What Is Contact Improv?

There are many answers.

Contact improvisation (or CI, or 'contact') has always been difficult to define, in part because it’s intentionally undefined, in part because it continues to evolve and change. However, one definition might be that contact improvisation is a social dance that arises out of modern dance traditions. One of its central principles is a rolling point of contact between two (sometimes less, sometimes more) people through which both dancers give and share weight. It’s somewhere between tango, modern dance, aikido, wrestling, gymnastics, and none of the above, and usually takes place without music. People dance contact in any combination of genders, there are no 'steps,' and it’s entirely improvised.

LA Contact Improv website

People see many different things when they look at Contact Improvisation. Actually, people do many different things when they practice CI. I believe that there is an essential basis which underlies all these different things.

On the surface:

  • CI is a kind of movement game, with participants coordinating as partners.
  • The partners coordinate their movement by mutually following points of contact shared between them.
  • Their shared activity is shaped by what is practical for each of them in combination, and through the shared coordination, for their partnership.

A bit below the surface:

  • As the partners become acquainted with what does and doesn't work well in practice, mutually following shared points of contact, they become acquainted with opportunities to play within this framework. The more they explore, respecting what is practical and discovering what is possible, the greater the range and variety of things they discover that can fit and fulfill the framework.
  • The combination of following shared points of contact, along with freedom of exploring the range and variety of things they discover and enjoy within what is practical, form the two elements - contact and improvisation.
  • Ultimately, a kind of unspoken skill gradually emerges - the ability to coordinate with others in a way that approaches the immediacy and intricacy with which people are able to coordinate with themselves.
    • It is different from coordination with yourself in that you have to accommodate the needs and whims of another. In that specific way it is also an extraordinary opportunity to share the process of exploring those needs and whims, together, within the bounds of the framework.

Most partner dance form involve a similar kind of shared coordination like this. What's different about Contact Improv is that the collaboration is not contained within some set repertoire of patterns - postures, rhythms, step sequences, roles, etc. Instead, CI partners develop and vary, and sometimes completely drop, any patterns, from moment to moment, in each dance. (“Dance”?) The lack of mandated patterns is a challenge, because CI partners have less guidance about where/how to begin to develop each partnership. There’s just the shared points of contact, and discretion about what works in collaboration and what doesn’t. However, it allows a lot of opportunity for the partnership to vary in each moment, according to the needs and the whims of the partners. In CI, aspects of each dance are subject to improvisation, and can change, more than is typical in most types of partner dance.

Ken Manheimer

Interested in contributing this article? Please let us know at bmore@reallygoodmoving.com

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