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What Contact Improvisation Does

by Ken Manheimer last modified Aug 30, 2023 05:29 PM
In Contact Improv partners practice moving cooperatively in a way that can approach the immediacy and depth of coordination you have with yourself. This coordination develops from the way that you and your partner's participation is organized.

[This is available as a Google Document so those who to provide feedback can: What Contact Improv Does]

In contact improvisation (CI) partners practice moving cooperatively in a way that can approach the immediacy and depth of coordinating with oneself. This opportunity to cooperate depends on the way that contact improvisation participation is organized. Telling someone how to do it is no more revealing than telling someone how to ride a bike or swim or surf – guidance can help orient how you engage, but ultimately you learn such practices by doing. What you see when people are doing CI often doesn’t convey this way of organizing your participation. It involves particular ways to tune in and engage.

At various points in CI's history practitioners have tried to define the practice in order to clarify what we're doing. No definition has stuck. That’s because what’s essential is what you can learn through participating, and that is not conveyed by definitions. Guidance can help you organize your participation to foster discovery, but what you discover is as personal as what you learn in order to walk or ride a bike or swim.

How is this helpful for learning CI?

You could call anything that involves people moving together "contact improv", and in a way that's true. Contact improv can be involved in many sorts of movement cooperation. However, doing something which includes contact improv practice doesn't mean that it conveys the particular way to cooperate. Just being exposed to CI doesn't necessarily convey what's essential.

For instance, someone watching adept contact improvisers dynamically supporting each other will often try muscular lifting to do what they think they saw, but muscular lifting typically doesn't work well in this context. While it's useful to provide guidance about how CI works without muscular lifting, that's like giving a person a fish rather than teaching them to fish. Those of us who are familiar with what's essential need to identify it more fundamentally than the difference between supporting rides and lifting.

I believe that attempts to define CI have been at least partly motivated by trying to clarify what's essential. My premise is that those attempts have not been fruitful because what needs to be conveyed is not what contact improv is but rather what it does. I suggest that the most useful thing we can do to help learn CI is guide attention to participating in a way that invites what the practice teaches. That's my purpose for this essay.

Where investing balance in following contact
points can go - Neige Christensen and Martin

The Framework

  • Partners mutually follow shared points of contact, investing their balance in the shared points. In this way they mutually invest themselves in moving together.

  • They each continually make choices about how they align with what is happening, going with what works for them and not going with what doesn’t.

  • As each partner does this they are modulating their choices in response to choices of their partner and their shared situation. They establish mutual feedback in response to each other and the developing situation.

This framework doesn’t prescribe movement patterns, pace, rhythms, postures, or anything like that. You continually arrive at particular dynamics as you discover what works in this way of organizing your participation - investing shared balance in mutually following shared points of contact – and what fits for each in the moment. Once you get a feel for it you can bring this way of cooperating to quite different situations, including not being in contact[1] or being on your own. The framework is conducive to getting a feel for it. This is what I mean by "what contact improv does".

Here's how.

Learning to Not Clash

In many partner practices partners are guided by movement patterns or techniques that mesh with or compensate for their partners movements – like complementary patterns in partner dance and compensatory techniques in martial arts and sports. Instead of prescribed patterns and techniques contact improv has mutual following of shared contact points. This gives partners opportunities to learn to make choices about how they follow the contact points that don’t clash with the choices that their partners are making.

Mutual following means any response is quickly felt by all, in turn leading to further responses and so on – "co-responding". The line between responses can blur and even disappear. The art and opportunity is learning to inhabit this immediate correspondence to maneuver together – to cooperate while maintaining clarity about your own concerns (differentiation of self).

The shared situation and attunement increasingly allows for arriving at harmonious choices.

  • You have each brought your attention to the shared situation. With experience you get a feeling for how your choices and those of your partners work (and don't work) in similar situations, and can increasingly get a sense of choices that work well, are harmonious.
  • The immediacy and thoroughness of attunement can lead to moments where it feels like the collaboration in which you're participating is making choices that suit you.
  • It's not magic. You have the opportunity to make harmonious choices because your mutual participation brings your simultaneous attention to the shared situation.
  • It is co-creation. Your responses can become so interwoven that neither and both of you are steering.

The cooperation can change at each moment in small and big ways as either partner's state and choices change.

Not Using Patterns Has Challenges and Opportunities

Like contact improv, partner dance forms in general lead to interacting harmoniously. Unlike CI, most others are organized using patterns like steps, postures, rhythms, leader/follower roles, and so on. These patterns provide movement frameworks within which partners can cooperate closely enough so that things "click" – so they can get a feel for making harmonious choices in the moment. This mutuality gives them freedom to play within the bounds of the form – opportunities for distinctive style and improvisation within and to some degree with the form’s patterns.

Instead of using patterns, contact improv is organized around mutually following points of contact. You gain freedom in your choices by not having to stick to patterns, but you face the challenge of discovering what works without patterns to guide you. Nobody can tell you what works because each choice is situation-specific, depending on the intricate circumstances of the moment. So there’s no formula to guide you but there are ways to participate that are conducive to discovering what works.


