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Some Jam Discoveries

by Ken Manheimer last modified Aug 19, 2011 07:21 PM
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I've been a central tender of the Washington, DC jam for many years now. At various points those of us caring for it struggled with fostering a robust jam, one that provides a good situation for newcomers and experienced dancers, alike. The jam has tended to be solidly attended, with lots of intent, sustained dancing, for a while now. I think that's in part due to some ingredients we've deliberately introduced, and can identify.

i've been a central tender of the DC jam for many years now. over that time we've struggled with fostering a robust jam, one that provides a good situation for newcomers and experienced dancers. it seems that the jam has be doing really well for a while now, and i think that's at least in part to some ingredients we've deliberately introduced, and can describe. (some elements, like an attitude that is open but not too open, are harder to describe, and some are just beyond us.) our jam attendance is solid, diverse, and the activity is almost always fairly enjoyable; more than occasionally, deliriously so.

contact improvisation is, foremost, defined by its practice rather than by a central authority. that said, some things work better than others, both in individual dances and in the logistics by which people gather to practice together.

  • contact improv is not a mainstream practice. (we don't necessarily want it to be - see[commoditization].)

  • the practice doesn't require a lot of equipment or obscure technique. instead, it requires a willingness to engage and explore with your physical presence, a decent dance space, and other people who are willing and interested to explore the dynamics of the form together.

  • contact improv is a perpetual learning and re-learning process. a jam must provide for a range of experience. an open jam must provide for everyone from newcomers to the most experienced dancers, serving as an avenue to become acquainted with the practice as well for continuing and deepen it.

    in our search for ways to provide newcomer guidance that does not limit the jam or burden anyone with perpetual teaching duties we stumbled on having a periodic session of nancy stark smith's underscore. it has turned out to be useful orientation for everyone, not just newcomers. (see Our Jam And The Underscore for more.)

  • the lack of a clear explicit definition for the practice is both a challenge and an opportunity. is quite possible to feel lost and actually lose one's way, yet attention and earnest exploration of the way of moving (see Contact Improv As a Way of Moving) at any experience level tends to be rewarded with discovery and enjoyment.

  • nonetheless, there can be all kinds of noise in the process:

    • avoidance of the challenges of attending and opening to undeliberated collaboration is not very effective for discovering the exciting dances.
    • it is also possible to join the activity and manipulate the situation for icky ulterior motives - copping a feel or pursuing dates - but that also doesn't work well for discovering dances.
    • people are drawn to explore the edge of their abilities - that is fundamentally useful and exciting, and this is a terrific opportunity to do so. when people are at their edge they are dealing with their blocks as well as their strengths.

    lack of earnest engagement doesn't work well, and even when earnestly engaging the situation is notideal, it is real. one aspect of earnest engagement is learning to discern when there's not a dance to be had, for whatever reason, and give up on that one, move on.

    so part of the practice is dealing with what doesn't work, as well as what does.

  • instruction can be useful for helping inexperienced people find their way, yet the jam is not a teacher/student structure. every dance involves the give and take of learning, but the experienced people as much need the opportunity to explore the edge of their dances as do the inexperienced.

how do we create a container that nurtures the various levels of discovery amidst the various kinds of noise and practical obstacles?

  • periodic practice of a connection structure - the underscore - which embodies orientation that works for finding good dances. see CIJamAndTheUnderscore.
  • responsibility on each participant to support the well-being of the jam as well as their own well-being

will say a lot more about the underscore and how it has informed our jam, what a remarkably vibrant jam we regularly attend, partly because this structure has helped us strengthen the things that work well.


collaborative improvisation is a kind of public commons. public commons are often secured by using them for the purposes of some central authority or commercial commoditization. collaborative improvisation as a practice is at odds with both central control and commoditization, however.

at essence, improvisation is exploration specifically for the sake of discovery in the medium being explored. improvisation as a practice (rather than as an expedient) is inherently an art.

the following quote seems relevant (i found the quote cited as being from Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property):

... works of art exist simultaneously in two "economies," a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.

collaborative improvisation, like contact improv, is an exploration of the art of collaborating, as well as the dynamics of the physical medium - cooperative movement. it requires a common space and agreements in which to practice, and among those agreements is relinquishing control to the collaborative dynamic.

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