Contact Improvisation offers extraordinary opportunities to explore movement cooperation with others and with oneself. I've been curious a question about how to find in solo moving the kind of inspiration that can come from dancing with others. I had been exploring a practice for a long time before the COVID pandemic. Having to concentrate on solo moving during the pandemic has given me the opportunity to resolve some questions about how to describe the practice and its purpose, enough so that I feel ready to describe it.
One of the things I love about doing Contact Improv is a sense of attunement that happens, with others and myself, through just mutually following the points of contact. For many years I've been curious about what helps to cultivate this, and have experimented with ways to do so in solo moving – in my warmups and general solo dancing. During the COVID-19 quarantine I have had more opportunity and heightened focus on this exploration of solo movement (in-person partnering is not an option!), and this question of cultivating attunement. What I've found is essentially is that following diminishingly subtle tendencies – involuntary shifts in balance, sensations of slowly tending in one direction or another, seemingly arbitrary whims to move some part of my body or posture – is the key to tuning in, and tapping into the joy of solo moving.
While this is simple to say, there's something quite tricky in pursuing this practice. It's relentlessly tempting, once I've found something subtle to follow to hold onto what I've found – what it was even after it has changed. While this is not a bad thing – I'm moving in a way that's probably interesting – I'm being less alert for what's actually happening. And that's where the vitality is. The stuff I'm holding onto will wear out. In a way, it already has, but in my desire to be sure about what it is that I'm doing, I replace noticing what's happening with making stuff happen. Not doing so can be both a challenge and a joy. Once I accept that I will lapse and hold onto stuff, I can more readily let go of holding on, continue to return to the search, and in this way it seems to get deeper and more engaging. This is what I try to convey in a kind of score that I describe below. It's based in the small dance that Steve Paxton associates with the stand, also informed by Nancy Stark Smith's finger dance.
The Basic Score
- After stretching a little I stand
- With time and a willingness to stick with it I gradually notice more about what's happening inside and around me.
- Eventually I notice some small movements – shifts of weight, displacement from breathing, needing to adjust my position, a whim to move, a slight and slow tendency in one direction and then another... Everything counts.
- As time continues all these things become easier to notice, and I have the opportunity to indulge them a little – follow where my body is going as I might follow someone else's finger in a finger dance.
- It's challenging to not rush it, give time for very little to happen.
- It becomes following various kinds of momentum, at first very gradual. And also letting go of whatever momentum I find, as it fades.
- To continue to engage with what's happening it's important to emphasize that I also have to let go of what I find as it passes. I might then return to stillness or find another change that happens along the way, and follow it. The latter happens increasingly as I continue.
- Eventually it becomes easier to both notice and let go of changes. Like a pivot on my heel, or yielding into a step so I sink into a level change, or lifting an arm to counterbalance a tilt of my torso; following a trajectory away from the ground, into a small jump. Varying opportunities continue to appear, with movements of my body relative to itself – arms, torso, head, fingers, everything – becoming part of the repertoire.
- As I settle in I often get the feeling of gliding, in continuously shifting ways.
- (If I'm warming up or moving solo in this way at a jam, I may find myself influenced by and/or influencing others around me, and eventually verging into partnering with someone else.)
My essential perspective on this came together in realizing that I can look at "standing still" a little differently than usual. Instead of thinking of it as a stable thing, I came to realize that it's equally valid to consider standing still as actually maintaining constantly shifting balance between dynamic counterforces. Gravity pulling us downwards while we're using our muscles and structure and wits to stay up. That is, there are changes in our balance happening all the time, for many and diverse reasons.
Why don't we notice these changes more, in the first place?
- First, if these dynamic changes are really ever-present, they tend to fade into the background – they're the water in which we dwell.
- Second, common approaches to mastering movement – learning to walk, run, write your name – tend to favor an attitude of control, one in which involuntary movements are considered contrary, to be avoided rather than explored.
- Further, contemporary preoccupation with external media, combined with the discomforts of sedentary life, tends to habituate us to disregarding physical presence altogether.
- Striving for an ideal of static stability we have reason to disregard small activity, even pretend like it's not happening. If it's actually useful to notice it – that's so for me – then it can take some time and rediscovery. This solo movement practice I'm pursuing is aimed at tuning in to balance as a dynamic thing, as Contact Improv involves tuning in to and sharing changing balance with a partner.
This approach is primarily informed by two elements of Contact Improvisation lore.
- People familiar with the Contact Improvisation history know about Steve Paxton's exploration of the small dance in the stand. (Steve originated and developed Contact Improvisation.) In it he suggests exploring the little movements you can notice if you take time in an easy stand to pay attention. What if those little motions are useful signs of a dynamic, shifting equilibrium in our body that becomes apparent if you take time to tune in?
