I love playing this dance/movement game. Partners mutually follow points of contact, coordinating in a way that can approach the immediacy and depth of moving on one's own, sharing presence.
What Is Contact Improvisation?
A Kind of Movement Cooperation Game
On the surface contact improv is a kind of movement cooperation game, with participants coordinating as partners.
- Partners coordinate by investing their balance in mutually followed shared points of contact.
- Their shared activity is shaped by what is practical and interesting for each partner, and through the shared coordination for their partnership.
A bit below the surface:
- Partners explore the simple framework - mutually following points of contact – respecting what is practical. Getting a feel for what works, they learn how to organize themselves for deepening coordination and range of movement together.
- Through this have the opportunity to coordinate with each other in a way that approaches the immediacy and depth with which they are able to coordinate with themselves, and also refine and develop their ability to coordinate with themselves.
Of course you're distinct people. It's never completely the same as coordinating with yourself. But as you each learn to stay present with what is actually happening you may increasingly find opportunities to cooperate with extraordinary directness and spontaneity. The challenge is to bring your attention to the moment and respect your own and your partner's situation. That's not a bad challenge. It's a rare opportunity to share mutual exploration and discovery with an extaordinary combination of mutuality and agency, and in the process develop your ability to coordinate with others and with yourself.
For some CI is a performing art – Andrew Harwood on CI performance:
I believe this work is about finding a way to perform without pretense, so that the ability to respond freely and unselfconsciously becomes the goal. In order to do this, the performer has to let go of preconceived notions of performing and begin taking real risks, even risking making a fool of themselves.
Below and in the accompanying pages I offer my perspective on CI, including what helps me to learn what CI practice teaches.
How Does CI Work?
Like riding a bike and surfing and swimming, nobody can describe exactly how to do contact improv. There's a lot to coordinate – it's like surfing where you and your partner each are both wave and the rider. Though we can't convey how to do these activities, we can suggest how to participate that is conducive to discovery. In What Contact Improvisation Does I describe what I have found to be essential in learning contact improv, and see the containing section Learning Contact Improvisation for CI principles and exercises.
How is CI Different?
Contact improv doesn't involve patterns or goals that are typically used to organize movement interaction. For instance, partner dance typically is based on specific postures, steps and moves, rhythms, and specific roles. In CI, dances can have completely different paces, tones – all aspects can vary a lot – and one dance can look very different from one moment to another. In some ways it's like martial arts and competitive sports, but playing to play more thoroughly instead of playing to win the game.
- Contact Improvisation is sort of a partner dance, except there's no set music or steps or rhythms or, really, any set patterns to follow. We find many different ways to mutually follow the contact points.
- It's sort of moving meditation, sometimes very slow and sometimes really fast, and often in ways that change over the course of a dance.
- In some ways it's like a sport or martial art, except that the aim is never defeating your partner. In fact, when it works you're playing for them and they for you.
- It's even like massage and partner yoga, except you both use your whole body while moving a little or a lot.
See CI Different From and Similar To Partner Dance for more.
What Contact Improv is For Me
What I like
For me, Contact Improvisation is:
An all-too-rare opportunity for all-out engagement - of wit, reflexes, attention, strength, sensing, caring, mischief, passion, knowledge, stamina - you name it.
At the same time, an all-too-rare opportunity for shared meditation.
a win-win collaborative game - an opportunity to engage in a very immediate, visceral way with others, doing something together that we can enjoy and even love.
It's my favorite cardiovascular and weight-bearing sport.
It's an opportunity to more fully realize your physical being and abilities, for the fun of it.
I get to move in much more diverse ways than I ever otherwise have the opportunity to do.
(The video wheel number, which is not a demonstration of CI, conveys rare qualities that I find and love in CI. In particular, it conveys a kind of surfing-of-the-moment, where boundaries between gliding and falling and flying disappear, and the sheer exhilaration of fully engaged movement shows through.)
Where I struggle
- Dances don't always click.
- When you aren't clicking it can be hard to tell why.
- The things that people do that get in the way of cooperating tend to be challenging.
- Even more, the things that I unwittingly do that get in the way are challenging!
