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A Description: What Is Contact Improvisation?

by Ken Manheimer last modified Jan 24, 2019 12:30 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

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 intricacy 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 share the process of exploring your combination.

Most partner dance forms involve a similar kind of shared coordination. What's different about CI is that the collaboration is not contained 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.

The lack of mandated patterns is a challenge, because CI partners have less guidance about where/how to begin to develop each partnership. There’s just the shared points of contact, and discretion about what works in collaboration and what doesn’t. However, this allows a lot of opportunity for the partnership to vary according to the pragmatics and inspirations of each moment. In CI, so many aspects are subject to improvisation, and can change, adapt, much more than in most types of partner dance.

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

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 any of these kinds of deep cooperations, 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 delineating 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.

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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