Contact Dance

Contact Dance, or 'Contact Improvisation' ('Contact Improv'), is an emerging dance art that can be done solo (in 'contact' with the self, the ground, an object, etc...), yet usually is 'improvised' with others -generally one partner, sometimes with many people.

Aikido-inspired, it grew out of modern dance experiments with moving and colliding bodies; sensing and guiding momentum and force where each dancer is aware of their body and balance, and well as the other persons. Generally the focus is to be self-aware while being sensitive to the 'contact point(s)'. The contact point can be a light touch, or a direct weight exchange and balance point. It can revolve, roll, slide, sometimes be stationary, sometimes separate.

Each person improvises movements based on at least three factors; a) their personal inspiration; arising spontaneously through body impulse, and/or mentally, which is then directed into moving towards a position that one visions as a goal or curiosity, b) in response to the other person doing same; C) the combination of a and b. This third phenomenon can, and very often does, create the unexpected for those involved. Herein, it is reported, can be experienced the connection with, and essence of, the Eastern practices that continue to inspire and resonate with Contact Dance; Aikedo (Translating as 'The way of Harmony'), Taoist philosophy and the practice of Taijiquan ('The Supreme Ultimate' or 'Grand ridge pole' fist'), Hatha Yoga, and Zen (Chan Buddhism).

The feeling is sometimes one of continuously falling into the other, spinning around and against their body(ies) and/or resting on or against the other, who is a medium to gravity and the earth. Also, there are times of being a structured support for the other, who gives weight through contact, both in movement and in stillness. Movement can go from lying down to lifts in the air. Relaxation, sensitivity, trust, awareness, structure, 'tensegrity', creativity, 'listening', openness, eccentricity, flexibility, and communication are some of the vital components that are encouraged and cultivated for 'Fresh' Contact Improv.


"Contact Improv’s birth is most often attributed to a series of experiments in 1972-73 instigated by Steve Paxton. Paxton had been researching, teaching and performing new approaches to dance (and life) with Merce Cunningham/John Cage, Judson Church Dance Theatre (1961-64), and Grand Union (1970-76). The Judson performances, by an evolving collective that included over 40 artists, are recognized by many as a key ‘moment’ in the evolution and rupture called post-modern dance.

Paxton staged two pioneering events in 1972. Magnesium, a project created during a Grand Union residency at Oberlin College in January 1972. The performance involved Paxton and eleven male students on a large wrestling mat in a near wild series of falls, leaps and collisions followed by Paxton’s signature ‘stand’ or ‘small dance’. The small dance is the micro movement of the body’s balancing, adjusting, sensing and responding to gravity. The whole piece, documented on video by Steve Christiansen, lasted just over ten minutes. Local choreographer and dance advocate Brenda Way was working at Oberlin during this era and played a key role in nurturing early CI experiments.

Six months later there was a five-day performance installation, or open process performance, at the John Weber Gallery in New York. With a $2000 grant Steve invited 12-15 students and colleagues he’d met while teaching at Oberlin, Bennington, and Rochester to live and work together for two weeks. The performances, lasting five hours daily, were presented more as a visual art event-happening-installation rather than as a dance concert. Audiences were small, coming and going at their own pace. Christiansen videotaped daily providing immediate feedback to the impromptu company. In the video Chute, a ten-minute montage of clips from Weber, we can recognize the falling, spiraling, yielding and flying of two bodies that has become a transnational language called Contact Improvisation.

At the center of the experiment called Contact Improvisation is a (utopian?) proposal for democratic social relations reduced to its simplest form: an improvised encounter between two people. Referring to the usual choreographic process as a dictatorship of teachers and choreographers creating watered-down versions of themselves, Paxton attempted a less authoritarian form of leadership based on suggestion, invitation, improvisation, and collaboration (Novack, p. 54). CI reflects the counter-cultural context from which it emerged. Feminist and youth resistance to hierarchy and tradition responded to a harsh realization of the injustices of American ‘democracy’. Challenges to consumerism and capitalist recuperation of culture led some people to an anti-private property lifestyle, inspiring artists to make art beyond product or object. Live, immediate, collaborative encounters were prioritized: the Happening, the Action, the Collective. By 1972, the Vietnam War was ending in disaster. Nearly 60,000 Americans and over two million Vietnamese were dead (Numbers are contested, no official Viet count). The leadership of the Black Panthers had been mostly killed by police or were in prison for life. Four white students had been shot at Kent State University and millions had heard of vibrant queer resistance to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a NY gay bar. Paxton, reflecting back on the era and considering CI’s development in Argentina and Israel during political crises in the 1990s, suggests that CI might be a shock absorber for social trauma.

Soon after the John Weber shows, three of the dancers, Nita Little, Curt Siddall and Nancy Stark Smith, moved to the Bay Area. Home to the country’s most influential counter-culture, the Bay Area featured a vibrant experimental performance scene that included historically significant artists such as The SF Mime Troupe, Anna Halprin and the psychedelic drag family The Cockettes." [Copied from]

Modern contact can be found in classes, workshops, and most often, 'Jams' where the structure is a drop-in arrangement for a reasonable fee. Sometimes it is accompanied by music, sometimes not.

A key 'rule' for contact is that there are no rules -it is an exploration.

Useful guidelines though are common to many Jams and workshops. They usually include, in various forms:

1. Each dancer is responsible for themselves -if someone drops you, you have to be aware and roll/fall safely.

2. Communicate boundaries; each person and each pair-chemistry will have different feelings of comfortabliity, and thus can ask to have areas of the body, and preferences of pace and tone and safety respected.

3. Be careful trying to 'lift against the momentum'...If you are in an awkward position, do not overstrain; flow with the movement momentum vectors, and guide yourself and the other person to a safe position.

4.Stillness is ok. Let inspiration guide the flow. All extremes are potentially open.

5. Enjoy. There is no 'wrong Contact dance'.

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