Three Fundamental Styles of Contact Improvisation

or, Why is it that sometimes I dance with someone who seems to be experienced — but I can’t figure out what the heck they’re doing?

As much as we talk about relating to the earth, in a sense, we in contact improvisation all dance on very shaky ground.

There is no codified technique or style for contact improvisation; in fact, explicitly, contact improvisation is not any one thing. It contradicts itself and “contain[s] multitudes.” This means that over and over again, we enter into a dance without a shared premise for interacting, without necessarily coming from the same understanding of what we will encounter or explore. It is frustrating, thrilling, bewildering, freeing, challenging, incredibly rich, and often more than a little awkward.

Some simply say that there are as many different ways of dancing CI as there are CI dancers, and leave it at that. But I think there’s more here. To me, certain dancers feel like “home” – they seem to listen to the same things and dance with the same understanding of the dance as me. With others, it’s just awkward — we don’t seem to speak the same language. Even with experienced dancers, even with people whom I perceive having smooth, connected dances with someone else. How often have you danced with someone whom you’ve been told is “great,” but come away thoroughly underwhelmed or confused?

I think we usually chalk this up to our own inexperience, our partner’s inexperience, or “chemistry.” And these shouldn’t be ignored as possibilities. But I think much of the time, there are actual, identifiable stylistic differences. There are folks that speak the same language as you, and folks that don’t. By learning some of these fundamental differences — by first identifying the different languages in CI — you can better appreciate where your partner is coming from, and perhaps find a more successful way of relating to your partner.

I’ve defined three distinct styles of contact improvisation. I believe that most intermediate to advanced dancers of contact improvisation dance from at least one of these styles as a stylistic base. I call them (1) Point-centric, Structural, (2) Point-centric, Grounded, and (3) Pelvis-centric. These are precise but terribly awkward names. So I’m going to call them Style 1, Style 2, and Style 3. I’m also going assign a character to each. Style 1 is danced by Wendy Weight-Sharer. Style 2 is danced by Gillian Grounded. And Style 3 is danced by Tina (Pelvis) Tracker.

These are fundamentally different approaches to contact improvisation. While there is some compatibility between them, it requires compromises or one or both dancers (in a duet) dancing outside their comfort zone. I think these constitute the biggest sources of confusion and lack of connection in dancing.

Here’s an explanation of each:

Style 1: Point-centric, Structural — Wendy Weight-Sharer

Wendy is point-centric, which means that she looks to the point of contact between her and her partner for information about the dance. She is also structural, in that she looks to connect through the point of contact, through her partner’s center, down into her partner feet (in standing positions), into the floor.

About 40% of you are saying, “well, yeah, duh. That’s just contact improvisation.” About 20% of you are starting to have an uneasy feeling. Like, you don’t want to disagree with what I’m saying, because you’ve heard other people say the same thing, but you’re not totally sure where this is going. Another 30% sort of think I’m wrong, but you’re keeping an open mind and are polite. And I’ve already lost 10% of you, possibly on “point-centric” (“contact improvisation is more than slavishly following the rolling point of contact”), or because you object to the whole premise of this post (“how can you classify anything?” “I don’t like the idea of types”), or because you know where this is going and you hate it.

But something like 70% of you think don’t actually think there’s any ambiguity here. I’m wrong, or, I’m right, but you know what contact improvisation is. From your perspective, contact improvisation has certain fundamental principles. Among them are a rolling point of contact and… this Other Thing, having something to do with relating to the ground. This Other Thing variously described as:

  • weight-sharing
  • feeling the ground through your partner’s feet
  • connecting to your partner through the point of contact
  • “giving weight”
  • “not pushing”

or even

  • leaning
  • a shared weight center (!)

But CI dancers use these terms and images to describe two different physical states and approaches.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with “point-centric.”

Wendy the Weight-Sharer, as someone who dances in Style 1 most of the time, and therefore point-centric, looks mainly to the point of contact for information about her dance. From the point of contact, she can tell how much structural support her partner’s body has for her weight, and modulates her weight into her partner accordingly. She maintains the point of contact most of the time, and feels slightly guilty and/or feels excitingly mischievous when she drops it. She is constantly listening to the point of contact to follow where her partner’s body is in the space, and relies on the point to, in a rough sense, know where her partner’s limbs are and how to avoid being hit by them accidentally.

