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(Long) CI Different from And Similar to Partner Dance; for Interfusion 2017

by Ken Manheimer last modified Dec 16, 2016 05:57 PM
[An extended preliminary copy of the Interfusion 2017 blog article, with substantial elaboration of the Skills section - excessive in the context of the blog entry, but possibly useful for collecting my prospectus of CI skills.]

Play for the sake of play - toddler Sophie and father Itay Yatuv at a jam in Ibiza

Steve Paxton's notes from the early rough-and-tumble days

Diving Into Unknown by Erica Kaufman, conveys inner experience in a workshop.

Contemporary dancers at jam, during a CI anniversary celebration, CI36

I relish the opportunity to introduce Contact Improvisation to others who might also love it, as I do. Particularly the movement lovers at Interfusion! But there's a wrinkle. CI is structured differently than other partner dance styles (or martial arts, or meditation, etc.), in fundamental ways. Many of the things you do to learn other partner forms don't work well in CI, and some of those things can get in the way.

Understanding those differences can shed light on what CI is and what you do to learn it. So I'll describe some differences that I see as essential, as well as some of the central skills that people teach.

What is Contact Improvisation, and How Is It Different?

Contact improvisation is organized around an elementary premise: partners following a shared point of contact. While that's easy to say, you don't get much of a feel for how it works without actually trying it. However, it's easy to describe how it looks different from other partner practices:

  • Contact Improvisation is a sort of partner dance, except there's no set music or steps or rhythms or, really, any set patterns to follow.
  • It's sort of a meditation, except you're moving, and sometimes moving really fast and athletically, and often in ways that change over the course of a dance.
  • So it's also sorta like a sport or martial art, except that sometimes it's really slow without much movement at all, beyond shared attention. Plus, the aim is never for victory over someone else. In fact, when it works, you're playing for them, and they for you.
  • It's even like massage and partner yoga, except you use your whole body to massage or pose with your partner, and vice versa. While (usually, but not always) moving. (-:

How Can It Work?

In most partner dance, partners move closely without getting all tangled up by using style-specific patterns - step sequences, rhythms, postures, pacing, roles and social protocols, and so on. From there, the partners explore and develop skills for inhabiting that particular form of cooperation. CI instead uses that elemental task: following shared points of contact.

In any kind of partner dance, CI or not, when it works, it's exhilarating: cooperation so close and immediate, it's like the coordination that happens between the parts of your own body.

So how do CI partners follow the contact point without geting all tangled up? By investing their centers, so their balance is at stake.

What I mean by "investing your center" is counterbalancing - leaning into the contact point, just a little is enough, or lightly holding your partner and leaning away - so your balance depends just a bit on the connection. When your balance depends on something, your mind fundamentally factors your situation with respect to that thing into its movement figuring. Learning to invest your center, and to pay close attention to what the contact point tells you about your partner's situation - and your own situation - is a lot of what learning contact improv is about.

That's the inner story. Learning about the skills and how they're cultivated can give you a feel for how it plays out.

Originally, Steve Paxton and others in the Judson Dance Project played with many "scores" - recipes - for exploring collaborative movement improvisations, including using the contact point. Steve was particularly interested in what happened when using the contact point, and decided to investigate that score further. Contact Improvisation grew out of it. Over time, Steve and others developed exercises and other scores which were useful in cultivating skills for navigating this unusual territory: ways to deal with gravity, momentum, the floor, the dynamics of communicating through the contact point, and more. I'll describe some lessons that have found to be crucial. Of course, as with dancing, a lot of what you learn is in the doing, but hearing about the exercises and skills might convey some sense of it.

(The territory itself has evolved a lot, over the years. You can see see the early, rough-and-tumble ways it was practiced in one of the videos I included above, Chute. The narration is by Steve Paxton, and lays out some of his thinking and experience in the exploration.)


Sharing Your Center

Maybe the most essential and elusive skill in any partner dance practice is sharing your center, so that you and your partner are invested in and engaged by the connection. A common way to convey this principle in CI is through practicing "slight counterbalancing". (This is the only exercise in this essay that I'll spell out in such detail. It's that useful, and also presents a sample of the kind of experiential exercises by which CI is often taught.)

