Glossary

A glossary of contact improvisation terms. See also “abbreviations” and “frequently dropped first names” below.

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Terms

A-frame

A position in which two dancers are standing and leaning into each other, usually contacting around the upper torso. Weight sharing is occurring in this position — each dancer is off-balance from his/her own axis, balanced against the other dancer being off-axis. I’ve heard Martin Keogh use this word, but never heard it used in California. I associate the term with the somewhat lost art of weight-sharing. (To quote Karl Frost: “The maintenance of ‘off-balance’ does not necessarily mean ‘full weight’, but simply that one is always projecting oneself, even if slightly, off one’s center into the structure of one’s partner. This sense of continuous off-balance weight exchange, while being the key to easeful improvised partnering and connection, is probably the most frequently missing element in contemporary contactor’s repertoires today, as dances with any speed turn into independent movement improvisations that happen to be touching, mixed with the occasional lift.”) There are  a few variations on this: Nancy Stark Smith apparently calls it “bridge,” and I’ve also heard it called “arch,” I think by Moti Zemelman.

Art-sport

Simone Forti’s description/categorization of contact improvisation. See Nancy Stark Smith’s “One History of Contact Improvisation.”

Base

The bottom dancer in a lift. A/k/a Under-dancer.

Boogie

A/k/a “barefoot boogie.” A barefoot social dance event, held on a wooden floor, to music. Usually these are alcohol free, feature techno/ambient/trippy and/or “tribal beats”/”world beats” music, and have some cross-over with contact improvisation communities. This is NOT a contact improvisation jam, although contact improvisation might be done at at one. Different communities have more or less cross-over between the “purer” contact jams and the barefoot boogies. Boogies are particularly popular as part of the New England and Canadian weekend jams. See the Dance New England Web site for more information.

CI36

A gathering and 10-day jam to celebrate the 36th anniversary of contact improvisation, it took place June 8-18, 2008 at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (Why 36th? Planning didn’t quite come together in time for the 35th anniversary.) There are quite a few CI36 videos on YouTube.

Center

A mostly but not entirely precise term in contact improvisation. We usually mean the weight center of the body, which we (somewhat erroneously) usually locate in the pelvis. Eight times out of ten, then, “center” is a synonym for “pelvis.”

BUT — some people will describe the center as a spot a little below the belly button, say about two or three inches, and in the middle of the body. This is something more like a spiritual center, which I understand is called the hara or dantian in Japanese (apologies to martial arts/Japanese medicine folks if I’m totally getting that wrong — happy to correct). But this gets blurred with the same weight center, so that “center” can refer to anything from the pelvis to maybe a little higher.

And it’s worth noting that the actual weight center, or center of gravity, of one’s body shifts and changes, depending on one’s configuration and relationship to the ground. Even in a neutrally-standing person, the location of one’s weight center can change based on one’s body type — men with a lot of upper-body mass can have a weight center that’s nearly in the belly button.

Contact Improvisation

See the page in this blog, “What is contact improvisation?”

It’s worth noting that people shorten “contact improvisation” in a lot of ways:

  • “CI” seems to have been popular about 10-15 years ago, but these days, people often just say “contact,” as in “I’m doing contact this Saturday at the Dance Space.”
  • There’s also “contact improv.”
  • In Europe, you sometimes see “contact impro.” I have no idea why the Europeans choose to drop the “v” while Americans don’t.

Counter-balance

This term is used two different ways:

  1. To perform the opposite of the A-frame, where dancers lean backwards from each other, using clasping hands or forearms, so that the force of their weights oppose and balance each other. I call this the “V-frame,” but no one else uses this term. Yet.
  2. To lean in one direction while extending a body part (usually a limb) in the opposite direction in order to lighten the weight in the original direction.

Crescent rolls

These are floor rolls in which the body maintains a crescent shape, but rotates within that shape while traveling across the floor, so that the back is alternately extending or flexing. The ones most frequently taught in contact classes are “Simone Forti rolls,” in which one whole side of the crescent is on the floor, and you either roll in the direction of the middle or roll in the direction of the hands & feet. The other variations are with middle elevated, head and feet elevated, or just head elevated. These are quite difficult to describe without pictures. Steve Paxton outlines them nicely and succinctly (with some pictures) in his article “Helix,” Contact Quarterly Vol. 16 1991. I’ve also heard these called “banana rolls.”

Dancerly

Like a “dancer dancer” — in the manner or style of a traditionally-trained dancer. For example, “Oh, look at her point her toes. She’s so dancerly!” Not always complimentary.

