What is Agency anyway? And how does it conquer the Spaghetti Factor?

I have spent a lot of time in my life feeling overwhelmed. There was always so much that had to be done, YESTERDAY! All the things squshed together like a big plate of cold, congealed spaghetti. You get that image, right? A solid block of spag-shaped starch. I couldn’t even contemplate it. I couldn’t make a decision about which one of the many screaming tasks came first. I felt sick when I tried. So I put out the most flagrant fires. The rest of the time I played solitaire and read novels on my phone.

Agency is the opposite of overwhelm

Agency is a nice hot plate of fresh pasta rich with olive oil (and maybe a little sautéed garlic ; ). Every strand is separate, easy to pull out and manage. You have choices. Options. Confidence. Ataraxia. Ahhh!

The word Agency comes from the Latin. Its root means doing. Agency, according to Napper and Rao (they wrote the book The Power of Agency), is “the ability to act as an effective agent for yourself–reflecting, making creative choices, and constructing a meaningful life.” They go on to explain that folks who feel more agency also feel less anxiety and overwhelm.

What’s the Number 1 problem dancers tell me about improvisation?

Fear. Anxiety. Overwhelm. What to do next? I freeze on stage. I can’t remember any moves. What if I am boring? What if I do something wrong? They hate me!

Building agency (and thus confidence) helps fend off anxiety and overwhelm.

What is Agency? The ability to make confident decisions in the moment, which is, coincidentally, what improvisation is. Improvisation is baked into Oriental dance. Even if all we were ever taught was choreography. One of the most basic principles of our dance is improv.

And this is what Agency means for us, as dancers: We have all the power in our dance. We dance what we feel from the music in the moment. WE make those choices. No one tells us what to do. The musicians follow us.

So if we want to improvise with effortless ease, we want to increase our Agency.

Napper and Rao give seven principles to increase agency. We’ll look today at the very first, which they say is maybe the most important of all.

Reduce Stimuli

The more random things we have to track, the less attention we have. The more fear, anxiety, and overwhelm crowd our brains, the more we try to remember our entire dance vocabulary so we can decide what to so next, the less we can be in our Zone.

How can dancers reduce stimuli?
We focus on the music and the present moment. Everything else is a distraction. Thinking, remembering, is a distraction. So what do we do?

Part of it is practice. Part of it is prior building of Agency. But here’s something we can use in any moment, without any previous prep.

Creative Limitation

That sounds like an oxymoron, right? Limit our creativity? WHY? Isn’t that what daily life is for?

Well, yeah, but intentional limitation can be a wonderful thing. All of the little pictures that I draw have intentionally limited palettes. I use only a few colors–often only three, rarely more than five. After I pick the line color and draw the squiggle, I test that color with a bunch of others, and pick the few that most resonate for me.

When I practice, I focus on one thing at a time—sometimes for only a minute before moving on, but just one thing–the connection between my feet and the floor, or the orientation of my ramii bones, the initiation of my undulation, my breath–whatever. Something will come into my head to notice, and I will focus on that only for a while. Then move on to something else.

Limiting our options is a way to diminish the overwhelm of too many choices–while increasing our creative expression!


Templates are patterns of qualities. Qualities are dynamics, like fast or slow, heavy or light, flirtatious or serious, traveling or stillness. Shapes can work, too. Circles, for example. Circle… Circle… Circle… Accent Accent Accent. Pretty much any part of our body can make a circle. Or an infinity. Or an accent. So we get to relax and enjoy all the variation and surprising discoveries within Circular movement.

Templates are an intentionally limited palette of options.

In the Free Mix and Match class last Saturday (the recording is available until May), we looked at Quick Quick Slow, a classic pattern for Oriental dance. Quick and Slow are qualities. Quick Quick Slow is a pattern. It can repeat. We can dip into any color on our palette–move quickly for a while. Move slowly for a while. We also explored qualities of being, generating our Glorious Dance Self. Affect is another quality. We can Imperious, or Flirtatious, or whatever quality the music brings to mind. Just one thing at a time. In our current Mix and Match 5-week series, we explore different qualities every week.

Specific movements don’t matter–any movement can be infused with any quality. So we can let go of trying to think and focus on one simple quality. Attending to quality brings us into the present moment.

When we let go of worry about which move will show up, and just let them come, we get more in tune with the music, our own bodies, and the present moment. We have time to be playful. We have time to interact, to relax, to enjoy ourselves.

We have time.

And isn’t that a lovely thought?

As I worked towards health, I taught myself to notice when I felt overwhelmed. I visualized that clump of cold spag, and I drizzled a little olive oil on it. I let the ease of that olive oil seep into my consciousness. Over time, that clump began to loosen up around the edges. Individual strands began to emerge. And one day there it was! The image of a hot plate of yummy fresh pasta. That’s when things really started to change for me.

They can change for you, too.

With love,

I hope you will check out the recording of the Free Mix and Match class. It’s up until May 5, 2022. Please do sign up, and please do share the link with friends. https://alia-thabit.ck.page/ec91673801

Here’s what folks had to say about our Mix and Match class..

“I just finished your recorded quick quick slow template class. It was Amazing! My body felt so good doing it! Thank you so much!”

“That exploration really opened up something new for me. That it really is powerful to just work with qualities, taking my time, owning the space, and not having to actually “dance”. I really enjoyed it. And when I watched you, Alia, I could totally see the power in it. It was compelling to watch”

“Feeling my individual dancing spirit free to shine through!💗 “

“Thank you for the experience……So much for me to think (and feel) about!”

“Going more into your own pleasure and then bringing it out/sharing it with audience.”​

“I feel more confident about performing!”

“It reinforced the the value of trusting myself.”

Please also consider the 5-week Mix and Match Templates FUN Class! I just posted the first recording. So you have plenty of time to enjoy it before the next one ; ).

Registration for Mix and Match is open for a little longer. More info and register here: https://aliathabit.com/mix-and-match-templates-for-improvisation/

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