Glossary of terms, principles, and concepts for a release-based approach to contact improvisation
The purpose of these short writings is to serve as a study aid for those who are working with Body Research’s approach to what I have called “release-based contact”, or the “Passive Sequencing Work”. Many of these terms are ones that are used differently and idiosyncratically by different dance professionals, but have specific operationally meaning in the context my classes.
The scope of release-based contact is the pursuit of efficiency, ease, immediate awareness and availability, and power in the contexts of contact. We cultivate a finer functional awareness of our bodies in the world. I believe that the work follows directly from a rigorous pursuit of the studies in body function that emerged out of the main stream, higher level practices of contact improvisation in the 70s and 80s.
I hope this little glossary is useful…
Click on the link here for further description of the Passive Sequencing Exercises
Release technique – generally speaking, the study of more easeful and efficient movement and body organization in the context of contemporary dance technique. Seminal works in release techniques have been pursued by Susan Klein, Barbara Mahler, and Trisha Brown (New York) using direct body observation and also by Joan Skinner (Washington state) using mental images to affect physiological change. The term “release” comes both from the idea of “releasing” dysfunctional muscular use patterns and from the image of movement through the release of existing tension, as opposed to necessarily from muscular contraction. Antecedents to this work include the works of Alexander, Feldenkrais, and Bartinieff in the west, as well as in quite sophisticated, older, and robustly tested versions in the Taoist martial arts of china (Tai Chi, Ba Gua, and Hsing I). A fundamental observation and study of all of these techniques is the looking for and inhibition of dysfunctions in body use and inaccuracies in body perception. There is the idea that while we are attempting to do a certain action, because of accumulated distress, we will have muscle use patterns which are either tangential or actually contradictory to the action that is being attempted.
While I had useful early training in Skinner technique in the late 80s, I find that the techniques of Alexander and Klein on the one hand and Tai Chi on the other are more precise and therefore more interesting and effective. Moreover, of these mentioned techniques, only the Taoist martial arts directly and fundamentally address the question of dysfunctional reactivity in dynamic touch.
Release-based contact work attempts to apply the aims of release technique in direct and fundamental ways to the situation of physical interaction with another person, as opposed to layering on the techniques of non-contact release technique to this situation. This requires significantly different movement meditations. Even traditional Tai Chi, despite its sophisticated training in presence at touch, is limited in this regards due to its preoccupation with combat and maintaining control of one’s center.
In contact, we first look at the idea of softening interaction while maintaining core organization. This starts to give us space and function to more easefully interact while still accessing power. Beyond, we go into deeper studies of passive sequencing of momentum through the body, through calm, we learn to allow movement through the body in ways that are both functional and pleasurably easeful and in the space of calm that results from inhibition of reactivity, we gain greater reaction density and functional awareness of ourselves and environment.
Proprioception – this is the fundamental sense of the body, the felt sense of having a body with weight, structure, and physical/spatial configuration of parts relative to each other. It is fundamental both in the sense that it is what provides us with a feeling of physically existing and the sense that most of the data reaching the brain comes from proprioceptive sense nerves – the nerves carrying proprioceptive information, have higher bandwidth and are vastly faster than other nerves. The signals coming from proprioceptive nerves carry an order of magnitude more information than all the other nerves combined at a speed which is an order of magnitude faster.
The information comes from proprioceptor and kineceptor nerves in the joints and muscles respectively (90% in the joints). These nerves tell incredibly subtle details about pressure and speed of shift in pressure. The ‘unconscious’ hind brain takes this information and creates with it perceptual models both of the body and of the surrounding environment, which are then used to coordinate the body with its environment. The body, in this way, is able to make incredibly fine and detailed fitting of muscle coordination to the situation.
There is a phenomena called proprioceptive projection. This is the brain’s ability to create a perceptual model of the environment with this data. A classic example of this is that when we write with a pen, we do not feel our finger tips on the pencil, but the tip of the pen on the page, just as if it were a part of our own body. In terms of perceptual modeling, it is a part of our body. This is a very useful phenomena to contemplate in contact, in that it is this sense that allows us to feel our partner’s body with as much subtlety and sophistication as our own. When we touch our partner’s body, our proprioceptors read the subtle response and rebound of pressure, allowing our brain to construct a model of the structures and consistency of our partner’s body in much the same way that a dolphin uses rebounded sound waves to give it a model of the physical environment that surrounds it. Note that we read our partner’s body through touch and a slight pressure. On the one hand this means that we are at the same time allowing our partner to read our own body and on the other hand it means that on a subtle level, we are not capable of proprioceptively reading our partner’s body without interacting with and affecting it.
