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A Description: What Is Contact Improvisation?

by Ken Manheimer last modified Jan 23, 2023 04:30 PM
CI is a kind of dance that is organized more like a game than a pattern. The premise of the game is exploration of movement cooperation in which the playing dancers mutually follow the points of contact shared between them. It offers an opportunity for very immediate and engaging physical play for the sake of play.

A Kind of Movement Cooperation Game

People see many different things when they look at Contact Improvisation. Actually, people do many different things when they practice CI. However, there's an underlying practice on which the different perspectives are based.

On the surface:

  • CI is a kind of movement game, with participants coordinating as partners.
  • The partners coordinate by mutually following points of contact shared between them.
  • Their shared activity is shaped by what is practical and interesting for each of them in the combination, and through the shared coordination, for their partnership.

A bit below the surface:

  • As partners become acquainted with what does and doesn't work well in their connection, mutually following shared points of contact, they become acquainted with opportunities to play within the framework. The more they explore, respecting what is practical and discovering what is possible, the greater the range and variety of things they find that can fit and fulfill 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.
  • Ultimately, a kind of unspoken skill gradually emerges — the ability to coordinate with others in a way that approaches the immediacy and thoroughness with which people are able to coordinate with themselves.
See Fundamental CI Skills for some orienting CI exercises.

It is different from coordination with yourself in that you have to accommodate the pragmatics and inspirations of another. In that specific way it is also an extraordinary opportunity to get acquainted with and share the process of mutual exploration and discovery (not to mention developing coordination with others and yourself).

Most partner dance forms involve a similar kind of shared coordination. What's different about CI is that the collaboration is not organized within some set repertoire of patterns — postures, rhythms, step sequences, roles, etc. Instead, CI partners develop, vary, drop and add emergent patterns, from moment to moment, in each partnership.

Not being organized around formal patterns is a challenge, because CI partners have less guidance about where/how to begin to develop each partnership. There’s just following the shared points of contact, and it can seem like there must be more. It turns out, there's a lot to discover in that simple recipe. You are exploring the essence of cooperation, in an immediate, visceral way.

In the midst of the exploration you may find yourself expanding your movement vocabulary, exploring your frontiers of movement and play.

Physical Play For The Sake of Play

  • Contact Improvisation is a movement collaboration that approaches the immediacy, thoroughness, and spontaneity that can happen in your own body when cooperating with yourself.

Unlike most other games, dance forms, sports, or other collaborative activities, Contact Improvisation is not packaged in some ulterior agenda - not competition, nor liaison, 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 the most immediate, mutual, and spontaneous possibilities that come from just mutually following the points of contact, receptive to your self and your partner.

There is joy to be found in deep engagement, 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 with less formal structure than in other practices. The pragmatics of mutually following the contact points constitute the guidelines, with more of the process open to spontaneous negotiation and agreement.

There's a whole world to discover in the fundamental physical play of coordinating through the contact points - physical play for the sake of play. The kind of connection that happens in mutual play is essentially not transactional - you're not taking something from someone nor giving something to them, you're mutually discovering how to cooperate well. Something that people get from that - that I get from that - is a kind of full engagement in shared exploration and discovery. I feel that this kind of engagement is basic human nourishment. There are many ways to get tastes of it, CI is an opportunity for substantial portions.

See CI As An Opportunity to Play for more in this vein, Fundamental CI Skills for some elementary exercises, and About Contact improvisation for what's been important to me in my practice.

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