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  • Writer's pictureKourtney Yadao

Contact Improvisation in Dance Education

I started out dance with the least experience out of my colleagues. Contact improvisation is what helped me broaden my perspective on how the body can move through space, while also learning how my body interprets movement. Contact improvisation can be viewed in many ways. Contact improvisation made its debut in the dance world thanks to Steve Paxton in 1972. Evolving through time, contact improvisation has changed views of interpretation, keeping the same aspect and structure of exploration. It can mean many things to different people and can come from a different approach from different perspectives. My view of contact improvisation is that it has become a reliable source when learning other dance techniques. Because I learned contact improvisation at an early stage of my dance career, I believe that implementing a stronger base of contact improvisation within high school dance education should be strongly encouraged.

Contact Improvisation is a process, a form that unravels itself within ongoing movement. As movement is shaped, it accumulates a frame work that inspires new upcoming movement. The momentum in the movement is what creates the extra layer of physical and dramatic transitions. It is the relation of a person to another, and more. It is a social form that also inspires force. The more exploration, the process is more hideous as it becomes more socialized; each step depends on the previous one. The form of improvisation is the intent and the content of spontaneous decisions of exploration. Improvisation can be defined as a development of improvised movement material that is facilitated through a variety of creative explorations of the body including body mapping, levels, shape, and dynamics. There are various questions that we can ask ourselves on how we move and the quality of the movement. With improvisation, The answers can’t be found in words, but in our body and its awareness in the experience. “Dancers may struggle to master certain complex movement skills, but there are many things that the body knows and can do without such training.” (Blom, 19) It is not emphasized on new innovative movement; what is realized is the uniqueness of the combination of movements mixed with context, and the consciousness of the mover at the moment. Abstracting the abstract is the constant meaning of motion for improvisation. Abstraction finds the authentic parts of the manipulation process.

During postmodernism, people’s objectives were a vision of social change, inside and outside the studios. Choreographers were seeking a new range of motion that was never done before, what was the next step into modern dance. The meaning of art was transforming into a another defined interpretation that formulated the truths within issues around modernism. Pulling away from the default compositional requirements, Steve Paxton noticed a new idea away from materialistic processes. After training with Merce Cunningham and José Limón, Paxton moved to New York where he was a member of the José Limón Company in 1959 and a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1961 to 1964. During that time, he was constantly working new angles with his movement and looking through the “why nots” that occurred to his alternatives. His way of thinking resulted in what he perceived in the seventies as a gap in dance training. His form of movement, using pedestrian activities, made his work more accessible to untrained dancers. Whom he encouraged to continue the explorations. Paxton’s strategy of “playing games” initiated the idea of not knowing forms, and no aspect of someone else’s work along with his. Stripping away any influences that can prevent the interpretation of the works on its own term was the main goal that was taken away to create a mutually moving mass, involving body contact and a sensitive give and take weight change in interchanging active and passive roles. “Instead of manipulating form to reveal content, he tried to discover form as an entity in its own right.” (Reynolds, 407) Paxton later led his focus on how flow can come from improvisational interactions between two people that introduced the approach of contact improvisation in 1972.

Since the 1970s, contact improvisation became a worldwide practice in places such as the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Not just in the studio, contact improvisation also happens in the nontheatrical settings where dancers and non dancers get together. It is an ongoing practice that contact improvisers will showcase in a casual theatrical setting where the observing audience is there or not. In postmodern culture, contact improvisation had a variety of significant meanings such as being spontaneous, self-expression, freedom, accessibility, authenticity, risk, etc. Throughout history, the different aspects, values, and goals of contact improvisation have shifted with the historical events happening in the political world.

In the early 1960s, Robert Dunn was teaching at the Cunningham studio with students that devoted their time to Cunningham and his liberated ideas. Dunn further extended the boundaries of dance to embrace a diverse landscape of ideas and strategies borrowed from theatre, film, music, painting, literature, and new social themes. Cultural ideas were shifting dramatically with rights for women and blacks. Groups such as The Judson Church Dance Theatre, and Grand Union were actively challenging expectations. Mixing the boundaries between performer and audience member, and art and life, were blurring the lines together. This made New York a vital art scene with rule benders, and showcased the first dance that was refereed to as contact improvisation. Starting as a series of experiments for men in duets, it became a gender-integrated form that allowed both bodies to investigate various meanings of weight sharing, leader, follower, lifting, carrying, and many other explorations.

As contact improvisation continue to spread in the late seventies, it became associated with other culture trends including gender issues of equality. The views of a woman’s strength and superiority and the views of the male role being sensitive was a new aspect that occurred. The Grand Union is a good example of a group that was committed onto the stage “cold” with no preparation but for pure improvisation. Rainer gave the performers improvised blocks of material that displayed a situation-response, or call and response incorporating contemporary movements and collectivist political movements in that time period. Going into the eighties and nineties, contact improvisation was diverging from earlier generations of improvisation with motivations and meanings which then considered that there was no authentic self postmodern culture but a shift of identity of the past. Improvisation was losing the meaning of exploration and expressing freedom. The difference between the audience’s point of view versus a dancer’s point of view is that the audience has or has not seen previous content; it is up to the dancer to find the simplistic authentic parts that can be abstracted to where there is a story being told that it is not repeated but a shifted view. An 1963 interview, Ted Shawn stated, “it’s born and dies in the very second you’re doing it, there can be pictures of it and it can hold memories in people’s mind but it isn’t the art itself because there is nothing better in dance than seeing it live in person.” (Nataloff) This applies to any dance structure, which fits the best for contact improvisation because improvisation is spontaneous and in the moment, there is no recognition of the motion that is happening but for what is happening next.

