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How CI Works

by Ken Manheimer last modified Jul 08, 2023 02:08 PM
This is a bunch of passages that have been superceded by "What Contact Improv Does"

See instead What Contact Improv Does

CI is a way of organizing movement cooperation based around partners mutually following of shared points of contact, sharing their balance and movement choices through the contact points. This presents a kind of cooperation challenge. Here's what goes into "solving" this challenge...

  • "Mutually following" means that both partners are corresponding with, rather than controlling, the other.

    CI presents an extraordinary situation in which all involved are participating by continually making choices about how they follow the contact points. The contact points provide a shared frame of reference around which the partners organize. Each partner must adapt their responses to take care of themselves while maintaining the connection and not overwhelming or otherwise working at cross purposes with their partner. It is specifically when you and your partner refrain from controlling that you discover how to make choices that both serve you and converge with your partner’s choices.

    A controlled partner is prevented from freely making their own choices about how they participate. It forfeits the opportunity for the intelligence of all involved to contribute to what happens, and it forfeits the opportunity for the one controlling to learn to deal with their partner's choices and the unregulated consequences of their own choices.

    Following what's happening without controlling the other requires diligent attention to what is happening within you and with your partner. It cultivates the ability to sustain attention to both at once as well as discovery of ways to act that respond according to what is happening. In this way it is like music improvisation, where the participants are individually taking actions that suit them and also suit the collaboration. Learning to do this is a continuous and never complete process. In keeping with the improvised music analogy, the attention to what is happening within yourself and with your partner is the central skill, typically referred to by CI practitioners as "listening".
    • Consent: Making and Respecting Choices is Built Into CI

      By "consent" I don't just mean an agreement to participate. It is about choosing whether or not to continue as it is going this moment, and then the next and the next, or to accept a change as what is happening changes. It is a perpetual exercise in differentiation, making decisions to maintain your integrity and well-being while aligning your movements with those of another person.

      Nobody's discernment is ever perfect, and we have to allow for inadvertent lapses in respect for our choice. It's part of learning and growing. However, we all learn by becoming more clear about our choices with ourselves and others. That can help when faced with inadvertent lapses and also when engaged with someone who is not participating in good faith and not intending to respect our choices. Disengaging is a valid choice at any point, as is challenging and or seeking support for challenging people who do not seem to be participating in good faith.
  • Developing a feel for this way of cooperating depends on all involved investing their balance in the contact points. Doing so they establish a clearly perceivable presence in the collaboration.

    Balance is the unifying principle by which many living beings organize their movement. By sharing your balance with someone else you are extending the opportunity to organize your movement with them. (CI practitioners typically refer to this as “sharing your center”. I find “sharing your balance” a less abstract, more immediately familiar concept.)

    Sharing your balance is demanding. It involves risks that call for full attention. It's tempting to not take those risks, and wise when the trust for it is earned. Feeling this out is part of the process of tuning in, becoming clear when you can invest your balance and being clear with your partner that you are a reliable recipient of their balance. Moving with shared balance is a further step in feeling out the collaboration, depending on the "listening" described above.

    Once you have developed a feel for this way of organizing cooperation with others you can engage it with multiple people, and across a distance without touching, and with just yourself, dancing with the small changes perpetually happening in your balance. But investing your balance into following shared points of contact is the way to develop a sense of it.

    And once you become familiar with this way of moving you might feel you can take your ability to tune in for granted, but really we are always rediscovering it. That is a challenge and a joy of this practice. The challenge and naturalness of tuning in becomes familiar like a native language, such that you can feel dislocated when you lack opportunities to practice it.

Like riding a bike or surfing or swimming, moving organized by contact improvisation involves engaging in a way that has its own distinct character. Like catching waves in surfing, you learn to tune in to what is available and make choices accordingly, responding and navigating within the circumstances prevailing at each moment. Like surfing where you and your partners and the changing circumstances are all the waves and the riders!

The way of moving in contact improv is particular, based on investing your balance to follow shared points of contact, yet admits a varied range of activity. Once dance can look very different from another, and one dance can look very different from one moment to another. This is because the framework doesn't involve patterns or goals that are typically used to frame movement cooperation. For instance, partner dance typically is based on specific postures, steps and moves, rhythms, and specific roles. In another way, martial arts and acrobatics have goals like pinning or unbalancing your opponent, or suspending a partner and performing specific maneuvers, and so on.

Instead, in CI everything you do together can and often does vary. The pace, dynamic and weight-sharing intensity, physical level at which you’re moving together, emotional quality, and much more can shift and change throughout each dance. It usually varies to some degree, and can vary drastically. (This is one reason why we typically don't use recorded music, or we use music that imposes little or no structure.) The simplicity of the CI framing enables discovering a range of movement possibilities limited only by what the partners can do, not by the framework. It develops as each of your abilities develop, and it ultimately depends on cultivating the skill of attention – “listening”.

How Can This Be Useful?

Like riding a bike or surfing or swimming, one person can't tell another exactly how to do contact improv. And like these activities, by being clear about how to engage in them we can help guide people to participate so they have the opportunity to learn. My hope is that the above distinctions convey essential participation guidance: investing one's balance into following the points of contact, "listening" to what is happening inside oneself and with one's partner, and respecting one's own choices and those of one's partner. I'm surprised how often people – including me – need to be reminded how useful these simple fundamentals can be. Though they're elementary, their effectiveness depends on being explored by all involved. Everyone's resolve drifts some, and one person's drift compounds with another's until we have to be reminded that these simple approaches work.

Further, I think it's important to understand that the learning that CI offers isn't just from physical play with touching. Sometimes people use the label "contact improv" for any kind of physical play, like collaborative imagination games or cuddling or acrobatics, and then they're puzzled when they engage with someone who does CI and not much connection happens. In fact, the way of organizing cooperation in contact improv is demanding, and it's natural for people to skip the challenge for other kinds of play. But the potential reward for sticking with the challenge is "learning to cooperate with others with a degree of immediacy, thoroughness, and range that approaches cooperating with oneself". It's a great opportunity.

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