What's Most Extraordinary About CI: Sharing Agency

Contact improvisation allows an extraordinary combination of mutuality and agency. It enables movement partners to learn to mutually shape more aspects of their collaboration than most practices allow. In this way CI is an opportunity to cultivate shared agency.

Organized in An Unusual Way

In contact improvisation (CI) partners practice moving cooperatively in a way that can approach the immediacy, depth, and agency of cooperating with oneself. While other partner practices like partner dance and martial arts also provide opportunities for very immediate and thorough cooperation, contact improv allows a greater degree of agency because CI is organized around an improvisation agreement 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 for participants to know what they're supposed to do with each other at any moment, offering a form - a formal structure within which the partners explore cooperation.

Instead, 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.

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. The partners can go fast together at one moment and imperceptibly slowly soon after. The multitude of configurations and changes are possible because the ways that the partners are responding in each moment are not bound to a particular form. However, their responses are not arbitrary! They have agreed to mutually follow. The diversity of choices, the freedom, is in how the partners follow. Their responses can change as they and their partners and the situation as a whole changes.

This greater freedom comes with greater uncertainty. With patterns it can be simpler to know what you are supposed to do at each moment. With contact improv you depend on the sense of your own disposition and of the correspondence with your partner and of the prevailing situation to guide you. When the connection is not clear it can be difficult to know what to do. While it can seem like you need to do more than just tune in and follow what's happening, it can be surprising to discover how much the action can grow and choices arise that seem to emerge from the collaboration, yet are informed by you and 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 and that changes as you and 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 varying forms that partners discover together, rather than one particular dance form. Being involved in mutually discovering varying forms is what I often experience, and relish.

Mutuality and Agency

Contact improv is organized around mutual following, where personal agency is expressed in how you follow – including always the option to not follow, as it is your choice to engage or disengage at each moment. The pragmatics of mutual following involves limits, just as moving individually does. As you learn to tune in and develop agreements you discover that your choices inform the shape of what you're doing together. You 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 can explore how you mutually choose to move, a kind of shared agency.

For More

  • While CI is something that you learn by doing, like walking or bicycling or surfing or many intrinsically physical activities, guidance can be useful for participating in a way that invites what the practice teaches.
  • To see how contact improv originally developed in the perspective of those who developed it see 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 and is organized around the CI development of another central CI progenitor, Nancy Stark Smith.