Ironically, in the long run, the opportunity to grapple with these challenges is as valuable as anything in the practice. Even the moments of challenges and struggle can be enjoyable. (Sometimes.)
There's something more to say about "it doesn't always click".
It's tempting to focus on and seek out the adept dancers who are easier to dance with, and/or make it easier to get to your frontiers. The often less obvious question is what can be discovered and fostered in every dance, regardless of your own or your partner's experience, etc. I see this question - how to find what's possible in each dance - as an essential part of the practice. It can be challenging in fundamental ways. Ultimately, though, it's a fundamental route to discovery and more enjoyable dances.
Why Do I Choose CI?
For me contact improv is a kind of "antidote to the static of everyday life".
So much in daily life is constrained. Opportunities to go to the limits of your physical abilities are rare.
- Most recreation is either repetitive and/or quite narrow and/or hard to reach.
- Every CI encounter varies depending on the partner and the moment. The variety and range of qualities is vast. I often am challenged to find what works with each person, and often get to explore the edge of my physical adeptness and movement imagination, even when venturing with people new to CI. Maybe particularly then.
- CI does require a suitable space and other people who are also intrigued by it. Fortunately both are available, especially at the local weekly jam that I help maintain (dccontactimprov.net).
Play for the Sake of Play
There's worlds to discover in physical play for the sake of play. It's not a "zero sum" game - you're not taking something away from someone nor giving something away to them. You're mutually discovering how to cooperate well, a win/win game.
CI is an opportunity for full physical and personal presence – all too rare in the modern world – specifically for the purpose of sharing that presence with others.
- The opportunity to share presence is a kind of interpersonal "commons". In modern life interpersonal space has increasingly been colonized by transactional commoditization: "likes", purchase, popularity, "influence". Cooption of interpersonal space is a pervasive Tragedy of the Commons. Contact improv can be an counterpoint: mutually engaging physical play for the sake of play.
Contact improv found me in college, around 1979. I've practiced it since then. I've had my ups and downs, but I've always been thankful about my choice to explore this practice. It's been one of the most rewarding choices I've made.
- The Wikipedia Contact Improvisation page provides essential facts about contact improvisation.
- Harvest: One History Of CI (contactquarterly.com) a talk given by Nancy Stark Smith at the International Contact Festival Freiburg, Germany, 2005 describing her (particularly central) view of the CI's development.
- A CI community journal, the Contact Quarterly, has a substantial page about CI.
- YouTube video Fall After Newton Part 1, part 2, and part 3 presents a distilled description of CI's early development from Steve Paxton, CI's inventor. It focuses on practice and performance of Nancy Stark Smith. CI's central teacher, chronicler, and practioner through much of her life.
- For most of us CI is recreation, somewhere between partner dance and a cooperation game, practiced at gatherings called "jams":
- See the DC Contact Improv website for DC metro-area CI jam information.
- As with any shared freedom, the opportunity to explore and enjoy CI depends on all participants behaving responsibly, recognizing and respecting their own boundaries and those of others. See Respecting Boundaries for guidance.
- The Contact Improvisation Global Calendar is an online catalog of CI events - jams, classes, workshops, festivals and more.
- My perspective on Learning CI.
- What's Most Extraordinary About CI
- There’s something important that contact improvisation practice offers that I find difficult to describe. It has to do with an extraordinary combination of mutuality and agency, providing opportunities to involve unusually much of yourself in moving in close cooperation.
- Learning Contact Improvisation
- Explaining how to do CI is like explaining how to walk or swim or surf or ride a bike – these kinds of things are learned by doing. Guidance about how to participate can provide orientation so you can find what works.
- Respecting Boundaries
- In order for each of us to have genuine choice about how we participate, everyone must accept that some invitations you offer won't be accepted, whether the invitation is a change in a dance that's happening or continuing such a dance or engaging in the first place. The health of our open CI gatherings depends on this understanding, which we try to convey in this document, Respecting Boundaries in Contact Improvisation.
- Online Movement Collaboration
- During the COVID-19 quarantine I wanted to continue to explore cooperative movement improvisation in so far as I could. I found success with several online scores. In the process of exploring and trying various things I've also learned more about what I'm looking for.