Why is teaching contact improvisation so hard?

I’m usually pretty critical of contact improvisation teaching and teachers. That hasn’t really changed. But after a recent stretch of teaching, I’m more appreciative of this fact: even though I think CI teachers should be better preparing for their classes, teaching CI is really hard!

There’s a lot to say on this subject. I made a long list, and there’s no way I have the time (or that you have the patience) for me to discuss all of it here. But just so you have an idea, here’s some of the things I won’t be talking about in this post:

  • what’s wrong with the state of CI teaching
  • how teaching in general is hard
  • the various challenges faced in teaching dance classes
  • how most dance classes teach to a select few, rather than a general audience
  • what CI teachers do well
  • things that are hard for everyone to do well, including CI teachers
  • elements of exceptional CI classes
  • things teachers need to keep track of in a CI class
  • what you minimally need to teach a successful CI class
  • why it’s easy to teach a passable CI class

Perhaps I’ll turn some of these into subjects of future blog posts. Comment below to advocate for your favorite!

Instead, I really just want to talk about a few challenges that come up in teaching CI that seem to be recurrent problems. This isn’t an exhaustive list, just some things that are on my mind these days. And they are, if not unique to CI, at least rare to teaching outside of CI.

1) Weight

It’s not ballet; no one is going to tell you your body isn’t right for CI, or shame you for how you look. But because CI, almost definitionally, deals with weight, some students can get self-conscious about their weight while dancing. And have a moment of fear or embarrassment during class, when they’re afraid of giving their weight to someone else, or imagine that their weight might be a burden to someone else. While this may happen in other dance forms, no other dance form that I can think of depends so much on giving your weight over to someone else.

This is further complicated by the fact that yes, at some point, some people are too big to be able to be supported by some other people. You’d like to be able to tell a student that it’s all in their head, that they don’t really need to worry, but it’s not as if weight doesn’t make some difference. So as a teacher, you need to make decisions about what is safe or comfortable for all students involved, whether taking or giving weight—and how to express those decisions in a sensitive and careful way.

There is a lot that larger people can do to make themselves “lighter,” and a lot that smaller people can do to more easily support weight. Most of the time, students under-estimate the extent to which weight disparity is an actual factor. But enough weight eventually becomes a factor for a given partner. Navigating weight differences, and the physical, social, and emotional consequences of those differences, is a tricky thing that teachers in other dance forms don’t have to deal with, at least to the same extent.

2) The Unexpected

For some reason, students often seem to end up in CI classes with very little idea of what to expect. As a result, they can end up being particularly unprepared for the challenges of the class, and can get scared or overwhelmed by CI’s, well, weirdness.

Some of this can be attributed to the unique qualities of the form, and its unusual way of being taught. CI is so unusual and so generally unknown, and CI classes are so unlike social, classical, modern, or Broadway dance classes, that even someone who has taken dance classes before might not be prepared for, say, the closeness of contact, the absence of music, the interdependence of weight, the improvised nature of the form, or the focus on internal sensation and self-exploration. CI teachers can also take for granted the language that’s used within our sub-culture, and forget how inaccessible or strange it can be to those who don’t speak it (“energy,” “juicy,” “iliac crest”).

On the other hand, there also seems to be a way in which I see new-ish CI students underestimate the form, thinking that it’s more simple or less rigorous than it is. Perhaps misled by catching a glance of people running hands over each other at Ecstatic Dance, or a particularly undemanding music jam somewhere (or, you know, “my roommate was showing me some stuff last night in our living room and it seemed really fun!”), students think that CI is simply a little bit of touching, or doesn’t involve technique, or is much more relaxing or indulgent than it is. (Small complaint: teachers who use words like “luscious,” “energy,” and “rejuvenation” in their class descriptions don’t help—it’s a class, not a spa vacation.) I’m still surprised by the number of people who come to my CI classes expecting them to have music, which is a minority, but just the fact that it’s happened more than once is surprising to me.

For other dance classes, folks can have clearer expectations, and may have self-selected themselves away from classes they can’t handle. But for CI classes, it’s often a dive into the unknown, and folks may not know how different it will be.

All of this can generate confusion, anxiety, stress, or fear in your students—not an ideal learning state!

3) Proximity

I forget this from time to time, at my peril: in CI we touch a lot! In ways that are unusual for most people in their everyday lives. The touching that we do in CI can produce all sorts of unusual reactions, from nervous excitement to ecstatic excitement, from fear and anxiety to freezing and panic, from blissful relaxation to attraction or arousal. Don’t forget that every now and then, you fall in love with your dance partner, whether for three seconds or for three months. I mean, sometimes I think, how crazy stupid are we, to be touching our bodies to each other so closely, no matter how non-sexual or unemotional the touch, and then to be surprised at all of the endorphins and stress hormones produced, and their effects on our mood and emotions? Arguably, through all our close contact we’re just continuously dousing ourselves in a shower of hormones, but without really preparing for or discussing what may happen as a result.

How do you teach a class when all of that is going on? How do you manage and guide students through those feelings and experiences? I suppose the frequent reflection and sharing built into many CI classes provides some container for those experiences, but nevertheless, I think we may look back on CI teaching in 20 years and wonder at how much we were playing with fire without understanding what we were doing.

I suppose I mention these challenges because I haven’t yet found good solutions for them, or don’t fully understand them. But I intend to keep thinking about them.

2 comments for “Why is teaching contact improvisation so hard?

  1. 2018/03/31 at 13:30

    Thanks Richard for wisdom and articulation about those three points— I see those in the classes I take and teach. I’m looking forward to hearing what you are thinking about the other 10 points you listed.

    Weight: I agree with all your points, and would add that some teachers teach principles or skills for taking or giving weight that seem pretty effective, even for first-timers. One exercise that promotes safety and communication about weight is having an over-person gradually add their weight to an under-person who is in a static but muscularly-responsive position, with the under-person at some point (of their choosing) performing a “get the weight off of me” maneuver, and the over-person managing their responses to wherever they are being led. Generally, this starts at floor level, where the “get the weight off” maneuver is usually the under-person rolling, and then progresses to higher and higher starting levels. And generally it starts with slower maneuvers and advances to faster ones.

    The Unexpected: Yes! Aside from false expectations about music, another surprising newcomer expectation I’ve had is that the class will be about “improv theater” with physical contact. (That’s one reason I don’t like the abbreviation “contact improv.”) One our website, we have a section called “What is Contact Improvisation” with a video link and link to https://contactquarterly.com/contact-improvisation/about/index.php . And yes to avoiding jargon or ill-defined terms. My personal crusade is to stop using “point of contact,” and “rolling point.” We know what this means, but newcomers can be confused. The “point” is really a “zone” (and dimensionless points can’t roll, obviously).

    Proximity: I also forget this sometimes. When I forget, one of our regulars thankfully sometimes chimes in at our opening circle and directly addresses a newcomer with a multifaceted description of proximity and touch.

    Keep up the great writing Richard!


  2. richard
    2018/04/01 at 03:34

    Thanks so much, Zach! I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. It’s no exaggeration to say that these sorts of comments inspire me to write more often, as they’re among the most tangible rewards for writing on this blog.

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