I thought I invented this term in Los Angeles around 2006 or so, until I traveled around and heard others use it. It’s a pretty obvious word to coin, I suppose.

Earthdance

A retreat center in Western Massachusetts and arguably spiritual home of Contact Improvisation, where Nancy Stark Smith often teaches. Contact Improvisation at Earthdance.

Flying

A catch-all term in CI for being off the ground. “Low flight” usually refers to being suspended on someone in the table position. Flying can also include lifts that depend on high points of perch—pelvis, arms, shoulder. Finally, flying can also refer to being propelled through the air, although this is somewhat less common.

But typically when CI dancers talk about “flying” they refer to shoulder lifts and their variants.

GLACIER (Great Lakes Area Contact Improvisation Enthusiasts Retreat)

GLACIER refers to two things: (1) The loosely-affiliated association of contact improvisation communities throughout the Midwestern United States and nearby. This has historically included communities based in (west-to-east) Minneapolis, Minnesota; Madison, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; Ann Arbor/Detroit, Michigan; and other cities. (2) The annual multi-day retreat/jam that this community creates each fall in Willard, Wisconsin. More information on both can be found on the GLACIER Web site. GLACIER (short for “Great Lakes Area Contact Improvisation Enthusiasts Retreat”) also is the most amazing acronym ever.

Grazing

To touch briefly and/or lightly, without the intent to carry on an extended dance. Nancy Stark Smith uses this term in the Underscore and may have originated it. I usually hear this word used to described very quick, light touches, for instance, brushing by someone with your hands as you walk past, but I think Nancy also uses it to refer to dances which could potentially involve lots of contact but are very short — perhaps up to a minute at most.

High post

A classic standing position in which a dancer A can easily support his/her partner B’s weight, it’s characterized by the dancer being somewhat bent over from the hips (perhaps at between a 15 and 45 degree angle relative to the horizon), with a flat or arched lower back, hands on knees or upper thighs, the knees slightly bent, and the posterior sticking out somewhat. Partner B can be supported by placing his/her pelvis on top of A’s pelvis/low back. Also called just post. I’m increasingly convinced this is predominantly a West Coast term, as I rarely hear it used on the East Coast. (Folks on the East Coast tend to just say, “get into this position” and demonstrate it.)

High table

This is another name for high post. I think it’s a term that’s faded out of use somewhat, but you occasionally hear it dropped by old-timers .

Jam

A gathering of people to dance contact improvisation socially. Some may disagree with the term “socially,” perhaps insisting that their dancing CI at a jam is research or investigation or practice. But I think ultimately most of us go to jams to enjoy the atmosphere of other dancers, to have a variety of dance partners, to meet new dance partners, and to do CI without the expectation of stopping dances to discuss techniques or practice them. I think this is suspiciously similar to other social dance gatherings.

Lab

A trickily vague term. Usually, a structure/meeting for doing research (also a trickily vague term) into contact improvisation. A lab usually involves some sort of experimentation and investigation into contact improvisation, but it might or might not start from a hypothesis or narrow focus, and might or might not involve a dissemination of results (publishing) afterwards. Another variance is the level of hierarchy or direction. Some labs are really just less-structured or less-formal classes. Some are more like conferences, where ideas are exchanged and shared but not necessarily researched. Some are more open-ended and investigatory — perhaps, starting with an exercise proposed by one person and seeing where it will end up.

Landing gear
Essentially, hands and feet. This phrase often comes up as a safety tip related to falling — “make sure not to grab your partner’s hands or feet, so that they have their landing gear free.” The implication is that we use our hands and feet to “land” and catch ourselves when falling, and a CI partner should avoid inhibiting a falling partner from catching herself with her own hands and feet.

Manipulation

Probably not exclusively a contact term, but it refers to consciously directing your partner through space or into certain configurations, usually through use of your limbs. Manipulation movements can seem/be very martial-arts like.

Marley

A type of dance surface consisting of black (or occasionally other colors) sheet vinyl. Not really a contact-specific term, but I throw it in for you non-dancerly contacters (I had never heard of it before starting contact). Though a common and appreciated surface in the modern dance world for giving traction and some cushioning, I think it tends to be a somewhat unforgiving surface for contact improvisation. Weekends spent on Marley floors usually mean skin burns (“Marley burns,” like rug burns) on one’s feet and elbows on Monday. It’s hard to slide on Marley.