In release work, we attempt to leave the joints open (release isometric tension from around the joints). This the allows the joints to literally expand slightly, giving a wider range of mobility, but more importantly allowing the sense of proprioception to act in a more sophisticated way than when the muscles and joints are locked down. It is an ongoing self study to notice when dysfunctional and isometric tensions arise in the body and to inhibit them, leaving movement freer and coordination more appropriate.
Trauma Theory – Peter Levine, in his research on trauma, has come up with a theory of physical dysfunction which describes how the fore brain is able to freeze the hind brain and essentially force the body into motion without the full aid of the hind brain’s proprioceptive sophistication. Dysfunctional and inappropriate reaction and miscoordination ensue. Essentially, a trauma is observed to be a place where a situation has caused the hind brain to initiate a freeze response, but where the fore brain has short circuited the destimulation of freeze state and forced the body into motion. Because the freeze state is still primed, when the person enters a situation resembling adequately the initial conditions of the freeze state the, it is again activated, shutting down the normal centers of body coordination and reengaging the awkward and inappropriate actions. It is then part of the process of healing these dysfunctions to deactivate the hyper stimulation of neocortical muscular control that is blocking the natural process of destimulating the freeze. See Peter Levine. Passive sequencing study is one way that we learn to inhibit these neocortical control spasms.
Reactivity — the tendency to react in blind reactions that are based in distress, are disproportional to the stimuli, and which cut down our ability to perceive details within a given fraction of a second. While not necessarily associated with emotional states that we would at first label “distressed”, we see on deeper analysis that much of our physical reaction patterns contain within them subtle distress reactions. Usually based in the bodies sensible reaction at one point in our life to an unpleasant or confusing circumstance, we come to see the sometimes profound layers dysfunctions and lack of availability that can result from this reactivity. In learning to calm the body and effectively inhibit or destimulate these kinds of reaction, we learn to be able to react from different parts of ourselves that have more access to propriocetive detail and which afford us more fluid relationships… more dense and rich (and thus pleasurable) perception of the world .
Hind brain, limbic system, neo-cortex/fore brain — Our brain has many subdivisions. However one of the most obvious subdivisions is into three parts (thus our brain is sometimes referred to as a “triune” brain). The evolutionarily oldest is the “hind brain”, which we share with all vertebrates. Proprioception is largely funneled through the hind brain and is here used to micromanage movement. It is here in the hind brain that very basic fight/flight/freeze/fuck reflexes are wired.
The next oldest is the limbic system or mid-brain, which we share with other mammals and (to a limited degree) with birds. Here is our emotional center, and it is here that our tendency towards compassion is housed. This part of the brain functions mechanically as a kind of metabolic feedback system, where perceptions (sight, sound, smell, feel) of others physiological states are taken in and used to regulate one’s own states. Thus when someone is agitated, we get agitated, when someone is sad, we feel compelled to console and be sad too.
The evolutionarily youngest is the neocortex/fore brain, which, while we do share it with other animals, exists in us in far larger size. Here are housed the centers of the brain that perform more complex and multi-step information processing and reprocessing, both in terms of ‘linear thought’ and ‘spatial thinking/intuition’.
It is the size of our neocortex that allows us to be more easily traumatized than other animals.
As an aside, visual processing has much more direct connection to the neocortex and to language centers. Thus, even though proprioception is a more fundamental sense, we have more scientific study of the visual system; it is harder to answer questions in a sophisticated way about proprioception than about vision. Even though we have incredibly sophisticated and fine-tuned use of proprioception, the distance from our verbal centers means we can’t consciously and verbally describe it well.
It is perhaps the neo-cortex’s proximity to visual centers which explains in large part the effect of sensory expansion when we close our eyes or are blindfolded… suddenly, the world gets a lot more sensually interesting, movement sophistication often increases, and our curiosity, choice making, thoughts, and even personality take on different characteristics more appropriate to an active limbic and hind brain.
