As the social world and practice of contact exploration is anarchic, there is no one standard skill set and even reasonable debate over whether there should be one or not or what the relevance of such would be. Instead of one coherent body of integrated skills, a variety of skill sets have been developed over the years, some of which are horizontal in nature (able to be studied independently) and some of which are more vertical in nature (requiring knowledge of some more basic principles before other more advanced ones can be learned effectively).
This set of level descriptions is meant primarily for the context of the central vertical skill set that is the core of much of Body Research’s contact work. I think that some of these skills are reference points for many practices of contact improvisation, but others, particularly the passive sequencing work and the integration of soft martial arts practices are more idiosyncratic to Body Research work.
There are actually many explorations in contact that don’t require this skill set, although this skill set will generally make any other set of explorations more interesting. If any Body Research contact workshops doesn’t have an associated class level, assume that it is open level (meaning any can come) and that there will be teaching to different levels of practice simultaneously.
It is my feeling that a lot of people, particularly men, get stuck very early at relatively low levels of skill development. I think this is because of a misunderstanding of the implications of the lack of a consensus skill set. The misunderstanding is that because there is not such a consensus agreement, that implies that there is no skill set or that any skills are obvious and can be developed by anyone just by doing contact improvisation at jams uncritically. There are many people who have been practicing contact for many years, including people who teach contact improvisation, who by this objective skill system would not be more than an intermediate level dancer. It takes a very peculiar person who is lucky enough to get exposed to the right information to be able to find many of these things on their own. I can really only claim to have found one or two of them on my own. The rest have come from study with others, both in contact improvisation and in other physical disciplines.
In reality, no one falls neatly into a category, and that is what makes life and the dance of contact improvisation interesting. Asymmetric or out-of-order skill development is more the norm than the exception. These categories, then, are primarily for use in the class setting — on the one hand as benchmarks where people can feel their progress and conceptualize what would be most interesting to work on next, and, on the other hand, as a means of organizing classes so that higher level skills can be worked on more efficiently and safely. This is not meant as a strict divider and not meant to categorize with whom it is more or less interesting to dance. These skills do not define all that there is to an interesting dance, and in the end, part of the skills that we are working towards is the ability to maximally enjoy and find curiosity in dances with a wider range of people. That said, new, wonderful, and interesting phenomena emerge with dancers working together at higher levels, for pleasure, aesthetic exploration, and physical health.
The following is a list of skills comfortably acquired by a given level. At a given level, one is assumed to be refining the skills of this and lower levels and to be developing the skills of the next levels. In class, higher level skills will often be introduced at lower levels, as it helps frame skill development.
Different people have different ideas of what differentiates advanced from intermediate from beginner. In general, many things that I experienced being taught as ‘basics’ back in the 1980s are now thought of as ‘advanced material’ (and many of the more advanced materials from the 80s are now completely absent). The following reflects how i was first taught and how i extended this material, rather than reflecting a consensus definition.
Generally speaking, levels 1-5 are primarily about getting to know the classic Contact Fundamentals better. The passive sequencing work will often be introduced early on. It helps everything and also takes multiple exposures before it really starts to unfold in the body and mind. Levels 5 onwards are about getting more seriously into the passive sequencing work of Body Research’s contact approach.
(The levels start at 1, rather than 0, to emphasize the fact that CI builds on existing body-use knowledge. Everyone comes in already with some of the necessary or useful skills of practicing contact.)
Level 1 – novice
Level 2 – beginner: basic functional understanding of static support, rolling contact, giving weight, moving while connected through force, movement into and out of the floor (falling, rolling, sliding, etc), physical listening skills.
Level 3 – intermediate: has basic functtional understanding of moving support, efficiency in static lifts, basic lift vocabulary (back to back lifts, fireman’s carry, various table supports, hip carries), movement into and out of floor while maintaining weighted connection to partner, falling comfortably out of lifts (aikido rolls, side rolls, shock absorption, landing gear available).
