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About Contact Improvisation

by admin last modified Jan 25, 2014 12:49 AM
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In CI, partners discover their dance by mutually following shared points of contact. How does that work? Here's my enthusiastic perspective.
Washington, DC Contact Improvisors, for info about the jam, etc, visit the DC Contact Improv section.

At CI's core is cultivation of the ability to connect with others without sacrificing the integrity of your path, and vice versa. This skill develops though exploration of a puzzle - how to follow the shared points of contact with another contact improvisor, busily doing the same thing.

Contact Improvisation is generally part of any postmodern dancer's toolkit, but not many dancers focus exclusively, or even centrally on it. Many frequent practitioners, like me, do so recreationally, as a sort of dance/sport.

I want everyone who might enjoy CI to have the opportunity to discover it. It's tricky, though, to convey what is possible. I write about it in the pursuit of clarity.

Steve Homsher and Jess Humphrey dancing at a CI36 jam
Excerpt from Fall After Newton - Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, in Steve's description of the form's progression

Peter Olson and me performing Contact Improv at a dance festival in 1996

Sophie and Itay Yatuv dancing at a jam in Ibiza

What is Contact Improvisation?

Contact Improvisation is a way of moving, organized around following points of contact shared with a partner.

CI is an extraordinary opportunity to play with physical collaboration. In contrast to other partner dance forms, it is organized around mutual following of points of contact, instead of being based on formal patterns. This leads to some important differences in the way you learn and practice it.

In most partner dance, you follow patterns - of sequence, posture, rhythm, social protocols, and so on. In CI, partners mutually follow shifting points of contact, discovering ways to coordinate with each other and themselves by coordinating through these points. The movement possibilities are vast, yet recognizable movement tendencies emerge. Learning to find what works by mutually following the emerging dance, rather than by trying to control it, is the essence of the practice.

There are many technical skills and patterns you can develop to support this way of moving, but the techniques and patterns are not its basis. They are to be adopted and adapted when they serve the moment, rather than fitting the moment to the techniques.

CI offers opportunities to engage with surprising depth however experienced you happen to be. Responding in the moment is key, as is respecting one's own capacities and limitations, in the moment: "starting from where you are", wherever and whenever. This attitude is essential for beginner and experienced CI practitioners, alike.

In the open tableau of improvisation, learning to do what fits, and to not do what gets in the way, is a lifelong discovery. This is so in many disciplines, and quite rewarding in this one, if you can be open to it.

  • Here is a video collage showing some dancing and a bunch of people describing what contact improv is for them.
  • Steve Paxton's description of the small dance/stand conveys how much there is to notice and engage with in any moment
  • For a sample of some CI adepts in action, see an excerpt from Fall After Newton (and the more extensive excerpt in the video to the right), a documentary about CI from the people most central to its' early development, including Steve Paxton, contact improv's originator, and Nancy Stark Smith and Lisa Nelson, who have collaborated centrally with Steve in the form's development and helped carry the torch.
  • Watch a video of a performance by Peter Olson and me, from several years ago. Among other things, I hope it conveys the way that correspondence can happen without sacrificing a sense of your own path, and across distance as well as in immediate contact.
  • Here are several pictures from a spacious, very fun trio with some friends after a DC Sunday jam in Jan, 2009.
  • Lastly, a kind of exquisite duet - a fine duet between parent and a young youngster. Aside from the novelty, it conveys some essentials, maybe as clearly as anything else I've seen.  And it's just basically among my very favorites. :-)

What I like

For me, Contact Improvisation is:

  • Play: an often delicious, moving, friendly antidote to the static of daily life (see CI Is An Opportunity To Play)

    It is an all-too-rare opportunity for all-out engagement - of wit, reflexes, attention, strength, sensing, caring, mischief, passion, knowledge, stamina - you name it.

    At the same time, it is also an all-too-rare opportunity for shared meditation.

  • Cooperation: a win-win collaborative game - an opportunty to engage in a very immediate, visceral way with others, doing something together that we can enjoy and even love.

  • Movement: an opportunity to realize and expand kinesthetic appetites - abilities and desires to move. It's my favorite cardiovascular and weight-bearing sport (...cultivate your very own dancer's body!-)

    (The video wheel number, which is not a demonstration of CI, conveys some elements that are also in CI, and that I love. In particular, it conveys a kind of surfing-the-moment, where boundaries between gliding and falling and flying disappear, and the sheer exhilaration of fully engaged movement shows through.)

Where I struggle

  • Dances don't always click.
  • When it isn't clicking it can be hard to tell why.
  • The things that people do that get in the way of cooperating tend to be challenging. Even more, the elusive things that I do that get in the way are challenging!

Ironically, in the long run, the opportunity to grapple with these challenges is as valuable as anything in the practice. Even the moments of challenges and struggle can be enjoyable. (Well, sometimes. :-)

There's something more to say about "it doesn't always click".

