Why Do You Dance Contact Improvisation?

Moments of Rapture

The Instruments

Who is the luckiest in this whole orchestra?

The reed.

Its mouth touches your lips to learn music.

All reeds, sugarcane especially, think only

of this chance. They sway in the canebrakes,

free in the many ways they dance.

Without you the instruments would die.

One sits close beside you. Another takes a long kiss.

The tambourine begs, touch my skin so I may be myself.

Let me feel you enter each limb, bone by bone,

so that which died last night can be whole today.

Why live some soberer way, and feel you ebbing out?

I won’t do it.

Either give me enough wine or leave me alone,

now that I know how it is

to be with you in a constant conversation.

– Rumi

We pitch out through the tops of our heads, leaving our feet behind, we fall together, both rolling into each others’ bodies as we descend, not foreseeing who will be on top when we reach the floor. I dance with the image that I am a river and you are the banks of my river. I don’t know what’s downstream. I let that come. If the shores get narrower I move faster, if the banks get wider I flow slowly into the tributary. If I encounter a boulder I can flow around it or go under it and pick it up, or go over it and get lifted. I’m constantly being drawn into things. At the same time I know I am also the shores to your river and you, too, don’t know what is around the next bend.

The backs of our hands meet. We follow their nomadic pathway between us and through the room. You are a stranger at the jam. I will never learn your name. Our authentic, spontaneous contact entails surrendering our needs to gain or profit from this interaction. It is the process of relinquishing a desired result or outcome. Contact is the crossroads where we meet, where information and goods are exchanged. Contact is the marketplace, the watering hole, it is where we allow ourselves to be affected and where our strengths and limitations are challenged, encouraged, and tested. Authentic, spontaneous contact is about entering the exchange and flow, willing to bargain our perceptions and actions without fear of loss or promise of resolution.

I’m on all fours. You are standing next to me and using my back like a trampoline to fall into me and be bounced back up to standing, only to fall into me again. Old friend, I remember the pathways even after all these years. It’s familiar, I know this dance because we have had decades of creating history together. We’ve indelibly imbedded who we are into each other’s cells and synapses – what we like, where our inviolable edges are. And here we are years later dancing in the thin air of central Mexico, finding ourselves airborne and flying and bellowing with our remembered delight.

Dancing with you is like dancing with myself. You’re big. I roll up your standing back to your shoulders and I keep rolling towards your head and circle from shoulder to shoulder like a helicopter blade twirling. With you I like to sweat and feel my lungs at their full capacity. And be pushed and push back. And laugh.

I like to feel my skin blossom with the contact of your skin. Like stamen and pistil– that pollinating that makes us flower into beauty. And when I dance I do feel beautiful– strong, resilient, creative, courageous, sensitive, human. It makes me feel I’m reaching something whole.

We run through the room, and with one hand on each other’s shoulder you are airborne for every five steps I take. And when you come down, I find myself leaning through my arm on your shoulder, spinning feet out perpendicular to you, flying around in circles. You are tiny standing next to me and yet when you dance you become so large. I dance contact with you because I love the thrill. Falling off center and knowing that I have to have the abilities to save myself when I need to. Living and playing with the physical forces as we two individuals negotiate our time together. The thrill of living in the instability of human interaction.

I jump through space flying horizontally to alight on your chest. Rather than stand there and catch me, you jump to join me, pivoting my flying body in the air and we turn inside out as we fall soundlessly to the ever-waiting ground. I dance contact with you to feel like an animal, to lose all thought, to stop plotting the future. To live in what this moment brings, to be in the hunt, the adrenals at full throttle here in the Savannah, the lion having just come into view.

We are standing head to head feeling the slow sway up through our bodies from our ankles. I live with this ideal – like a poet who wants to write with the profusion and profundity of Shakespeare – I dance with the ideal of occupying the same space as you. Not only sharing the same time, but to actually be where your body is in this moment. How do I do this? Do I push my way in? Do I become porous and blend with your cells? Do I find the smallest portal possible and pour my fluid self through that opening? I don’t know yet, but I keep looking year after year, decade after decade for that consummation in the dance. Sometimes it feels sexual. More often it feels spiritual, like an ultimate merging and dissolution into the divine.