- I connect Steve's exploration of the Small Dance to an exercise devised by Nancy Stark Smith called the Finger Dance. (Nancy is one of the original group who worked with Steve in developing CI, and in many ways continued to lead development and sharing of the practice through the rest of her life.) In the Finger Dance, partners touch finger tips and follow their partner's finger's movements. In it neither partner is supposed to deliberately lead the other partner's finger, but rather just follow it. As with what can happen on a Ouija board, nobody has to try to make something happen. Engaging in this way establishes a feedback loop that can amplify little movements into shared trajectories. It's not arbitrary – the little movements reflect what's happening in our overall situation, our balance.
I like what can happen in the finger dance, much as I enjoy full-body contact improvisation. Over time I've enthusiastically used it as an exercise, as part of introducing CI to others. Along the way I've found a crucial preliminary step: taking a moment to first try following the little movements in your own finger. When suggesting this, I mention not expecting the stillness to particularly change. It might, but that's not necessary. Instead, I suggest, this focus can help establish a way to be receptive. Doing that as a preliminary step seems to enhance the experience people have with the exercise. This practice that I've been exploring is about cultivating that focus in the stand and growing it into movement.
What Happens When I Practice
What I experience varies a lot. Sometimes I become alert and get a lively sense of dynamics quickly, sometimes I feel slow and dull, and anything in between. The most useful thing I can do, whatever my state, is to resolve to start from there, to notice what is happening, rather than trying to make it different. In a way, that's the key.
In practice, to start, I usually just notice settling in and shedding of tension. I might notice small shifts as I settle into place, but they don't particularly go anywhere. I give myself time.
I've found it particularly helpful to be alert for shifts that are slow. A kind of very gradual momentum that has an almost inevitable sort of inevitable feel. I think of it as "geologic".
Opportunities for rotations are a useful thing to notice. Twists that allow me to settle slightly differently, or yield to a pull that's off center. They can have some momentum of their own.
As I allow myself to notice small things, subtle shifts and whims, they become increasingly evident. It's like they're going on all the time and I'm increasingly allow myself to notice.
Deliberate adjustments to make myself more comfortable – shifting my stand, scratching an itch, stretching, etc – are also fair game.
Another essential thing is to notice as soon as I find myself even slightly off-balance, and yield to it – giving in at the edge of standing balance, or losing balance and faltering while moving. Instead of resisting, it's an opportunity to go with the imbalance, not fight it. I strive to continue to tune in, notice further changes as they happen, including more faltering (and yielding) among everything else.
This yielding to faltering seems important. In so far as I can do it, it involves almost the opposite of trying to make it happen – a kind of letting go of expectation about how I should be moving and accepting the search for small impulses, slight shifts.
It also involves striving to not fight myself unnecessarily.
It seems like the more I practice it, the more easily I get to the point where I feel more moments of a sense of gliding, or hovering when still.
As a bonus, when I'm tired or otherwise depleted, and thus more prone to faltering, I have plenty of material to explore. It's all the more gratifying when the faltering once again fades away as I yield to it, and I wind up feel more in tune with myself and find myself gliding and hovering, even when tired.
Whatever happens, it's useful to continue let go of movements when they abate, allowing whatever else is happening to happen. Including nothing at all. To not get carried away with doing something I find myself doing, but rather to notice when another change happens, including stillness, and to allow it. This is a fundamental challenge. To be both active and receptive, to cultivate the activity without forcing or inhibiting it.
I find it most useful to recognize that there are many layers of nuance. The aim is not to notice everything, do anything perfectly, but to marshal my attention and gradually tune in more. Rather than doubting myself for getting carried away and losing track at any moment, I take it as being occupied with something that has inside it more subtle details, always available to be noticed. This way I am never completely off track, but always within reach of something that is more on track. (This antidote to perfectionism is analogous to yielding to physically faltering rather than fighting it.) And conversely, I'm never completely on track. Just exploring.
What I Get Out Of It
- First of all, it's engaging. I find it increasingly interesting as I do it, and find myself continuing to discover new nuances in my moving, enjoying what I am doing and discovering.
- I find the kind of attunement that I appreciate in practicing contact improv with others. This includes a sense of alertness, immediacy, and ease that all combines together to a feeling of vital presence that seems both physical and mental.
- While it's not the same as doing contact improv with a partner, it feels like something worthwhile and rewarding in its own right. I still dearly miss shared presence and engaging immersion that come with partner dancing, but I don't feel like I'm losing the self that I find in dancing, while dancing with others is not available.
