What is “research”?

What do contact improvisers mean when they talk about doing “research”?


I think Jess Curtis started my thinking on this. At the teachers’ meeting at the 2010 contactfestival freiburg, Jess suggested that perhaps we use the word “research” too loosely in the contact improvisation/dance world. If I recall correctly, he pointed out that research in scientific fields, for instance, is a very specific thing. It involves a hypothesis, and experimentation, and conclusions, and publishing your results. As I remember, he suggested that we think about how we use the term, and whether or not we were actually researching when we used it.

At the time I don’t think I fully understood what he meant. I hadn’t yet been exposed to the myriad and confusing uses of “research” in contact improvisation and post-modern dance. This was a word that had rarely been applied to contact improvisation when I started doing CI in Los Angeles. I also hadn’t heard it much in San Francisco when I attended the West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival. Nor much among the folks in the Midwest, among the GLACIER group.

But as I went through the Freiburg festival, and came to New York, and attended Earthdance, and everyone was talking about their “research” or what they’re “investigating” in contact improvisation. Then I started to get a little confused.


Generally, when a CI dancer says they are “researching” something, they mean that they are thinking about and interested in a certain topic related to contact improvisation. “Research” areas can be physical (uses of the back of the neck), psychological (what fears are blocking me?), a little metaphysical (how can I embody “lightness”?), cross-disciplinary (somatics and contact improvisation, martial arts and contact improvisation), or just, you know, unclassifiable stuff (what happens if I dance from my left hip? where is my inner solo?).

Why this is confusing

But is it fair to call this “research”? I have two issues with how “research” is used: (1) that it gives a patina of rigor to what is essentially a very loose inquiry, and (2) the results of the inquiry are often not defined in any fashion, let alone articulated so that someone could benefit from that experience.

Research, according to one of the definitions in Merriam-Webster’s, is a “studious inquiry or examination.”  I feel like people use the word “research” to refer to anything that they’re curious about, whether or not they’re actually diligently investigating it. What’s sufficiently studious to be research? Well, it’s hard to say. Probably if you’re specifically investigating something twice a week in studio, that’s research. If you’re just keeping an idea in mind when you dance at jams, I don’t think that’s going to cut it.

I think that research also has to have conclusions of some sort. Going back to the same Merriam-Webster definition, research is especially:

investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws

Facts, theories, practical application are the results of research. Research that fails to uncover or articulate these things is not, I would argue, research. If my inquiry is “what happens when I dance from my left hip?”, but I never consciously register any facts as a consequence of that inquiry, never theorize based on those facts, and never apply those learnings, then maybe I’m developing a personal style, maybe learning more about myself, maybe playing. But research is more concrete than this. Again, the line is not always clear. But if you’re drawing conclusions and disseminating them somehow, that’s probably research. If you just have a curiosity, and satisfy that curiosity with some non-articulated experiences, I don’t think that’s enough.

Contact improvisation is generally an accepting, open culture, and not one where you’ll be challenged for using the word “research” in a way that doesn’t conform to previous notions of the word. However, contact improvisation is also a culture that can be fairly sloppy with language. Sometimes this is quite creative — I don’t want to live in a world where language can’t be creatively misused, or neologisms can’t be coined (like “Underscore.”) On the other hand, a word like “research” has now been used so broadly that a fairly specific meaning has now been diluted. If I say, “my research area includes use of the gaze,” does that mean I’ve thought seriously, investigated, and theorized about use of the gaze in contact improvisation, perhaps developing a class around it (a la Rebecca Bryant?). Or does it mean that I’ve just been playing around with using my eyes more at jams?

My proposal

What’s the solution to all of this? Stop using the word “research” for contact improvisation. Just stop using it. I feel like “research” is a forced attempt to sprinkle the authority of academia on what we do. Use the word “research” on your bio for your college or university’s Web site, or if you’re applying for a teaching position. Don’t grab at it as something that sounds approximate and impressive — be willing to use an accurate and precise word for your inquiry: “I’m thinking about this when I dance.” “I’m interested in exploring this.” “I’m hoping to learn more about this.” “I’m developing theories about this.”

I know that some dancers feel that they really are doing research, that that is the best term that describes their work. But the problem is that the term has been diluted in the CI world to the point where it has no meaning in and of itself. The use of the term “research” is insufficient to describe what you are doing or what your intentions are. Even if you do want to use the word “research”, you’ll need to provide additional detail to flesh this out — so why not choose a different word to begin with? If you must use the word “research,” please don’t leave it at that — provide some detail as to what your inquiry has been. “I’m currently researching moving from my left hip. For the past few months, I’ve been experimenting in the studio both what it means to ‘move from my hip’ as well as how that concept generates new movement possibilities. I’m developing a piece based on my work that will debut in the fall.”

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