Contact Improv

Contact Improvisation is a dance form which I’ve participated in, on and off for over 30 years. This art is a central practice of my life. It feeds my need for touch, for continuous learning and creative, release from past and future. Contact is a challenge to the very structures and traditions (including politics) of our whole society and to the way so many of us do inner work. It is anarchism as an art expressed in the moment to moment experience of each other as partners, and therefore how we do being in ourselves. It gives a nonsexual experience of intimacy that breaks down status, power, authority and leadership in the simple process of dancing together.

Its techniques allow us to do superhuman activities – like the much smaller woman lifting the tall man at various times in this video. This is because the flowing techniques of contact lead to effortless movement based on the bones and posture doing the ‘work’.

This form is the love child of ballroom dance, modern dance, free jazz, and martial arts techniques (notably Taichi and Aikido without the competitive edge). It breaks a lot of the fundamental rules of these other styles while sharing some techniques and sensitivities. Its relation to and difference from these better-known styles are many –

* Traditional participant ballroom dance and martial arts are like contact, in that they are not about performance, they are about participation and they are all about partners. (performance ballroom is, of course, an exception)

* Traditional participant ballroom dance and Taichi are standing arts – Contact uses all levels from rolling on the floor to standing and lifting, which is part of its harmonic with Aikido.

* Traditional ballroom usually has one partner leading – Contact flows without a lead and can have more than one partner.

* Martial arts is competitive with all partners seeking conquest – contact is non-competitive, it is a completely collaborative experience (though some participants may sometimes compete to excel and do more physical techniques together if they know each other well)

* Some forms of Modern dance and martial arts use circular movements when most ballroom and some other forms of dance (including martial arts) use more linear movements – contact is all about the curves

* All forms of partnered dance (including martial arts “the dance of survival”) use sensitivity to each others’ movement and flow. This is heightened in improvised partner play as in unrehearsed ballroom, martial arts and contact.

* Attempting to translate this sensitivity to the kinaesthetic nonverbal experience of communicating between moving bodies in contact with each other into other languages like words leads to talk of “shared energy”, “empathy”, “feel” and “presence”

* All dance forms are a body of techniques that must be trained and learnt.

* Most dance forms do training classes that teach in traditional ways, the nonverbal sensitivities mentioned above comes second after you’ve memorized the movements, counted steps and develop the rhythm to synced up with the music (if not the martial dances) – in contact (like in martial arts) the rhythm comes from your flow with your partner, from synchronizing and harmonizing with them, not from the music (in martial arts winning comes from doing this then breaking the harmony in ways to outwit the partners).

* Contact’s primary difference from all the other forms is that this sensitivity to your partners comes first and is central to all techniques and movements. The skills are learned through experience with partners that are guided by more experienced people whose aim to enhance and build on this natural sensitivity and learning how to flow effortlessly with each other without using muscular strength.

* Contact doesn’t really make sense without doing it.

* The improvisational free jazz aspects of contact draws participants into the here and now, to be really present with partners. Full attention on the movements you are doing together requires intense focus on your kinaesthetic experience, on proprioception (that is, the sense that lets your know where you are in space and the relationship of your body parts with each other) and touch/feel. It takes most people away from their primary senses of seeing and hearing, with practice your inner voice can go quiet. You let going of past hassles and joys, you let go of future planning, fantasies and anxieties. You let go of proving yourself, worry and shame. When this works something really interesting happens; without trying you begin to know what your partners are going to do. It feels like your consciousness slips slightly into the future, and your body seems to get ahead of your decision-making. There is some interesting neurology for this but that’s for another time.