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 - it's about mutually coordinating (or else it's a mess). Contact Improv organizes its framing of that cooperation differently than most other partner dance forms.
Most partner dance forms use patterns as guiding pathways within which partners coordinate with one another: 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 the way of moving that works in Contradance, or Tango, or Waltzing, etc. The "way of moving" in each patterned form is the set of characteristic movement traits that partners discover work well when coordinating with each other to follow and elaborate on the form's patterns.
Contact Improv is not framed using patterns, but 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 increasingly more useful than "Where are we in a particular pattern?".
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?
It is in answering that question, by exploring mutual following of the contact point, that one becomes acquainted with what does and doesn't fit. While there are whole universes 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 stick, and become familiar. Those ways tend to share some underlying, common qualities. Together, they constitute CI's way of moving [way]. More about those qualities, below.
Identifying what works and what doesn't is inherently not simple, because the results are a product of your partner's actions as well as your own.
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) - because, 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 fundamentally help 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. You don't have 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 a brief, direct statement of this principle.)
It's often tempting to reduce the cooperative uncertainty by resorting to patterns, like going through lift and falling sequences, or practicing one of the five rhythms, or taking or giving away control, or whatever. Resorting to patterns can be useful to engage what you expect, but it foregoes an extraordinary opportunity offered in collaborative improvisation, like CI: learning to mutually discover qualities within each dance, and its overall shape, that best suits your partnership in each moment.
Ultimately, being willing to do without set patterns opens the opportunity to discover unique patterns, custom tailored to the dancers in each moment.
That's not to say that established patterns have no place in Contact Improv. Some similar actions are useful for similar situations, and everything is part of some kind of pattern. What's extraordinary is that any patterns, if you're game, are subject to shift, change, and sometimes complete disappearance as your states and the situations change. (It's the complete shifts and changes that sets CI apart from pattern-based forms.) It's not unusual for the movement qualities to vary drastically through the course of a single dance, and even from moment to moment, when things are clicking.
Given this inherent ambiguity, how do you even begin to organize your attention when exploring CI? Ultimately, partner dance, and CI in particular, is fundamentally similar to another kind of cooperation with which every one of us is acquainted, from birth. Recognizing this similarity can help guide you in practicing CI - and vice versa.
Individual coordination illuminates collaborative coordination and vice versa
There are analogies which are useful in learning CI. (I find it quite useful to think of CI being like surfing, even though I've never been on a surfboard...) There is a central, analogous experience which is fundamentally familiar to everybody, from birth - that of coordinating one's own body parts to cooperate with each other.
Coordination within your own body usually depends on integrating the movement of different parts through your center. This kind of integration is also key to coordinating with a partner in a dance. It's crucial in any sort of collaborative dance, and more comprehensively so in CI. (See CI Sharing Balance for more about this principle.) Some other improvisational skills are similarly essential in both situations, like being receptive and responsive to conditions in the current moment, and recognizing the value of release - yeilding - rather than resorting to increasing control.
The direct access we have to our own, individual movement experience doesn't mean it's something about which we're completely clear. Sometimes, far from it! Instead, the usefulness of this analogue is a reciprocal one: individual coordination and partner cooperation serve as great models for one another. Development of solo moving is informed by development of partnering, and vice versa.
Here are some examples which show ways solo and partner moving can clarify each other.
When among other people, many every-day movement choices are for the purpose of keeping out each other's way - avoiding getting entangled. These normally useful choices can be impeding habits when the aim is to get involved.
A classic example that often arises while people are learning CI is the tendency to try to avoid getting too entangled with your partner by keeping your partner at "arms length". Specifically: using your arms to maintain some distance. It's actually more of an avoidance than an involvement, and that's an obstacle to learning. A fundamental challenge is to be involved - engage your center with that of your partner - in a way that allows coordination without unnecessary constriction. (The ability to do this, which develops with experience and guidance, informs CI's way of moving.)
There's an analogous situation in personal moving.
Isolating movements can be useful in particular situations, like writing or chewing or mime. For whole-body activities, though, you typically want to integrate movement throughout your body. (Modern healthy-movement techniques, like Alexander and Feldenkrais, might suggest that lack of whole-body integration in many activities is at the root of many structural health problems.) The key is to let each movement affect and be affected by - involve - your overall balance. This is another way of saying, allow each movement to influence your center, and through that your entire body.
