Contact improvisation (CI) is an improvisational partner dance form that focuses on nonverbal communication, weight sharing, and play. Developed in the early 1970s by Steve Paxton, CI brings us into the present moment and allows us to have entire conversations with our bodies. The form is based on establishing a shared point of contact and using that as a foundation for play and experimentation through rolling, sliding, lifting, and flying. Dancers are just as likely to be on the floor as standing and are often found suspended on someone else’s hip, back, or shoulder.
I first encountered CI as a small child but didn’t come back to the form until I was a young adult. I still remember going to my first jam, which happened to be in the Grass Valley Friends Meetinghouse on the same property where I was living at the time. I scooted through the Meetinghouse door onto the makeshift dance floor and instantly was swept into the community of dancers. My first dance was with someone with a lot of energy, and since I had a lot of energy that night, our dance quickly spun into a fast moving and vivacious duet. At one point during the dance, I remember my partner asking me, “Carl, do you know your limits?” “Yes,” I replied and kept dancing.
At several points during my first jam that night, people asked me, “Are you sure this is your first jam?” They were responding to how natural I seemed in the form, how well I knew my body, how it moves, and how it relates to others. I credit much of this knowing to my extensive work with Body-Mind Centering and The Feldenkrais Method as a child and to the fact that I incorporate many BMC and Feldenkrais principles into how I move through life.
That first jam started me down a path of exploring contact improvisation, what CI can offer me, and what I can offer the form and the CI community. As someone with a speech disability, communicating with people I don’t know can be a challenge. (People usually can easily understand me after a minute or two of conversation, but even so, whenever I speak to someone I don’t know, I am constantly reading the other person’s body language and choosing my words carefully based on which words I think will be easiest for the person to understand.) On the CI dance floor, however, I can go up to a complete stranger and strike up a rich and meaningful conversation with our bodies, a conversation that is not inhibited by my disability whatsoever. In fact, my disability becomes irrelevant on the dance floor. It is for these reasons that I find CI to be a liberating form of expression and healing for me on my journey through life.
As I have dived deeper into the CI form and community, I have noticed how I am changing as a person. I now yearn for that ease of communication with strangers in other parts of my life. CI has also taught me to value my body more for exactly who I am and how I move.
A performance of “Feather” at the 37th annual Breitenbush Contact Improvisation Jam.
Choreographed by Carl Sigmond and Katherine Cook. Performed by Jeff Bliss, Katherine Cook, Tom Giebink, Jonathan Lilly, and Carl Sigmond. Video credit: Michael Joplin.
March 22, 2017.