What's Most Extraordinary About CI

There’s something important that contact improvisation practice offers that I find difficult to describe. It has to do with an extraordinary combination of mutuality and agency, providing opportunities to involve unusually much of yourself in moving in close cooperation.

Organized in An Unusual Way

In contact improvisation (CI) partners practice moving cooperatively in a way that can approach the immediacy and depth of cooperating with oneself. While other partner practices like partner dance and martial arts also provide opportunities for very immediate cooperation, contact improv involves a greater degree of agency because CI is organized around an improvisation structure rather than patterns.

Partner Dance is Typically Organized Using Patterns

Most physical cooperation games are organized using patterns and structures, like step sequences, rhythms, pace, postures, and roles. Organizing around patterns makes it easy to know what you’re supposed to do at any moment, so you have a formal structure in which you can explore cooperating together. The structure enables your cooperation within the particular dance form.

Contact Improvisation is Organized Around A Task: Mutually Following Points of Contact

Instead of patterns CI is organized around an agreement to mutually follow shared points of contact. The improvisation is within the pragmatics of mutual following. The diversity of choices, the freedom, is in how the partners follow.

A CI dance can go through all sorts of configurations, from rolling on the floor to moving upright through space to having one partner on a trajectory over the other's shoulder or hip. It can be moving fast at one moment and imperceptibly slowly later. The changes are introduced by how the partners are responding, maybe on a shared impulse or maybe because of inspiration in one or the other partner.

This greater freedom comes with greater uncertainty. With patterns it can be simpler to know what you are supposed to do at each moment. That is the "form" of the dance form. With contact improv you depend on the sense of correspondence to guide you. When the connection is not clear it can be difficult to know what to do. It can seem like you need to do more than tune in and follow the small dance that's always happening, but if you're willing to participate in this way you may be surprised to discover how the action can grow and the choices that seem to emerge from the collaboration are informed by you, as well as by your partner. It is a recipe for co-creation.

A Framework for Arriving At and Exploring Forms

Once you have a feel for organizing yourself around mutual following, you and your partner can explore and discover what fits your collaboration in the moment. The experience, when it clicks, is of discovering a form that is habitable to both of you, one that changes as your situation changes. It can feel like a conversation that goes through various topics and tonalities, but using your bodies instead of words. In this way contact improvisation can be considered a framework for exploration of idiosyncratic forms that partners discover together, rather than a dance form. This has come to be my experience of it.

Mutuality and Agency

Contact improv is organized around mutual following, where personal agency is expressed in how you choose to follow (including always the option to not follow, as it is your choice to engage or not engage). The pragmatics of mutual following involves limits, just as moving individually does. As you learn to tune in and develop agreements you discover opportunities to vary the shape of what you're doing together, explore movement qualities and characters that are not decided by some form, but rather by you and your partner and the pragmatics of cooperating. You have freedom to explore how you mutually choose to move, a kind of shared agency.

For More

I focus above on a particular aspect of the practice. While CI is something that you learn by doing, like walking and bicycling and surfing, there is more that is interesting and useful to say about participating in a way that invites what the practice teaches. In What Contact Improv Does I discuss orientation that I find useful for learning and teaching CI.

To see how contact improv originally developed in the perspective of those who developed it visit the video Fall After Newton Part 1 (9 minutes), Part 2 (6 minutes), and Part 3 (credits, 7 minutes). It's narrated by Steve Paxton, the guy who framed CI, and is organized around performances of another central CI developer who collaborated with Steve, Nancy Stark Smith.