As for structural — Wendy is aware of how her partner’s structure supports her weight, and how her structure supports her partner’s weight. Wendy is leaning into her partner, with a shared axis. Martin Keogh calls this a “shared plumbline” or “A-frame,” Moti Zemelman calls this an “arch,” but what it comes down to is that Wendy is off-balance into her partner. That is, if Wendy’s partner were not there, Wendy would fall over.

40% of you, again, are so bored. 10% are confused. 20% are irate, thinking that this is crazy and/or dangerous.

As a particularly advanced practitioner of Style 1, Wendy has a few nuances to how she practices this that are somewhat rare (but totally pedestrian to a significant number of you):

Wendy generates momentum from falling. Wendy doesn’t try to think her way through where she’s going to go. Instead, she just falls towards her partner. She uses that momentum to take her through the dance. For instance,

Wendy falls up into lifts. Wendy easily finds herself on top of her partner when her partner — Ursula Under-dancer — finds her pelvis just below Wendy’s, and allows Wendy to fall on top of her. Wendy might even use the momentum from this fall to roll further up Ursula — “falling up.” Wendy and Ursula discover lifts, rather than looking for them.

Wendy loves weight, and feels most connected through weight. When Wendy can feel all the way through her partner’s structure into the ground, she feels a connection between her own structure and center and Ursula’s structure and center that is profound and right, balanced and easy. Like the sweet spot on a tennis racket, or the perfect-fitting shoe, or a perfectly synchronized high five, it feels awesome.

Wendy doesn’t worry about falling. Wendy is very attuned to Ursula when leaning into her, and how much Ursula is matching Wendy’s weight. Wendy never gives more than what Ursula can match for more than a split-second. Instead, Wendy and Ursula are almost always matching a very similar amount of weight, and are off-balance and committed to each other to the same degree. So that if Ursula starts to move away, Wendy will immediately feel it, and can take her weight away to the same degree. And Wendy has fallen enough times that she’s very confident in her ability to fall safely if her partner isn’t there.

Five years ago, many of Wendy’s partners used to complain (very politely, and not to her) that she was too “hard” and “heavy,” and frequently “got stuck,” where Wendy seemed immovable. At that point, Wendy wasn’t very good at modulating her weight, decreasing or increasing the weight to match her partner. She’s much better at it now. She’s also cultivated a very light, off-balance style, where she’s still leaning into her partner with a shared axis, but with only a little weight. And she’s taken to allowing a little more crease in her hips and bend in her knees, which helps her partners feel her to be less rigid.

Her partners also used to complain that dances with Wendy always ended up on the floor somehow. But Wendy got the great advice in a one-on-one to stop looking at the floor, raise her arms to the ceiling more, try going on her tiptoes every now and then, and generally think of extension and up, as much as she was falling through her partner. And dances now come in and out of the floor with ease.

I think about 40% of the contact improv world are Wendys. Wendys are found a little more often in cities in the Western United States, with particularly high concentrations (in my experience) in Los Angeles and Boulder, which have led some to associate Style 1 with a “West Coast style.” However, to be clear, this principle is not confined to the West Coast, nor does everyone on the West Coast practice this style. In addition, there are many elements that people describe as “West Coast style” that are not necessarily part of being a Wendy.

I am totally a Wendy, if you can’t tell already. But I’ll try to give my best representations of the other two.

Style 2: Point-centric, Grounded — Gillian Grounded

While I estimate about 40% of CI dancers are Wendys, a significant number — about 30% — come from a similar but in many ways diametrically opposite orientation — point-centric and grounded.

