April 9, 2012

Touching Strangers. ~ Cassandra Smith


A first-timer’s experience with contact improv.

The first time I saw contact improv was last summer at the music festival Sonic Bloom in beautiful Georgetown, Colo.

What I saw was two people dancing, but their bodies seemed glued together. Since I trained intensively in ballet for 16 years, I have an innate curiosity for people moving their bodies in weird ways. I looked it up online, and apparently contact improv is pretty big in Europe. I saw a pair of brothers doing it at a festival in Tahoe over New Years, and it seemed like they were in some sort of trance where they could anticipate each other’s movements without even looking at each other.

In all my time in ballet I had never seen anything like this, so when I found out there was a beginning level contact improv class in Boulder, I had to check it out.

It was at the Boulder Circus Center. I walked in, and there were six of us including the teacher, Alicia Grayson. There was an even number of men and women. We had all come for somewhat different reasons; one woman around my age (early 20s) had heard about the class through her involvement with the somatic program at Naropa. There was also an older gentleman who claimed he first started experimenting with contact last fall.

Carly Carpenter

Our teacher Alicia explained she has been doing contact improv for over 20 years and still loves it. Since this was the first class in a seven-week series where each week focuses on one of the seven chakras, she then spoke about the first chakra. The first chakra, also known as the root chakra, is mostly about survival and making sure your basic needs are met. In the context of contact improv, your most basic needs are maintaining a level a of comfort and feeling safe.

Feeling safe is one thing when you are sitting alone in meditation. Feeling safe is much different when you are being told to touch strangers.

To start the class we walked around the studio and got acquainted with the space. This was not new to me, many of my dance teachers had us begin classes by walking around the space to start warming up. We then lay down on the floor and experimented with creating different tones with our bodies.

We first tried to feel collapsed and exhausted, with all of our weight sinking into the floor. We then tried to reverse that experience and create a “high tone” with our bodies. This meant tensing our muscles and attempting to feel like we were pulling away from the floor without actually moving. We then tried to find the balance between the two. We practiced this several times, and I became more aware of how much tone and body language are connected. When I used to practice for ballet, I usually thought of emotional tone as something that you saved for the stage, not something you did in rehearsal. But what I started to understand is that the tone of body language is important every second of my practice, not just when I am in the spotlight.

We also took time to just roll around on the floor. Since we were concentrating on the first chakra, associated with earth, we were to get to know the ground that supports us. We were told to just experiment with the weight of our bodies on the hard wood floor.

At first, all I could notice was how hard the floor was on my bony ballerina body. But as I kept rolling around, I felt the floor in a different way. It became less of a barrier and more of a partner. Instead of being the thing that supports my body, I allowed the floor to be a learning tool through which I explored how my weight moves through space. The floor started to feel good; it started to feel like the floor was massaging my muscles and tendons and being truly supportive.

Josep Ma. Rosell

Then, we started touching each other.

We sat back to back in pairs with our feet grounded into the floor for support and started pushing our backs together to create a “point of contact.” We were told to move our feet and pelvis as well, and move our backs into each other as it felt good. We then progressed to rolling down to the floor and transitioning from side to side with rolling movements. At this point, Alicia told us to pay attention to our core muscles and make sure they were activated. She explained that by doing so, and remaining grounded to the floor through our pelvis and feet, we could feel the location of our partner’s feet on the floor through the point of contact that our bodies created.

When I concentrated on aligning my torso in a straight line and holding my core muscles, I felt exactly what she meant. Through the place where our backs touched, I could feel exactly where her feet were located on the floor, providing her support.

When we started experimenting with standing contact positions, things were a bit more difficult, because more balance was required. We practiced giving weight to each other and creating a structure of balance with our bodies while we moved. It was hard to think about moving forward, maintaining your own balance and providing support for your partner at the same time. But in rare moments, I found the feeling Alicia talked about, the feeling of knowing where the other person’s feet were without seeing them. When that happened, I felt comfortable and could move with ease.

After two hours with Alicia and my new contact partners, I definitely understand why people do this. Contact improv is an opportunity to explore human movement in a different way than the solo efforts of ballet or hatha yoga.

When working with another body in contact improv, you have the ability to create a space where anything at all is free to arise between the two partners. We took turns leading and following, pushing and pulling, and somewhere in the middle we found that rare space of spontaneity in movement, where all that exists is pure artistic creation.



Cassandra Smith is an editorial intern at elephant journal.  She is a fifth generation Colorado native who believes dance has the potential to liberate human consciousness from its cultural prison.  Cassandra formerly trained at Boston Ballet and is currently a senior at University of Colorado Boulder studying journalism, sociology and philosophy. Read her blog at cassandralanesmith.com.

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