- When I was practicing this as part of my warm-up and solo moving at jams I have found it to be particularly good preparation for connecting with others. When I engage with others after having some time to practice this I usually feel more in tune with myself and more ready to find what's possible in the collaboration.
- I feel that this approach includes within it a notion of not fighting oneself unnecessarily. Like yielding to faltering rather than fighting it, it accepts whatever is happening as material with which to engage, an opportunity to participate in what's happening more fully.
- This solo practice is a way to enjoy being active in my body, an avenue to do solo physical improvisation in a way that I enjoy, and that is different from repetitive solo routines. It seems like modern times increasingly involves many ways to occupy our attention with minimal physical activity, or else with relatively repetitive exercises. In contrast, this is a way to explore physical improvisation that I find engaging, and that takes inspiration from the moment rather than routine or distraction.
- 2020-10-10 Adjusted and elaborated as part of conveying from this weblog to a page on my website, as part of Exploring Collaborative Movement Online (the collaboration in this case being with myself).
- 2020-06-19 Including emphasis on following momentum, revealed through further exploration.
- 2020-06-12 Release.
- 2020-06-11 Polishing.
- 2020-06-10 Distilling. With yesterday's and today's changes the essay is much more ready.
- 2020-06-09 Second draft: describe the practice with some distinct steps.
- 2020-06-08 First draft.]
Here's a link to the Facebook page of this jam in case anybody that visits here is interested:
(And, no – Ken has not learned Portuguese (yet). During the sessions I have done some consecutive English/Portuguese translation.)
Lots of interesting fodder for more research – etymological, movement-related, and other stuff (including the human comedy) – has come about from frequenting and at times participating in leading these jams.
When you released this essay, I felt it was important to share it with that group, and was happy to be able to convey it in Portuguese. The endeavor of running my fingers through this text to yield the written translation has provided me with a chance for even more insight, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Here is the link to a Google document with the translated text. Hopefully it will be duly stored here for posterity:
Portuguese translation of Ken's essay
(As of today 2020-06-20 I have incorporated your latest revisions into the document and will try to upkeep that as best I can.)
Grateful that you took time to elaborate these thoughts (really, over time, and with the practice) with the thoroughness that I appreciate, and the refinement that you have achieved in your writing (that I also appreciate and want to learn to do). This is valuable insight.
I want to highlight a few things that especially call my attention, and say how that is for me.
‘Indulging the movements and letting them go when they are done’ brings to my mind the notion riding inertia, instead of sinking into it. Especially if there is something delicious to savor of the moment, in can be really a challenge for me to resist the temptation to indulge not the movement but the sensation that it brings.
I feel like this essential piece – recognizing the option of letting go of what’s happening to continue following the trajectory of movement and stillness through noticing and following momentum – can open up new neuropaths, like strands of interweaved fabric. In this state, this fabric can feel like it continuously expands, spreads out infinitely.
A welcome surprise is that it seems as infinite as it remains tightly packed within a kind of simple narrowness of focus.
Starting from the stand, and considering the constant shifting balance of small dis-equilibria (my made-up alteration derived from Portuguese) highlights for me something that I could maybe describe by using some of my words, and some Steve Paxton uses to describe the stand in Fall After Newton (poetic words): to watch the reflexive dance of one’s bones. As this perception stretches, mass expands into movement, its parts organizing, dis-organizing, adjusting along the way.
This possibility of expansion into movement is essential to me, and finding ways to describe it is a rewarding discovery. Worthwhile also to note that it can take time, and that it includes faltering and falling back into faltering too, time and again.
I have highlighted for myself, and could quote many parts of your essay. One only, for the sake of economy, will I paste in this comment:
‘Striving for an ideal of static stability we have reason to disregard small activity, even pretend like it's not happening. If it's actually useful to notice it – that's so for me – then it can take some time and rediscovery. This solo movement practice I'm pursuing is aimed at tuning in to balance as a dynamic thing, as Contact Improv involves tuning in to and sharing changing balance with a partner.’
The reason for that is that I see it as an essential passage that sums up and describes to me the pathway that I can follow to understand better the insight you have come to sow together, of connecting the Small Dance with the Finger Dance into something that informs the research of the personal practice (and the practice of CI in general) with which I resonate.
Lastly – as much as, with social distancing, I too have dearly missed shared presence and engagement with others; I feel that the opportunity that it has brought for people to ‘be internal together’ (as you have cited me as fond of remembering) has deepened and amplified my personal practice in unparalleled ways.