When you first start dancing contact improvisation, improvement isn’t exactly straightforward, but the feedback is pretty clear. When you stumble, or fall, or can’t complete a movement, you know it. You think, “Hm, that felt awkward. I do that better.”
After a while, however — usually between 1 and 3 years of dancing — you start to get comfortable. The sense of all-pervading awkwardness ceases, as do many of the bruises and skin burns (although watch out when you go to dance on unfamiliar floors!). And you reach this strange sort of No Man’s Land, where you know you’re not a beginner anymore, but it’s not clear where you go from here. You have this sense that you could get better at dancing, but you’re not sure what “better” means, or how to get there.
In part, that’s because “there” doesn’t truly exist — there isn’t any place to go. Contact improvisation is an undefined dance, both in form and aesthetic, and that means that “better” is undefined as well. How can you know how to get better at something when it’s not even clear what that something is? How can you get somewhere when you don’t even know where you are? Of course, every dance/art has formal and aesthetic disagreement, its different schools and camps. But CI goes far beyond this; it is by nature elusive and elliptical.
So what do you do? Well, I propose that part of “getting better,” or at least continuing to grow as a dancer, is answering for yourself, “what makes someone good at CI?” You define your own technique and aesthetic, and then work to improve at that. And I think as you do this, your own definition of “what is CI?” comes into focus. You start to define for yourself where you want to go, and therefore (strangely), this helps figure out where you actually are.
If that all seems very complicated, relax. You don’t have to start from Square One on this. This blog is in large part about helping intermediate dancers find answers to these questions. And you have time; because, until you figure out where you want to go, there’s no urgency to get there (and even when you do figure out where you want to go, you can always change it). It helps to think of CI as a lifetime practice. If you know you’ll be doing this for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years, it helps with some of the time pressure!
Enough philosophizing; on to the practical and tangible. Here are some propositions/arguments as to what makes a “better” CI dancer, disguised as physical activities.
These are six things that you might not be able to do yet. Each is a challenge, a score, an evaluative tool, and a benchmark for improvement. Each represents a gap/possibility that I often see in the dancing of “intermediate” dancers. Working at the challenge should open up new pathways and spontaneity in your dances, while developing important physical skills. Each is, in my opinion, a step towards becoming a better dancer.
How to work at these? On the simplest level, bring awareness to them in your dancing, and use them as scores when you dance. Perhaps start with the one that seems the hardest, or the one that provokes the most resistance from you (“lean into the sharp points”). If you have a willing partner, try working at the challenges together. You can work the same challenge together or, for bonus points, each work different challenges in the same dance!
Without further ado:
1. Can you keep a continuous rolling point of contact through an entire dance?
Very few CI dancers these days attempt to keep a continuous rolling point of contact through an entire dance (I’m one of the few). But regardless if you choose to do so, the technique and discipline of doing so can be very helpful.
Gap: Many intermediate dancers thoughtlessly drop the point of contact, and so don’t develop the physical skills to stay in continuous contact, or miss opportunities that would arise from staying in contact.
Challenge: Keep one continuous rolling point of contact for an entire dance. This is probably easier if you get your partner to take on the same challenge. This means no skips, no sliding. Watch especially for (and avoid): dropping the point coming out of lifts; transferring from torso to hand or between hands; transferring between head and shoulder without rolling down the neck; and bailing out of the point when it’s on your leg or foot, especially when it’s foot-to-foot contact.
However, even when your partner isn’t committed to it, it can be an interesting challenge to decide to maintain a rolling point of contact. There’s a whole vocabulary of counter-balancing and skills in listening and quick reflexes that you can develop from taking on this challenge.
Benefits: Improved listening skills, new movement pathways. Building strong fundamentals, especially for very fast dancing and a larger variety of lifts. Particularly coming out of lifts, an opportunity to continue connection and momentum with your partner.
2. Can you have a dance where you spend equal time in floor, mid-level, and standing?
There are at least three different levels in CI: standing on one’s feet, lying on the ground, and the mid-level — squatting, kneeling, table position, crouching on hands and feet, etc.
Gap: Intermediate dancers tend to get “stuck” in one level. I’d say about 60% of intermediate dancers spend most if not all of their dances standing upright (interspersed with lifts), while maybe 25% spend most of their dances rolling around on the floor. Many dancers have difficulty getting in and out of the floor, and the mid-level is entirely forgotten except the occasional table. You see this a lot in larger men (sorry guys), who will bend over, extend an arm, drop the point of contact, unconsciously do anything to avoid going to their knees or to the floor — and once on the floor, it takes a LOT to get back up.
