Myth #4: It’s okay to heal me with contact improv

Sometimes, by dancing contact improvisation, we encounter and expose parts of ourselves that we usually keep guarded. We can find ourselves opening up in the presence of our dance partners, and because touch has the capacity to unwind emotions and traumas stored in the body, this can be quite profound, even healing.

Also, because dancing CI has the capacity to build attunement and empathy on physical levels, it can have healing effects on how we relate with others: it can positively shift how we move through the world.

I say this because I don’t want to negate the idea that people experience healing through CI.

However.

Sometimes people use CI to intentionally evoke a healing experience for a dance partner, and this can be not only invasive behavior, but also part of sexually predatory dynamics in CI.

What do I mean by intentionally evoking a healing experience?

Sometimes I see people dancing in ways that appear to revolve around their dance partner having a healing experience. This often includes using certain kinds of touch, rhythms, and social dynamics, for example:

  • Placing and keeping your hand over a dance partner’s heart
  • Using touch to specifically address a vulnerability or wound that you perceive in a dance partner (it could be physical, emotional, or energetic)
  • Pressing “third eyes” against each other
  • Elongated cradling
  • Overly-tender dances
  • Dances with the dynamic of one person being soothed by the other
  • Dances with the dynamic of one person being driven into a cathartic emotional state

Over the years, I have observed these forms of touch etc. as part of a trajectory of manipulative behaviors, sexual coercion, and/or the grooming of sexual partners.

The story goes a bit like this:

  1. CI dancer elicits a cathartic experience for their dance partner
  2. Dance partner becomes vulnerable, emotionally open, even attached to their dance partner
  3. Dance partners spend a lot of time processing these emotions (either verbally or nonverbally)
  4. Emotional bonds lead to sexual connection

In short, these forms of touch, though obviously they aren’t always problematic, can generate conditions in which consenting to sexual relationships is more difficult, because they establish unequal power dynamics.

What’s problematic about power dynamics?

A healer/healed power dynamic can lead to a loss of personal empowerment for the dancer being healed, who could experience:

  • Feeling a sense of indebtedness toward a dance partner for having “helped” them
  • Feeling a sense of attachment toward a dance partner for having “seen” them
  • Feeling a sense of closeness toward a dance partner for having “accompanied” them
  • Etc.

These feelings create an emotional climate in which saying ‘“no” to expressions of sexual or romantic interest is more complicated.

Over the years, I have observed individuals repeatedly having these kinds of dances (year after year, in festivals, jams, etc.) resulting in sexual/romantic encounters. I consider this predatory because:

  • Generating a healer/healed power dynamic is one of the many ways by which I’ve observed more experienced dancers in CI approach, single out, isolate, and sexualize newcomers (usually beginning level, young, conventionally attractive female dancers).
  • Engineering opportunities to establish emotional bonds with dance partners in order to have sex is coercive/grooming behavior
  • Creating an unequal power dynamic in order to have sex is unethical.

In conclusion, one of the ways that unethical sexuality presents itself in CI is through dances that have a dynamic of someone healing another person. I think it’s important to mention this because historically, CI culture has propagated the idea that we can’t discern sexually problematic behavior, saying that somehow CI is too magical and subjective. This is a false notion. Many predatory behaviors that happen in CI are akin to predatory behaviors that happen in other contexts, and if we are informed and sensitized about consent culture, we see them.

It’s important to demystify CI, to stop pretending that every dance is an entirely unique experience, to stop ignoring patterns of abuse that exist within our community. And most importantly, it’s important that we take responsibility for our own actions, that we reflect upon our motives, and hold ourselves accountable to higher standards of sexually ethical behavior.

7 comments for “Myth #4: It’s okay to heal me with contact improv

  1. Inma Piqueras
    2019/02/26 at 14:54

    I am so glad to read this article. You’ve put into words what I have experienced in many occasions during the years I’ve been practicing CI.

  2. Jim Hawkes
    2019/02/26 at 15:36

    Very powerful. Thank you Sarah

  3. Marielle Abell
    2019/02/28 at 10:41

    Thank you for articulating this so clearly, Sarah.

  4. Sarah W.
    2019/02/28 at 14:47

    Hi, I’m new to contact improv but not to the practice of sexual grooming. It strikes me that anyone who attends a jam with the agenda of acquiring a sexual partner is effectively not practicing improvisation at all! How can a person listen openly to co-creating partner(s) if reflexively trying to steer the interaction toward a specific end? Without minimizing this unethical and damaging behavior, don’t they also miss out on the true gem at the heart of improvisation? i.e. learning to be open to the truth of the moment as it is and not as we expect or want or fear it to be? Grooming is ugly and quite insidious, but imho, it’s a strategic practice that comes from an inability or unwillingness to be vulnerable to another and to oneself. It’s safer to play a game at someone than to play with them. Ultimately, the manipulator loses out too. So my question would be, how many of these “healers” are true callous predators and how many are mostly (or at least somewhat) well-intentioned people who can’t recognize the violence of their actions because it’s obscured within the blind spot of their own shuttered vulnerability? It could be useful not only to warn less experienced or traumatized dancers of potential abuses of power–power woven from within the form itself and from societal and personal histories–but also to show transgressors acting consciously and with unexamined motivations what they have to gain in the long run if they abandon their games and open to more uncertainty: namely genuine as opposed to coerced (and hence inevitably limited) intimacy. Maybe this comes across as too naive and forgiving or even impossible due to the entrenched nature of some psyche patterns. And it may be more ethical to say “stop doing that” than to travel down the road of healing the healer. But for me it’s also helpful to understand why I often feel concern for someone who has crossed a boundary of mine. It’s because their wounds manifest in the negative space of the absence of healthy relating–as mine do with others at various times too. I say this all as someone with a long trauma history who’s very appreciative of this series on sexual ethics as I begin to explore this social art. Thank you Sarah!!

  5. Sarah W.
    2019/02/28 at 17:06

    … I should say why I feel concern for someone in addition to the poignant causes of disempowerment that Sarah has mentioned. Also fwiw, it does seem fine to me to go to a jam open to the possibility of meeting a future mate. Or even hoping to meet someone also interested in finding someone to go home with that night (though I think Kathleen Rea’s advice to keep it all separate is probably very wise.) Every conversation is a dance, every dance a conversation, and over time communicating is the main way we discover who a person is in their essence and many facets of being. And people who have cultivated listening skills and good boundaries probably make good partners. But there’s a big difference in being open to another person’s interest and in manufacturing interest. And once associations begin to be formed between dance and post-dance activities, it can give us neurological blinders that misinterpret or ignore another person’s cues because our own sexual agendas light up our brains. And especially in this context it’s important to check oneself to know that the other person is making an offer of their own design and not under coercion of any kind.

  6. Silvia
    2019/03/08 at 02:41

    I’m so thankful for your post!

  7. 2019/03/12 at 11:34

    To both Sarahs–I appreciate your insights and your ability to articulate them so clearly. Also evident to me is the care for self, others and CI that prompts your writing.

    Sarah G, thanks for the encouragement to take responsibility for our own actions, to reflect upon our motives, and hold ourselves accountable to higher standards of sexually ethical behavior.

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