  • Stand face to face with a partner, about one and a half feet apart.
    • Arrange your skeleton so it holds most of your weight. The aim is to stand with as little unnecessary effort as possible - easy, but with "tone", not drooping.
  • Put your palms in the air between you, so they touch your partner's (who's doing the same thing), without yet putting any weight into the connection.
    • Sense what's happening in the contact point, and what you can feel of your partner's situation through it.
    • I don't expect much yet, this is mostly preparation for sensing the connection as it develops.
  • Gradually, both of you lean a little towards your touching palms, so that your balance depends slightly on the other person
    • If you're receiving too much weight from your partner, slightly ease back into your own stand. They'll have to ease back in order to not fall forward. Don't be abrupt about it, you're not trying to trick them.
    • Conversely, if you feel like you're not receiving enough weight, invest slightly more of your own.
    • The aim is for a small sharing of balance, so you're not imposing on each other, but your fates are connected - you would gradually fall forward if the other person were suddenly not there.
    • Notice how this process is already one of communication, negotiation.
  • When you find a equilibrium, sharing your balance this way, notice how it feels.
    • See if you can feel the ground through your partner's center. This can be elusive, but it becomes more clear as finding this kind of connection becomes familiar.
  • Ease back to a neutral stand.
  • Do the same progression, but grasping each other's wrists and leaning slightly away from each other. Again, share balance and try to feel the floor through your partner's center
  • Counterbalance using points of contact other than your hands.

Doing this with various partners can reveal different dynamics that happen with different people, and gradually reveal more about the inner principle of this slight counterbalance - sharing that most fundamental of human navigation skills, balance.

Partner dancers may recognize: a counterbalance in the dance embrace. Counterbalancing being essential is not unique to CI.

This skill, of involving your center and tuning into your partner's situation through the shared balance, is core. The sense of shared situation that you can get through this connection is the basis for finding shared trajectories, whether slow or fast, including high-energy athletics, without forcing and more safely than if you forced it, without this attunement.

Learning to act by responding to what you sense, rather than forcing some result, might be part of what is meant by a motto from one of CI's luminaries, Nancy Stark Smith: "Replace ambition with curiosity."

Working With The Floor

The floor is a constant partner in any dance form. You use it in more ways CI than you typically do in other forms. For instance, falling to the floor, specifically avoided in many partner dance forms, is an intrinsic part of CI practice. Learning to meet the floor in ways that redirects vertical momentum to horizontal takes out the sting, converts potential impact into gliding, to dancing. Learning to release into falls, rather than fighting them, is another crucial skill, whether falling together with a partner or not. Rolling on the floor is also an intrinsic part, and rolling with a partner even has a casual name: "body surfing".

Here are some explorations, to convey how this territory is sometimes approached:

  • Sharing weight on the floor, to get a feel for what's possible
  • Rolling solo, initiating with various parts of your body
  • Getting acquainted with sharing centers on the floor, and learning how you can use that principle to roll together - body surfing
  • Moving smoothly into the floor, so you can flow into it and back, starting from sitting/kneeling and returning

More Getting to The Floor and Back, and Sharing Rides

To build on the combination of sharing centers and working with the floor, we concentrate on transitioning between fully upright and fully prone, gradually filling in the gaps to make those transitions together.

  • Individually, very slowly moving to the ground and back, "filling in the gaps" in attention - dedicating time for finer attention can lead to awareness of new and unexpected pathways, expanding beyond habits.
  • With a partner, slowly - finding ways to interject yourself, without disrupting your partner's path while they your partner slowly descend and rise back up, to discover more clearly what each of you do.
  • Faster, individually: building on moving smoothly to the floor, in the last section, upping the ante with sequences for flowing to and from the floor starting from greater height and with greater speed.
  • Working with a partner to go from rolling together towards standing - "upness"
    • Noticing opportunities to share rides, down and up, at low heights and eventually higher

Supporting Weight at Higher Levels, and Finding Rides on Such Supports

By incorporating cues and clues from many disciplines, including CI practice, we've become familiar with ways to support one another's bodies without strain, emphasizing the advantages of support using skeletal alignment rather than muscular effort. Practicing organizing your body in table-like structures, standing "posts", even supporting someone off the ground, on your shoulder, while you're fully standing, provides experience that you can use when encountering those situations and opportunities you encounter while following the contact point.

Practicing perches on these supports, and then ways to fluidly get into and out of perches, offers opportunities to get support from your partner as your moving together. Such "rides" range from gliding along with the minimal weight sharing of slight counterbalances to moments where you or your partner are fully supported by the other, and everything in between. Learning to find rides that fit into the shared trajectory, are fluid and unforced, easy on both of you, is another of CI skill.

Doing Less, and Stillness

Not only can the pace vary in a CI duet, it's not unusual for stillness to happen. In some moments, traveling through space is not called for. In other moments, whether or not any travel is called for is not clear. In any of those moments, falling back to sensing the contact point and being receptive to what it suggests may be the best you can do.

