Why do I sometimes come out of a contact class and feel like I don’t know what I’ve learned?

WCCIF had so many offerings! (This is not actually what it looked like; this is just a Berkeley street fair.)

The West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival ran some 25+ years in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Festival would offer something like 25 different classes over five days around the Fourth of July holiday, along with a ton of jamming. When I first started contact improvisation, I went to the Festival every summer. Each Festival I would take about 6-10 classes, experiencing a wide array of teachers and teaching styles.

And many of the classes confused me.

Of course, I loved some of the classes. But often I would come out of a class and feel like while I had had a bunch of different kinds of movement experiences, that were maybe even fun and enjoyable, I didn’t know what they had to do with CI, or how they were going to make my dancing better. In short, sometimes I didn’t feel like I learned anything.

Now, after dancing for almost eleven years, and having taken many more classes, I think I have some more perspective on this phenomenon. So here’s what I’d say to my younger, mystified self as to why you might come out of a contact class and not feel like you’ve learned anything.

1) Contact teachers sometimes suck.

I wasn’t going to lead with this at first. But because the openness and niceness of our community sometimes encourages a non-criticalness about contact improvisation teaching, I didn’t want to bury this point: Not all contact teachers are great, or even good. Some teachers could frankly be much, much better.

It’s hard to say why exactly contact teachers sometimes suck, and probably should be the subject of an entirely separate post. But perhaps at least one reason is because contact improvisation is an open form, there aren’t specific, codified things that a teacher is responsible for imparting. So it’s difficult to know what you’re supposed to learn and whether or not you’ve learned it — and therefore, how good your teacher was at teaching it. Which means that as a teacher, you’re not held to a specific standard, and can get away with doing a mediocre job.

I think bad contact teachers most often make the mistake of not thinking enough about their classes. I wince when I hear teachers say, “I just improvise my classes.” There are a few people who have been developing their material over years and years — Nancy Stark Smith and Andrew Harwood come to mind — who do this successfully, who have a large enough bag of tools/tricks that they will have one to pull out in any situation. Andrew Harwood told us at the beginning of one workshop that he never plans his classes — and he didn’t need to in order to give us an interesting, engaging, educational experience. But I think most teachers need to figure out several things for a class: (a) what you want the students to learn, (b) how the students will most effectively learn it, and (c) the type of experience you want the students to have from the class. To do this requires planning, and thinking, and testing ideas, and even practicing teaching to some extent. That is, if you take teaching and your students’ time (and money, and attention) seriously.

Sometimes you feel like you haven’t learned anything because you haven’t. The teacher didn’t know what they were teaching, didn’t know how to teach it, or didn’t take time to figure it out effectively, and so not much was taught.

2) You just weren’t told what you learned.

One truism about effective public speaking is to tell people what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell people what you’ve said. We don’t do this much when teaching contact improvisation.

I think this is sometimes a result of accidental oversight by teachers. The teacher thinks the reason for an exercise is obvious, and doesn’t realize that students might not understand why they’re doing something. Or the teacher, a little thoughtlessly, doesn’t realize that it would be helpful for  students to understand what’s happening.

But sometimes it’s intentional, and for a good reason. Sometimes when you tell students what they’re supposed to learn, they think too much about “getting it” — about reaching a particular understanding or mastering a particular exercise. This can actually inhibit their “being in the moment” — being present and sensitive to the experience they’re in and learning the most possible from it. When you state a goal, students sometimes start measuring themselves against the goal and against each other. In worst case scenarios, this can mean that a student gets overly concerned about doing it right — coloring within the lines — and isn’t able to do the exercise out of self-consciousness, or thinks that there’s only one way to reach the goal, or misses what else could be learned from the exercise because they’re focusing on reaching the goal. Or the student gets all know-it-all, junior teacher, because they think they know how to do the end-goal already. (I have occasionally been this annoying student.)