Level 4 – intermediate: readiness to catch falling partner when coming out of a lift, ability to set partner down in off-balance, dynamic efficiency, starting to organize partner’s body and allow organization of one’s own body, softening (1st layer of passive sequencing/release work), wider array of lifts (shoulder lifts, catches, etc), comfort with non-forcing manipulation and offering adaptive support, comfort and awareness through inversions, comfort with sensing in and falling through the back space and articulating the back, comfort with “no hands” dance as an articulate and interesting dance.
Level 5 – advanced: continuous readiness to deal in a soft and articulate way with dynamic incoming weight (one does not get distracted by ‘creativity’), ability to stay off balance & track partner’s structure, organizing into efficiency and power through off-balance and spiral, solidly comfortable with moving into and out of contact through inversion, equanimity of body articulation into contact (subtle and sophisticated use of all of body (low back, legs, etc), as opposed to a few preferred locations of articulation (hands/arms, etc).
Level 6 – advanced: subtle level structure tracking, have rolling contact at more advanced level (requires higher level release work), beginning to get passive sequencing work in more dynamic settings, higher joint mobility in context of safe body organization during more dynamic dances, working more deeply on functional awareness through a wider variety of physical orientations..
Level 7 – advanced: non-triggering touch (tracking nervous/muscle activation & body state), deep level passive sequencing and organization of partner’s body into efficiency and ease, integration of body use with partner’s body-use
First, to reiterate, these skills are not meant to define all that is interesting in CI. Some fields of knowledge in ci have a more horizontal character (one can start anywhere and pick up material in a process of random acquisition) and others have a more vertical character (one must have step A down before you can really get step B, one must have step B down before step C…). This set is for me a central vertical knowledge set for ci practice, but there are also a lot of other very interesting things within CI that don’t require its mastery, that can be explored from level 1. There are also horizontal fields that open up at each new level.
These levels are meant to be an objective measure of progress through what for me is the central physical exploration of contact. The realities of opportunity of study in the contact world usually means that we don’t move through these explorations in a systematically logical way, but “catch as catch can”. There is also sometimes something useful about jumping ahead a bit, so that one can start to get a sense of why the fundamentals are so important. Further, many come into contact practice with some of the skills of contact already existing in their bodies to some degree from sports, martial arts, body work, or dance. It is possible to have some intermediate or even advanced level skills, but be missing fundamental skill development. In fact, this is quite common, which is again, why it is important to continue to revisit the fundamentals. As with most physical arts, this skipping of real integration of fundamentals is usually the biggest block to advanced progress.
This asymmetric skill development can either be something we use to pull us forward or an impediment to further learning, depending on our sense of humility. It is important to continuously go back and work the fundamentals with a sense of beginner’s mind, dropping attachments to being socially percieved as “more advanced”.
These skills are not strictly dependent on how long one has been studying contact. Some people progress through them more quickly. Many have been practicing contact for decades and/or are teachers and yet are not at an advanced level (in terms of this skill set).
Also, very important to note, these terms are used differently by different practitioners. Many talk of ‘release-work’, for example, and often assume they are referring to the same thing while actually doing very different and sometimes contrsdictory work. Likewise with terms like ‘listening’, ‘following’, etc. These level descriptions are primarily meant for internal consumption within the circles of people studying with Body Research, where the terms are specifically defined through deminstration and practice.
With regards to talking about “someone’s level”, one can talk of someone being solidly at a certain level, or perhaps centered at a certain level, but with deficiencies indicative of a lower level and/or some skills of higher levels. Again, our asymmetry is part of what is interesting in life.
Usually if class is level X, it means that it is for people who are centered at level X or above.
PS This text was written around 2007, i think, reading this on the verge of 2013, i think that i still find it useful, though i might write it a bit differently. As mentioned in the text, it is a simplification, but sometimes that is a useful thing to do. Descriptions of the world are never entirely accurate, but still may be useful.