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Contact Improv As A Way Of Moving

by Ken Manheimer last modified Feb 27, 2015 08:33 PM See license in footer.
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Contact improvisation is organized differently than other kinds of partner dance, with some elusive challenges. That doesn't mean, however, that learning it has to be unclear or confusing. In getting clear about this for myself, and helping others to find their way in it, I've found it valuable to recognize some of these unique challenges, and how to navigate them well. This essay describes my framing of this quest.

I love a kind of exquisite cooperation that can happen in Contact Improvisation. When things are working, it's like the innate coordination that happens among the parts of my own body, when I'm moving well. 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 arranges for that coordination 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 waltzs, etc.  The "way of moving" in each patterned form is the set of characteristics that partners discover work well. Ultimately, each form is not the patterns within which people seek to coordinate, but rather the qualities of moving that they find works.

Contact Improv is not framed using patterns, yet it also has a distinct qualities which work.

Instead of patterns, partners practice by mutually following shared points of contact. Recognizable patterns appear, 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?". (Adhering to patterns gets in the way of increasing ability to sense available options in each moment.)

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?

Practice and exploration. Trying stuff, in order to follow the contact point. Getting 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 - that work. Those ways gradually emerge, and become familiar. They stick.

Those ways tend to share some underlying, common qualities - a way of moving.

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. Learning to focus well, to stay attentive in the moment may, itself, be a kind of 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. Again, learning to balance attention across the combinations of elements is, itself, part of the solution.

Accordingly, the inherent ambiguity 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 and also 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 - is an essential collaborative improvisation skill, a focus that is worthwhile in far-reaching ways. (See Ensemble Improvisation's Essential Ingredients for more details.)

(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 can preclude noticing what is actually happening, in this moment. 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?)

Sharing balance instead of sharing weight

One lesson I take from the model of the way the parts of my body coordinate, when they're coordinating well, is that they (I (-: ) use my sense of balance to integrate their actions. I don't move a leg and hold it in place to support its weight. Instead, I integrate the effect of its movement on the momentum of my body, as a whole, and vice versa move it using the momentum of the rest of my body. Balance is a dynamic thing, an integration of all the changes introduced by any separate action. Weight is a static measure, only one small aspect of action.

This perspective deeply informs how I understand what is happening when I'm moving - in partnership and solo. I have gotten to the point where I have big reservations when people talk about sharing weight in a duet. People are sharing balance, and through that shared balance integrating the effects of their partners actions with their own. Weight is a small and static aspect, too limited for sensing the actual dynamics of moving with someone else. I believe that people really mean the more complete sense that includes momentum, trajectory, stability and precariousness, effort and ease, that all play into the balance of an organism, a cooperation. I also have found that I and others are better guided by using those words - "sharing balance" - than drawing the focus to a static aspect with "sharing weight". "Sharing balance" suggests a diverse activity, like what we're doing when we're dancing. (-:

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