Skip to main content

Some thoughts on Nancy Stark Smith’s UnderScore (2003, updated 2009)

Underscore Estonia July 2005

This article took a long time to find the light of day. It was first published on my web site in this form in 2009 though earlier drafts go back to 2003. I showed earlier drafts to Nancy to get her approval but … the history bit in the first part of the article was written before her book was published and it’s my recollections of what I heard her say in class so of course there are errors, but it’s the critique of the UnderScore that’s the main point

Having studied with Nancy Stark Smith regularly from 1993 to 2001, I was engaged in and observed the development of what she eventually termed the UnderScore. I was always interested in the issues of, and choices, around linearity vs non-linearity that came up in her workshops and gatherings where what she later named the UnderScore was practiced. This became particularly acute when the UnderScore was named and widely circulated beyond those who had studied intensively with her.

I feel there’s a parallel with what Danny Lepkopf writes about in his article Contact Improvisation: A question? where he writes: “The idea that a question can be the definition of a movement form is sophisticated.” In my words, the form arises from the investigation of a question; we get to the form through dancing our answers to the question. If we simply learn forms then we are doing something else.

I feel that the genius of Nancy’s formulation of the UnderScore is that it offers a sophisticated common vocabulary that allows us to share verbally something of what we experience of improvising freely (jamming) with contact improvisation while immersed in both our individual and collective felt sense.

For me the joy and excitement of the unfolding forms of any particular embodiment of the UnderScore is that they are unknowable and unpredictable. A group of people agree to gather together to jam and reflect on that practice. That’s an extended moment of radical freedom. What makes that possible is that the UnderScore not only offers a vocabulary but creates a container and comes with a map of potential possibilities listed as landmarks.

Now that the UnderScore is out in the wild, I sometimes find myself feeling disappointed when it is introduced or taken as a form to be followed. That radical freedom that I experienced practicing with Nancy, or among people with extensive experience of her work, is constricted or lost. On one extreme occasion I was even told I wasn’t doing it right!

I think the UnderScore is a wonderful frame to hang the exquisite freedom of jamming upon. At its best I think it is complex and multi-layered. Syncopated even. And I wonder if some of the confusion around its practice results from the way it is inevitably written out phase after phase.

In this article, I explore the possibility of notating it differently. At the article’s core is is a diagram which aims to add some clarity to the sophisticated possibilities practice of the UnderScore. It’s offered as a complement to the more usual notation.

Download Some thoughts on Nancy Stark Smith’s UnderScore as a PDF