Mover

Someone who moves! This term is sometimes used in CI to describe CI practitioners to distinguish/distance them from “dancers.” Why? That’s probably a whole blog post at some point. But at least one reason is the visually-focused aesthetic of the dance world, which CI practitioners often partly or wholly reject.

Nancy

“Nancy” generally refers to Nancy Stark Smith (see below). But it also refers to someone who is going to take, is taking, or has taken Nancy Stark Smith’s annual January three-week workshop at Earthdance. For example, “Are you a Nancy?” “The January Workshop just finished, so the Nancies will be passing through New York City.”

Over-dancer

A very contact-y term, this refers the dancer on the top of a lift or a position of support, as opposed to the under-dancer. See under-dancer for more.

Partnering

Essentially, two dancers touching as they dance together. “Partnering” classes in dance schools often teach lifts derived from contact improvisation, but usually as predetermined movements, not as options within an improvisation. See Ray Eliot Schwartz, “My body’s partner is my partner’s body,” Contact Quarterly, vol. 29:2, Summer/Fall 2004. “Partnering” is not to be confused with “partner dancing,” which tends to refer to codified social dances with leader and follower roles.

Post

A support created by one’s body from which someone can be suspended — a body shelf or ledge. Parts of the body that can create posts include the knees/upper leg, all parts of the pelvis, back, and shoulders. Primarily a West Coast term.

Other uses:

  • “Post” also refers to a body position that creates a post, e.g., “he got into a post.” When dancers say simply, “get into post,” as opposed to “a post,” they’re usually referring to a classic position of bending forward with the hands on thighs or knees, arching the back, and sticking the butt out, forming a ledge for support on the lower back and posterior. This is also called “high post.” Shel Wagner Rasch calls this “cheesecake.”
  • “Posting” (verb form) means to create a post. This is usually used transitively: “I posted him.”

Puppy pile

A term that’s probably not unique to contact improvisation. A pile of dancers lying on top or intertwined with each other, usually cuddling, sighing, breathing blissfully, and otherwise being happily docile. These tend to happen towards the ends of jams as people get tired, but sometimes will occur at the beginning or throughout. Not for the curmudgeonly.

Research

Hoo boy, where do I start on this one? Research tends to refer to a dedicated process of finding out something new about contact improvisation or one’s relationship to it. Perhaps a prototypical example of “research” might be to dance in a studio, film it, make observations or draw conclusions about the dancing while watching the video, then deciding on questions or movement patterns to explore for the next time in the studio. The term is used quite broadly, however; a CI practitioner might say that they are “researching” a particular idea simply by keeping it in mind when jamming. Arguably, any CI dancing is “research” if one defines it that way.

It’s not clear to me why “research” is the word chosen here, instead of “practicing,” “rehearsing,” “playing,” or just “dancing.” Some of this might have to do with intersections between the post-modern dance world and academia, and attempts to legitimize oneself within the academic world. But it’s always come off as both pretentious and insecure to me. What athlete or artist outside of post-modern dance refers to their creative or technical activity as “research”? More on this on my post, “What is ‘research’?

Ride

A lift, as in, “get a ride” or “take a ride.” It has the connotation of something a little less deliberate or performative, more casual and low-effort, compared to a “lift.” For instance, you would rarely refer to entering into a shoulder lift as “taking a ride” (though it could happen). But a little two-inch lift, on someone’s knee? You might say, “I took a little ride.”

Score

A set of instructions that restrict/shape a movement improvisation. A simple score might be one like in Simone Forti’s “Scramble”: “walk between any two people.”

It’s worth noting that, although I think this term is derived from the musical world, musicians will get VERY confused if you use the word “score” in this way. “Score” in a musical context refers to the music that accompanies another medium (a “film score”) or a musical text (“do you own a score to Beethoven’s Fifth?”). Confusingly, then, when dance improvisers say “score” they locate themselves in a post-modern, improvised world; when musicians use the word “score,” they locate themselves in a traditional, pre-determined, non-improvised world. :)

Shoulder lift

A signature move in contact improvisation, in which dancer A swings/rolls his body across the torso of standing dancer B, vaulting on to dancer B’s shoulder. This can be done in many different ways, but usually it involves some effort on both dancers’ part. (However, a very athletic dancer A can vault onto B’s shoulder, while a very strong dancer B can simply pick up dancer A.) Some people may also use this term to refer to a Fireman’s Carry.

Sluffing, or sloughing

A movement or technique in contact improvisation involving sliding from or along a partner’s body to the floor. Sloughing therefore uses a sliding instead of a rolling point of contact. A typical example of sloughing might be a person lying on top of a partner who is in table top, coming off that partner’s back on to the floor through a slow, controlled slide.

