Fundamentals of Contact Improvisation


Early on in the development of Contact, there was a choice to not codify the practice… to allow each person to find for themselves their curiosity within the frame of investigation. The name itself, “Contact Improvisation”, was not chosen because the practice was defined as “improvising in contact” , but because that described a large part of the original investigation. Some of these original explorations (for example, the “small dance” ) actually were not done in contact and were solo explorations of body-use.

To further complicate the idea of naming “Contact Fundamentals”, there was explicitly an acknowledgement that all bodies and individual personalities are different and that this should be part of the experiment… to simply expose people to some of the starting points of investigation and see where different people’s curiosity’s took them. Investigations with people with very different physiologies (examples: cerebral palsy, paralysis) and minds (examples: down’s syndrome, autism), for whom some of the mechanics or particular mental foci of the original experiments either could not be followed or needed to be adapted served to show the value of this approach in the 80s and reflected back into the mainstream practice of Contact in terms of valuing the quirks and opportunities of the individual.

That said, there still are the original experiments and skill explorations and the culture or mind set of research which define the reference point from which we expand… what we might call the “classic contact improvisation fundamentals”. With the spread of contact improvisation, many of these fundamentals have become obscured, but they are the roots from which the practice has grown, even if they are not present in dances of most contemporary contactors.

Below is a list of aspects of exploration that we would call the basis for contact improvisation… the Contact Fundamentals. Remembering that the original group of contactors in the 70s were athletes and dancers, one should feel a freedom to adapt these explorations to one’s particular body, and in fact they are put out as a reference point for exploration and not the thing itself.

How long of study does it take to learn the fundamentals ? An early answer that Steve Paxton put out was “one week of study”… about 30 hours or so of instruction. This was primarily to differentiate their explorations from something like modern dance or ballet where it takes many years of study before one has a solid grasp of the basics. It also assumed someone already engaged in athletic, dynamic physical activity. While it takes some time to be introduced, it takes far less than many other practices and therefore the entry point into the practice is relatively more accessible. Of course, time to become familiar with the fundamentals will depend on the person and the instructor. Many people teaching contact these days do not teach coherent “introduction to the fundamentals” courses, would disagree on what the fundamentals are or whether there are fundamental skills, or do not know themselves that which early practitioners might call core explorations.

It is also the case that the fundamentals as in any art, could be studied for many years and one would still not find the end of interesting phenomena and deepening of practice. As with any art, the fundamentals are not something learned once and then forgotten, but the basis of deepening inquiry. The introduction to the fundamentals is just that… an introduction. One could spend endless time studying them and going deeper.

