Contact Improv - What Instead of Patterns?

It can be tempting to resort to patterned movement in cooperative improvisation, like CI, and avoid the risks and vulnerabilities of uncertainty. Resorting to patterns, however, specifically foregoes the opportunity to mutually discover what best suits the partnership in each moment. I describe here some things Contact Improvisors often do instead of resorting to patterns.

The Challenge - Discovering Cooperation

In What Contact Improv Does and Contact Improv As A Way Of Moving I describe a CI's cooperation challenge - finding mutual coordination without set patterns. I want to convey how patterns do and don't fit and what the kinds of things are that we do instead. How is it that you progressively discover the way of moving?

It's often tempting to avoid cooperative uncertainty in improvised dances by resorting to patterns - like going through lift and falling sequences, or practicing one of the five rhythms, or taking or giving away control, or whatever. Many CI exercises involve starting from patterns and gradually removing them, to reveal the form - like exchanging leadership to the point that the leadership disappears and you find yourself in a dance. When doing CI, resorting to patterns can be useful to engage with what you expect but get in the way of what's actually happening. It foregoes an extraordinary opportunity offered in collaborative improvisation, like CI: learning to mutually discover qualities within each dance, and its overall shape, that best suits your partnership in each moment.

Ultimately, being willing to do without set patterns opens the opportunity to discover the distinct form of the current dance, custom tailored to the dancers in each moment. (It's not unusual for the movement qualities to vary drastically through the course of a single dance, and even from moment to moment, when things are clicking. (The commonness of substantial energy shifts within the course of a single dance is one characteristic that sets CI apart from many pattern-based forms.)

Individual coordination illuminates collaborative coordination and vice versa

Consider the cooperation between partners in CI as being like, in some ways, the cooperation between the parts of an individual person's moving body. Here are some examples which show ways solo and partner moving can clarify each other.

Organizing your movement through your sense of balance - organizing around center

When among other people, many every-day movement choices are for the purpose of keeping out each other's way - avoiding getting entangled. These normally useful choices can be impeding habits when the aim is to get involved.

A classic example when learning to practice CI is a tendency to try to avoid getting too entangled with your partner by keeping your partner at "arms length" - actually using your arms to maintain some distance. This often turns out to more be an avoidance than an involvement, which can be an obstacle to engaging. Being involved is a fundamental challenge - engaging your center with that of your partner - in a way that allows coordination without unnecessary constriction. (The ability to do this, which develops with experience and guidance, informs CI's way of moving.)

There's an analogous situation in personal moving.

Isolating movements can be useful in particular situations, like writing or chewing or mime. For whole-body activities, though, you typically want to integrate movement throughout your body. (Modern healthy-movement techniques, like Alexander and Feldenkrais, convey this principle.) The key is to let each movement affect and be affected by - involve - your overall balance. This is another way of saying, allow each movement to influence your center, and through that your entire body.

Translating that back to collaborative moving, this means involving your balance / your center in the connection with your partners. Learning to do that includes organizing yourself around your own center, and extending that to the center shared with your partner. The weight shared in the connection - a lot or a little or none at all - depends on what fits the situation in the moment, and changes as the situation changes.

(Getting a feel for coordinating through your center may be the single most important key to effective whole-body movement, in general.)

Following momentum - gliding

When an individual is moving, part of their body incrementally give and take rides from each other. It's typically a gradual, continuous process. Dance partners can similarly follow their own trajectories, and depend on one another in gradually changing amounts as fits their changing confluence from moment to moment.

Maintaining your integrity in order to share it depends on getting a feel "going where you are going" - acting in accordance with your own momentum while steering it for cooperation.

Non-coercive / "inter-responsive" cooperation

In effective solo movement, each body part influences the others but doesn't control them. Effective CI cooperation works similarly - nobody forcing the actions of others, so each can fully participate.

The way of moving in CI is that which you together discover works best when everybody is following - not controlling - the contact point. By exploring, you gravitate towards that which best supports connection with the least unnecessary restriction.

Explore the gaps

You can use pre-determined patterns, as one does in patterned dance forms, to make cooperation easy. However, that precludes the opportunity to discover what better suits each of you in the moment - to collaboratively discover the shape of the dance. So, what can you use, without patterns to guide you? Careful attention to what's happening in the moment, and to the effects of your responses, can reveal a world of things to discover and explore in each moment.

In much of our everyday life we often are going through movement patterns that we've done myriad times. When improvising we have the opportunity to explore and experiment. It can be surprising how easy it is to encounter movement puzzles – passages that are a little more difficult or complicated than we expect. Continuing through them in our everyday moving mode can often mean rushing through and disregarding the difficulty, kind of forcing our way through. This can be missing an opportunity to more fully learn to move, and it can complicate cooperation when moving with a partner. Nancy Stark Smith coined a phrase, "filling in the gaps", to describe being mindful particularly in the complicated moments, tuning in instead of rushing through or otherwise trying to disregard those moments.

"Filling in the gaps" might mean slowing down and/or trying different approaches in a complicated moment, even backing off so you can reapproach the situation in a fresh way. Sometimes there's something counterintuitive that works better than you expect. For instance, moving a part of your body in a different direction than you are heading might make overall progress in the direction you are heading easier. Often a twist or spiral is conducive to rising or descending. In general, filling in the gaps is about exploring and learning from the movement puzzles you encounter rather than disregarding them.

In CI, instead of focusing on ways to shape the dance according to familiar patterns, you focus on noticing and responding to the current conditions, as they change - "listening" and responding to the opportunities and demands in the moment, rather than controlling them. This is akin to the adjustments that are continuously happening in an individual's movement, amplified by the inter-responsiveness with a partner.

