This is Richard here. This next post is written by a guest author, Kiera. Kiera is a beginning-ish-but-not-so-beginning contact improvisation dancer who traveled with me to Buenos Aires in mid-August. Together we checked out that city’s CI scene. Without having read her writing, I asked her if she would be willing to write something for my blog about her experiences with CI in Buenos Aires. I was relieved to discover that she writes beautifully! And she sees and thinks all sorts of things that I don’t!
I am very happy to introduce her to y’all. What follows are her thoughts and words (though I wrote the picture captions). Feel free to add your thoughts and comments after the post.
When Richard asked me to write something about our trip to Argentina, I was excited at the prospect, and then almost instantly and equally daunted. The prompt, such as it was, felt general and open-ended (ahem, for another example of “general and open-ended,” see this website’s definition of “Contact Improvisation”), something that can be so very freeing and so very challenging to approach. “Something about Contact in Buenos Aires”—maybe something about the style, about my own experience, about the people who do contact in BA—subjective but not dripping with subjectivity, focused without jumping to conclusions.
I could talk about my experience as a woman doing Contact in Buenos Aires, or my experience as someone in a heightened emotional state (I was in a heightened emotional state) experiencing so much contact with other bodies. I could talk about my relationship with Richard, the experience of traveling with a stranger (as a woman, in a heightened emotional state), and how it evolved, parallel, perhaps, to the dance. All of these things are certainly interesting to me. But, these are not truly the things on which I have dwelt these past days.
So, I am left with simply putting down what continues to cycle around for me: asking out loud the questions (and they are mostly questions) that I keep brushing aside in my own mind as silly or lacking in importance, obsessing instead over catching that intelligent focal point that I have been chasing. You know, that hard little nugget of truth that shines like a laser beam out of your forehead on to your paper and allows you to rest in the early afternoon with a slightly satisfied smile on your face. This nugget, alas, has not arrived. And so, here are two questions that remain caught in the sieve of my mind after returning from this trip.
I will only tackle two questions here, firstly, because I think it is plenty, possibly even too much, and secondly, because one of them is incredibly broad. Let me start with the most prominent in my mind and one that relates specifically to Contact Improv in Buenos Aires: why is the social space that Contact Improv occupies in Buenos Aires so different (read: better) than the social space Contact Improv occupies in New York? My second question is less specific to Buenos Aires, though my time there has made it protrude more obviously into my thoughts: What counts as Contact?! I think I have been through the mill with this one, and likely, that will come out in this month’s Lab. I apologize if there are advanced dancers reading this, thinking to themselves, “Ahhh, yes, the novice asking the novice questions—I too remember when I was such a grasshopper wondering What on Earth Counts as Contact?” But hopefully you will suspend judgment and maybe even take up the question anew.
To take the questions in order, let’s first turn our opera glasses to the social space.
Why is the social space of Contact in Buenos Aires so different from New York?
By “social space” I mean the setting. Generally, the party details—the five Ws plus the amenities. After coming from the (bare bones) NY Contact scene, there was something about the social space around Contact in Buenos Aires that shook me to my engaged core. Though my own global Contact Improv experience is limited, I observed the scene to be one that transcended purely physical motivations or interactions and had surpassed using Contact only as a means of exploring weight sharing and a rolling point of contact between bodies. It seemed to be a community in which friendship was encouraged and new people welcome, a place where Contact took place as one particular kind of expression within a greater community. Those are large statements, and might be teetering on the conclusion-drawing edge—more so than I am ready to do. Who am I to say that they have surpassed anything? “Transcendence!?” you shout, “You are making this about transcendence?” It sounds annoying to my ears too, so let me back up and describe.
Aside from the lovely smiling faces (and cheek kisses, and hugs) that greeted us each day, aside from the casual abundance of jams, labs and classes each week, making it easy to take your pick and not feel you had missed out for the week, certain amenities contributed to a sense of community. All of the jams had homemade food! Tea! There were rooms for talking next to rooms for dancing, a relaxed sense of time, a general tendency to remain for the entire jam. Even during the lab, we passed around bananas and each took a bite out of the same apple! During one jam, there was an artist drawing dancers, and musicians who crawled off the dance floor and started a music jam. All of these made the space, for lack of a better word, social. Most of the jams we attended took place on weekend evenings! This was a city where Contact Improvisation had managed to become (again for lack of a better word… “why are you writing this?” you ask, “if you are always lacking for better words!”) hip, practiced by more than a narrow subculture. Here, not only did I know intellectually that people had other interests and skills, but I could see them. I saw the cooks, and the artists, the musicians, and the facilitators. And, of course, they were all dancers.
In New York, never having experienced this sense of the social, Contact has always been something that I do more as a physical recreation, a means of using my body ‘outside’ of my life, or at least outside of my social life. This is compounded by the fact that none of my friends do Contact. But, I would argue, should we all up and move to Buenos Aires, they would be much more inclined to join in the fun.
