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A Description: What Is Contact Improvisation?

by Ken Manheimer last modified Apr 26, 2018 02:17 PM
Here's what I see as essential: a movement game organized around a very simple premise and offering adults an extraordinary opportunity for physical play for the sake of play.

A Kind of Movement Game

People see many different things when they look at Contact Improvisation. Actually, people do many different things when they practice CI. Whatever happens stems from the fundamental organizing principle, which is partners mutually following shared points of contact.

On the surface:

  • CI is a kind of movement game, with participants coordinating as partners.
  • The partners move cooperatively by mutually following points of contact shared between them.
    • To keep in contact they invest some of their balance into the contact points, consequently sharing the ever-changing endeavor of balancing together.
  • Their shared activity is shaped by what is practical for each of them in combination, and through the shared coordination, for their partnership.

A bit below the surface:

  • As the partners become acquainted with what does and doesn't work well in mutually following shared points of contact, they become acquainted with opportunities to move and play within this framework. The more they explore, respecting what is practical and discovering what is possible, the greater the range and variety of things they discover that can do within and building upon the framework.
  • The combination of following shared points of contact, along with freedom of exploring the range and variety of things they discover and enjoy within what is practical, form the two elements - contact and improvisation. Both require respect for what fits in each moment.
  • Ultimately, a kind of unspoken skill gradually emerges - the ability to coordinate with others in a way that approaches the immediacy and intricacy with which people are able to coordinate with themselves.
    • It is different from coordination with yourself in that you have to accommodate the pragmatics and whims of another. In that specific way it is also an extraordinary opportunity to share the process of exploring those pragmatics and whims, together, within the context of the framework.

Most partner dance forms involve the joy of a kind of shared coordination like this. What's different about Contact Improv is that the collaboration is not conveyed by some repertoire of predetermined patterns - postures, rhythms, step sequences, roles, etc. Instead, CI partners develop and vary and drop and do without patterns in each dance (“dance”?), from moment to moment. (See CI Different From And Similar to Partner Dance for more details.)

This lack of formal patterns is an essential part of CI’s challenge, because the partners have less guidance about where/how to develop each partnership.  Exploring the pragmatics and opportunities of following shared points of contact seems too simple! There's actually a lot to be discovered about what works in this collaboration and what doesn’t. At the same time, the simplicity and openness of so many parameters allows a lot of opportunity for the partnership to vary drastically according to what suits both of the partners in each moment. Thus, in CI most aspects of each dance are subject to improvisation, and can change and adapt more than is typical in other types of partner dance or sport.

Play For The Sake of Play

Rare Opportunity for cooperative physical play for the sake of play, not packaged in some ulterior agenda - not competition, laiason, nor hierarchical roles like leader/teacher/guru/performer / follower/student/disciple/audience.

There is room for all those to happen, but if any take over they get in the way of what is possible:

  • A movement collaboration between partners that approaches the immediacy, mutuality, and spontaneity that happens in the cooperation of the parts of an individual's body.

There is joy to be found in this kind of deep cooperation, whether it's in the context of sports, partner dance, personal relationship, or any shared endeavor. The difference in CI is how the action is arranged, so the participants can arrive at their cooperative agreements. In CI practice fewer aspects of the activity are pre-set than in many other practices, more is part of the process of spontaneous negotiation and agreement in the partnership.

See CI As An Opportunity to Play for more in this vein, and I begin to describe my perspective on the practice in About Contact Improvisation.

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