And sometimes it’s just too clumsy to say everything. Kirstie Simson and half the contact world teaches an exercise where you place your hands on your partner’s center, then track your partner’s center physically while your partner moves through space. This teaches a bunch of different things at once, for instance: (1) how to locate and relate to your partner’s center in movement, (2) how to be comfortable with touching a partner, (3) how to move in relationship to a partner — organizing your body, adjusting your footwork, etc., (4) how to be aware of your own center, (5) how to be aware of other bodies in space when moving with a partner, and (6) general warm-up. But it would take too much time to explain this all in a class, and it’s not actually important to understand much of it order to learn it. Your body learns these things on some level.

It’s also sort of hard to explain it all. I mean, even as I write all the things above, it’s difficult to break down exactly what you learn in that exercise. I’m pretty sure what you learn is important and useful, but it’s hard to say why. It’s not entirely necessary to name everything that’s important to learn in contact improvisation — or even be aware of it — in order to teach it and learn it.

But I think it’s perfectly valid to ask a contact improvisation teacher after a class, “Why did we do that exercise? What were we supposed to be getting from that?” As I think about this, this is perhaps something I should do more of. I did so after a class taught by Ali Woolwich, and I was surprised to discover how much Ali had thought about the class and how much she had deliberately chosen not to explain. And she had a reason for every exercise she did and a connection from one exercise to another.

3) You were learning awareness, not physical skills or movement patterns.

Contact improvisation pedagogy, perhaps fairly uniquely in dance, places a great deal of emphasis on mental state and awareness instead of movement patterns. So much so, in fact, that classes can be entirely about developing one’s mental state in a way that isn’t explicitly connected to dancing.

Occasionally this means you have contact improvisation classes that, at least to me, aren’t about contact improvisation at all, but more generally about dance improvisation or self-growth/personal healing or playing games. (And I get a little restless.) But sometimes these things are about developing tools helpful for contact improvisation or the learning process. An exercise where you laid on the floor for 30 minutes was about being aware of how to release unnecessary muscle tension. An exercise where you told your partner to come closer or go away (and then the two of you talked about it) was about learning how to be aware of your internal emotional and mental state in order to better protect yourself and set your own boundaries while dancing. An exercise where everyone stood around in a circle and clapped hands was about bonding students together as a community that will support each other, in the class and beyond.

These are all actual examples from classes I’ve taken, or even taught (the second is an exercise called “Come, Stay, Go” that I learned from Shel Wagner Rasch and is one of my favorites).

I think teachers can sometimes help ease students’ frustration by explaining the point of exercises — occasionally I’m annoyed that certain exercises really don’t seem to have anything to do with contact improvisation, and start to doubt that the teacher has really thought things through (see #1 above). But looking back on the classes I’ve taken, now I can see the point of many exercises that I didn’t understand then.

4) Your class was less about learning something concrete and more about an experience.

Some contact improvisation classes are not about learning so much as having an experience that might be difficult to be replicated on the dance floor. In this sense, I suppose these aren’t about learning how to do contact improvisation better so much as using contact improvisation, or even just the contact improvisation community, as a departure point for an experience.

One version of this is what we might call the “State” class, where the teacher’s intent is to get dancers into a particular State of mind or dancing. This is perhaps similar to learning types of awareness, discussed in #3 above. The teacher wants you to feel a certain mental or emotional state, or wants to guide you through a certain set of images and feelings because, perhaps, this will bring about a type of dancing you haven’t experienced before. Or maybe the teacher just thinks it’ll be a cool experience.

In a State class, you might lie on the floor, quiet and still at first, while the teacher gives you images and ideas to play with (“imagine that you’re at the bottom of the sea, and waves are gently washing over you”). You might be instructed to move with certain images in mind. If you have never been in or heard of one of these classes before, do not laugh. Some people take this very seriously.