Translating that back to collaborative moving, this means involving your balance / your center in the connection with your partners. Learning to do that includes organizing yourself around your own center, and extending that to the center shared with your partner. The weight shared in the connection - a lot or a little or none at all - depends on what fits the situation in the moment, and changes as the situation changes.
(Getting a feel for coordinating through your center may be the single most important key to effective whole-body movement, in general.)
When an individual is moving, their body parts incrementally take and give rides to each other. It's typically a gradual, continuous process. Dance partners can similarly follow their own trajectories, and depend on one another in gradually changing amounts as fits their changing confluence from moment to moment.
Maintaining your integrity in order to share it in this evolving correspondence depends on getting a feel "going where you are going" - acting in accordance with your own momentum while steering it for cooperation.
In effective solo movement, each body part influences the others but doesn't control them. Effective CI cooperation works similarly - nobody forcing the actions of others, so each can fully participate [steering].
The way of moving in CI is that which you together discover works best when everybody is following - not controlling - the contact point [curiosity]. By exploring, you gravitate towards that which best supports connection with the least unnecessary restriction.
You can use pre-determined patterns, as one does in patterned dance forms, to make cooperation easy. However, that precludes the opportunity to discover what better suits each of you in the moment - to collaboratively discover the shape of the dance. So, what can you use, without patterns to guide you?
Any time an individual is moving, their body is continuously integrating sensory feedback and making myriad adjustments along the way - progressively attending to and adjusting course. Careful attention to the current moment, and to the effects of your responses, can reveal a world of things to discover and explore in each moment.
In CI, instead of focusing on ways to shape the dance according to familiar patterns, you focus on noticing and responding to the current conditions, as they change - "listening" and responding to the opportunities and demands in the moment, rather than controlling. This is akin to the adjustments that are continuously happening in an individual's movement, amplified by the inter-responsiveness with a partner and unfolding in a new dance.
There are some common paths that occur in CI - lifts, supports, and falls, etc. They're fun, and it's tempting, once you're acquainted with them, to jump to them when you find yourself in their vicinity. They may fit just right, but they can also be limiting if you jump to them at the cost of attending to what's happening in the moment.
It's not wrong to use patterns, but it is always useful to remember that there are whole worlds to explore between the patterns, and you can find them just by noticing what's actually happening rather than skipping over it.
Organizing around center
Following momentum - gliding
Non-coercive / "inter-responsive" cooperation
Explore the gaps
There are many such examples, because the coordination between parts of an individual's body is like CI cooperation in substantial ways. They're not completely the same, but they're fundamentally similar so that to illuminate each other.
What do these principles mean in practice?
As in most things, contact improv involvement comes with committing your center. That doesn't mean piling on weight, but rather committing your center to your own movement, and exploring how you can combine this full involvement with the actions of your partner. When fully involved, each partner's balance depends to some degree on their partner, and together they navigate changing balance.
We discover our dances by following one another and ourselves.
By participating in mutual following of the point of contact you can cooperate without sacrificing a sense of your own path. In this way of moving, following and leading blend into something that is both and neither.
Differences and freedom.
There are some fundamental differences between coordination within an individual's body and coordination between CI partners. These differences are, themselves, revealing.
Of course, communication between individuals is less immediate than communication within an individual. The partners brains just aren't directly connected. Given that, it's pleasantly surprising how much partners are able to simultaneously arrive at harmonious choices. They are, after all, basing their individual reads on a shared situation. (This can be a joy of any kind of good collaboration, but it's particularly the subject of CI.)
On the other hand, dancers can rearrange with respect to one another more than a body can rearrange its parts. Where the partners are "attached" changes, and they can separate and reconnect. That greater freedom can make it easier to reconcile more complicated choices in action. And the additional freedom can confuse matters.
Until you have a solid feel for the way of moving, maintaining a followed point of contact constrains things in informative ways. Similar to how patterns guide movers in patterned forms, the followed contact point leads you to contact improv's way of moving.
Once you have a feel for the way of moving, you can use it to engage with a partner whether or not you're in direct physical contact, and so collaborate at a distance as well as in-contact.
