 one-on-one battles, where each time she had no idea what music the DJ would play, meant that she had to be at her creative best.
Reverse also had to showcase his ability to freestyle when competing in Red Bull Batalla – a competition that looks for the best Spanish-speaking rappers from around the world. Just like Angyil, he had to overcome his rivals by improvising, but this time by rhyming off the top of his head for round after round.
How Angyil and Reverse chose art forms that call for improvisation
Angyil and Reverse have both demonstrated their ability to improvise at the highest level, but how did they learn this skill? And how do they manage to control their nerves and showcase their talent in the biggest of competitions?
Before she started in her chosen street dance style of popping, Angyil attended a performing arts school where she studied ballet, jazz and modern. Developing her improvisation skills was the last thing she was able to do at the school. Saying: “It was extremely structured, like somebody telling you what to do over and over again. And you have to do that same thing that they’re telling you to do, over and over again.”
Having to wear leotards, a tie and pointed shoes, as well as put her hair in a bun, turn up early and do set warm-ups every lesson, the school was a far cry from the hip-hop and freestyle street dance scene that Angyil is now a champion on. Even back then, she always felt it was “extremely liberating and empowering” when she got to dance how she wanted. After moving to New York to dance professionally, she made the decision to leave the structured style of ballet, jazz and modern behind, instead choosing to dance in the streets. This was because she felt she was lying to herself about who she was by being in a dance environment she felt so restricted by.
Reverse also performed in dance groups, as well as singing and acting in the theatre. He only got into rap two years ago, never actually planning to be a rapper. He says: “I guess it was destiny. I never had an introduction to it. I never was like, ‘oh, I want to battle rap’.”
He first saw battle rapping on the internet and immediately tried to improvise a few words in the park with his friends and found he enjoyed trying to rhyme. From here he practised more with his friends, and after only three weeks, everyone told him that he was good enough to think about entering competitions. He did just that for the first time on September 29, 2019 – driving two hours to compete at a Miami beach rap contest.
Letting go to achieve a state of improvisation
Both Angyil and Reverse first found art forms and lifestyles that spoke to a desire to express themselves through freestyling, for Angyil in her physical movement and Reverse in his verbal expression. After finding their passion, they both then were able to let go and allow their improvisational skills to grow and develop.
“I feel like the best artists are amazing listeners because they know how to take the information that they have, turn that into art, and give it back. So thinking too much while I’m supposed to be listening isn’t beneficial.” Angyil explains when talking about one of the reasons she is drawn to improvisation within her dance.
For her, achieving a state where she can truly listen and improvise is about completely surrendering, switching off and not thinking. If she is familiar with a track, she might decide something to do on the beat. Still, when she is truly just listening, in her zone, and letting her ability to improvise take over, she actually says that it’s “almost like I blackout.”
In that moment, what moves she chooses to make to the music are as much a surprise to her as it is to the audience and her opponent. She says: “I feel like often people ask me, ‘well, what are you going to do?’ And I’m like ‘I don’t know, we’ll see together’.” Surrendering so wholly to her state of improvisation, Angyil surprises herself, confessing that, “sometimes I watch videos of myself and can’t even believe that’s me. Like, that’s me doing this?”
Reverse’s philosophy to battle rapping is that it should come naturally and feel organic. Much like Angyil, he believes in simply letting go and allowing the process to take over.
He says: “You just need to let yourself go. That’s why it’s freestyle because it’s free. You don’t have to plan it, you don’t have to prepare yourself, and if you prepare too much for things, they don’t come as naturally.”
Because of his philosophy to battle rapping, Reverse actively chooses not to practise rhyming words together – like he sees other rappers doing – as he feels “they make rappers look like robots”. Instead, he says that he simply continues to practise with his crew and friends, as he did from the beginning, going back and forth for the pure love of the art form, revealing: “that’s my training, that’s the way I prepare myself.”
Reverse likes to improvise in battle raps by bouncing off his opponent. He explains: “I take a word, or whatever you told me, and I try to turn it into an attack. But not always, as sometimes it’s just an argument, or sometimes it’s a reference to something, but I always try to use whatever they tell me.”
How improvisation has helped Angyil and Reverse develop themselves
Angyil and Reverse both seem to be drawn heavily to improvisation as a way of allowing the art of what they do take over and shine through them. But for Angyil, she wants to highlight this more, still very aware that the training dancers put into honing their improvisation skills is something that is largely unseen.
Angyil says: “I don’t think that people really understand how much work some do and how versatile you have to be in order to move your body while your brain is controlling your movement. There’s a lot that goes into it, and I think I want to bring more awareness to those kinds of things, for sure.”
Being able to fully express herself through improvisation in her chosen dance style has also helped Angyil develop as a person and show her what she is fully capable of. She sees what more she has to offer, bringing her to want to spread the same energy, saying: “I just want to evolve the dance, whether that be in a business mindset, culture or intellectually.”
For Reverse, improvisation should be a standard skill for all MCs. He firmly believes all good freestylers should know how to improvise instead of relying on pre-written disses or talking about obvious things like their opponent’s clothing or physical appearance.
He also believes that the whole practice of improvising involves heavily studying music. He says: “Know and study tempo and know how you have to sound in certain times in the music. You notice the difference when you see someone rapping that knows something about music, and then you see someone rapping that knows nothing about music.”
He has also found how his improvisational ability translates into his music. “The freestyling skills I have developed in these past two years are helping me a lot because I can just improvise when making songs, and that’s a really useful tool.”
It seems clear that switching off their thinking and surrendering themselves to that freestyle state of improvisation goes beyond winning competitions for the two artists. Allowing the music to take over and letting go in the moment is a practice that has helped both develop themselves in their creative lives overall. The competition may be where we get to see them truly shine as improvising artists, but it goes much deeper, as Angyil says: “I think that’s the beauty of being an artist because there are different sides of us and that’s just one side of me.”