  • Just following the points of contact can seem insufficient. "Don't I need to make something happen?" But it actually is useful to just notice and follow what’s happening with the contact points. The more that you do extra stuff, the more complicated the situation becomes, compounded because you're both following. Instead of looking for more stuff to do, there's movement to follow even when you're supposedly still. (See Steve Paxton's Small Dance Guidance...) Those small movements are subtle effects of you and your partner's physical organization and choices – they're germane. Mutual following amplifies small movements so there's plenty that's significant to engage with if you both just do the basic thing – follow the points of contact. This takes attention and patience. It's an opportunity to get more familiar with how you move and respond, as well as how others do.
  • Then it's not simple to follow the contact points while keeping your movement practical and safe. It's not trivial! Investing your balance in the contact points helps you tune in and recruits your full involvement. All this can be challenging, and rewarding.
  • You continuously have the opportunity to choose how you follow. Often there's no single right way, and often you can bring a different quality to any choice that fits. That will inform the character and development of the collaboration, as will your partner’s choices. There's opportunity to play on the shared ground that you find, provided you can learn to establish that shared ground. That's the art and skill.

As you get how to tune in and correspond in the basic practice you can stretch the correspondence across a distance and more generally bring all sorts of inspirations and whims into a dance – provided you have a feel for what can fit the moment. The essential framework described above is contact improvisation's basis for getting that feel.

You Can't Force It

How and the extent to which you don't clash develops depends on each partner and their combination. Making harmonious choices is not something you control. However, you can learn to cultivate and be ready for it.

  • Making harmonious choices doesn’t depend on just you!
    • It depends on you, but not only you.
    • You can't make coordination happen, but you can cultivate the opportunity and readiness to participate when it does.
  • It takes attention to arrive at this shared presence[2].
    • The conditions and ability are developed through mutual organization and exploration, not just the decision to be able to do it.
    • Supposing you can get there just by deciding to do what you see others are doing is like supposing you can ride a bike just from seeing someone ride a bike (or surf, or swim, ...)

    • Contact improv has great potential for complexity! One way to look at it is as a kind of surfing in which you're surfing another person who is simultaneously surfing you. What you learn from practice keeps it from getting chaotic.

  • Continuously making your own choices about how you participate is an intrinsic part of the process at every level.
    • It is a kind of continuous consent process.
    • In this way, "consent" doesn't just mean whether or not you choose to participate. You continuously choose how you participate, as the dance is changing and you are changing. Slower, faster, closer, further, every aspect is subject to changing negotiation.
  • It is specifically when both partners refrain from controlling each other that they can discover how to make choices that serve them and their cooperation with their partner.
    • A controlled partner loses the opportunity to be a full and equal partner.
    • When anyone is controlling the other, both partners sacrifice the opportunity to explore fully mutual cooperation.
    • This way of corresponding so closely without imposing control or being controlled is unusual. It can take time to drop accustomed habits.

    • This practice is an opportunity to learn to cooperate without imposing control over each other.

    • Being clear about these principles can also provide a basis for recognizing rare individuals who are not practicing in good faith, because in this context controlling behavior is incongruous and counterproductive.

      • It serves us all to prohibit bad-faith participation when we recognize it.

The Framework is Part, Not A Definition Nor the Whole Practice

As I said above, this is not a definition of CI. Instead, "sharing balance through mutually followed points of contact" establishes conditions for partners to explore and discover what does and doesn’t work in this way to cooperate.

Just as no definition of riding a bike will convey "how" to someone unfamiliar with bike riding, likewise, being told how to do CI will not lead to what you can learn from tuning in and actually exploring. Then you can discover what works. Similarly, trying to do what you see when people practice CI will not work well without tuning in and developing a feel for what works.

Everyone choosing how they follow and no one leading is an unusual way to interact! Resisting the temptation to lead can be challenging, even for those who are experienced, but refraining from leading establishes the opportunity for extraordinary mutuality. The practice of investing your balance can also be elusive and challenging. It's like diving from a diving board – it involves a commitment to something that seems irreversible. Once you find your way in, though, you may discover how supportive and connecting it can be.

Once you have a feel for corresponding in CI you can find a lot of latitude in how you engage. You can practice across a distance, or on your own, or with someone who does not have a feel for it. You can even deliberately make choices that clash with those of your partner – at some point the readiness and sense of mutuality you learn can make surprises inspiring. (There can be a fine line between inspiration and discord, though, so this would probably be considered advanced territory. (-: ) The basic framework provides opportunities to get that feel – "what Contact Improv does".

Introductory Exercises

These three partner exercises provide a progression introducing mutual following, sharing balance, and then combining them for full engagement in contact improv:

  1. The Finger Dance: A virtually idealized introduction to mutually following points of contact.

  2. Slight Counterbalance: A gradual introduction to sharing balance.

  3. Rising and Descending Together: A combination of mutual following with shared balance to explore moving through "spherical" space together.

(Here's a simple way to arrange the partner selection process so it's easy for participants to try these exercises with various partners.)


  1. Even within CI practice, being true to following points of contact can lead to moments of connection across physical separation.
  2. By "presence" I mean being vitally engaged and active in the moment. "Shared presence" is doing that in conjunction with others. It is experiencing any situation with someone else, like a conversation in which you are hearing and being heard. When you do that while singing you might experience harmony. Sharing presence in work or play conveys being part of something that includes but is not only yourself. Shared presence is "being with".
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