Contact Improv As A Way Of Moving
I love a kind of exquisite cooperation that can happen in Contact Improvisation. Becoming adept in any partner dance form involves learning to find and foster that kind of cooperation. CI presents an unusual version of this challenge. Exploring what makes CI different reveals keys to finding that cooperation, and has helped me to find my CI bearings, develop my dancing, and organize my teaching in crucial ways.
Coordination is our guide - and it can be ambiguous
Cooperatively moving together is challenging. At the least, it requires mutually coordinating, or else it's a mess. Contact Improv organizes that cooperation differently than most other partner dance forms.
Most partner dance forms use patterns as guiding pathways, within which partners coordinate together: step sequences, pacing, rhythms, postures, roles like leader and follower, etc. In navigating those patterns, dancers learn to move in ways that are distinct to each form - you can recognize a Salsa-ish way of moving distinct from what works in Contradance, or Tango, or Waltzing, etc. The "way of moving" in each patterned form is the set of characteristics that partners discover work well.
Contact Improv is not framed using patterns, yet it also has distinct ways of moving.
Instead of patterns, partners explore the practice by mutually following shared points of contact. Dances may fall into recognizable patterns, but in this practice, patterns are not the guide. In CI, the question "How do I respond to what's happening?" is inherently more useful than "Where are we in a particular pattern?".
The question then becomes, without patterns to guide them, how do CI partners coordinate with each other and with themselves? How do we, as CI partners, arrive at a shared dance?
When that question becomes clear, the answer that follows is "practice and exploration". Trying stuff, in order to follow the contact point. Get acquainted with what does and doesn't work, what does and doesn't fit. While there are whole worlds of different ways to do it, there are some ways to participate which make the cooperation easier and more fun. Those ways gradually emerge, and become familiar. They stick.
Those ways tend to share some underlying, common qualities. Together, they constitute CI's way of moving. The "way of moving" is as much an approach as it is any particular movements. You can see the way of moving in dances that are clicking, and in experienced dancers when they're moving solo - not because they necessarily want to look like CI dancers, but because they've found a related way to move that is engaging and useful.
Identifying what works and what doesn't isn't necessarily simple. You can feel how well things are or aren't clicking in a dance. It can be hard to tell, though, exactly what it is that's working (or not) - if you're at all on track, what's going on is not determined by just you, or just your partner. Real success in collaboration is as much about each partner's ability to participate as any other skill.
In CI, in particular, there is not much else besides the quality of the cooperation to steer by, and cooperation is inherently about the combination, hence a guide complicated by ambiguity.
It can be helpful, in various ways, to recognize this inherent ambiguity:
- Since the fundamental material is in the combination of you and your partner, it inherently takes time to sort out what does and doesn't work. Given that recognition, you can resist the urge to resort to patterns, and other shortcuts, out of impatience. Instead, what is to be learned is found in focusing on following the basic task - following the contact point, and gradually discovering what you can do to do that well. (That focusing almost is the answer.)
- It suggests not placing too much stock in conclusions about how your actions cause things to work or not work, because you aren't in control of the whole thing. Every dance is a mixed situation, some more clear and some less, some more thrilling and some less, some more focused and some less, etc. - often because of the combination of things.
Accordingly, it suggests instead looking for what you can do that allows things to work well, a balance between active and receptive. The emphasis is on sensing and responding to your situation, including what is going on within yourself as well as how you are being influenced by your partners.
Development and balancing of these two modes - responding to your own situation without excluding what's happening with your partner, and vice versa - seems to be an (the?) essential collaborative improvisation skill, a focus that is worthwhile in far-reaching ways. (See Ensemble Improvisation's Essential Ingredients for details of this principle.)
It can be tempting to avoid uncertainty in this collaboration by resorting to patterned movement. Resorting to patterns can be useful to engage with what you expect, but it specifically foregoes an extraordinary opportunity: learning to mutually discover qualities which best suit the partnership in each dance, in each moment, and the overall shape of the particular collaboration. I write about things to do instead of resorting to patterns in Contact Improv - What Instead of Patterns?