Contact improvisation is unlike any other dance form you have seen before. 

Moving to Silence

On May 20, dozens of people from across the region will gather in Richmond for what to some may look like a self-defense class or a new type of yoga. Actually the meeting — made up of people of all shapes and sizes — is a regional contact improv jam.

Contact improvisation is a free-form dance where all the moves are improvised and there are few rules. Participants — who range from professional dancers to reformed couch potatoes to the wheelchair bound — are barefoot and wear loose-fitting clothes. Dancers almost always have at least one partner, and have to maintain physical contact with some part of their partner's body most of the time. And unlike other forms of dance, contact improv is performed without music.

The reasons people give for taking part in the dance are as numerous as the types of people who participate. Some do it for exercise, some for therapy and others for fun.

"It's such a wonderful way to play," says Lynda Fleet, a free-lance writer who's been involved with contact improv since 1996. "I think of my contact partners as my playmates. It brings back the kind of play we forget as an adult."

Dancers may move slowly or quickly, sometimes running or skipping while lightly touching hands, other times rolling around on the floor. Small women pick up large men and large men romp around like small children. It can look a bit strange to someone unfamiliar with the art form.

John Hall, an employee at Fulton Hill Studios, where local weekly jams are held, walked in on a recent contact improv jam session and was a little confused when he saw a male and female dancer improvising. "I thought it was a form of self-defense," he says. "The way she was on him and he had picked her up."

The dance — which can be relaxing and exhausting at the same time — teaches many interpersonal skills such as trust and respect, says Rob Smith, a computer analyst. It's also a way to focus your concentration and energy while freeing your mind of the usual day-to-day distractions.

"Your goal is to try to think about the moment, to be in tune with the dance," Smith says. "It's about bringing to the table who you are at the moment."

Fleet agrees, saying that the dance can be an emotional catharsis. "It's a way to get it out of your head and let your body take over," she says. "You learn to be in the moment."

Steve Forth, owner and founder of Shard Live Performance Company, an experimental performance company in Richmond, plans to have some of his performers take contact improv classes to help prepare for an upcoming performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "It will lend a spontaneous air to the production, as opposed to having absolutely set choreography," he says. "[The actors] know they need to get from point A to point B, but how they get there is different every night."

But if the whole point of contact improv is that it's completely spontaneous and improvised, why take classes?

"The skills can be as basic as learning how to share weight or as intricate as flying someone around on your shoulders," Fleet says. More advanced instruction includes learning how to pick someone up and roll over each other without causing injury.

Brian Martin, an actor, has been doing contact improv since January to help him with his acting skills. "I find this similar to things I've done in theater. It's a great way to feel comfortable," he says. "And it's the best massage you'll ever have."

Making Contact
Every now and then, we attend an event that unexpectedly alters the way we think and live. One such critical event for me occurred in the late '70s when Carmen Beauchat, my college dance teacher, urged me to attend a concert at St. Mark's Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Unaccompanied by music, a handful of dancers in casual street attire alternated partners on the dance floor, whipping or sliding around each other's bodies with amazing fluidity. As dancers twirled around shoulders, perched precariously on a hip, or twisted around a belly, few movements betrayed where the next move would go. "Amazing choreography," I thought naively, impressed by the utter unpredictability and grace. Naive, I say, because every bend, roll and lift was created in the moment, nothing choreographed.

This was contact improvisation, an improvisational dance form created in the early '70s by Steve Paxton and developed with, among others, Nancy Stark Smith. Partners establish a point of physical contact between them, hip to hip, back to head, or any other imaginable combination. Leaning into each other, they use the contact point as an essential source of information as their bodies spontaneously play with sensitivities, weight, gravity and momentum.

One two-hour workshop later, I was hooked, and I have been practicing and teaching the dance ever since. Though I witnessed Paxton and Smith perform, some of contact's finest, and I have performed at concerts, the dance is more commonly generated at jams, informal gatherings of contacters who perform without an audience, much like folk dancing. Jams occur in many major cities across the United States and in more than 30 countries, including such unlikely places as Indonesia, Cuba, China and Estonia.

A contact enthusiast, I can find no activity to rival its physical thrill, meditative ease, wordless conversations and surprising discoveries. With its focus on inner attention, the necessity for listening to the many nuances of my moving body in relationship with another, it offers not only fun, but also a fountain of insights into how we dance through the day.

Sharing such intimate space without a script contains challenges, but it's precisely the scraping up against personal limits and cultural norms that provides rare opportunities for deepening awareness. Significantly, the heightened awareness of the moment colors my writing of poetry and fiction, providing an invaluable visceral connection to sound, imagery, meaning and form.

I am grateful that Carmen suggested I attend that event at St. Mark's Church. I am glad, too, that I listened.
— Cheryl Pallant


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