Passive Sequencing – the cultivation of non-reaction in movement. The reaction that we speak of here is the reaction of the neo-cortex. Essentially, the task is to allow externally generated momentum to cause a sequencing of movement through the joints of the body without interference from a sudden, inappropriate change in body-use. Study of the body reveals that much which seems at first to be consciously chosen response is actually ‘uncontrollable distress response’ in the body, bringing the body into relatively dysfunctional coordination. The task is to allow a split second of passive perception/acceptance of change in body configuration before allowing calm response. Through mindfulness, we learn to destimulate the distress/trauma (‘inhibit’ in the language of Alexander) so that reaction can be more fluid and appropriate as guided by the much more sophisticated actions of the hind brain. As the Taoists would say, we seek a flowing with the world, rather than trying to rigidly control change. The tendency is to hyper control – what might manifest on the one hand as either “helping” or “resisting” the movement or on the other as “evacuating-the-body/collapse”. This is perceived in the feminist and ecopsychological critiques of contemporary construction of individuality and boundaries as either too rigid or non-existent, as opposed to boundaries which are flexible and permeable.
There is a valuing and embracing here of the uncontrolled, the unknown, the unpredicted in relation to an always changing and adapting self, as opposed to a reflexive fear of it.
This task is essentially the same as the destimulation of trauma as constructed in the theories of Peter Levine.
Passive sequencing is related to the Tai Chi concept of ‘yielding’.
It helps with this task if we rigorously eschew any real concern with movement being a “signal of intention” from our partner, especially in terms of micromanaging movement. We are concerned with what our partner is doing, not what they think they are doing or are planning to do. Such concern with signals is usually quite counterproductive, is almost universally unnecessary, and distracts from actually being present.
Stabilizing reactions– the brain, responding in fear of change, tends to organize the body towards a lack of motion when things change. Two enormous example: activation of primary flexion (lifting the legs to the front) when lifted from behind and the doubling back after less than half of a turn, especially when the turn is initiated by an outside force or coming out of something labeled a move. Most contactors (easily 99%) are frozen at relatively low levels of physical sophistication in faster dances because they have no control over their bodies’ stabilization reflexes. These reflexes not only inhibit fluid, continuous motion in the dance, but are also physically dangerous and are often causes of such things as messed up knees and injured backs. In the release-based work, we work to inhibit these stabilizing reactions… allowing turns to continue without forcibly doubling back continuously and allowing the legs to dangle when being lifted. An examination of the situations in which these responses arise systematically reveals them to be dysfunctional with few exceptions
Non-triggering touch – we cultivate a way of touching which is less likely to trigger veiled distress reactions in our partner. Thus not only do we attempt to inhibit in ourselves distress responses, but also attempt to inhibit them in our partners. This is achieved by a meticulous sensitivity to the precursors of distress reaction initiation and the inhibition of triggering stimulation before initiation… essentially stopping or appropriately modifying the force which is triggering the initiation before the initiation happens.
We are not separate entities and we are part of each other’s coordination process.
3 kinds of speed – Kumar Frantzis, in talking about the Taoist martial arts, discusses different ideas of speed in relation to the martial arts. Because the martial arts have such a clear test of functionality, it is very obvious how this relates to function in movement and coordination. While the immediate goals are different in contact and fighting, the principles apply directly to contact and to pretty much any physical endeavor.
“linear speed”, “reaction speed”, “reaction density”…
The first kind of speed is linear speed… how fast can I get my fist from point A to point B. The use of this speed is obvious.
However, one can beat someone with greater linear speed if they have a higher level of the second kind of speed: reaction speed, or how quickly can I respond to a given perception. It won’t matter if my partner can punch somewhat faster if I am able to fire off a block and counter punch which my partner can’t process fast enough. Their inability to change course within an adequate time frame (once the action is initiated) means I win.
However the third kind of speed is even more important and is the key to easeful power: reaction density, or how many times per second I can change my mind about what I am doing. If my ability to throw off numerous counters in a given space of time is limited, then my partner will actually be able to react in a more leisurely way and still be able to win. In the end, I will be over-committed to an action that I won’t be able to change, so my partner in a relaxed way, can counter in the space of my unconsciousness. It is this reaction density that is a kind of “holy grail” allowing a more and more continuous flow of movement’s coordination with the environment. Again, while the discussion here is in the context of a martial exchange, the same principle applies in any physical interaction.
In a sense reaction density is about perceiving the world in more “frames per second”
The picture painted here is a bit simplistic, sidestepping for the moment the issue of how appropriately we are using the information we are getting and just looking at how much and of what quality the information we are getting is. However, while it is obviously not the whole picture, it is an important piece of the puzzle.