It's like falling back into the simple progression of a patterned partner dance, in practices that do have patterns. Learning to trust that you can be at ease, and notice what needs to be done, if anything, not just do stuff if for the sake of doing something, is a central CI skill, often an unspoken one.

Stillness is not just a CI movement option. Early in it's development the inventor, Steve Paxton, came to see stillness as a crucial attunement tool. Almost from the start, he shared some attunement exercises that he calls "the stand" and "the small dance". We have a multi-layered description of his thinking: Why Standing? Steve Paxton talks about how the Stand relates to Stage Fright and Entrainment in Contact Improvisation.

Many martial arts practices include stillness as explicit parts of their practice, often in the form of standing meditation. Many meditation practices include moving meditation, like walking meditation. Contact Improv is the only dance form that I know of which includes stillness, and perhaps the only movement practice, in general, where stillness is a regu ingredient of the moving form.

How CI Practice is Typically Organized, and The Skill of Finding Your Way

While classes and workshops provide opportunities for people to share explorations and insights, most of the practice happens in gatherings, called jams, where it's up to the participants to get themselves ready to find their own dance, and eventually find dances with others, in their own time. Jams add yet another level of improvisation to the score - what it means to find dances, how they develop, and when they're done, is to some degree specific to each dance, constantly being discovered.

In recent times, a structure called the Underscore has been spreading across jams around the world. Originally devised and developed by Nancy Stark Smith (whom I mentioned above), that development is being conveyed and continued by all those who practice it. The Underscore adds a layer of organization to the Jam structure which help jammers to feel confident about being together with others in the process of finding their way. The DC Sunday jam has been practicing the Underscore on the first Sunday of each month since the end of 2003. We find that it helps newcomers find ease feeling part of the jam structure, while experienced dancers enjoy the cultivation of greater group spirit and focus without any squelching of the jam's open and improvisatory nature.

Lastly, Play for the Sake of Play

Though not exactly a skill, and not exactly not a skill, this is a good topic for wrapping up.

In daily life, it's too rare to find opportunities to really play, use general movement and relational skills that are fun to cultivate but that don't all apply to today's increasingly specialized occupations. Partner dance offers this opportunity, and CI ups the ante by making almost everything material for the collaboration.

In CI, we don't dance according to role, size, shape, or level of experience, but to see what ground we can share, to move cooperatively with each partner we take on. The pace and how energetic the dance is is constantly negotiated by the partners, seeking levels that suit them both and that change as their needs change. Whether the dance is meditative or athletic - or both - is arrived at as suits the partners, and may shift and go through various changes through the course of the dance.

With so much open, it can be easy to lose sight of the connection in the choices to be made. This is the wisdom and challenge of following the contact point. You don't decide what the qualities of the dance are, you find out what you and your partner need by sensing in the contact point. By (carefully) trusting your balance to the collaboration, you tune in, and are often surprised by what you discover.

I've learned something from the Underscore, having practiced and lead it monthly for several years. There's a phase, early on the progression, just after a period of inwards-directed focus where people are just beginning to expand their attention to include the world around them. I've noticed that the more that dancers in that phase are open to sensory curiosity, so they're fascinated by little things like wiggling a finger or pivoting on their heel or basking in a beam of sunlight, the more likely it is that a group situation will emerge where people are sharing that curiosity, receptive to shared fascination with moments and gestures and coincidences and transient rides, yielding a full of play and vitality. In this situation, dancers hold on less tightly than they tend to do at other times to any particular engagement, because play is found in every direction. And we wind up with a room full of adults playing like children play, without trying to pretend that they are kids.

CI is serious, in that there are the practicalities of moving in space with another person, including respecting safety as well as just feasibility. It's also immensely playful, in the way of constant exploration and discovery, as well as opportunities to use your physical and mental wits in the immediate moment, and realize your personal self in the task of cooperating to play in three dimensional space with another person. Every moment has the possibility to surprise, if you're willing to see what's there.

Paradoxically, you may discover while doing CI that it helps to be willing to be a bit awkward, to stumble and not fight imbalance, in order to find balance and flow. Again, I think all this is true in any of these practices, but perhaps more in-your-face in this one.

That's It

If any of this sounds intriguing, if you think you might enjoy these challenges and opportunities, please check it out. I'll be conducting a class on Sunday of Interfusion 2017, along the lines of the skills and exercises that I touch on above. You can also find details about the weekly DC CI jam at, which happens every Sunday rain or shine. For more that I've written about CI, see, and visit the site of CI's periodical, the Contact Quarterly, for a central spot in the Contact Improv universe.

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