On Balance


On a Monday night at the Children’s Aid Society in Greenwich Village, 25 New Yorkers—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, young and old—roll over each other and the floor like particles in Brownian motion. There’s an infectious joy in the room, balanced by intense concentration. Two women break apart and run, hand in hand, weaving around grappling couples. A man leaps from another’s thigh and slides down his leg to the ground. Groans and sighs float in the air, along with frequent laughter.

These people are inventing their own ways of moving and meeting. At the same time, they are practicing contact improvisation, which is being displayed and celebrated during Movement Research’s 11th annual Improvisation Festival (IFNY), through December 14. The festival features performances and workshops by contact improv pioneers Daniel Lepkoff and Nancy Stark Smith, among many others.

Contact Improv, or CI, has been slipping out of verbal grasps since its earliest days 30 years ago, when, led by Steve Paxton, a group of young dancers and athletes including Smith and Lepkoff experimented in a Chinatown loft. In January of 1972, Paxton—a former Merce Cunningham dancer, member of the improvisational Grand Union collective, and aikido student—gave a performance called Magnesium, with 11 students doing an arresting type of athletic, inward-focused movement: wrestling and falling, jumping and rolling.

That summer, Paxton gathered another group to rehearse, lengthening and refining the movement phrases and working in practice clothes for five hours at a time at the John Weber Gallery. The performances had a powerful emotional and kinesthetic effect on audiences, and, along with jams (unled, free-form partnered workshops open to all levels), drew converts across the continent. “It’s always been interesting for me to consider and propose to students that CI could have remained simply a ‘piece’ that Steve Paxton made in 1972,” says Smith. “I don’t think it was his intention to make such a widespread movement form.” Indeed, very early on, Paxton and the other originators decided not to codify, copyright, or contain CI by controlling who was qualified to teach it. Instead, in 1975, Smith, one of CI’s most tirelessly traveling teachers and practitioners, helped found Contact Quarterly, a journal she still edits; communication is still the movement’s only central organizational principle. “There have been no official limitations set on it,” she says. “People are encouraged to learn through teaching . . . when you share the work in some way, you really bring yourself to it.”

As a result, contact today is a hydra-headed, worldwide phenomenon: “art sport,” theatrical form, educational tool, “urban folk dance,” therapeutic bodywork, even awareness practice. Whatever their particular approach, local contact practitioners and teachers tell of a passionate conversion to and immersion in CI, and a process of physical, emotional, and mental transformation.

“When I came to New York in 1994 I started studying contact like crazy. I had seen a video of it back in Greece and I was totally in love with the form,” says Amanda Loulaki, programmer of IFNY. Her eyes light up as she describes the emotional dynamics of her dance. “Every time you choose something new in CI, it’s because something in your life is changing. It’s completely personal and emotional. When I first started I had a hard time giving the weight to other people—I was always lifting. The moment I was able to [lean] on somebody else was also the moment I was able to stick up for myself.” The physical intimacy of contact—being lifted, held, leaned on—combined with the emotional intimacy of communicating without words, deeply implicates the heart in the dance, not without risks.

“It can be intense,” says Jim Dowling, coordinator of the Monday-night contact jam. “Before I was involved in running the jams I would sometimes do six months on and six months off, because it would get to be too much—that intensity of encounter with another person.” He leaps from a chair in his Park Slope apartment and crosses the room to act out the story of a paralyzed woman, a former dancer, who came to the jam one night in her wheelchair. He offered to dance with her, and she touched the back of her arm to his to roll across and around it in a simple contact move. “The energy in that woman’s arm, the need that had been pent up for so long . . . ” He sinks back in his chair. “I can still feel it. It was a quality of touch that could never be repeated.”

“People are starved for real contact,” says Smith, “a kind of touch that’s creative, physical, and communicative, and an awareness practice that’s physical.” The encounter with another becomes an opportunity for self-discovery; the absorption in the body’s capabilities frees the mind.

“You face your fears in a real way because your body’s on the line,” says Tony Silva, a dancer, teacher, visual artist, and choreographer. “In 1984, Nancy Stark Smith really became a mentor to me. I’ve appreciated [her] esoteric, spiritual approach mixed with a physical approach. It’s imagistic and energy work mixed with a body in space meeting another person.” Silva is captivated by CI’s symbolic possibilities. “I’ve always been involved in contact as a physical practice and a spiritual practice as well,” he says. “It’s a metaphor for connection—a practice of being in the moment with someone else and taking things at face value.”

This connection has been made in many places far from the American counterculture where it was born. New York contact classes and jams often see representatives of contact’s global growth—Dowling mentions recent visitors from Australia, Japan, and Uruguay—many of whom return to their home countries to teach and send their students back to the jam. “I’m interested in the fact that it’s been taken up on so many continents,” says Smith. “It’s remarkable that it’s still relevant, still useful to people, though in fact I’m not surprised. Maybe if you could do it alone in a room there wouldn’t be so many people doing it.” She describes the scene in Buenos Aires, where there are contact sessions five nights a week; with the economic collapse, participants have braved curfews to make it to the jam.

In the end, the secret of contact’s flourishing lies in its ability to remain in the moment, without expectations for the future or attempts to recapture the past. Many practitioners have described its curious Taoist quality, the suspension of will required to respond to a partner in a spontaneous way. In the same way, without any strong thrust or grab by individuals, the dance continues. No one is making much money off its global popularity—there’s no contact Jivamukti, no special sweatpants. Nevertheless, Smith is sanguine about her legacy. “As long as it’s useful to someone, they’re going to use it. The practice carries its essence . . . it seems to have something of a similar spark in all the ways people use it. It lights people up—and it is spreading.”

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