Also, once you've internalized the way of moving, you can use it in solo dancing. This is actually an essential part of strong CI dancing, in partnering as well as in solo.
More about "organizing around your center"
It's common to hear people describe CI weight-sharing to characterize center sharing. I believe it is more illuminating to think about balance sharing, because weight is mostly about gravity, which pulls in just one direction, while balance is about all the pragmatics of organizing your body, dynamically, in space - the play of momentum and weight and structural kinematics and so on. It is about sharing your center.
Consider what happens when you're walking.
When one of your legs takes your weight, you organize yourself so your center is supported through that leg directly into the ground. Your whole body coordinates in response to it. You can do other things meanwhile, like carrying on a conversation (your body, including parts of your nervous system, are specifically organized to make walking flow easily), but all your movements are generally influenced by and influence this whole-body activity. Shifting your weight onto one leg and then back onto the other is a gradual thing. One leg doesn't heave the rest of the body into the air and then give it to the other leg. Instead, your legs - and the rest of your body - gradually cooperate.
As with walking, connecting with your center means movement that involves your overall balance. It involves your entire body, and is a compelling commitment - coordination of your body is organized around it. And it is a continuous thing - not all-or-nothing, but all the gradients in between.
Connecting with your center doesn't necessarily mean big movements or leading with your center of mass. The measure of your physical involvement in the dance is not the amount of weight your sharing, but the degree to which you're involving your balance - and so, your whole body - in the connection.
Sharing the moment
By engaging with both my own center and that of my partner, I combine my dance with theirs. When fully involved, neither of us sacrifices our individual situations for the partnership, but rather, we connect our situations in ways that work.
Such a connection tends to continuously change. At any moment our weights are increasingly or decreasingly shared and shifting. Our paths increasingly or decreasingly coincide. At any moment, we have to be ready to operate in-tandem to a greater or lesser degree than the moment before. The changes in dynamics are, themselves, essential elements of our engagement.
Navigating all these dynamics with your partner can lead to a vital inter-responsiveness which approaches the immediacy and depth of connection that happens within an individual's coordinating body [inter-responsiveness].
Contact Improvisation is an unusual partner dance practice, in that it uses a task rather than patterns to delineate the form. This presents particular challenges, and understanding those challenges can help in finding your bearings and navigating the form well.
The quality of coordination - with your partner and with yourself - is the main way in CI to gauge what's working and what's not. That's got some inherent ambiguity because quality of coordination is determined by your actions together with those of your partner, not by your actions, alone.
Because of that ambiguity it is easy to doubt that you can learn CI just by sticking with the score - following the point of contact. It's tempting to resort to imposing patterns even though they often don't closely fit in the moment, and they can get in the way of discovering what does fit. Understanding this can help support sticking with the score, noticing and responding to the current conditions.
An analogous situation, which doesn't have the ambiguity of cooperative feedback, is useful to weigh questions and principles you encounter in CI: the coordination that happens between the parts of your body when you are moving.
This coordination involves and sheds light on many of the principles that help you cooperate well in CI practice, including organizing around center, following momentum, non-coercive and inter-responsive cooperation, exploring the gaps, and more.
The usefulness of this analogy is no accident. When doing CI well, the cooperation approaches the immediacy and depth of connection that happens within an individual's coordinating body.
I hope that this perspective might be useful to others as it has been for me.
|[way]||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 an engaging, useful way to move.|
|[steering]||You could say the brain is controlling the other parts, but in general, people continue to be surprised by how much movement is parallel orchestration of various peripheral and central nervous system elements. While the mind may steer overall activity, implementation of the details is often through a bunch of fine-grained parallel processes.|
|[curiosity]||Courting surprise, releasing rather than controlling, and the like are nicely hinted at by some pithy contact improv mottos, including Nancy Stark Smith's "replace ambition with curiosity" and Steve Paxton's "tension masks sensation".|
|[inter-responsiveness]||There's a sweet spot in the balance of responding to one's inner activity and responding to one's partners - responding to external without excluding internal and vice versa. When partners are zeroing in on that sweet spot, the dynamics of the mutual responsiveness becomes a vital part of the dance. This is how dances - any partner dances - come to feel alive, with the dancers having a sense of participating in a coherent organism.|