One will observe that the situation of being in a hyper-controlling flow of reaction is essentially operating in a much lower amount of frames per second. As we invite calm and destimulate distress, proprioception opens up and we are able to perceive the world in higher resolution. This is the purpose of the passive sequencing exercises… being able to have freedom from distress-based blind reactions, so that we can have more of a continuous relationship to each other and our environment.
Functional Awareness — In talking about developing a greater reaction density… the number of times per second that we can perceive what is happening and reorient our actions … we talk about in a real way increasing awareness. Functional awarenesss, then, is being able to not only know what is happening, but to have a functional strategy for dealing with it. It combines awareness with functional knowledge of what is important and our place in the flow and potentials for interaction… having a sense of the potential results of a given choice.
Borrowing wisdom from the Taoists, we know that we can not control the world, even ourselves … we can only know the place of our will in the flow. This is functional awareness: letting go of fear and accepting the unknown, being open to awareness, and making informed choices within the unpredictable..
drop into the underside – a phrase that I borrow and develop from Kirstie Simson. This is the idea that when something touches a lower surface of our bodies, we have an immediate access to the information of how much weight it can support and a willingness to give up effort so it can support this weight. This happens by cultivating a continuous subtle level response of dropping weight slightly into anything touching an under surface. The subtle (few gram) initial split second drop gives us the proprioceptive information necessary to assess how much weight can be taken and what the response of the underlying structure will be. It allows to efficiently and immediately to drop into an organization of connected flow as we surrender into the supported under surface.
Continuous off-balance – similarly to dropping into the underside, we try to maintain a continuous sense of off balance towards our partner. This gives a surrendered pressure which allows us to read our partner, accept efficient mutual support , avoid conflicting distress-based body organization. When practiced by both partners, it allows for an efficient, fluid, and connected dance of two bodies as one unit, as opposed to two dancers who happen to be moving around each other while touching, which is a kinesthetically much less richly complex situation.
Note that this is not the same as falling down in the direction that your partner happens to be in in this moment, but involves a continuous reorientation and steering of the fall towards your partner, more like projecting oneself towards one’s partner.
Readiness – we strive to maintain a continuous sense of availability for the unpredicted … keeping our eye on our partner for erratic behavior (which we are actually hoping for). This is essentially the same as not checking out while we are dancing, which happens much to frequently as people get interested in “performing contact” these days, especially with concerns around spatial and temporal composition. We always keep to the motto that the body’s well being and physics always trumps decoration. We organize the body in such a way that we can deal with the range of possible behaviors that our partner is capable of, including falling on us or jumping at us. This keeps with the devotion to the idea that one’s contact practice should at all times actively promote well being. While small scale risks have the pay off of knowledge at low-price, knowingly taking large-scale risks (or choosing not to know) is not an interesting approach to contact work.
We should at all times avoid situations where our knees or back may be injured. This means not organizing them in such a way that it is statistically likely that we will eventually get injured, given the limitations of our reaction speed, perception and knowledge of body organization.
functional/dysfunctional action – this is a spectrum, so when we talk about functional and dysfunctional, we are talking relatively. Simply, an action is more functional if it more immediately and more efficiently achieves the intended goals than another possible body coordination… efficiency in terms of energy use and safety to the body. An action that has inadvertent and unnecessary side effects in comparison to another is less functional. We would like to be more functional, less wasteful of energy, and safer.
Lateral intangibility – related to the concept of dropping into the underside, lateral intangibility is the idea that as we give weight, we don’t give lateral resistance to our partner. When we push down, rather than drop, we pin our partner in position, confining their movement and restricting their ability to rearrange themselves for comfort or interest. We surrender into the ride in order to make ourselves more comfortable riders.
Blending – related to the concept of inhibiting stabilizing responses… we commit to blending with our partner’s movement rather than trying to control their flow and double back when a turn goes to our stability loving fear-based self’s edge. We turn lock interlocking cogs with our partner and use the motion to test our own availability to flow. We surrender into the motion. This is not about trying to anticipate where our partner will be going from a fear place and then attempting to control our movement to match. Our neo-cortex is not fast enough. We allow our partner’s movement to pull us into motion and then follow along the direction pulled. This task becomes much easier as we allow a continuous off-balance towards our partner combines with a sense of passive sequencing in the body.