Photo by Peter Paul Rubens
Last night I went to the contact jam.
Contact improvisation is a beautiful practice. People move together freely, sharing weight.
[Never heard of contact improvisation? Check out the video at the bottom of this post for an introduction]
There are no strict rules, but there is definitely a learning curve before you arrive at a sense of mostly knowing what you are doing.
It is a dance of giving and receiving support – and we all have a different understanding of how this is done.
Still, there are some basic vocabularies. If you go to a beginner contact improvisation workshop, there are a few things you are likely to learn.
For starters, your first dance partner is the floor.
Before you encounter another dancer, getting used to relating different parts of your body to the floor is essential. You might start by practicing rolling around or exploring weight shifting in upright standing.
How are these things done with a partner?
In a dance, a situation that often occurs is that one dancer will roll on the floor while another dancer “surfs” on top of them. The dancer below turns his body against the floor. The dancer above is propelled through space by the spinning surface of her partner’s body.
In standing, the shifting of weight can become the leaning of one dancer into another. These two then use each other’s bodies to support to a wide variety of positions above the floor that couldn’t be sustained without their mutual cooperation.
(Sometimes they really can’t be sustained, and one or both dancers will fall – sometimes more and sometimes less gracefully – back to the floor).
Of course, collaboration is a hallmark of any kind of partner dance. The difference here is that there are no prescribed movements. There are no shapes that are out of bounds except for those that infringe upon the safety or comfort of any dancer.
Because each person has a different story, finding safety and comfort means something different to each one of us. The dialogue about this is simply part of the dance.
Still, because of the human body’s particular shape, contact dancers have discovered some of the most reliable opportunities embedded in its architecture.
These understandings are passed on to new dancers, formally or informally.
Another movement that might be taught at a workshop is how to support another dancer on one’s back.
I recently attended a workshop where we took turns providing each other with a “tabletop”, balancing on hands and knees. One partner would then travel over the other’s back, however they chose. Then partners switched roles.
There are other more advanced movements that can be learned. For example, one dancer might catch the fold of her partner’s hip with the top of her shoulder and lift him overhead.
However, at any given moment, there is never one way that any dancer is expected to support another. When the dance is pure, neither dancer knows what will happen next, and they move together in a continuous state of mutual discovery.
It doesn’t take a lot of experience with contact improvisation to understand that the kind of possibilities that it opens up touch all levels of our being.
Many newcomers find that it feels best to start very slow, even if they are already physically agile.
Because, in the act of spontaneous and unpredictable improvisational movement, not only do our skeletons meet. We also lean on each other with our hearts and souls, our psyches and the masks we wear, our ideas and our emotions.
To wordlessly find a place of joy with another dancer (sometimes a complete stranger) is not always a simple task.
It’s a practice.
Two key ideas help guide us through the experience.
In the dance, we avoid the sense of trying to make any particular thing happen.
For example, when one dancer wants to lift another – who doesn’t wish to be lifted – there may be a moment of struggle which interrupts the dance.
It is not necessarily the struggle of one dancer against the other, but it may well be that they struggle to communicate.
Just as in any conversation between friends, it’s possible to recognize such a misunderstanding and use it to weave new pathways of shared fascination. Or perhaps one or both of us will decide to end this conversation for the time being.
It’s all part of the dance.
Just as we forget our breath then rediscover it as we sit in meditation, we realize that we are trying to control something in the dance, then ask ourselves to let go of it again.
In the dance, each person takes care of themselves.
Contact improvisation has its precarious moments, especially at a jam where a dozen or more dancers are rolling, jumping, lifting, leaning, falling, recovering, and discovering in close proximity.
The dancers take care of each other as much as they can, but when no one ever has the expectation that someone else will catch them, everyone has more room to explore.
Within these two ideas exists the whole fascinating universe of human relationships.
In the dance, we discover all of our many personalities.
Some people carry themselves easily. Others are used to relying on others to hold them up. Some people are very comfortable going with the flow. Others would like to control exactly how things unfold.
Some people in the dance are there to invite the borders of their selves to expand. Others may be there to reassert an identity they are quite attached to.
Dancers of either of inclination sometimes find out that the dance has other plans for them.
Just like life!
When I go to the jam, I get to intuitively explore my interest in how humans function in relation to the ground and each other.
As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I’ve always enjoyed uncovering the many ways that our relationship to self and others is mirrored in gravity.
The connection between a smile and feeling light isn’t merely metaphorical. If you make friends with gravity, it’s possible to have the sense that the ground lifts you, and that smile comes easily.
On the other hand, turn the corners of the mouth down into frown and you reorganize the muscles all along the length of your spine – and you literally sink.
The world weighs differently on each of our shoulders, not only making each one of us feel more or less burdened, but also marking every interaction we have with our fellow humans.
When I touch someone body in the practice of Functional Integration, connecting our skeletons and nervous systems, I know that we are now a circuit. We now have access to new possibilities in gravity and the dance of life that neither of us would have on our own.
When I dance contact, I have this same opportunity in a different context.
In the dance, I find guidance in the idea that our connection expands the way that each one of us can know the earth below us and the sky above.
We bring different bodies, different impulses, and different stories into the dance. Depending on the day or our conversational partner, we may feel more or less fluent in the wordless language of the “rolling point of contact” between us.
Sometimes another dancer’s weight seems to fall on us, crushing us into the ground. Other times we are amazed at our mutual weightlessness.
Every time, we are humans together in gravity, seeking to learn by sharing our weight.
Here’s a very nice video introduction to the experience of contact improvisation:
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