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Fundamental Contact Improvisation Skills

by Ken Manheimer last modified Aug 31, 2023 12:20 PM
Brainstorming: Learning to coordinate connected to someone else is as multi-faceted as learning to coordinate with yourself. What skills are useful?

This is a brainstorming.

Crux: Participating Fully

  • A cooperation game offering the opportunity to develop your ability to coordinate with someone else approaching the depth and immediacy of coordinating with yourself.
    • Coordinating with other people presents the most thorough spectrum
  • A win / win game where the better each of you participate the more rewarding the experience for everyone.
  • In particular, it cultivates “participatory listening”: being an active and receptive part of what is happening. Participating fully.
    • The better each of you is able to be pay attention and be receptive what is going on inside of you and around you, the better it works.

In Short, It Rewards Tuning In

When you’re really tuning in, ready to respond to what’s present in yourself and around you, ready to show up and explore with others, it can be crushing to not be received. However, if you’re being receptive and people around you are also being receptive, it can be magical. More than what each individual can do on their own.

Contact Improv is an opportunity for everyone to participate physically and explore what is possible between you.

Not Guaranteed: Tuning In to What?

That it’s organized for cooperation that rewards tuning in doesn’t guarantee that people will be tuning in to the same thing. The overt things that people see in spectacular examples of partnering – split-second timing in weight sharing and support – seem to suggest technical skills that are misleading. The skill that everyone has available to them but that can be both elusive and taken for granted is the ability to pay attention to oneself and what is happening around one (including with others) without having one be exclusive of the other. But this is demanding, and it can be so tempting to disregard yourself in order to follow others, or vice versa, be occupied with yourself and neglect what’s happening around you. I have in mind a series of exercises the convey these principles in a practical way

  • Tuning In to Mutual Following: The Finger Dance
    Almost idealized contact improv, mutually following the small movements in your partner's finger.
  • Tuning In to Yourself in a Way that is Receptive To Others
    Bringing the small dance to navigating a jam
  • Engaging Gradually With Your Whole Body – Slight Counterbalance
    Bringing the orientation of mutual following to the whole body.


The draft outline I started from follows...

  • Balancing Receptivity

    • Being receptive to self and to other, one not precluding the other
      • Not trivial.
    • The Finger dance
      • (Nancy Stark Smith, with added preliminary)
      • Following each other while taking care of yourself.
    • Stand to Following Imbalance
      • (Steve Paxton, embellished)
      • Tuning into slight changes
      • Relaxing vigilance enough to play with balance
    • Sharing Balance:
      • Rolling on Wall
        • Not draping
        • Getting rides
      • Slight Counterbalance
        • Getting involved with each other while maintaining self sense and agency
        • Sharing balance
      • Leaning into Partner
        • Not draping!
        • Getting and giving rides!
  • Playing With the Floor

    • (... Is playing with your weight, trajectory, level, situation in general!)
    • Individually:
      • Blending into and from floor
      • Rolling
        • Log, crescent, helix (crescent and helix from Steve Paxton's Material for the Spine)
      • Skimming the Floor
        • (Nancy Stark Smith, though she calls it something else, maybe "diving into the floor"?)
        • From sitting
        • ... and kneeling to sitting, standing to kneeling, ...
      • Into and From the Floor, Filling in the Gaps
        • (Me, but many, many have invented versions of this.)
        • Leads to Angel and Traveller
        • Also, Mutual Blocking:
          • Invariant: Can't block with complete circle
          • Ascent: Both start on floor, side by side
          • One partner puts an obstacle in the way of the other rising
            • Arm, leg, head, etc - close but barely touching
          • Blocked person works their way around the obstacle to rise a bit
            • Can use obstacle as slight support; blocker provides.
          • Now blocked person becomes blocker for the partner
          • They take turns to rising
          • Descent: Like ascent, but blocking underneath
  • Sharing Rides - Playing With Weight

    • Weight Support: Structure, Mounts and Dismounts:
      • Log Support
      • Table
      • Post
      • Shoulder
    • Catching rides:
      • Basic Body Surfing
        • Catching Rides by aligning centers
      • Back-to-back Dive
        • (Andrew Harwood)
        • Includes level changes
      • Developing Upness with Momentum
        • (Me)
  • Tuning Into Partnership

    • The Finger Dance (Nancy Stark Smith, adapted by me)
    • Angel and Traveler (Me)
    • Rolling Point of Contact
    • Sloughing
    • Reversals / Slow Flow
      • (Karen Nelson, Nancy Stark Smith)
      • Doing less - no gaps, no leaps
    • Skimming Each Other
      • (Nancy Stark Smith, though she calls it something else, and I've totally morphed it)
      • Start with passing by and feeling "gravitation", eddies, brushing
      • Reduce to skimming
  • Tuning in to Composition

    Skills for jamming go beyond skills for engaging with partners, crucially including tapping into your enjoyment of movement without a partner, and in a way that leaves you receptive engaging with others, entering partnership.

    • Skinesphere, Kinesphere, Grazing
      • (Nancy Stark Smith, Underscore)
    • Come As You Are
      • (Nancy Stark Smith)
    • Solos
    • Accumulation Score
  • Interpersonal - Play for the Sake of Play, Movement for the Enjoyment of Moving, Cooperation to be Part of Something More

    • Respecting Boundaries

    • [From CI Different From And Similar to Partner Dance; for Interfusion 2017.]

      Though not exactly a skill, yet not exactly not a skill, this is a good topic for wrapping

      In daily life, it's too rare to find opportunities to really play, use your movement and relational skills that are fun to cultivate but that don't all apply to today's increasingly specialized world. Partner dance offers this opportunity. CI adds a twist - making more choices about the overall shape of the cooperation part of the collaboration. The pace, how energetic the dance is, many aspects are constantly negotiated by the partners, seeking levels that suit each of them and that change as their needs change. It can all vary dramatically throughout the course of a single dance. How to respect what's going on in yourself, while also being attentive to your partner, this combination is a key skill for cooperating. Applicable to any kind of improvisation!

      Paradoxically, you may discover while doing CI that it helps to be willing to be a bit awkward, to stumble rather than fighting imbalance, and by yielding to it find balance and flow. This lesson may be the one that's made the most difference for me, and that I continue to rediscover.

Respecting Boundaries
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