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Our Jam and the Underscore

by admin last modified Mar 07, 2015 06:45 PM
The dc jam has been practicing an ensemble improv recipe, called the Underscore, on the first Sunday of the month since December, 2003. It started as an experiment in making the jam more accessible to everyone, by providing some structure that fits jamming. It stuck, big time. Not only does it provide some orientation for newcomers, but many - new and experienced - have found that it helps to foster a great jam, during the Underscore and during our regular jams, as well.

The Underscore at the DC Jam

The Underscore is an improv structure designed and developed by Nancy Stark Smith. It continues to evolve in practice lead by Nancy and many others. Since December of 2003, Ken (and on occasion, others) has conducted an Underscore at the DC jam on the first Sunday of every month. (Here are some logistical details.)

We started out trying the Underscore as something that might help newcomers feel welcome, and support finding their way into jamming. It really does seem to help, and not only does it provide newcomers with orientation, but many - new and experienced alike - have found that it fosters ensemble improv, and a good situation for Contact Improv. Over the course of that time our jam's attendance has gotten steadily larger and more reliable. By all reports, it has helped to improve our jam's approachability, for inexperienced and experienced, alike. [note]

Underscore description

The score (an improv recipe) includes a gradual progression from interior focus to interacting with others. It also has an emphasis on broadening one's perspective of what it means to connect, to include all the myriad ways we are influenced and influence others, and thus become more receptive to those influences. The progression is crafted to foster connecting with others while also maintaining a clear sense of self.

The initial stages are guided by suggestions from a leader. It starts from internal focus, then gradually following your attention to the space and activity around you, and into "grazing" - sampling interactions with others, while continuing to follow your wandering attention. More persistent engagements with partners, and a whole range of interaction - from solo exploration of stillness and movement to interactions between many people - become common in the resulting group situation.

Being in a room full of people tuned into the score can have an ease of involvement and discovery of wider-ranging ways to move together. It's a great opportunity for exploring contact improv and group improv from a very body-based focus, whether or not you're experienced with jamming.

The dc underscores take place on the first Sunday of each month. I present a very condensed introduction between 2:00 and 2:30, and then lead a part of the progression into the open score. We usually end the open score at 4:30 and have a closing circle soon after.

The secret ingredient

As I see it, the Underscore fosters a special combination of things:

  • By noticing and cultivating one's own appetites to move, participants can find their vital spark, without being dependent on others for it.
  • By doing that in a way that also fosters receptivity to others, everyone can be inspired by, and inter-respond to one another's vitality.

(I believe that combination - of maintaining receptivity and responsiveness to oneself and, simultaneously, to others - is the central key to collaborative improv.  In any domain; though movement improv is the main one with which i'm familiar.);

This combination, when shared by many, yields a rich and lively group situation.

Providing guidance without penalizing experience

The underscore provides a satisfying situation for those new to the form and to those with experience. It specifically addresses a few needs:

How can we make the jam approachable to newcomers?
Openness and approachability is essential for almost any jam's long-term vitality. Yet a jam is not an instructional context. Even those of us with the best intentions can't do enough, in a sustained way, to fill in the teaching gaps without sacrificing the recreation we need. Yet some guidance is needed by those who might enjoy joining in.
How do we share the expertise useful for navigating contact improv's challenges, without sacrificing play and diversity?
Play and expertise need not be mutually exclusive, but they each can be polarizing if not somehow balanced.

In the underscore, people can be fully involved in what they're doing, and gradually play with the dynamics of contact improv interactions. This counteracts the tendency that can happen in "serious" jams to focus on skill and technique, which can tend to be alienating, in one way and another. Instead, the Underscore brings the focus to one's own appetites and immediate frontiers, so that skills explorations happen at each persons pace. That way, both beginners and experienced dancers are more receptive to what's present and less concerned with what's not.

This is a fertile ground for discovery.

(I believe that happens to be an essential attitude for Contact Improvisation, in general.)

Avoiding some pitfalls

At various times over the years the group has drifted from the structure, at the cost of diminishing the richness that can be such a thrill. Our experience has suggested two key elements that require emphasis for the really nice situations to happen:

Give grazing a chance.

