Steve Paxton: The Initiation of Contact Improvisation

For more from Steve about the small dance see Steve Paxton's Small Dance Notes

On the 50th anniversary of contact Improv's development, the guy who initiated CI reflects on where it started for him. This is copied from an openly available Contact Quarterly article . I include it here because I feel it conveys what's precious that we can discover in contact improv.

This article is copied from a Contact Quarterly article and is copyright © Contact Collaborations, Inc.

Steve Paxton photo: Lisa Nelson

The initiation of contact improvisation for me

by Steve Paxton, January 2022

Steve Paxton
photo by Lisa Nelson

Douglas Dunn and I had an encounter during a Grand Union performance at La Mama, NYC. Not sure of the year, but before 1972.

An encounter seems an accurate word to portray the start of a duet in the improvisational melee that was a Grand Union performance.

We were not pursuing each other. We had not agreed to meet. We did not work in duet often. But when you find yourself isolated with another person in such circumstances, it would seem rude to just turn and wander off. We approached each other, came into touch. And waited. (Note: the touch was a sort of bonus. We could have had our duet at a distance.)

The touch said a couple of simple things. “Hi” and ”I’m waiting for further messages from you.”

The wait said, “Oh, no, after you.” With a little smile.

Since time was passing, the dance was on. It proceeded in this expectant way for a moment, then one of us faltered. Maybe a shift of weight, or a wibble in the touch. It was enough. The equilibrium was cracked. It was a change by one that the other could take as a message. What followed has become familiar to tens of thousands by now, but what had begun all this was that first moment. It was a most abstract intimacy. Doug was the perfect gentleman. I felt I was being honored by his subtle pause. And I tried to honor him in kind.

If people ask me how to Contact Improvise, I simply say, “Start small” or, “Start small for a long time.”

After fifty years of all this, I realize I should have said,

“Go beyond small to the place where no message is being given. Start there. Let small be the first of the pleasures to come.” Accept the first perturbation of that emptiness as the focus of the next moments. It is not a dance about you, or your partner. It is a dance about its movement.

Jan. 1, 2022

Steve Paxton writes and thinks about dance at a table. By a window. On a farm in Vermont, USA. Footnotes

  1. 1972 is when Steve's Oberlin workshop happened, considered by many to be the public precursor to CI. Ken

For more from Steve about the small dance see Steve Paxton's Small Dance Notes