Challenge: Part 1: spend equal time in floor, mid-level, and standing. Work to be able to move smoothly between these levels — and then break down the sense of them altogether, so that your dance can happen on an infinite number of levels between lying and standing, and you move fluidly between them. Part 2: see if you can change levels at any time, at any point in your dance.
You can build the physical skills on your own, as well. If you’re between dances at a jam, just practice going in and out of the floor, in different pathways, spiraling or straight, to different heights. You can also practice going from standing to mid-level, or any crazy sequence you like (standing/mid-level/standing/floor/mid-level/standing/floor/mid-level… etc.).
Benefits: More variety and fluidity to your dancing. Better safety skills: the essence of falling safely is teaching your body how to move into the ground smoothly. Better balance, general improved internal awareness.
3. Can you have a dance where you never do a lift that’s more than two inches off the ground?
Gap: Intermediate dancers tend to anticipate a large lift. In going for the big lift, they work harder than they need to in order to create the lift that they anticipate, and miss the opportunity for more subtle lifts that flow more naturally out of the dance. In other words, intermediate dancers tend to force lifts, instead of letting lifts happen.
Challenge: have a dance where none of your lifts are more than two inches off the ground. This should also address another common tendency, which is to lift the legs up during lifts, as opposed to letting the legs drag loosely (I’ll explain why this is less desirable another time). These are small, subtle lifts, that should require very little effort by either the lifter or the flyer (person being lifted).
Benefits: Learning granularity — the ability to do things in small pieces. This leads to more efficient, less efforted dancing, as well as to smoother and more controlled movements.
4. Can you roll up someone’s back in order to dismount? at least a half-turn
Gap: Intermediate dancers tend to jump into their lifts or make the lifter do a lot of work, instead of rolling up into lifts. As a result, they have underdeveloped core muscles and so need to dance with much larger people to be lifted. This is often a problem with large men, who get comfortable lifting instead of being lifted, but also, some smaller women and men avoid dancing with people their size because they don’t find themselves going up in the air as much as they’d like. Reason: you’re not doing your share of the work!
Challenge: Next time you’re perched on someone in post, dismount by rolling up their back, at least a half-turn. This takes solid core muscles, but is a fairly safe movement as long as you’re positioned to fall towards your feet.
On your own: prepare for this by doing crescent rolls!
Benefits: Improved core strength. Creating your own lifts and making it easier for others to lift you. Laying a physical foundation for virtually all lifts above the waist.
5. Can you roll the point very quickly 360 degrees around your body? all the way from the back to the front and back again?
Gap: When dancing standing upright and rolling the point to the side from the back, intermediate dancers tend to habitually swing the point of contact out to the arms and to the hands. They tend to have underdeveloped rolling point skills for getting around the shoulder to the front of the body, and through to the other side.
Challenge: Roll the point very quickly completely around your body, 360 degrees, avoiding rolling the point out to your forearms or hands. That means from back to side to front to side to back again, all on the torso. Eventually be able to do it very quickly.
Benefits: Improvements in awareness and reaction time, which should allow for safer, more fluid, and faster dancing. Opening up the whole front surface of the body to contact, and new movement pathways from that. More comfortable torso dancing.
6. Can you have a dance without using your hands?
Gap: Intermediate dancers use their hands a lot, and so tend to have underdeveloped skills in rolling the point on their torso (see #1 and #5 above). They also tend to have underdeveloped skills in terms of doing no-hands lifts.
Challenge: Have a dance without using your hands — that is to say, without touching your partner with your hands (you can still use your hands to support yourself on the ground or catch yourself if you fall). For some of you, this will seem incredibly difficult or awkward; I assure you, it’s totally possible to do this smoothly.
Benefits: This is a big one for new movement pathways and breaking patterns. It may also lead to some greater awareness of your partner’s weight and connection to her center.
If you find yourself struggling with any of the above challenges, slow down! Do less in your dance, move less quickly, and focus on the challenge you’ve set for yourself. There is no sin in moving slowly in contact improvisation.
In the interests of brevity, this post may leave you with (answerable) questions. As always, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments.