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A Journey from Professional Dance to Community Movement

Article by Tal Shibi

The Development of Contact Improvisation

The first performance piece utilizing the form which was to become Contact Improvisation was named “Magnesium”. The performance was introduced by Steve Paxton in 1972 and was participated by Oberlin College students, where Paxton was teaching at the time. The basic components of the dance piece were designed through dancers examining their own survival and response instincts whileexperimenting with elements of surprise. The dancers jumped, leaped, rolled and fell on each other while exploring options of rolling safely to meet the ground as well as options of using the body as a support system to soften impact for other dancers.

“I wanted to leave the surface of the earth and not worry about the landing” said Paxton, dancer and choreographer, about his desire in producing the performance. Paxton applied rolling techniques he learned through the Martial Art of Aikido, an art which uses the opponent’s movement intention and momentum to be redirected, in a way which can potentially keep both attacker and defender from harm or injury. The Magnesium performance heralded a new era for the dance world; an approach to dance which is rooted in the movement abilities and natural instincts of the participating dancers, and not necessarily in movements which are known in advance.
Paxton himself was a dancer in Merce Cunningham’s company for three years, a choreographer who took upon himself the task of renewing the dance making scene through collaborations with bold artists from various mediums and through games of chance as a way to create performances. For example, writing different directions for the arms and legs on pieces of paper and later executing the actions at random selection of the paper scraps. 
"I was working on a title called, “Untitled Solo,” and I had made—using the chance operations—a series of movements written on scraps of paper for the legs and the arms, the head, all different. And it was done not to the music but with the music of Christian Wolff."
—Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance, 2000

Cunningham collaborated with John Cage (known also for his groundbreaking approach to music. In his piece 4:33, the musicians are instructed not to play they’re instruments for the duration of the three movements, totaling in 4 minuets and thirty three seconds of silence, during which the sounds made by the environment are the music. This consideration is to me reminiscent of the question what is dance, which has been and still is refreshing the practice and ideas of movement and dance. Paxton’s interest in pedestrian movement illustrates this further; in his performance “satisfying lover”, pedestrian movements are given center stage, thereby allowed to be seen and known as dance)


The partnership between Cunningham and Cage birthed bold creativity and the breaking of conventional ideas in regard to creating dance performances. If we take a step back in time we discover that Cunningham himself was a student of Martha Graham, a dance pioneer who reshaped dance in America, and revolutionized the dance world by laying the foundations to what is today termed “modern dance”. 

This brief historical introduction reveals the wider context and culture in which the movement of Contact Improvisation dance emerged. The foundation of shattering the perception of what dance is began with Isadora Duncan and continued with Ruth Saint Denis and Ted Shawn, the pioneering teachers who found Graham and other talents among they’re students. Of the Saint Denis- Shawn dance school ( founded by the couple in 1915 in Los Angeles, California) was a new approach to Choreography and dance which can be displayed by the following quote from the couple:

"The art of dance is too big to be encompassed by any one system. On the contrary, the dance includes all systems or schools of dance. Every way that any human being of any race or nationality, at any period of human history, has moved rhythmically to express himself, belongs to the dance. We endeavor to recognize and use all contributions of the past to the dance and will continue to use all new contributions in the future".

The pattern emerging from an eagle eye point of view over time is one of breaking existing ideas and preconceptions regarding dance, laying foundations for a new way of moving, and the implementation of the new dance. In this manner the implementation process is deepened through the use of pedagogy and performance. Although Contact Improvisation exists and operates within a broad historical dance context, Many practitioners of Contact Improvisation (CI) are unaware of the vast professional background which hosts the roots of this dance form. In the early days of CI development, professional dancers of various movement backgrounds (gymnastics, athletics, modern) practiced CI as a preparation for a dance performance, which was revolutionary in the sense that it was showcasing the dancer’s moment by moment instincts in response to the ever changing, ever different body in motion. Which is to say, the responses are not planned because the actions are not known in advance. The movement exploration was based on physical forces: momentum, mass, skin sensations, efficient ways to fall to the floor, and the understanding of one’s own weight in relation to another body.


The Early Years:

Between 1972 to 1975, Contact Improvisation performances were created in a spontaneous fashion, by Steve Paxton and his students, without emphasis on ownership or hierarchy. A CI performance would occur if a person was willing to organize it, but there was not a single authority which took it upon itself to create CI performances. Paxton was the charismatic leader of the phenomenon, yet he shied away from any claims to ownership or hierarchy regarding the exploration method. Many of the participants were dancers who lived together or in close proximity to each other, thus enabling them to share ideas and practice together. The shared practice evolved frequently out of the intimate living situation. For example, many of the dancers of that first performance titled “magnesium”, which was shown in New York in the John Webber gallery, worked and lived in the same loft. This style of living closely promoted a new ground in terms of dance company/participants hierarchy.


As an artistic experiment, CI merged the personal and the social domains, and opposed to the ballet company structure, the contact culture did not create an order around one choreographer, and did not distinguish a clear separation between the personal and professional roles. The significance of which lies in the realization that the dancer in the studio was not necessarily different from the dancer on the stage, who in turn was not different than the dancer at his home. One of the titles of the earlier CI performances was “You Come, We Show You What We Do”. This performance title illustrates the personal and experimental atmosphere of CI development, and it hints at the openness of its creators toward defining what they are doing in the dance.


This open spirit towards CI remains to this day, as there is not one particular place to learn CI, and there is no certification course teaching teachers how to go about relaying the information. When the number of participants began to expand, and subjects such as personal safety inside the dance became more substantial, (the students included were by then both professional dancers and non- professional dancers) the active CI dancers put forth more effort to create regular classes and clearer guidelines for the dance. The reasons for this were both to attract new participants and to continue to distinguish CI dance from other forms. Along with the expansion of students and teachers, began the gradual transition between the birth of CI dance as a working method for professional dancers, to the birth of CI as a social dance movement, open to any person wanting to take part in it.
Following the initial years of CI being a working method of dancers exploring improvisational movement with touch and weight, the principles comprising the Contact dance became more coherent, and Paxton along with his students began sharing  experiences in this new movement art form to dance students in the U.S. and in Europe.

"When contact improvisation began, the group of people practicing it had a communal, egalitarian structure except for the fact that Steve Paxton was looked to as the teacher and the informal director. The social organization of the dancers involved with contact improvisation was much looser and more democratic than that of a traditional dance company, because no one was in direct control of what other dancers did. As younger dancers began teaching, and even performing on their own, they began to participate, with Paxton, in the informal leadership of their emerging community.
Paxton's orientation toward exploring extremes of movement, toward improvisation, and toward nonhierarchical organizations coincided with a social ambiance favoring experimentation, spontaneity, and egalitarianism. (Novak, 1990) 

One of the first definitions of Contact dancing was that of a folk art movement. Art which grows out of a specific location, with a communal grounding, mostly founded on a functional basis. Since the original idea of the dance is founded on the physical exploration of dancers in space, if one wanted dance partners, he/she had to teach others in order to have someone to dance with. In this manner, as is in folk dance and art, the Contact dance drew to itself people that would never have otherwise participated in a ballet or modern dance class, and that their main interest was embedded in the social and communal ingredient of the Contact Improvisation dance environment. During the seventies, The Contact dance existed in parallel platforms, both as a performance art, and as a social movement which revolved around CI meetings called "contact jams". The Jam space is a meeting place and time organized to practice the form, where the emphasis was placed on sharing the dance practice. The communal aspect of CI expressed itself in the manner of participants recognizing the Jams as part of their social life. In comparison, the professional dance world tends to separate itself from an inclusive community by distinguishing professional dance for dance performers, and leisurely dance for the audience. Through the CI events and Jams a new dynamic was created, whereby the dancers are at once both performers and audience members. The Jams allow both the gratification of participating and the satisfaction of being an observer, and by opening those doors they connect the between the social and the professional. 

In order to pass along the information regarding CI dance, skilled dancers who embody the knowledge and are able to coherently express it are needed. This dimension demands skill, yet the practice is not exclusive to dancers trained from a young age, the practice is open to people interested in developing their movement and curiosity through the dance.

Contact Improvisation Community Aspects:

The noticeable advantage in the transition of CI into the sphere of the community, lies in the accessibility of a movement practice open to people who would otherwise not have gone to a dance practice which does not include a social aspect.

“The most democratic dance between two bodies”; this was one of the earlier CI definitions. A prominent characteristic in CI meetings entails the lack of hierarchy within the dance. Men and Women exchange positions of lead and follower in the ongoing dance, and there are no distinct gender roles to follow. The creation of dance meetings without predetermined gender roles constitutes a refreshing approach in the dance world, which leans heavily on the historical context of clear gender relationships within the dance. (Such as in the early ballet roles where men would be positioned as “strong” by lifting the woman, and not vice versa.) Contact participants are invited to study at any level of experience and this allows newcomers to participate at the level of understanding they have reached in their dance. The advantage of a lack of hierarchy, can at times, turn into a disadvantage when CI dancers do not experience a deepening of technical skills regarding their own movement. If we take for example a Judo class where participants are only interested in the social aspect of the meeting, there would be no improvement of the sport or advance in skill to the next belt. Part of the grey area in this matter relays to the therapeutic aspects of Contact Improvisation dance. Improvisation (in the context of movement) allows us to express emotions through the body in a free unedited way. The space or container created in CI Jams allows emotions to move and be moved through the body, as well allowing the body to express its own unique motion. Often, CI jams incorporate recurring skills such as efficient movement on the floor, an intelligent distribution of weight (promoting safety and efficiency in motion), and the distinction of healthy boundaries. Hopefully the space will encourage the understanding that there is no one way to move.


My view is that over emphasizing the emotional aspect of the dance, while disregarding its physical expression and evolution, is the relative disadvantage of a community setting. The character of CI in its early evolution, as practiced by Paxton and his friends, was rooted and anchored in the physical aspects of the moving body.

Emphasis was stressed on immediate sensations of weight, momentum, mass, skin response to touch, and the joy of the body’s instinctual response in emergency situations. Part of the dance incorporated allowing the body to “take over” and find ways to respond at heightened speed and disorientation. Many CI dancers and participants are not aware of the professional background of the dance, thereby missing out on key points to fully understanding it. Throughout the years, Contact dance did not remain solely in the physical domain, and dancers dared to share their emotional and personal experiences. The periodical, Contact Quarterly, is one example of this, a quarterly issued dance journal which publishes articles and personal ideas and issues regarding the culture, teaching and learning of the CI phenomenon.

It is possible to merge the social and professional fields, and to respond to the challenge of emotional growth and personal movement evolution. To grow through the personal body (with the unique personal history and biography), and through the non-personal body (the one which exists only here and now, anchored in the corporeal immediate existence  of breathing in and out). The advancement in physical skills of the dancer serves him/her both as a solo artist and even more so when in contact with other dance partners, a practice which intensifies the amount of information one has to process. I find the diffusing of the lines between social dance and professional dance to be a healthy advantage when practiced in an intelligent way. The positive potential lies in keeping the advantages of both spheres: The improvement and sophistication of physical skills and expression alongside an openness to accepting people of various backgrounds, who do not necessarily fit into the category of “professional dancers". Utilizing these qualities in a non-judgmental environment encourages both experiential and experimental attitudes to meeting through dance, which comprise the texture of a thriving and truly diverse community.

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