There are some common paths that occur in CI - lifts, supports, and falls, etc. They're fun, and it's tempting once you're acquainted with them to jump to the opportunity when you notice it nearby. They may fit just right, but they can also be limiting if you jump to them at the cost of going with what's happening in the moment. It's not wrong to use patterns, but it is always useful to remember that there are whole worlds to explore between the patterns, and you can find them just by noticing what's actually happening rather than skipping over it.

Note that the direct access we have to our own, individual movement experience doesn't mean we're completely clear about it. Sometimes, far from it!  Instead, the usefulness of this analogue is a reciprocal one: individual coordination and partner cooperation are models for one another. Development of solo moving is informed by development of partnering, and vice versa. They're not completely the same, but they're so similar that they can illuminate each other.

What do these principles mean in practice?

Get involved!

As in most things, contact improv involvement comes with committing your center. That doesn't mean piling on weight, but rather committing your center to your own movement, and exploring how you can combine this full involvement with the actions of your partner. When fully involved, each partner's balance depends to some degree on their partner, and together they navigate changing balance.

We discover our dances by following one another and ourselves.

By participating in mutual following of the point of contact you can cooperate without sacrificing a sense of your own path. In this way of moving, following and leading blend into something that is both and neither.

Differences and freedom.

There are some fundamental differences between coordination within an individual's body and coordination between CI partners. These differences are, themselves, revealing.

Of course, communication between individuals is less immediate than communication within an individual. The partners brains just aren't directly connected. Given that, it's pleasantly surprising how much partners are able to simultaneously arrive at harmonious choices. They are, after all, basing their individual reads on a shared situation. (This can be a joy of any kind of good collaboration, but it's particularly the subject of CI.)

On the other hand, dancers can rearrange with respect to one another more than a body can rearrange its parts. Where the partners are "attached" changes, and they can separate and reconnect. That greater freedom can make it easier to reconcile more complicated choices in action. And the additional freedom can confuse matters.

Until you have a solid feel for the way of moving, maintaining a followed point of contact constrains things in informative ways. Similar to how patterns guide movers in patterned forms, the followed contact point leads you to contact improv's way of moving.

Once you have a feel for the way of moving, you can use it to engage with a partner whether or not you're in direct physical contact, and so collaborate at a distance as well as in-contact.

Also, once you've internalized the way of moving, you can use it in solo dancing. This is actually an essential part of strong CI dancing, in partnering as well as in solo.

More about "organizing around your center"

It's common to hear people describe CI weight-sharing to characterize center sharing. I believe it is more illuminating to think about balance sharing, because weight is mostly about gravity, which pulls in just one direction, while balance is about all the pragmatics of organizing your body, dynamically, in space - the play of momentum and weight and structural kinematics and so on. It is about sharing your center.

Consider what happens when you're walking.

When one of your legs takes your weight, you organize yourself so your center is supported through that leg directly into the ground. Your whole body coordinates in response to it. You can do other things meanwhile, like carrying on a conversation (your body, including parts of your nervous system, are specifically organized to make walking flow easily), but all your movements are generally influenced by and influence this whole-body activity. Shifting your weight onto one leg and then back onto the other is a gradual thing. One leg doesn't heave the rest of the body into the air and then give it to the other leg. Instead, your legs - and the rest of your body - gradually cooperate.

As with walking, connecting with your center means movement that involves your overall balance. It involves your entire body, and is a compelling commitment - coordination of your body is organized around it. And it is a continuous thing - not all-or-nothing, but all the gradients in between.

Connecting with your center doesn't necessarily mean big movements or leading with your center of mass. The measure of your physical involvement in the dance is not the amount of weight your sharing, but the degree to which you're involving your balance - and so, your whole body - in the connection.

Sharing the moment

By engaging with both my own center and that of my partner, I combine my dance with theirs. When fully involved, neither of us sacrifices our individual situations for the partnership, but rather, we connect our situations in ways that work.

Such a connection tends to continuously change. At any moment our weights are increasingly or decreasingly shared and shifting. Our paths increasingly or decreasingly coincide. At any moment, we have to be ready to operate in-tandem to a greater or lesser degree than the moment before. The changes in dynamics are, themselves, essential elements of our engagement.

Navigating all these dynamics with your partner can lead to a vital inter-responsiveness which approaches the immediacy and depth of connection that happens within an individual's coordinating body [inter-responsiveness].


Contact Improvisation is an unusual partner dance practice, in that it uses a task rather than patterns to delineate the form. This presents particular challenges, and understanding those challenges can help in finding your bearings and navigating the form well.

The quality of coordination - with your partner and with yourself - is the main way in CI to gauge what's working and what's not. That's got some inherent ambiguity because quality of coordination is determined by your actions together with those of your partner, not by your actions, alone.

Because of that ambiguity it is easy to doubt that you can learn CI just by sticking with the score - following the point of contact. It's tempting to resort to imposing patterns even though they often don't closely fit in the moment, and they can get in the way of discovering what does fit. Understanding this can help support sticking with the score, noticing and responding to the current conditions.

An analogous situation, which doesn't have the ambiguity of cooperative feedback, is useful to weigh questions and principles you encounter in CI: the coordination that happens between the parts of your body when you are moving.

This coordination involves and sheds light on many of the principles that help you cooperate well in CI practice, including organizing around center, following momentum, non-coercive and inter-responsive cooperation, exploring the gaps, and more.

The usefulness of this analogy is no accident. When doing CI well, the cooperation approaches the immediacy and depth of connection that happens within an individual's coordinating body.

I hope that this perspective might be useful to others as it has been for me.