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A Description: What Is Contact Improvisation?

by Ken Manheimer last modified Apr 30, 2018 03:14 PM
CI is a cooperative movement game organized around a very simple premise. It offers an opportunity for extraordinarily deep and immediate physical collaborative play just for the sake of play.

A Kind of Cooperative Movement Game

On the surface:

  • CI is a kind of movement game, with participants coordinating as partners.
  • The partners move cooperatively by mutually following shared points of contact.
  • To keep in contact they invest their balance into the contact points, thereby 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:

  • Getting acquainted with what does and doesn't work well in mutually following shared points of contact, you become aware of opportunities to move and play within this framework. The more you explore, respecting what is practical and discovering what is possible, the greater the range and variety of things you discover 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 you 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 develops - the ability to coordinate with others in a way that approaches the immediacy and intricacy of people coordinating with themselves.
See Fundamental CI Skills for some orienting CI exercises.

CI partnering is different from coordination with yourself in that you have to accommodate the pragmatics and whims of another. In just that way it is also an extraordinary opportunity to share the process of exploring those pragmatics and whims, together, within the context of the partnership.

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 contained within a repertoire of predetermined patterns - postures, rhythms, step sequences, roles, etc.  Instead, CI partners can develop and vary and abandon patterns in each partnership, in each moment. (See CI Different From And Similar to Partner Dance for more along this line.)

This lack of formal patterns is an essential part of CI’s challenge, because the partners have less formal 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, and the lack of explicit guidance can be daunting - how do you know what you're "supposed to do"? (In contrast to so many conventional activities, your guide is what works well in collaboration with your partner, and that can be uncertain!) At the same time, so much simplicity and openness 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.

Physical Play For The Sake of Play

A rare Opportunity for cooperative physical play for the sake of play:

  • A movement collaboration between partners that approaches the immediacy, mutuality, and spontaneity that can happen in your own body when cooperating with yourself.

Unlike most other games, dance forms, sports, or other collaborative activities, it's 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.

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 with less additional 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 in the partnership than in most other practices.

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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