The main focuses of contact improvisation are spatial relations, shapes of the body, and movement and meaning. Some may say that contact improvisation is the building block towards choreography and performance. Paxton believed that contact improvisation signified and helped create a set of interconnected vales important to the artistic avant-garde. Spatial relations has many ideas within movement, thinking about where you are in space in relation to other bodies around you. Just like a structured ballet class, there are set lines, there is an awareness of space in contact improv, a constant shift, when working with another dancer versus yourself.

Shapes of the body is taken from Paxton’s idea of “manipulating the language of ballet to see how far it can go before it becomes unrecognizable.” (Reynolds, 455) As we adapted to time, there are further questions asked when focusing on shape. We recognize the space around us and how that can influence one’s decision process of exploration. Using contact improvisation as a choreographic tool creates forms such as an organizational pattern of bodies in space and the body itself. There is an advantage to having an outside view, but in the moment, there is a constant invention of a variety of forms that unravels itself to the dancer. Contact improvisation emphasizes the action of falling, catching, recovery, and supporting, all things that are best to explore with a partner. As dancers, we can easily sink into the norm rather than taking risks with movement. Exploring the idea of falling, catching, recovery, and support allows one to take the risk knowing that there is a spot which then leads to the knowledge to traveling throughout the space around you.

The meaning of movement is the top layer that should be the last idea to focus on contact improvisation. Just like we say “performance quality” in class when showing a combination, it is the same thing in contact improvisation, but asking the dancer, why make this choice, what does that show. We generate different points of initiation throughout the body to find a pathway for interaction throughout the body. Often we negotiate this transaction between shifting body weights and how we do so, while also simultaneously moving different body parts that send our energies towards different directions. Movement style has been influenced by movement environment. The sixties where the “qualities of focusing inwardly while dancing and moving in an ongoing, freely flowing manner,” (Novack, 137) Now, we want to see the connection throughout the movement, really showing why you are moving together rather than dancing for nothing, there is more of a storyline behind it, a reason to keep moving through space with your partner. “The dancing image can be considered from the outside or from the inside as an exterior image, what is seen from the audience’s perspective, or as an interior image, what a dancer works from to motivate movement.” (Buckwalter, 91) The exterior point of view is mainly caused by our vision and sound, it is the way we perceive information the easiest, being kinesthetically aware of what’s happening on stage, looking for the picture of bodies in space. The interior view is the source of imagery into movement, that sparks the inspiration of “what if’s” displayed onto the body in motion, exploration of how the body can move with a counterbalance.

At Colorado State University, contact improvisation is deeply implemented into the dance courses. Within the dance education program, the selective courses are in an order: Dance Improvisation, Dance Choreography I, and Dance Choreography II. The views of having these courses in this select order is to start a dancer’s exploration of individual movement in a great way because it develops the idea of doing your own movement vocabulary which then creates a group piece. Starting at your first term is a great way to start in college, knowing that you are going into the field for your career; however, bringing the concept of contact improvisation at a secondary school level will help to enhance the knowledge of future dancers.

The article, Fostering the Growth of Beginners Improvisational Skills: A Study of Dance Teaching Practices in the High School Setting, talks about an interpretive study, aimed at two different practices of improvisation in a secondary school dance program. Specifically in teaching practices and approach, it was aimed at the presentation given to do. The overall results were positive in the classes’ dynamics of an improvisational situation, as it provided a strong understanding of generating movement simultaneously, being alert with one another with movement, and laying a solid foundation in improvisational skills. Reading this article reminded myself that there are schools and parts of the country that believe in fostering improvisational skills such as this study which can easily show similarities between different technique styles. There is a positive impact of learning contact improvisation at a younger age rather than starting at the higher education level. There are always the questions of how to push dancers and how dance. Implementing the concept of contact improvisation will broaden the perspective of movement to show that there is so much to show and impact others.


Works Cited

Blom, Lynne Anne, and L. Tarin Chaplin. “The Experiential Body of Knowledge .” The

Moment of Movement: Dance Improvisation, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988, pp.

16–27.

Buckwalter, Melinda. “Spacial Relations.” Composing While Dancing: An Improviser's

Companion, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2010, pp. 76–90.

Buckwalter, Melinda. “Dancing Takes Shape.” Composing While Dancing: An Improviser's

Companion, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2010, pp. 34–59.

Caines, Rebecca, and Ajay Heble. “Spontaneous Combustion: Notes on Dance

Improvisation from the Sixties to the Nineties.” The Improvisation Studies Reader:

Spontaneous Acts, Routledge, 2015, pp. 134–141.

Cooper Albright, Ann, and David Gere. “Improvising Body, Improvising Mind.” Taken By

Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader, Wesleyan University Press, 2003, pp. 3-38.

Cooper Albright, Ann, and David Gere. “Reconsidering Contact Improvisation.” Taken By

Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader, Wesleyan University Press, 2003, pp. 153–

211.

Lord, Madeleine. “Fostering the Growth of Beginners Improvisational Skills: A Study Dance

Teaching Practices in the School Setting.” Research in Dance Education, vol. 2, no. 1,

2001, pp. 19–40., doi:10.1080/14647890120058294.

Nataloff, director. Ted Shawn (Interview Clip). YouTube, YouTube, 26 Apr. 2009,

www.youtube.com/watchv=s17xsoHYYA&index=2&list=PLj7co0LUEXmtZ_uVNJ9cCrmI

nKr-j6g6w.

Novack, Cynthia J. “Movement and Meaning in Contact Improvisation .” Sharing the Dance:

Contact Improvisation and American Culture, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990,

pp. 114–149.

Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. “Beyond The Boundaries: Postmodernism.” No

Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 393–

423.

Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. “Internationalism: The Merging of the

Disciplines.” No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press,

2003, pp. 424-492.

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