Small dance

Well! Another very, very complex term and idea. The small dance refers both to (1) the various unconscious movements of the body, always going on, but that one is not always aware of, as well as (2) The Stand, a movement score meant make one more aware of the small dance. The small dance was part of what is traditionally considered the very first contact improvisation piece, Magnesium. Steve Paxton once characterized the small dance as the “background movement static… that you blot out with your more interesting activities, yet it’s always there sustaining you.” (“The Small Dance,” Contact Quarterly CI Sourcebook, p. 23 (from Contact Quarterly, Vol. 3, 1977-78)). For more on this, see Steve Paxton’s description of the small dance on the CI36 Web site.

Spirilic

Like a spiral — the adjectival form of “sprial.” This is not a real word — I’m pretty sure the adjectival form of “spiral” is “spiral” — or “helical” if you need to clearly distinguish between noun and adjectival forms.

I’ve only heard this word used in contact improvisation contexts (we are big into spirals, after all), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has wider use or an origin outside CI. I find this word to be ludicrous and unnecessarily inaccessible, but I can see how others might see it as fun, poetic, and evocative. I can get over it if you use it around me.

Surfing

Also known as log rolls. Dancer A lies on the ground, Dancer B lies on top of and perpendicular to Dancer A. Dancer A rolls on the ground, moving Dancer B towards B’s head or toes. This is hard to describe, and way more fun than it sounds. In fact, I associate showing this movement to beginners with more expressions of pure joy than any other movement in contact improvisation.

Table, or Table Top

A common position in contact improvisation in which person is on hands and knees, with hands directly below shoulders and arms straight, and knees directly below hips. Nancy Stark Smith invented this position and the term while teaching Diane DiPalma in a class in California. Nancy relates the story in her “Harvest” talk. Not to be confused with high table. Recently some people are moving away from “table” because of its static connotations. Alternative terms include “cat” (Gretchen Spiro, maybe? and others) and “four down” or “four foot” (parts of Europe).

Under-dancer

A very contact-y term, this refers the dancer on the bottom of a lift or a position of support, as opposed to the over-dancer. I first heard this term from Gretchen Spiro, who I think got it from Martin Keogh, who may have got it from Nancy Stark Smith. The term is used, I think, to emphasize that the under-dancer is dancing, and has a potentially active role while on the bottom. The under-dancer can be more than just a static platform for the other dancer to spin and twirl upon.

Warner Main

The old, huge, circular gym at Oberlin College where Magnesium was first performed. Today Oberlin students frequently do contact improvisation in Warner Main, as part of Oberlin’s flourishing CI program.

Weight-sharing

I have had heated arguments about what this term means, and I have been spending at least four years trying to understand the differences in how people use this term. I think most contact dancers would agree that weight-sharing involves some amount of pressure through the point of contact exerted by the bodies of both partners, and also that this is a common skill and an important option in a contact improvisation dance. But then it gets complicated fast. Does weight-sharing mean that I am off-balance into the point of contact? Does it mean that if you move away, I will fall? Is there a difference between weight-sharing and pushing, and if so, what is it? I hope to write about this more at some point. Some of my views are contained in the entry for A-frame above.

Abbreviations

CI: Contact Improvisation

CQ: Contact Quarterly

ECITE: European Contact Improvisation Teachers Exchange

GLACIER: Great Lakes Area Contact Improvisation Enthusiasts Retreat. See above.

NSS: Nancy Stark Smith

Frequently Dropped First Names

A number of personalities in contact improvisation have reached the point where they get frequently referred to by first name. I don’t actually think it’s a Hollywood-esque pretension (e.g., “I was talking to Steven and he was saying, you simply must talk to Harvey and get him to distribute Meryl’s new movie, it’s fabulous!”), but the result of people actually knowing each other on a first name basis and forgetting that others don’t. But the line between these things can be somewhat thin.

Anyway, I thought I’d list those that I’ve heard and am familiar with. Let me know if you’d like me to provide background information on any of these people or if you have any suggestions.

Ann: Ann Cooper Albright (at least to Oberlin kids)

Chris & Angie: Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser

Danny: Daniel/Danny Lepkoff

Keriac: Keriac — “Keriac” actually went by a single name

Martin: Martin Keogh

Nancy: Nancy Stark Smith

Ray: Ray Chung

Steve: Steve Paxton

Simone: Simone Forti

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