Okay, you can laugh. Some of these are totally ridiculous. But I don’t mean to wholly dismiss this approach. One teacher who is not a pure State teacher, but who uses elements of this very effectively, is Martin Keogh, who uses images to evoke mental states or physical states.

My sense is also that Kirstie Simson also teaches a little bit like this, although again, it’s not quite a State class. (Although I haven’t talked with her about her teaching, or heard her talk about it.) Her focus seems to be to get students to a deep state of readiness, concentration, and inspiration — a state from which I think she feels contact improvisation ideally flows. To do this, she tends to give a number of physical exercises for exploration, and allows these physical explorations to lead you deeper into this state. She does not talk to you about the sea, and waves (generally a bad sign in my book).

5) You were learning how to be a self-teacher — you were learning how to explore.

And sometimes what’s being taught is actually how to teach yourself. Really? Yeah, no really. It’s actually that complicated and subtle. Barbara Stahlberger and I have had several conversations about this. The idea is, if contact improvisation is an undefined form, or as Daniel Lepkoff thinks of it, actually a question, then it’s up to each dancer to define for herself what contact improvisation is.

And so some classes are taught very much as questions. These are more “lab”-like classes (um… don’t worry about the term “lab” right now, that’s a whole other essay), that might start with a problem. For instance — how can we get better at entering and exiting dances in a jam? The teacher might have the class simulate a jam, then share ideas of what worked and didn’t work, and then suggest different exercises or techniques to explore things more. Then more sharing. There’s lots of sharing and reflecting with partners in these.

Sometimes you come up with an answer with your partner. One problem is, if your partnership isn’t very fruitful for some reason, or if the question being asked was one you kind of knew the answer to, or if y’all didn’t come up with an answer, then you might not feel like you learned anything in the class. But maybe a big part of the class was simply learning how to explore a question — giving you techniques and getting you to practice finding your own answers to how to become a better dancer.

This blog, which is about answers, is somewhat in conflict with this approach. I think the self-exploration approach is very important — but I think that there is knowledge out there that can be efficiently disseminated, and as a student, I want it efficiently disseminated to me. It’s good to ask questions, and to learn how to ask questions and answer them, but there’s a depth and specificity that comes from experience, and I want the answers that come as a result of that experience. That’s why I take classes — not to be empowered to find the answers myself. I want to save myself the time of having to spend another two years figuring out an answer.

The problem with classes giving answers is when we assume that what we learn is the answer, instead of an answer. Or when we stop asking questions.

I shy away this approach in teaching and learning. Nevertheless, I think this is a totally legitimate approach for a class, and an important approach, particularly for younger dancers. (And I like these classes more than the State classes.)

And so…

I think I have two main pieces of advice from this.

1) For teachers, or people who want to teach: think carefully about what you want to teach, how you want to teach it, and what kind of experience you want students to have. And why! “Because this is the way that I’m best at teaching” is a legitimate answer — but you owe it to yourself and your students to at least consider options other than the default.

2) For students: you might take away from this that you need to choose your classes carefully. I’d actually encourage the opposite — make sure to take a variety of classes, at least until you discover what you like. Be aware that there are different teaching styles, and different things to learn from each. Give yourself exposure to them, at least until you figure out what does or doesn’t work for you.

But my advice is actually this: give feedback and ask questions. I don’t often do this myself as a student, but I would love it as a teacher — students telling me what works or doesn’t, or asking me questions about things they didn’t understand. I’d particularly enjoy someone challenging me on how I taught a class — which fortunately, my friends do plenty of, but I’d be happy to have more. CI teachers could use a little bit more feedback and dialog, and a little less unconditional praise.


2 comments for “Why do I sometimes come out of a contact class and feel like I don’t know what I’ve learned?

  1. Alexander Ataii
    2017/09/19 at 12:22

    Good one
    Thank you

  2. 2013/11/27 at 19:39

    Thanks for the care, wisdom, and hard work reflected here. I’ll share it around.

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