Contact Improv As a Way of Moving
I love a kind of exquisite cooperation that can happen in practice of Contact Improvisation. Learning to find and cultivate dances where that happens is the promise and challenge of any partner dance form. CI presents an unusual version of this challenge, one that can complicate learning if you're not aware of it. Recognizing this challenge is useful not just for finding your way in CI, but also for collaborative movement improv in general.
CI arrives at coordination via a different route
The framework guiding you to cooperation in Contact Improv is organized differently than in most partner dance forms.
Most forms use patterns as guiding pathways: step sequences, pacing, rhythms, postures, roles like leader and follower, etc. Using those patterns, partners organize together in the basic form, so they can discover, explore, and deepen their cooperation from there. Each form's patterns lend a characteristic way of moving distinct to that form - you can recognize a Salsa-ish way of moving distinct from what works in Contradance, or Tango, or Waltz, etc. A form's particular patterns are not its ways of moving, however, but rather a means to mutually organize enough so the partners can discover and get a personal feel for what work for them. Everyone has to do that for themselves, the form just gets them within reach...
Contact Improv is not framed using patterns, yet it also has distinct qualities. Instead of using patterns, CI is organized using a basic challenge - moving together by following mutual points of contact. In pursuing this challenge, many different, recognizable patterns appear, but the patterns are not the guide. In CI, at each moment the question "How do I respond, participate in what's happening?" is more essentially useful than "Where are we in a particular pattern?". That question is also important in other practices, particularly as you become more advanced. In CI, it is always primary.
In fact, patterns can be misleading in CI. because CI is deliberately so open-ended, adhering too closely to discovered patterns can interfere with sensing new options, specific to the current situation. Increasingly more options, and/or more refined options become available as you become more familiar with the territory - unless you disregard them by sticking too closely to patterns. Patterns are useful to engage with what you expect, but adhering to them too much gets in the way of responding to what's happening differently, in the current moment.
Identifying what works and what doesn't is also complicated by the fact that, if you're really following the points of contact, it actually depends on both you and your partner. In CI, in particular, there is not much else besides the quality of the cooperation to steer by. You can do your part to cooperate well, bring your self to the encounter without eclipsing your sense of the other, but cooperation is about the combination, hence a guide complicated by ambiguity.
It's helpful in various ways to recognize this inherent ambiguity. Given that, it's easy to understand why it takes time to sort out what does and doesn't work. Knowing that, you can more easily resist the impatience that can yield to the urge to adhere too strongly to patterns, and other shortcuts.
What's key is the ability to be receptive to what's happening in you without excluding what's happening with your partner, and vice versa. These are the critical skills for collaborative improvisation, and beyond. (It's worth saying more about this - see Ensemble Improvisation's Essential Ingredients.)
Sharing balance and momentum instead of sharing weight
When you look at bodies cooperating in any partner dance, the dynamics are complex. It's easier to see the striking static facts - the way that weight and structure is shared - but it is through the immediate, visceral, and compelling sense of shared balance and momentum that partners actually cooperate.
I find it useful to think about this in terms of what happens when I'm coordinating myself well. Moving myself isn't done by moving the parts of my body as a bunch of separate, isolated elements. I continuously integrate all that's happening via my sense of changing balance, in the intricate, shifting momentum of my body as a whole. Weight is a static measure of that action, balance is a dynamic thing, an integration of all the changes introduced by any separate action.
I've written more about this notion in CI Sharing Balance.