Contact improvisation is a way of dancing playfully with a partner, grounded in physical sensation, which investigates how to play through sharing touch with the earth, with gravity and momentum, and with others or simply the awareness of space. There are no “moves” to learn, it’s more like a moving puzzle. It has been variously described as “an art sport”, “a game or two with two winners” and “a physical conversation”. Contact dances can range from the quietly meditative to the exuberantly acrobatic, from using little or light touch to sending weight through a partner’s body to fly.
The language of the body is sensations and in contact improvisation our sensation is always our guide in giving weight and receiving support, making and breaking contact, rolling and sliding, steering momentum, taking control of and resolving falls, travelling over and around your partner’s body.
Dancing contact is like having a physical conversation. Doing it both requires and nurtures a relaxed, open and curious state. People with a professional or personal interest in being “in their bodies” find it a way to explore what that means.
It was Steve Paxton’s idea for a series of improvised dance performances in the US in 1972. Many who saw it wanted to learn how to do it and since then it has evolved into a form practised all over the world. It became of the key-skills at the root of much post-modern dance education at the same time evolved into a vital form of social dance with the potential to engender a strong sense of community among those who practice it. It crosses many boundaries and has the power to unite people with many different agendas. It offers a chance for people of all sizes shapes and abilities a way of moving together.
Like jazz musicians, contact dancers practice their art by jamming together and, again as in jazz, a jam doubles up as a social meeting place. Styles vary according to where you go but in general when people jam it is without recorded music though sometimes a live musician will come along and jam too. Though most people take some classes at some time, many people’s first contact with contact is on visiting a jam.
Jams often begin with people taking time on their own to ‘centre themselves’ and warm themselves up into movement before going on to find others to dance with. Dances can be long or short, with one or more partners. People also take time out to watch others. As a jam draws to a close people often warm down together with some form of bodywork or massage, or maybe by taking time alone for quite reflection.
Safety at jams
In terms of sheer physical safety, following the form brings safety in itself: by taking time to ‘center’ and ‘ground’ yourself first; then by tuning in to your partner; following the point of contact rather than pushing it; staying relaxed, open and aware; turning the momentum of falls into rolls; and never holding on to your partner. Serious injuries are very rare.
With people working so closely in contact with each other, often total strangers, “social” safety is another important issue. The form itself confounds so many social conventions and sometimes the permission to exchange touch that is its premise can be abused. The bottom line is that you always have the choice whether or not to enter or continue a dance.
In this respect as in so many others contact is about taking responsibilty for your own experience and safety. However these choices are not always so easy to make in practice. The contact community needs to recognise this and consciously support individuals in that choice-making process. A step towards this would be to display a safety code (click here to view a sample as a PDF) at your public jam.
Learning and teaching
The process-orientatedness of contact means that whenever we dance we have the potential to learn. By sharing the dance with someone, we can not only tap into what they have to offer us right now, but also into the accumulated wisdom within them of all the dances they’ve ever had. A lot of learning is done simply by paying attention as we dance which is why jamming is such an integral part of contact improvisation as a movement practice.
There are no certified teachers of the form. Early on in the development of contact improvisation a conscious decision was made not to attempt to run any standardised certified training programmes to train teachers. This was partly because it was felt contrary to the ethos of the form and partly because it was thought to be a sure-fire way to restrict its development. Instead it was presumed that teachers would stand or fall on the strength of their practice.
When it comes to formal teaching situations anyone can teach a class if they feel moved to and can find a class of people willing to be taught. Some offer to share what they know about in informal sharing or laboratory situations while others teach regular classes and workshops.Everyone has something different to learn and teach. So it’s good to experience as many different teachers as you can.
Some practitioners have acquired wonderful reputations built on many years of practice, often offering highly developed exercises addressing particular aspects of the form. Sometimes in a ‘sharing’ situation, someone who’s only been dancing contact for a few months and is still blessed with ‘beginner’s mind’ offers an observation that illuminates something you’ve been overlooking for years. That’s how it goes…