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Steve Paxton's 1977 Small Dance Guidance

by Ken Manheimer last modified Feb 25, 2017 01:15 PM
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Notes taken from Steve Paxton's class in February 1977, during ReUnion’s teaching/performing tour of Contact Improvisation on the West Coast. Throughout the tour, the members of the 1977 ReUnion (Nita Little, Lisa Nelson, Steve Paxton, Curt Siddall, Nancy Stark Smith, and David Woodberry) transcribed each others’ classes, as close to verbatim as possible. What follows is a section from one of Steve’s classes, provided to me by the Contact Quarterly when as part of the CI36 satellite events web presence.

The Small Dance, The Stand

These notes were taken in February 1977, during ReUnion’s teaching/performing tour of Contact Improvisation on the West Coast. Throughout the tour, the members of the 1977 ReUnion (Nita Little, Lisa Nelson, Steve Paxton, Curt Siddall, Nancy Stark Smith, and David Woodberry) transcribed each others’ classes, as close to verbatim as possible. What follows are sections from several of Steve’s classes. [Contact Quarterly Editors]

The text is to be delivered slowly, with pauses between each sentence. [Steve Paxton]

The Small Dance, The Stand

Relax deep into the cone of the eye socket. Imagine a line that runs between the ears. That’s where the skull rests. Make the motion, very small, for “Yes.” This rocks the skull on the top vertebrae, the atlas. You have to intuit the bones. Like a donut. The sensation around it defines it. Do the motion for “No.” Between these two motions you can determine the length of the vertebrae.

… Ballooning of the lungs. Breathe from the bottom of the lung up to the clavicle. Can you expand the ribs out and up and back easily? Defining the diaphragm in terms of sensation. Bottom of the lung. Two domes of muscle. So with each breath you’re massaging the intestine… What the diaphragm is doing is a signal to the rest of the body. Sky above, earth below…

The head in this work is a limb. It has mass. Mass may be the single most important sensation. The feeling of gravity. Continuing to perceive mass and gravity as you stand. Tension in the muscle masks the sensation of gravity…

You’ve been swimming in gravity since the day you were born. Every cell knows where down is. Easily forgotten. Your mass and the earth’s mass calling to each other…

…Upward force of the bones. Shoulder blades fall down the back, relaxing the intestines into the bowl of the pelvis… In the direction the arms are hanging, without changing that direction, do the smallest stretch you can feel. Can it be smaller. Can you do less. The initiation of the stretch, along the length of bones, in the direction the force is already going. The small dance—you’re relaxing and it’s holding you up. The muscles keeping the weight throughout the skeleton. Shifting weight from leg to leg, interface, taking weight, compression. Stretching along the line of compression. Center of the small dance.

Upright position… spine erect… Feel the bottom of the lung, the diaphragm, feel it massage the organs, down into the bowl of the pelvis, relax your genitals and anus… breathe deeply… exhale slowly… feel the pause at the exhalation… watch for the beginning of the inhalation… This thing, time… full of rush and pause… feel time go by through the breath… don’t initiate the breath… just watch that period… try to catch your mind, the exact moment when the inhalation starts again…

Standing… Relax erect with the weight toward the back half of the knee, put some weight on the balls of the feet… relax the scalp… relax the eyelids… relax behind the eyes… deep into the cone of the eye socket… don’t spend any energy blocking or focusing… let your ideas flow… because certain things mask other things… and it’s better for this right now to have no concentration… feel the play of rush and pause of the small dance that holds you upright when you relax… through simple mass and balance… 60% on the ball of the foot, some to toes, rest back… knees a little relaxed… Let your breath guide your torso, make you symmetrical… let your ribs be open to the ballooning of the lungs… arms fall sideways… Feel the small dance… it’s always there… think of the alignment of the bones, limbs, towards the center of the earth… length of the bone…

…Take your weight over your left leg… what is the difference… in the thigh, in the hip joint… Calling this sensation “compression,” take compression over the right leg, feel the change… compression down the length of the bone… Take your body to neutral… lean forward… compression in front, stretch in back… back to neutral… lean backwards, stretch in front, compression in back… don’t have compression in the arms, there’s no weight there… lean forward again… feel the difference… relax… neutral… lean back, stretch along the length of your body… neutral… stretch up… let the spine rise through the shoulders… let the head be supported on a line between the ears… make the motion for “Yes,”… rock the head… the atlas… make a stretch connection, a long line of stretch between the ball of the foot and the atlas, between the toes, the ball of the foot up the leg to the spine, to the atlas… You’ve been falling in gravity since the day you were born…

Imagine, but don’t do it, imagine that you are about to take a step forward with your left foot. What is the difference? Back to standing…

Imagine but don’t do it, imagine that you are about to do a step with your left foot. What is the difference? Back to standing…

Imagine but don’t do it, imagine that you are about to take a step with your right foot… your left foot… your right… your left, right, left…… standing.