It's tempting to focus on and seek out the adept dancers who make it easier to get to your frontiers, wherever those frontiers are. The often less obvious question is what can be discovered and fostered in every dance, regardless of your own or your partner's experience, etc.

I see this question - how to find what's possible in each dance - as an essential part of the path to developing in CI. (It's analogous, in many ways, to the skill of finding and fostering conversations you like.) It can take time, and it can be personally challenging in fundamental ways. Ultimately, though, it's an essential route to more enjoyable dances.

The Basics

In contact improv's basic description, partners follow a shared point of contact to discover their dance.

The mutual following presents a fundamental challenge in responding to the practicalities of both your and your partner's dispositions.

That the partners are both following is crucial. The qualities of the dance are informed by the combination of the dancers responses to and play in the moment. The partners cooperatively navigate the demands and opportunities of momentum, gravity, the dynamics of cooperation, kinematics, trajectory, rhythm, tone, attitude, etc, without individually controlling any of the aspects, but influencing them all.

(You can tune into yourself and your partner by focusing on the minute shifts - signals - in the points of contact.  See Steve Paxton's description of the small dance and the stand.)

The challenge of integrating your own path and that of your partner is essential. Pursuing either focus to the exclusion of the other either interferes with growing a fully engaged, connected dance. In balancing the inward and outward focuses, contact improvisers learn a way of moving as a whole, organized around dynamic sharing of your centers. It's a way of really going where you are going, on your own and in coordination with others.

While distinct from moving separately, it's not fundamentally different from moving separately. Familiarity with it leads to blending your path and that of your partner, integrating them so that responding to your own impulses incorporates the situation of your partner and vice versa. Moving together this way, partners perpetually have new, shared, and personally engaging territory to explore.

Each time is different from combination with any other partners, and with the same partners at other moments.

At its fullest, the twists and turns of a CI dance are deeply engaging and surprising.

What to Wear?

People new to CI sometimes ask about what to wear. The essential thing is to minimize restriction of movement while protecting from abrasion. You want stuff that doesn't get in the way of rolling and stretching, yet covers your torso and limbs, and isn't so slick that people slide off you when you're supporting them. Cotton tends to be the magic ingredient. Lycra not so much.

Most commonly, people wear loose-fitting cotton athletic clothes, like t-shirts and (light) sweat pants or pajama bottoms/"lounge" pants. Covering your torso and legs is good so your skin doesn't get caught while sliding on the floor. You particularly want to avoid obtrusive fasteners like buckles and rivets, because they'll poke you and others while you're rolling around.

On the other hand, tight-fitting athletic clothes, like ballet tights and lycra sports fashion, tend to be too slippery for supporting other people, and paradoxically, not as good as cotton for sliding around on the floor.

Some dancers use specialized clothes like loose dance pants - drawstring linen pants, and so on. Plain or fancy, protection from friction with minimal restriction of movement is best.

The one item of specialized clothing contact improvisers commonly use is "chinese knee pads", to cushion the knees while dancing. The ones most preferred are available online from the contact quarterly. I'm a fairly rare exception that prefers to go without knee pads, except perhaps when doing long-term intensives - and then i tend to prefer the stretchable open-patella stretchy knee supports available from neighborhood drug stores. (They stay in place better, for me.)

Links

Some introductory CI info around the web:

Contact Improv As a Way Of Moving

Like any kind of partner dance, contact improv offers opportunities for exquisite cooperation through a particularly way of moving. Unlike other kinds of partner dance, Contact Improv's way of moving is not found in a patterned form. How, then, does one go about learning it? I've found this question useful in approaching CI, and write about it in Contact Improv As A Way Of Moving.

Jams

CI is most often practiced at jams. Like jazz jams, where musicians get together to improvisationally explore the passages of their form, at contact improv jams practitioners gather and explore where the contact point, the sensibilities that the dancers bring to it, and the unique combinations of the moment, take them. See the DC Contact Improv section for DC metro-area CI information, and look at What People Do At A Jam for some hints about the situation.

CI is an opportunity to explore and expand the edge of your physical abilities, in the company of others on their own journeys. As with any shared freedom, the right to explore and enjoy CI depends on all participants behaving responsibly, in particular recognizing and respecting their own limits and the limits of others. See Respecting Boundaries for a description of what is needed and why.

Workshops

Notes for a workshop in atlanta, georgia (July 6-8, 2007 - advertised at least for a while at http://www.atlantacontact.org/)

During Summer of 2011 I lead a weekly Ensemble Movement Improv laboratory, and posted two observations from it on the dc-ci blog: Thursday, June 23 and a posting from the culmination of the series.

I've lead several other workshops, from week-long daily classes to weekly classes spanning several months, and hope to eventually consolidate notes from some, here.

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