List of Fundamental Skills, Techniques, and Questions of Contact Improvisation

  • Physics — the root of contact is a study of physics of bodies moving through contact. We create for ourselves precarious situations and unusual tasks relative to another body and then see how we solve the problems and how our bodies self-organize to survive. This is the root curiosity. Keeping this as the root of our exploration gives us a container that has allowed amazing explorations to evolve that otherwise would likely have never evolved if the relational emotions of touch and proximity had been invested in as the primary explorations. This gives us an amazing practice for study of body use. Should we choose to investigate them, this focus on the physical gives us a kind of container for exploration of emotion. Similarly, aesthetics were very secondary to function, pr, to phrase it another way, the aesthetics were based at least partially on function. The focus on function and physics, in addition being an aesthetic experiment from the 70s, also has a basic safety function — many of the injuries that happen in contact (thankfully few as they are) can be traced back to aesthetic concerns of a moment overshadowing functional awareness of physics of the joints and falling bodies.
  • The Stand or the “small dance” — a simple meditation. First, find a comfortable standing position. Second, scan the body for excess tension and inefficient ways of holding the body and allow the body to become more easily aligned with less unnecessary muscle use. From here, with just a little attention, it will become obvious that the body is still in motion… the small dance of reflexes below the level of consciousness which keeps the body standing. One watches this small dance, perhaps for a minute, perhaps for an hour. Taken into the larger dance of bodies in contact, one realizes that within the larger dance, there is always the small dance which can be tuned to, related to with curiosity. This study of the small dance is one of the primary foundations of contact improvisation. All movement that we choose is in the context of the ongoing small dance.
  • Rolling Point of Contact — two bodies touch in one area or “point of contact”. This point can either roll or slide. This is not a rule of contact, but a fact of reality. We study what happens if we don’t let it slide, but roll… do what we need to in order to follow it, experiment with directing it or using it. We notice that, for a given amount of weight, a rolling point has a greater friction force (sticking friction or “sticktion” in engineering slang) in comparison to a sliding point (sliding friction). This makes it more useful in pushing off our partner for navigating over and around them or for supporting them over and around us. We differentiate not so that we “only roll”, but so that we know the difference and can functionally access sliding and rolling out of choice as opposed to blind habit.
  • Falling and rolling … movement into and out of the floor. To support the pursuit of more and more precarious situations, we learn how to move into and out of the floor more fluidly, at greater speeds, from greater heights. We get comfortable using the landing gear of the hands and feet, learning how to use the pliable bending of the arms and legs for shock absorption and catching of weight falling with us. We learn how to slide and roll out falls. Side rolls and diagonal (or “Aikido”) rolls should become comfortable so that we get freer to follow contact through more unpredictable orientations and further off-balance.
  • Weight Exchange, Counter Balance, and off-balance — mutual support, neither partner on their base of support, but being supported by the other. Keeping this sense of off-balance is a constant challenge to wakefulness. It is both a surrendering of some fraction of personal control of your own movement and a receiving of partial control of our partner’s movement. We then become one organism composed of two. This weight exchange allows us to find efficiencies of joint movement that are impossible if we both try to maintain independent control, allowing greater speed, power, ease, and 3-dimensional complexity with less effort. We are able support each other and take support into and out of the floor. It allows us to keep a sense of “pouring” our weight through our partner in a continuous flow rather than with jagged jerks. The maintenance of “off-balance” does not necessarily mean “full weight”, but simply that one is always projecting oneself, even if slightly, off one’s center into the structure of one’s partner. This sense of continuous off-balance weight exchange, while being the key to easeful improvised partnering and connection, is probably the most frequently missing element in contemporary contactor’s repertoires today, as dances with any speed turn into independent movement improvisations that happen to be touching, mixed with the occasional lift.
  • alignment, structure, body-use and organization … with proper leverage, an ounce of force can lift a mountain. Through focus on our skeletal alignment and body-use, we can lift and support weight with greater ease and freedom. It was through an exploration of this fact that contact has been so able to allow a challenging of gender and size rolls in partnered dance. Intelligent use of the body substitutes for brute muscle for delivering force and giving support. At first, we look at alignment in static situations… being a solid table or post for our partner to work off of, climb over through lining up the bones and establishing power through spirals. We explore how we can make this even easier through subtle, continuous adjustments of the body as our relationship with partner shifts. Similar to the way we find excess tension and inefficient ways of holding ourselves in The Stand and learn to release them, we look at how we can let go of unnecessary tension in order to flow with and steer momentum.. We see how we can use alignment dynamically for mobile support and how alignment is part of what allows off-balance partnering to be potentially so easy. We can take the energy that we were pouring into inefficient use of muscle and turn it into easeful adaptive speed and expanded 3-dimensional complexity. References for this work on the one hand include various forms of self-study of body-use (Alexander and Feldenkrais Techniques), martial arts (ie, Tai Chi, Aikido), and contemporary release techniques.
  • physical listening and following — the dance is not about re-creating a set of moves or trying to do something we have seen before, but about following into the unknown. Where an intention is held or set, the interesting thing is not the accomplishment of the goal, but the process of the attempt, which comes from listening to, following, and adapting to what is actually happening. Through the study of the small dance, this following becomes more and more detailed, expanding our awareness of the many things happening in each moment. We start to recognize patterned movement and response patterns and learn to breathe into them into order to open them up for greater functional listening and following. Not just a passive thing, physical listening is quite active and can result in quite energetic dances as it turns into a blending with the flow of momentum.
  • basic lift vocabulary and principles — a basic repertoire of lifts and partner moves serves as a base to spring off of and a set of places to work on principles, as opposed to a definition of the dance: high and low tables and posts, back to back lifts, fireman’s carry, various shoulder lifts. We practice static lifts and then see how we arrive at lifts through weight exchange and how they are not ends, but actually processes, feeling the movement out of as much as into the lifts, and feeling them as connected parts of a flow. We use them to propel us further into unknown territories.
  • readiness — a constant readiness to catch oneself and to deal with incoming weight. we learn to constantly be aware of what we need to do to take care of ourselves. We learn to not get distracted by thoughts of and attachment to what “should be happening” or what our partner “should do” and learn to keep functional track of what is happening so we can act accordingly: Landing gear always available and ready, always ready to support or deflect incoming weight. Part of this is accomplished through a sense of always bridging between partner and the floor… ready to catch self while sensing and interacting with our partner’s weight and structure.
  • “no hands” dance — we practice dancing without hands so that we learn to release the “grabby” and controlling nature of our habitual interactions with our hands and learn to be more more aware of and able to use our whole structure. While there is not a rule of “no hands” in contact , the ability to use the rest of our bodies is quite valuable, and there is something about allowing mutual freedom of movement that we learn from “letting go” with the hands. Later, we use the hands, not as the central focus of interaction, but as an extension of the body and access their dexterity and articulateness without attachment.
  • Opening up the back space — In opening up our dance to our whole body, we attempt to to cultivate a dexterity and readiness for interaction in all directions, especially the back space. In taking little risks of projecting ourselves backwards, we build up functional awareness of how to connect with our back, give our weight backwards with articulation, including casting and steering with the weight of the head behind us where we aren’t looking. Practicing soft focused vision that helps us use our peripheral vision and tuning into the senses of touch and proprioception, we cultivate 360 degree awareness.
  • The Ouiji dance — a Ouiji board is a board with letters and numbers written on it. Two people place their hands on a little sliding wedge of wood and follow the slight shifts in pressure (resulting from the small dance) that take it to different letters to spell out messages from “the spirits” (or at least from the unconscious reflexes of the two touching the wedge). The Ouiji dance is a dance where one treats the point of contact as a Ouiji wedge. No directing from either partner, just listening and immediate following of the subtle shifts in pressure. Three primary variants…1) just the pad of the index finger, no sliding or rolling, just a few grams of pressure, 2) just a few grams of pressure, but the point is a rolling point, and 3) a rolling point with variable weight, both partners falling into each other and giving weight as appropriate to follow and support the rolling point of contact (Version 3 in particular can get quite athletic as you allow yourself to be more and more immediate in the following. Lifts emerge not because we try to lift but because they just flow functionally out of the following.)
 Posted by at 11:03 pm