…Slowly let your body collapse into a squat… release into a voluntary fall. Breathe, squatting with hands on the floor, neck relaxed… see if you can relax in this position… and come up. [end]

NOTES added by Steve Paxton, April 2008:

  1. “You have to intuit the bones. Like a donut. The sensation around it defines it.”

    A donut is a torus, a circular form with a hole in the center. The thought here is that the muscles around the bone have sensation, and the bone has very little. The sensations of movement between the skull and the atlas are vague, nonspecific, so the imagination supplies the exact site of the action. Understanding the anatomy of the site will give the imagination greater power to supply a picture of this action between the ears where the skull is supported on the spine. Generally, bones can be sensed during joint movement and when they are under compression (transferring weight to the floor). But these sensations are much more subtle than those of the surrounding tissue.

  2. “Defining the diaphragm in terms of sensation. Bottom of the lung.”

    ‘The bottom of the lungs’ is a phrase to bring consciousness to the approximate place of the diaphragm. That it is two domes of muscle, however, must be known anatomically. Also, many people do not sense that the diaphragm rises during exhalation, descends during inhalation. This movement of breathing provides pressure and release described as a massage of the organs and the intestines. ‘The sky above, the earth below’ is borrowed from Taoism. The point is to ‘see’ the air of the lungs and the organs below the diaphragm as having a changing but always sensitive and intimate relationship divided and defined by the movement of the diaphragm, and to bring to mind the interior of the torso from clavicle to ischia via the gentle pressure and release.

  3. ”Continuing to perceive mass and gravity”

    Gravity is a natural force, mass is what this force acts upon. The sensations of gravity and mass are identical, another example of an intimate and changing relationship. Generally, bringing mass and gravity to mind causes relaxation of muscle tensions. Another way to approach this sensation is to tense the muscles (holding against the force of gravity) and then release the tension. While standing, this process reveals the Small Dance, the reflexes which enable standing balance. Like breath, it is a natural event in the body that can be consciously observed and manipulated, as when you decide to fall to the floor—over-riding balance.

  4. “Upward force of the bones”

    This refers to the notion that the bones support the weight, notable if the muscles relax a bit. This is the sensation of resistance to gravity, and with that, and with the Small Dance, a way of acknowledging the skeleton’s support and the variations of posture. ‘The bones rise, the muscles relax,’ is a description of a state for moving in which unnecessary muscle tension is absent. Necessary tension and tone will naturally remain active… it is a way to achieve an ‘intimate and sensitive’ relation to one’s partner in CI, and also to the surface upon which you dance.

  5. “Stretching along the line of compression”

    Assuming compression has been sensed, for instance in the leg joints and long bones and feet—i.e., the sensation of mass supported by the bones, a subtle effect—then one can feel the resistance to the force of gravity, a thrust against the downward pull. It is an adjustment of the posture upward along the lines of skeletal compression. Muscular effort involved can be dropped once upward alignment is achieved.

  6. “Center of the small dance.”

    Normally when I speak of the center, I mean the center of mass in the pelvis. But this phrase is ambiguous. It might mean the center line of the body’s tubular shape, or it might refer to the non-conscious mental activity which maintains balance… Currently, I sense the small dance as a body-field event, centerless.

  7. “Relax erect with the weight toward the back half of the knee”

    The knees are slightly bent. If the knee is locked, the perception of weight will be toward the front of the knee. Generally during the stand, the knees are slightly bent forward, the pelvis slightly sitting toward the feet.

  8. “Calling this sensation ‘compression’…”

    Shifting weight from leg to leg is sense-able. Centering that sense in the leg bones results in bone compression, muscle relaxation, which should reveal the subtle skeletal sensation.

  9. “Lean forward… compression in front, stretch in back”

    All of the materials in the Stand are simple observations of sensations or events of the body. Taking weight forward causes the muscles of the back to tense, whereas the muscles of the front of the body relax. It provides a clear difference in sensations between the front and back of the body, which strangely many people don’t notice. This leaning event is related to the head nodding with which this transcript begins, and implicated in the sensation of beginning to move forward.

  10. “Stretch up… let the spine rise through the shoulders”

    With shoulder tension, the muscles will tend to mask the compression and the thrust of the spine as it supports the skull. Thinking of the spine rising up through the shoulder girdle should cause the shoulders to relax, and hopefully, cause the head to rotate slightly forward.

  11. “You’ve been falling in gravity”

    Just a matter of fact, a reminder. Because it is constant, gravity is ignorable. This image aims to remind us that movement and gravity are another of those ‘intimate and sensitive’ relations in that every movement will relate to gravity—dramatized by the notion that only the surface on which one is supported is causing a pause in the fall. While standing, we are falling toward our feet, i.e., the force of gravity remains operative.

  12. “Imagine but don’t do it, imagine that you are about to take a step”

    With this event, we are observing the power of the imagination relative to the initiation of movement. Currently, brain scans reveal that in the milliseconds prior to even the desire to move, the brain has already begun firing to support the movement. Our feeling of desire to take a step is quite a ways down the chain of events that will result in movement. But it is the first one we can observe.

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