Why would this be? It is the same practice, based in the same principles. Maybe because they would start to kiss each other hello and goodbye, make contact with each others’ bodies as a normal part of conversation, so it would not feel like such a great big deal to turn that hug into a rolling point of contact, a quick lift onto someone’s pelvis. Or maybe because the scene is young, filled with beautiful, nice-smelling people, it would feel known and ok because it would more closely resemble the familiar Thursday night gallery openings and Groove Night at our neighborhood bar with the attractive DJs exclusively playing old 45s. Or maybe, they would come along one night for the food, or with a drawing pad or notebook, just to check it out, and since there would be a space and occupation for this non-dancing state, they could sit there comfortably until perhaps one day they would roll off the sidelines and onto the floor, just to check it out a little bit further.
Now, changing gears. Phewf! I am all sweaty now after getting worked up over the first question. But I said there were two—so now on to the second question, which, if you have forgotten, was: What counts as Contact?!
What counts as Contact?
This one has been bugging me for weeks and months and came to a big nasty white head in Argentina. When I began all of this with a class in college, Contact seemed, like all the other kinds of dance I had done, to be fairly straightforward. I knew what counted as Contact mostly because I knew what Contact was “supposed to” look like.
And on some level, I can still find that version. It is certainly a version visible in jams in BA and NYC alike. Regardless of definitions (or lack thereof), there are recurring themes in Contact. Though the form is largely undefined—save that it possibly includes bodies that are possibly in contact (touching? nearby? mutually relating?) and there is possibly a rolling point and it might include weight sharing—it usually does include some to most of these things. Whether that is because people are uncreative or because that is enough to explore without over-complicating matters, I don’t know yet.
Our observations (Richard’s and mine) on the style of Contact in BA generally were based in these principles. We noticed a deep attention and faithfulness to the rolling point of contact; we noticed a general lightness in weight sharing. We noticed that the people we danced with were all comfortable moving slowly (not to the exclusion of quickness, but in addition), that there was rarely a rush to “get someplace” in any given dance. We noticed a strong sense of body listening. I found these pure physical observations (mostly made by Richard, and then I would hurry back to a jam, notice them and agree) to be helpful. They felt grounding; if I was getting too far out in my own mind about any number of things, there was always the point of contact to return to in all its glorious concrete specificity.
Richard and I had many (many, many) conversations about Contact, among other things. One particular conversation feels like it applied to this question, and left me remarkably confused. He described to me a very meaningful “Contact session” at a small jam in a private home, outside of the context of a normal jam or class. The dance was largely based in stillness, and essentially consisted of holding a position to the point of muscle fatigue. Well…fine. That can be Contact, I suppose, if both entered into it with that intention. But it was the way he spoke about it, the way he felt about it—it had brought up so much emotion (from what I could gather). It was related to physics, but it was also very much related to chemistry.
His description of his dance left me in a state of great uncertainty largely because it didn’t resemble what I think (want? need?) Contact to be. I wanted to yell, “Was that Contact Improv, or was that simply getting your mind blown, falling in love, having a significant human interaction, fighting through discomfort, awkwardness etc. etc. etc.?” I have had this feeling a few times before about some of my own Contact dances, and I still do not know what to do with it. (Again, apologies to the advanced among you who have seen this question through to its logical end…bear with me). Here I was though, talking to Richard in a park, on a tiny bench, trying to make sense of this, and feeling so confused. If my mind had been a play, the stage directions would have read: Enter: Personal History, Enter: Sexuality, Enter: Current Emotional State, Enter: Pure Physical Experience, Enter: Fear.
How can all of these things stem from, what appears to be, a simple sharing of weight, a single point of contact? What about the dance was pushing me so far out in my own mind? Were my thoughts and feelings related to or part of Contact, or did Contact just happen to be taking place alongside these thoughts and feelings? In short, is Contact Improv sometimes just a convenient title under which we may throw significant physical interactions that we do not wish to alternatively label? Or, conversely, is it something that may help facilitate human physical interaction and body understanding, and therefore should be as undefined as possible to encourage and facilitate all movement in this direction?! Ah! Questions upon questions poured out of this one broad overarching question!
At this point, my mind was giving up hope of untangling the web of thoughts and feelings I was having about contact, physical interaction, bodies, and all the rest. And so I kept dancing, trying not to think about it.
I think I will leave the conversation here. It may feel abrupt, but I do not wish to puddle these things into abstraction. My two questions, conceived in a far and distant land, have been laid out here on my living room table, a puzzle that I am going to continue to piece together. These conversations that took place over food, while walking, after listening to music, with wine, reminded me that we may choose to put it all together. Contact was integrated into our week in Argentina as food and talk were integrated into our Contact. Buenos Aires did not force us to keep our Contact separate. Instead, it kissed us on the cheek, gave us a giant piece of perfectly cooked steak, and told us to slow down, and enjoy the mixing of flavors.
My feelings towards Contact may be confused, but my feelings towards bodies are all the more clear. We, each of us, have bodies that can do more than we expect, that may provide us more than we often allow. Our bodies can point us in the direction of new questions, physical and emotional, about ourselves and our relationships. They can provide a means of communication when the verbal is unavailable. They can provide an empathetic response or a sense of release. They can play and bear weight, they can fly and feel weightless, they can hold tension or relax. I don’t know whether or not these have anything to do with Contact Improv. But I do believe that Contact is one channel by which these things may be accessed or at least brought into attention. And because these things sound (and feel!) very good, to encourage our friends to come along, perhaps it might be nice if we could bring along some food, a pot of tea, a notebook, and our loveliest smiles.