I’m standing knees bent. You are folded at your knees laying back, your head and shoulder supported on my knee. Your feet and your shoulder are what holds your arching body up. I realize that if I jump from here I will take you up with me and you will be standing with me on your shoulder. I know your ability to take care of yourself anywhere, anytime. I leap. To our great surprise you are running through the room with me on your shoulder. Our dance becomes the speculum through which life is experienced viscerally, beyond thoughts of empire building, closer to the corporeal pulse of heart and intestines and lymph and our blood ties to the seasons and tides and the fecundity of the world we live in.

As we run through the room together, we take turns flying into the under-arc up to each other’s hips. We depart from the archetypal, from being paragons of virtue and having ideals to live by. It’s no longer about the battles of the gods. But not unlike the mythological world, the dance is generous. We are rewarded with a cornucopia of sensations, images, touch, and encounters.

We are repeatedly falling into each other, surprising ourselves each time with where we end up. Sometimes swooning into rolling, sometimes falling up into hugging the narrowest cliff edge of support for a ride that extends into the next fall. I dance contact for the sheer fluid pleasure of moving with other bodies, feeling their generosity as they pour their weight into mine, as I pour myself into them. The smell of my dance partners, seeing their eyes as we acknowledge what we are doing. The feeling that this is not just some avocation, some social dance, but a form of re-wiring, of finding ourselves with a greater capacity for ongoing joy.

As we dance you tear my shirt off piece by piece. You are a dance floor lover. We live as gourmands of our senses. We are bon vivants, oh we live. Together we are willing to slow down enough to study and experience the finer details. Contact Improvisation makes us connoisseurs of our own bodies relating to others and the world. We become Epicureans of human interaction and our palettes open to subtler flavors of intercourse. In the secret language of our intimate dance, our cells whisper our names: Voluptuaries.

You stand almost a head taller than me. I feel completely safe taking off into the air in your direction, not knowing what will come of it. I dance contact with you so I can feel what it’s like to soar like a hawk, dive as an otter, tussle with lion cubs, slime like a slug, hover like a humming bird, be pursued like a deer, bear down on prey, sleep on a rock after shedding my skin, break out of my pupa to dry and spread my wings for the very first time.

We repeatedly bump into each other until we fall down in a laughing heap. I dance to know the stories of my partners. What do their tendons tell me, their willingness to support, to trick, to arrive, to contain. And what narrative are we creating together?

We are back to back, feeling the support of the other. One of the more painful aspects of this form, because the dance is a never-ending inquiry, is the constant admission that I don’t know- I don’t have it all figured out. Sometimes it’s boring, I’m not satisfied, I want more, I want less, I feel like I’m not meeting you well, I’d rather be in another dance. You’re too sweaty, seem distracted, you’re too manipulative. You are the mirror of my existence, the same unconscious willfulness I bring to the dance I bring to my life. With you, with every partner, I get to see a tangible and sometimes startling reflection of how I live all my relationships.

I get in this rock tumbler with you, knock around with you, so that my sharp edges will soften. So hopefully the gems hidden inside will begin to show through.

We are both twirling around our individual centers. Sometimes our butts or hands meet as we come around. Contact Improvisation is like an artesian well, the water keeps coming once it’s found. Sometime, some days, one has to find the source of the spring again, but once found, it soothes, nourishes, enlivens (enlightens).

After mirroring our judgements, our desires, our boundaries, the dance brings into focus a quiet place. After cajoling, massaging, forcing us to accept who we are as we are, a quiet rises up in us, like the earth breathing us rather than us having to will anything. There comes a moment of acceptance, of living in the current swirl of sensation and interaction and motion, except that we are in the eye of the hurricane, at ease, letting the rest swirl around us.

