Contact improvisation

Contact improvisation is a form of improvised dancing that has been developing internationally since 1972. Contact improvisation involves the exploration from one’s body to the next by using the fundamentals of sharing weight, touch, being kinetically aware and finding a point of contact between you and your partner(s). American dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton had first conceived and presented this form of movement and has impacted how dancers and people view movement by a large factor. Paxton utilized his past training such as Aikido, a martial art form, to explore and push boundaries with his colleagues and students to develop a more profound way of moving with another being. This practice plays with the artistry of falling off balance, counterbalance, finding the shelves of the body, learning the mechanics of the body in order to handle someone else’s weight or be lifted, breathing techniques, and the art of getting to know your partner past the physical point through the physicality.

Steve Paxton, along with many other dance pioneers such as Nancy Stark Smith, Danny Lepkoff, Lisa Nelson, Karen Nelson, Nita Little, Andrew Harwood, and Ray Chung, had created a movement that has evolved into an art-sport, oscillating between different emphases depending on the moments and personalities who practice it:

  • experimental dance (practice-based research organized in dance laboratories),
  • theatrical form (improvised performances, lectures-demonstrations…),
  • educational tool (classical training for professional and non-professional dancers in improvisation and in partnering
  • social dancing (through informal gatherings known as jams)
  • awareness practice

Formally, Contact Improvisation is a movement improvisation that is explored with an other being. According to one of its first practitioners, Nancy Stark Smith, it « resembles other familiar duet forms, such as the embrace, wrestling, surfing, martial arts, and the jitterbug, encompassing a wide range of movement from stillness to highly athletic. 

Various definitions establish in their own ways what was at stake in a Contact Improvisation duo. Steve Paxton proposed the following in 1979:

« The exigencies of the form dictate a mode of movement which is relaxed, constantly aware and prepared, and onflowing. As a basic focus, the dancers remain in physical touch, mutually supportive and innovative, meditating upon the physical laws relating to their masses: gravity, momentum, inertia, and friction. They do not strive to achieve results, but rather, to meet the constantly changing physical reality with appropriate placement and energy. »

Birth of contact improvisation

From Magnesium to Contact Improvisations

Contact improvisation was developed in the United States in the 1970s by a group of dancers and athletes gathered for the first time under the impetus of choreographer and dancer Steve Paxton.

In January 1972, Steve Paxton was in residence at Oberlin College on a tour with Grand Union, a collective where he collaborated among others with Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. For several weeks, he offered Oberlin students two sets of practices:

  1. every morning at dawn, a “soft class” involving an exploration that he soon called the Small Dance , a form of meditation that is practiced standing, where attention is paid to postural adjustments and micro-weight transfers;
  2. and later in the day, rehearsals for a performance that he transmitted to a group of young men and whose score is to explore the extremes of movement and disorientation, from standing still to falling, rolling, colliding, and jumping in the air. For these rehearsals, Steve Paxton relied on his training in modern dance (he had danced in the companies of José Limon and Merce Cunningham), in Aikido and in gymnastics.

The meeting of these practices gives rise to Magnesium a twenty-minute long piece where dancers perform on gym mats, jump and bump into each other, manipulate and cling to one another. “In this performance, dancers usually use their bodies as a whole, all parts are simultaneously unbalanced or thrown against another body or in the air.”After about fifteen minutes, the dancers stop and start a “Small Dance” that concludes the performance.

In the Spring of 1972, Steve Paxton received a grant from Change, Inc which allowed him to invite dancers to work on the form he was evolving. He invited some colleagues from the Judson Dance Theater years like Barbara Dilley and Nancy Topf,Release Technique pioneer Mary Fulkerson, as well as students met during his teaching tours, including Nancy Stark Smithand Curt Siddall (from Oberlin College), Danny Lepkoff and David Woodberry (from the University of Rochester, where Mary Fulkerson was a teacher) and Nita Little (from Bennington College).

At the end of this week of residency, the group presents a performance which Steve Paxton names Contact Improvisations. They present it in the form of a permanent afternoon practice for five days, at the John Weber Gallery in Manhattan, which at the same time showcases a film by George Manupelli, Dr. Chicago, and where spectators come and go as the practice continues.

The Round Robin

The “Round Robin” is the most frequent structure of performances, this happens where a couples of either duos, trios, solos, etc. arrive in the center of a supported circle of other dancers, who can at any time integrate the couples and replace one of the two dancers, and so on. Dancers are dressed casually (sweat pants, t-shirts…) and performances can happen in many venues, including theaters, bookstores, galleries. The duration of the concerts go from 20 minutes to 6 hours.

Central to the poetics of the form is a desire to create a non-hierchichal way of developing the material, based on the simple exchange of weight and touch between partners improvising together. This stance has been argued to reflect the counter-cultural context in which Contact Improvisation was developed (aftermath of the 1960s Vietnam War and Hippie movement).

Similar simultaneous explorations

Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest(1964).

The explorations envisaged in the first moments of Contact Improvisation are not specific to the collective led by Steve Paxton. Many other forms of dance had also experimented with weight, touch and improvisation and examples abound in the 1960s of dancers who practice something similar, but not as systematic as Contact Improvisation, including Trisha Brown, Grand Union, Daniel Nagrin’s Workgroup ,Anna Halprin ‘s San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, Julian Beck and Judith Malina’sLiving Theater or Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy (1964).

Simone Forti for instance had developed Huddle in the 1960s: a dance in which six to seven dancers were invited to form together an agglutinated mass of which one by one they detached themselves to gradually reintegrate it, thus testing the tactile, olfactory and weight sensations.

The development of an art-sport

Development of contact improvisation in North America


Following the first performance of Contact Improvisations in New York in 1972, the dancers are scattered in different states of the United States but are already beginning to teach the practice. The syncopated, risky, raw and awkward style of the first performances gives place rather quickly to a variety of aesthetics within the form.

One of those aesthetics was the development of smooth, continuous controlled flow in the late 70s and early 80s, running parallel with the opposite trend of interest in conflict and unexpected responses including previously avoided eye contact and directive hand contact. Says Nancy Stark Smith, 

Nancy Stark Smith (left) and Nita Little, in aReUnion concert (with Steve Paxton, David Woodberry and Curt Siddall) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1976. Photograph by Uldis Ohaks

“Within the study of Contact Improvisation, the experience of flow was soon recognized and highlighted in our dancing. It became one of my favorite practices and I proceeded to “do flow” for many years-challenging it, testing it: could we flow through this pass? Could we squeak through that one, and keep going?

Regardless of those aesthetic choices, the central characteristic of Contact Improvisation remains a focus on bodily awareness and physical reflexes rather than consciously controlled movements. One of the founders of the form, Daniel Lepkoff, comments that the “precedence of body experience first, and mindful cognition second, is an essential distinction between Contact Improvisation and other approaches to dance.” Another source affirms that the practice of Contact Improvisation involves “mindfulness, sensing and collecting information” as its core.

In the world

The network of social practices or amateurs of Contact Improvisation has spread to all the continents except Antarctica, with a particularly intense presence in the Americas, Western and Eastern Europe, Finland, Russia, Israel, Japan, Australia, India, China and Malaysia, as evidenced by the regularity of the jams, festivals and weekly courses taught in these countries./Gjithqka Nga Pak




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