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Contact Improvisation

by Ken Manheimer last modified Nov 06, 2023 06:43 AM
I love this dance/movement game. Partners mutually follow shared points of contact, sharing equilibrium through the contact points. Engaging this way you can learn to cooperate with immediacy and depth that approaches the level of coordination with yourself. In these pages I offer my perspective on contact improvisation and how to engage in it.

Fall After Newton, Part 1 - Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith. Steve framed CI and Nancy and a few others did the initial development with him. This is Steve's description of CI's early development. See also part 2 and part 3.

What Is Contact Improvisation?

A Kind of Movement Cooperation Game

On the surface contact improv is a kind of movement cooperation game, with participants coordinating as partners.

  • Partners coordinate by investing their balance in mutually followed shared points of contact.
  • Their shared activity is shaped by what is practical and interesting for each partner, and through the shared coordination for their partnership.

A bit below the surface:

  • Partners explore the simple framework - mutually following points of contact – respecting what is practical. Getting a feel for what works, they learn how to organize themselves for deepening coordination and expanding range of movement together.
  • Through this have the opportunity to coordinate with each other in a way that approaches the immediacy and depth with which they are able to coordinate with themselves.

Of course you're distinct people. It's never completely the same as coordinating with yourself. But as you each learn to stay present with what is actually happening you increasingly find opportunities to cooperate extraordinarily directly and spontaneously. The challenge is to be present and respect your own and your partner's situation. That's not a bad challenge. It's a rare opportunity to share mutual exploration and discovery, and in the process develop your ability to coordinate with others and with yourself.

For some CI is a performing art – Andrew Harwood on CI performance:

I believe this work is about finding a way to perform without pretense, so that the ability to respond freely and unselfconsciously becomes the goal. In order to do this, the performer has to let go of preconceived notions of performing and begin taking real risks, even risking making a fool of themselves.

CI practice offers the opportunity for an extraordinary combination of mutuality and agency.

Below and in the accompanying pages I offer my perspective on CI and guidance I've found helpful in learning it.

How Does CI Work?

Like riding a bike and surfing and swimming, nobody can describe exactly how to do contact improv. There's a lot to coordinate – it's like surfing where you and your partner each are both wave and the rider. Though we can't convey how to do these activities, we can suggest how to participate that is conducive to discovery. In What Contact Improvisation Does I describe what I have found to be essential in learning contact improv, and see the containing section Learning Contact Improvisation for CI principles and exercises

How is CI Different?

Contact improv doesn't involve patterns or goals that are typically used to organize movement cooperation. For instance, partner dance typically is based on specific postures, steps and moves, rhythms, and authority roles. In CI, dances can have completely different paces, tones – all aspects can vary a lot – and one dance can look very different from one moment to another. In some ways it's like martial arts and competitive sports, but playing to play more thoroughly instead of playing to win the game.

  • Contact Improvisation is sort of a partner dance, except there's no set music or steps or rhythms or, really, any set patterns to follow. We find many different ways to mutually follow the contact points.
  • It's sort of moving meditation, sometimes very slow and sometimes really fast, and often in ways that change over the course of a dance.
  • In some ways it's like a sport or martial art, except that the aim is never defeating your partner. In fact, when it works you're playing for them and they for you.
  • It's even like massage and partner yoga, except you both use your whole body while moving a little or a lot.

See CI Different From and Similar To Partner Dance for more.

Peter Olson and me (contact) improvising
at a dance festival in 1996

What Contact Improv is For Me

What I like

For me, Contact Improvisation 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, an all-too-rare opportunity for shared meditation.


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


  • an opportunity to realize and expand kinesthetic appetites - abilities and desires to move way beyond what's common or routine

  • 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 rare qualities that I love in CI. In particular, it conveys a kind of surfing-of-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 things that I unwittingly 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. (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 are easier to dance with, and/or make it easier to get to your frontiers. 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 practice. It can be challenging in fundamental ways. Ultimately, though, it's an essential route to discovery and more enjoyable dances.

Why Do I Choose Contact Improvisation?

For me contact improv is a kind of "antidote to the static of everyday life".

Fully Engage

So much in daily life is constrained. Opportunities to go to the limits of your physical abilities are rare.

  • Most recreation is either repetitive and/or quite narrow and/or hard to reach.
  • Every CI encounter varies depending on the partner and the moment. The variety and range of qualities is vast. I often am challenged to find what works with each person, and sometimes I get to go to the edge of my physical adeptness.
  • CI does require a suitable space and other people who are also intrigued by it. Fortunately both are available, especially at the local weekly jam that I help maintain (

Play for the Sake of Play

There's worlds to discover in physical play for the sake of play. It's not a "zero sum" game - you're not taking something away from someone nor giving something away to them. You're mutually discovering how to cooperate well, a win/win game.

Sharing Presence

CI is an opportunity for full physical and personal presence – all too rare in the modern world – specifically for the purpose of sharing that presence with others.

  • The opportunity to share presence is a kind of interpersonal "commons". In modern life interpersonal space has increasingly been colonized by transactional commoditization: "likes", purchase, popularity, power. Cooption of interpersonal space is a kind of Tragedy of the Commons (Wikipedia). Contact improv is a nourishing antidote: mutually engaging physical play for the sake of play.

Daniel Barbiero and me improvising a "Duet
for dancer and double bass"
as part of a
Nancy Havlik Dance Performance Group
showing at DC Joy of Motion on May 9, 2015.

Contact improv found me in college, around 1979. I've practiced it since then. I've had my ups and downs, but I've always been thankful about my choice to explore this practice. It's one of the most rewarding choices I've made.

Toddler Sophie and parent Itay Yatuv dancing at an Ibiza jam


  • Fall After Newton, Part 1, part 2 and part 3 present a distilled description of CI's early development from Steve Paxton, CI's inventor. It focuses on practice and performance of Nancy Stark Smith. CI's central teacher, chronicler, and practioner through much of her life.
  • For most of us CI is recreation, somewhere between partner dance and a cooperation game, practiced at gatherings called "jams":
    • See the DC Contact Improv website for DC metro-area CI jam information.
    • As with any shared freedom, the opportunity to explore and enjoy CI depends on all participants behaving responsibly, recognizing and respecting their own boundaries and those of others. See Respecting Boundaries for guidance.
  • The Contact Improvisation Global Calendar is an online catalog of CI events - jams, classes, workshops, festivals and more.
  • What I've found essential for Learning Contact Improvisation

For some CI is a performing art – Andrew Harwood on CI performance:

I believe this work is about finding a way to perform without pretense, so that the ability to respond freely and unselfconsciously becomes the goal. In order to do this, the performer has to let go of preconceived notions of performing and begin taking real risks, even risking making a fool of themselves.
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