Gillian, like Wendy, listens to the point of contact for information about her partner. Gillian generally follows the point of contact and feels connected to her partner, Sue Stable. Like Wendy, Gillian is point-centric. But Gillian’s relationship to the point is a little different from Wendy’s. Although Wendy sometimes uses a light point of contact, Wendy loves a weighty point. On a scale of 1 (very light) to 10 (very heavy), Wendy is pretty comfortable hanging out between 4 and 8, and will maybe default to 6. As a typical (but not wholly representative) CI dancer of Style 2, Gillian is really more comfortable with 1 to 4, and defaults to 2 or 3. Gillian feels like less pressure in the point of contact means more information, and with more information comes more subtlety.

But the real difference between Wendy and Gillian, and Style 1 and Style 2, comes from a sometimes subtle but significant difference. Gillian is grounded, sending her weight into the ground as much as she sends it into her partner. Gillian might say she extends her weight into her partner, or that she connects with the floor as much as to her partner. But the really big difference is that Gillian maintains control of her weight so that if her partner moved away, she wouldn’t fall over.

Like 15% of you are now outraged, and your minds are blown. You are literally saying to yourselves, “That’s not contact.” Like 20% of you are saying, “yeah, okay, no big deal. I don’t get it.”

Gillian feels connected to her partner’s weight center — she is extending her weight into Sue, and like Wendy, she’s matching her partner’s weight. But Gillian is not really feeling through her partner’s structure — even though she may talk about feeling the floor under her partner’s feet, and weight-sharing, and leaning. Gillian is connecting to her partner at the point of contact, and possibly to Sue’s center, but not beyond that. Gillian, if she really talked to Wendy about this, might say that Wendy is thinking more down, while Gillian is thinking more into or across. (Wendy would probably object to this characterization.)

Gillian approaches things differently from Wendy in a number of ways.

Gillian generates her own momentum. Gillian doesn’t fall the way Wendy does, which Gillian sometimes finds a little annoying or reckless. Gillian moves through a lot of spirals and spins. Not that Wendy doesn’t spiral and spin, but sometimes Wendy just falls to start moving, often direction towards her partner. Gillian tends to employ rotational momentum a little more, maybe leading with an arm, a leg, or her eyes to start motion.

Gillian more consciously makes and accepts “offers” for lifts. Lifts are not something that just happen, but are learned over time. Gillian, unlike Wendy, uses a lot of the Fireman’s carry, and Gillian’s sense of lifts involves some degree of picking someone up, although momentum might be very important to a lift.

Gillian follows her own momentum coming out of lifts. When Sue picks her up into a lift, Gillian usually has some momentum coming out of the lift taking her away from Sue. Gillian follows that momentum, which often leads to her spinning out of contact with Sue. But no big deal, Gillian just continues the spin, and spirals her way right back into contact.

As a particularly advanced practitioner of Style 2 with a rare (but not unique) take on it, Gillian has an acute sensitivity to the point of contact, and is willing to linger in very, very light touch, or engage in degrees of subtlety that Wendy might not look for. Gillian might pause for a long time listening to the point, feeling nearly imperceptible shifts.

Five years ago, Gillian felt like her rolling point wasn’t very smooth, and she kept on dropping the point. But since then, she’s learned to involve her arms more, whether extending her hands away from her body to counter-balance her weight and smooth out the rolling point, or to roll the point out to her arms, where she activates her arms and connects them to her center.

She also used to feel like she didn’t understand “offers” — she felt like she didn’t know how to “make offers” for lifts or like she was “missing offers” made to her. But now, not only does she know that basic vocabulary, but she’s finding new ways to make different types of lifts.

I think about 30% of the CI world is Gillians. Gillians tend to be found more often in the Midwest and Eastern United States (vs. the West). I’ve noticed particularly high concentrations in New York City, Boston, and Northampton.

I can’t emphasize enough how much Style 1 and Style 2 are actually different approaches — and how they are fully realized, deeply-held philosophies. When I’ve described Wendys to Gillians, they barely believe that Gillians exist, as opposed to people just doing something that’s “not contact improvisation,” or some who just dances with very little weight. And vice versa. But I’ve had long, detailed, sometimes heated conversations with both Wendys and Gillians about their approaches, drilling down into what they mean by “weight-sharing.” They mean different things, even though sometimes Wendys and Gillians are able to successfully dance with each other.

Style 3: Pelvis-centric — Tina (Pelvis) Tracker

So here I have to admit that “Style 3” is a bit less defined. I’m using it as a bit of a catch-all, and I’m considering breaking it out into more categories at some point. But I think it captures a number of ways that people are dance when the point of contact is no longer the focus of attention or the basis of movement.

I want to draw a distinction here between “contact improvisation” and “dance improvisation.” Some people don’t draw this distinction, but CI as a form is distinct from simply dance improvisation with touching. People who do CI for any length of time learn to appreciate this.

But when the focus of the dance is not so defined as a “rolling point of contact,” how is it still CI, and not “dance improvisation”? Gillians, and particularly Wendys, may think that Tinas are just sloppy about the point, or don’t know what they’re doing, or may think that Tinas aren’t doing CI. But I believe that for Tinas, there are ways of relating that are grounded in physical principles that are distinct from simply improvising in movement.

Which is to say, Tina, while not following the point of contact, and even content to drop contact for long periods of time, nevertheless has a relationship to the pelvis/weight center of her partner, a relationship that is particularly developed in CI. As an experienced CI dancer, it’s not that she’s sloppy with the point — it’s that she’s relating to the mass of her partner in a way that isn’t solely focused on the point of contact.

Whether or not she’s aware of it, Tina is essentially tracking her partner’s pelvis/weight center, whether in contact (physically or visually) or out of contact (visually or, arguably “energetically”). If you’ve ever done an exercise where you tracked your partner’s pelvis, either with your hands or in space, you’ve encountered some of the basis for Style 3.

Style 3’s practitioners implement this is many different ways. Many who practice Style 3 have come to it after a long time dancing from Style 1 or Style 2. Some switch between Style 1 or Style 2 while in contact, or Style 3 when out of contact.

Tina is only one example of Style 3. But as such:

Tina doesn’t feel tied to the point of contact. She occasionally will roll a little bit with her partner, but she’s much more interested in balance and weight wherever she finds it. She doesn’t hesitate to slide the point of contact or disconnect when her momentum takes her away from her partner, and often finds herself spiraling in space, not in contact with her partner.

Tina uses her limbs often, especially her arms, as a way of finding her partner’s center as well as extending her own center and allowing her partner to access it. In this way, she can move her partner or her partner can move her. She might use her hand to redirect her partner’s momentum, or extend her leg towards her partner and allow her partner to push her off-balance.

Tina uses her eyes to track her partner. Tina rarely, rarely dances with her eyes closed. (Incidentally, Gillian also keeps her eyes open often, though less so when on the floor. Wendy is quite comfortable closing her eyes while dancing, at least if the room isn’t too crowded, and often finds it helps with her focus.)

Five years ago, Tina used to be a Style 1 dancer, but felt that constantly being in contact was boring, while weight-sharing became too exhausting. Now she spends as much time out of contact as in contact, and often incorporates visual or performative elements into her dancing.

I think roughly 20% to 30% of experienced dancers are Tinas.

Disclaimers and elaborations

Okay, you’ve gotten this far — congratulations! Here are a few disclaimers on what you’ve just read, as well as some elaborations and nuances.

  • Not everyone has a base Style, though most people do. Many people borrow from two styles, usually Style 3 with Style 1 or 2. Almost no one switches between Style 1 and 2.
  • These Styles are rarely implemented exactly as described above. Wendy, Gillian, and Tina are somewhat extreme examples, and you may find that you tend towards one Style in some ways but not others.
  • This is descriptive of a particular approach towards contact improvisation, but it can manifest visually many, many different ways. Style 1 can be flowy and light, or heavy and static. Style 2 can be forceful and physical, or delicate and dancey. Style 3 can have lifts and play with physics, as much as it can be theatrical, performative, or “dance improvisation-y.”
  • You may say, “I don’t think I’m any of those,” but if you’ve been dancing for more than 6 or 7 years consistently, that’s probably not true. If I had to guess, I’d say that you’re probably Style 3, in some sense, or possibly Style 2, though you may not be conscious of it. It’s relatively easy to pick up Style 3 through osmosis, and if you’ve had some instruction to “follow the rolling point of contact” that you’ve been playing with for a long time, you may have picked up Style 2. I believe Style 1, however, is hard to come across without specific instruction, as it tends to be counter-intuitive for many people.
  • I love Style 1, and I imagine I will forever be a Wendy. But there is no one right way to do contact improvisation. You would do well to identify all three styles as you dance, and try switching between them. But if you want to pick one style to consciously learn — I think you should pick Style 1. It’s the hardest to learn without consistent, diligent effort, and provides a fundamental knowledge of your own body, balance, structure, and weight, that will serve you well in any of the other styles.
  • There are many other stylistic considerations that are important and could be used to classify, categorize, or describe types of CI. And I’ll elaborate on some of these as I refine my ideas and have time to write things down. But I think these three Styles are the most fundamental differences — other differences are more negotiable. Here, however, are some less fundamental stylistic differences:
    • speed of dance
    • continuous flow vs. stopping and starting
    • toned vs. released
    • comfort with risk-taking
    • orientation towards partner vs. performative or external orientation vs. internal orientation
    • “dancey-dance” vs. “mover”
    • incorporation of less physically-essential movements
    • basic aesthetic (See another post along these lines)
    • “lightness” vs. “heaviness”
    • gentle/sensitive vs. rough/wrestle-y
    • strict rolling point vs. dropping/skipping/sliding the point
    • incorporation of limbs (manipulation)
    • fidelity to maintaining a point of contact
    • desire to dance “contact improvisation” vs. “I don’t really call what I do ‘contact improvisation'”
    • willingness to jump at/on someone and to be jumped at/on
    • and so many more

My point is: this is not meant to be reductive, but illuminating. And maybe this will be inspiration to develop a new style, one that falls outside all of these ideas.

  • There are many topics I didn’t have time to cover here. But a few things I’d like to write about:
    • what people from different Styles think and say about each other
    • who dances how — an analysis of styles of notable dancers and teachers
    • how to dance with a different Style
    • challenges for each Style — where dancers get stuck
    • Identifying various geographic and other lower-case s styles, and analyzing them within this scheme. What is Finnish style? Oberlin style? Los Angeles style? New York style? How do people tend to dance around the world? My assumptions will be woefully incomplete, but I’d love to kick off a conversation about all this.

3 comments for “Three Fundamental Styles of Contact Improvisation

  1. Roxanna
    2016/02/07 at 03:28

    This recently happened and I have been trying to understand why the dance felt so strange between me and a very seasoned dancer. Very illuminating article, thank you!
    I was curious about this sentence: “I can’t emphasize enough how much Style 1 and Style 2 are actually different approaches — and how they are fully realized, deeply-held philosophies.”
    What are these philosophies, if we were to put them in words? I’m fascinated to hear any thoughts about this from you or the community. Many blessings and much love!

  2. Tariq
    2019/03/23 at 05:42

    Hi thanks for your article. I recently retired from contact after 20 years of dancing and teaching. I found I was increasingly more frustrated by the diversity within the form than inspired by it and even more so by my inability to generate constructive discussion of the form. Your article really spoke to me on both points. I generally danced style 1 and considered it correct and believe that it offers the most satisfying dances because it can support presence and intimacy (intimacy seems to me to live at the heart of CI’s shadow, but that’s a whole other discussion) and I believe it to be much safer, physically speaking (more dangerous emotionally, perhaps, but that’s the intimacy question again). I also danced style 2 but as a defensive measure with dancers that I didn’t consider safe. Style 2 is natural to me from extensive taichi practice, which trains you to hide your centre. I found dancing with styles 2 and 3 to be very annoying. I wish I had found your article a few years ago. Perhaps it might have inspired me to keep dancing.

  3. richard
    2019/03/23 at 07:21

    Fascinating comment. Thanks! I generally agree that style 1 is physically safest, in many ways. Style 2 as a defensive measure also makes sense to me — and I’ve experienced dancing with people from tai chi backgrounds who are hiding their centers.

    Basically, this resonates me with a lot. I’m saddened that you weren’t able to find more discussion of these things in CI – it frustrates me as well. And I occasionally find styles 2 and 3 very annoying too. :)

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