"grazing" is a stage where everyone is allowing their attention to wander from one focus to another without getting stuck on anything.

When even a few people skip grazing, quickly seeking "engagement" - sticking with development of a connection with a specific partner - other people wind up jumping to engagement, too, rather than waiting for it to find them. Then grazing quickly fades away, and the group activity continues as a bunch of tightly held partnerships. The partnerships may change, but the fluidity of inter-connections and a generally prevailing, anything-can-happen vitality that can happen in an underscore is much less likely.

In our underscores, when we really explore grazing, the way that people relate to one another - and to themselves - is typically more diverse than when grazing is skipped. Everyone seems more responsive to what's going on in general, and the room as a whole is permable to interesting changes. Sometimes those changes sweep unexpectedly across the group as a whole, or in little pockets - all suspiciously like an ecosystem in action.

I've been tempted, in the score setup, to suggest that people hold off on engagement until they have had grazing interactions with half the other people in the room. Even that would be more prescriptive than necessary. It's helped tremendously to just suggest that people not seek engagement, but rather let it find then. To give grazing a real chance, wait for engagement until you find a connection with which you feel compelled to stay.

Don't start separate activities.

While the underscore is extremely open to movement whims, it can be easily disrupted by other activities that take people out of their movement presence. The most common example is spoken conversations.

A spoken conversation diverts the speakers, and those around them, from their movement focus. Everyone's attention is shifted, and it's hard to avoid wondering whether the group participation is waning. As with jumping to engagement, once one conversation happens, others follow, and engagement with the whole group does wane.

Maintaining an improvisation focus which includes both internal and external activity is an extraordinary thing. It is not difficult, when you're in the right frame of mind. It's quite difficult, though, to avoid being diverted by spoken conversations happening around you, and have prospective partners diverted without being instigators. So we ask that underscore participants refrain from spoken conversations during the course of the score, instead remaining receptive to what's happening as part of it.


There have been several hard-to-mistake changes in our jam over the years that we've been doing the underscore. They're probably not solely due to the underscore practice, but I'm convinced it's helped in substantial ways.

Our regular jams have become more fluid, lively, and pleasantly surprising.
Ensembles spontaneously arise and equally spontaneously disperse. Jammers seem less urgent about finding partnerships, and more easily slip into and out of partnerships. Ease of connecting and shifting of connections - permeability - increasingly emerges.
Newcomers more easily get carried away with participating in any of our jams.
Newcomers are increasingly prone to continue to return and become regulars.
Attendance has increased.
We went from typically around 5 to 15 to more commonly 15 to 25. (At several times in the past we dwindled to sessions of fours and threes. That's ok if the few present are intent on dancing, but it's nice to be part of the vitality and diversity of a larger, enthusiastic group.)
Those of us willing to guide don't feel as much need to lead classes.
The experienced get asked to help, but people seem more satisfied to explore their movement sensations, and less concerned with expertise. Similarly, more people seem comfortable about sharing what they know, helping to guide.
Expertise has come to be better understood as the ability to find common ground in dances, rather than technical skills.
Like in the art of conversation, our jammers increasingly recognize that it's not the ability to dazzle that makes it work, but the ability to connect - to receive, as well as send, and explore, as well as do what you know. The Underscore has been a clear conveyer of this principle.
We like our jam, and visitors seem, to, also.

The jam still runs out of steam, on occasion, or is inundated with more conversation than dancing, but that's less common than it used to be (and both are probably necessary parts of a vital life cycle). I like to think of our jam in terms of the most sincere pumpkin patch that Linus (of the Peanuts comic strip) believes that the "great pumpkin" is seeking. It's not spectacular until you look closely, but then it can be amazing.

[note] I haven't included a full description of underscore because it is a work in progress. When I originally was writing this, Nancy Stark Smith had not yet widely published her own presentation. Nancy has since included a chapter about it in a book about her contact improv life, caught falling (available for purchase at the Contact Quarterly bookstore), but I haven't had time to resurrect my own description. Ultimately, participating in it is the only way to really get a feel for it, anyway.
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