We push, grab, tackle each other. We cradle and assist. I dance contact because I’m a sexual being. Dancing with men makes me proud to be a man. Feeling the strength of my partners, their sweat as we push up against each other makes me know that I have a place to stand in this world. And when I dance with women, smell their scents, I get to feel a dance that comes from deep in the loins. I get to feel the cells coming alive, to know that I’m part of the link between generations – that my sexuality is connected to something greater than the personal. And while I go home to the One woman, when I dance I can feel my attraction to the many.

We are surfing each other’s bodies across the floor. We dance contact because the form is unfinished. It’s not a choreography that we rely on, rather it’s a series of principles that needs you and I to perfect it. We are the completion.

We move bellies down to the floor. It’s late at night at the jam in Potsdam. We have danced long and hard and we are both on empty. It’s like we’ve hiked a long strenuous day and dropped ourselves to the ground to rest. After a while on this mountaintop our eyes focus in the grass close to our faces. We notice the whole world is moving. Flowers that are smaller than we ever imagined come into view and here is an ecosystem of 4, 6, 100 legged creatures going about their day of collecting food, mating, building homes, moving hills, crawling, burrowing, jumping, waiting.

In our dance, when we slow down and focus on the point close by we find a whole world of aliveness and information. Moving only a few inches away brings in a whole new ecosystem to explore and examine. Normally we mindlessly roll over these subtle and small lives. Taking a moment to see them allows us to move with a little more compassion and humility. Feeling the contact point, what is in it? Can I slow down enough to feel your breath, your heartbeat, your story? With these newly discovered details our dance continues enlivened once again.

We are rolling the point of contact up the switchbacks of each other’s bodies. I dance with you because I haven’t been able to answer the question: Why? Why am I alive? Why are we here? My edges dancing and merging with your boundaries gives the present moment reason enough. Life becomes tangible. I might not have the answers, but a fullness comes from being filled with the inquiry. I dance so I can dance the questions.

Again as we dance, our faces are wet with tears. When we do Contact what we do is so simple. We meet physically and see where we go. You are a puzzle of movement patterns and possibilities that meets my collection of pathways and desires. Where do we go together? What is our dance this moment of this day?

Yet tucked into that beguiling simplicity are worlds of untamed emotion, raw face to face contact, moments of heart-rending tenderness, and the exhilaration of flights between constellations. When we dance nothing is hidden. There are moments of clear mirrored reflection of who we are. Sometimes flattering, sometimes startling. For another breath of our short lives we live awake, dancing towards the shimmer when the curtain goes down one last time.

Joined along the sides of our torsos, we both fold at the hips, knees and ankles. It feels like our hearts are beating in time together. We are slow and in each moment we arrive at the peak and can choose to go down any side of the mountain, only to be at yet another pinnacle. We dance and no one inside is talking. We are in the state where we have an ear next to an ear, and they are both listening at the shores of the great silence.

3 thoughts on “Why Do You Dance Contact Improvisation?

  1. Ken Manheimer

    Contact Improv is one of the most satisfying and rewarding things that I do.

    When a dance clicks, I love a kind of cooperation with my partner. It is as much like the coordination of the parts of my body with each other than anything else I can imagine. Vice versa, this cooperation with others teaches me about coordination with myself. Like Martin describes in so many ways, above, in this cooperation, I get to be more fully, immediately engaged than usual, more fully, vitally, directly engaged with another person. Vibrantly alive, together.

    Whether or not a dance is clicking, the practice continually guides us to this cooperation. It is an opportunity to grapple with the dynamics of collaboration in immediate, elementary ways, to experiment with and sort out what works and what does not. To practice and enjoy connecting in so far as we are able, in the moment, without many of the obligations and complications of many other kinds of connecting. In this way, it is an unprecedented opportunity to explore shared play.

    This learning happens whether or not I explicitly identify the opportunity. However, I have thought long and carefully about identifying it, because I’ve found that recognizing it helps me to organize my attention, and to support others in organizing theirs. To clarify what is useful and what is not, improve our abilities to find dances that click.

    In a real way, to develop our abilities to engage with each other and ourselves.

  2. Benj Langdon

    I love this as well as comments! This practice saved my life on at least one occasion and coupled with Feldenkrais as the 2 most useful mindfulness practices I have encountered in the past 45 years.!


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