We’re squirming around on the floor tangled up like puppies -- my friend Laura, the dance instructor and I. The teacher rolls his leg over mine as he moves an arm over Laura. He’s talking very quietly about the importance of getting in touch with one’s center.
Laura, a former dancer and choreographer, clearly understands what he’s talking about. Me, I’m thinking my center is probably pretty close to my stomach, which will be receiving a well-earned cheeseburger when this is all over.
Attending this weekly “Contact Improv” jam at Dance Home in Santa Monica had seemed like an excellent idea when I first heard about it from a trainer.
An off-beat progeny of modern dance, contact improv is usually performed by two or more people who stay in near constant touch via rolling points of contact, while exploring the physics of shared weight -- bodies pushing, lifting, colliding, charging and rolling off one another.
This sounded right up my alley -- something akin to navigating the half-yearly sale at Nordstrom.
When performed well, contact improv reportedly improves balance, agility and core strength. But I was quickly finding that getting to the “performed well” part is tricky, involving intense concentration, an ability to lock into the mood and physical intentions of your dance partner, an evolved sense of body awareness and a willingness to move with childlike abandon.
Oy. On this quartet of characteristics, I’m 0 for 4.
This highly tactile art form emerged in the early 1970s as part of the postmodern dance movement. Dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton is credited with introducing contact improv in 1972 at five afternoon performances at the John Weber Gallery in New York. Paxton said that the term “contact improvisation” was first coined at those performances.
Since then, contact improv has spread throughout the world, with unofficial centers in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Australia and Russia, among others.
Contact improv dancers resist organization. There is no governing body, no rule book, no registered trademark. One of the few publications devoted to contact improv is the Contact Quarterly, which comes out biannually. The magazine has a readership of more than 1,000 worldwide, about half of that in the U.S.
There are a number of groups scattered across the U.S., including in the Bay Area, that are practicing contact improv. However, in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, it’s slimmer pickings. The one dependable weekly jam is held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Sundays at Dance Home, an unpretentious yoga studio with mirrored walls and scuffed wood floors.
Every third Sunday, the Santa Monica jam devotes the first part of the evening to beginners instruction, which explains my presence here on a sweltering night in July.
Bodies in motion
Contact improv tends to attract an interesting spectrum of people -- a lot of architects and engineers on one end and therapists and dancers on the other. Builders and designers are apparently captivated by the trajectories of bodies in motion, and those who work in helping fields appreciate the physical connections involved. It also transcends physical boundaries in more ways than one. Of the 15 participants who arrived for the jam, there were two Bulgarians, an Israeli and a Russian.
We began by simply standing, eyes closed, “getting in touch with our centers.” Then we separated into pairs. Laura and I began back-to-back, rolled arms against each other a few times ... then ran out of inspiration. The instructor, Matt Faw, came over and joined us.
A TV producer and editor, Faw has been doing contact improv for about 15 years. He’s very light on his feet and quick as a bug. With very little talking, he began weaving himself between and around us, as we moved from standing to lying down to standing again, continually rolling onto and off of one another.
In short, Laura and I were tumbling about with a complete stranger like overgrown monkeys -- something I hadn’t seen close up since my first and last frat party. Which brings us to the nitty gritty of contact improv. It’s not inherently sexual, but observers might be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion.
“The only context we have for people touching each other that closely is either wrestling or sexual,” says Shel Wagner Rasch, a UCLA contact improv instructor with more than 20 years experience. “Obviously there’s a lot of caring involved, so it tends to be interpreted toward the sexual. But when you’re doing CI, there’s no time to be keying into these feelings because your limbs are flying
Nevertheless, contact improv dancers acknowledge that this can be a difficult area to navigate, particularly for beginners.
There’s a lot of gray area between what is -- and is not -- OK, says Kristen Horrigan, a dancer, choreographer and operations manager at Contact Quarterly. “It seems to vary by jam and by community,” Horrigan says. “I’ve found some communities are more tolerant of sexuality in the dance space than others.”
If there’s one rule in contact improv, it’s that the dancer is responsible for his or her own safety and well-being, both physically and emotionally.
“When you come into the dance,” says Richard Kim, pulling on kneepads -- yes, kneepads -- before the jam, “you take responsibility for your body and not putting yourself in physical situations where you’re uncomfortable.” A freelance web developer and musician, Kim has been coming to the Santa Monica jam for more than three years.
After the beginners’ session wound down at Dance Home, our instructor turned the class over to the second half jam, and dancers took the floor in groups or pairs. The beginners stayed near the wall, gently tumbling about, while the more experienced dancers went to the center of the floor and took to the air.
Faw and two other men, Lee Ross, a screenwriter and former mime, and Andre Andreev, a web designer, began performing what looked almost like a musical theater fight sequence. Save for the occasional grunt and the sound of feet thumping on wood, they moved in complete silence.
Over and over, they charged each other very fast, sweat flying, bouncing and rolling about, leaping onto each other, wrestling and rolling off, at varying speeds, with a different result each time. They danced the way children play -- throwing their bodies around with abandon, exploring the physical possibilities of bodies in motion.
A typical sequence might be Faw rolling off of Andreev’s back and then running straight at Ross, who would scoop him into his arms, Rhett-and-Scarlett style. Then Faw might use his own momentum to curl up as Ross heaves him up onto his shoulder. Faw might choose to hover there for a moment, then slide down Ross’s back. Andreev might move behind the two and catch Faw as he descends.
In the process, they were getting an extended cardio workout, with a load-bearing component. They were exercising arms and legs, with emphasis on quads, core strength and flexibility, with almost no repetitive movement and complete freedom of motion.
My workout and that of the other beginners was decidedly slower and low-key, aimed at trying out a few basic moves, such as rolling off a partner’s back.
Unlike many other forms of dance, contact improv is accessible to all skill levels. In theory, a flexible 22-year-old can dance with an arthritic 70-year-old. It’s about sensation rather than aesthetics. The level of intensity, and the type of workout, is up to the dancer.
Erik Ferguson of Portland has cerebral palsy and performs and teaches contact improv in his wheelchair. “I find it helps to keep my muscles a little more limber,” says Ferguson, who occasionally leaves his chair while dancing. And there’s been an unexpected benefit. “The rolling and stretching cuts down on joint pain,” he says.
After two hours of continuous action at Dance Home, the mood began to shift. Kim brought out his violin and played softly as the dances got slower then stopped altogether. The combination of the music and the dance, the murmured conversations in Bulgarian, the sensation of physically connecting to a group with a common purpose was all strangely moving.
“This can be a scattered group,” Kim says. “But almost anyone who really does this is caring and generous. We’re people who every week physically touch each other and listen to each other through the dance.”
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The next move: Finding a jam
Want to rub shoulders at a local jam? Finding a contact improv jam in your community might take some investigation, depending on where you live. For an excellent list of jams worldwide, including California, go to www.contactimprov.net.
522 Santa Monica Blvd.
Sundays, 6:30 to 9 p.m. $7.
Beginners jam on the third Sunday of every month.
Go to www.contactimprovla.com.
Neighborhood Congregational Church
340 St. Ann’s Drive
The first Saturday of every month, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. $10 for a half-day; $15 for a full day.
Go to www.contactimprovla.com (navigate to Laguna Beach jam information).
San Diego Center for the Moving Arts (at Sunset Temple)
2906 University Ave.
First and third Fridays of the month, 7:30 p.m. $5.
Go to www.movingarts.net.
Times, dates and fees occasionally change. Check websites for the latest information.