Fascia and Contact Improv
Fascia is the three-dimensional web of connective tissue that runs continuously from a thick layer just under our skin into the mysterious depths of our body. Fascia weaves a network of interwoven membrane around every muscle, organ, bone and cell. If all other tissue was removed from the body, fascia would leave an exact blueprint of the shape of the body.
Accessing this incredibly intelligent system in our dance opens a world of specificity, subtlety, and increased kinetic potential. For my workshop, Dancing The Endless Web, I've researched various aspects of fascia and how the information available might feed into a movement, and in particular, a CI practice. Here is what I have found.
(Image by Dr. J.C. Guimberteau from http://www.massagemag.com/News/massage-news.php?id=10705)
Fascia as Sensory Organ
One of the functions of fascia in the body is as the largest sensory organ. The fascia is innervated with multiple kinds of sensory receptor cells that respond to different stimuli and create different resulting effects in the nervous system.
The Pacini corpuscle, for instance, responds to rapid pressure changes, rocking, shaking, vibration (even so subtle as sound, say snapping, off the body), and changes changes in the angle of joints. Stimulation of the Pacini through these actions seems to result in increased proprioceptive ability.
I have led and participated in experiments in which one person dances and another taps them gently in random locations around their structure, attempting to stimulate the pacini in the subcutaneous fascia. Generally the response has been a heightened state of arousal and a heightened awareness of the whole body simultaneously. Balance is often increased and a sense of integrity and connection between distal parts arises.
If one were to use the changes in joint angle stimulus as a starting point, one might choose to warm up by tossing of the limbs and allowing the thrust to ripple through the structure. This kind of tossing and follow through of the the sequential waves set up through the structure allows for a great deal of energy transmission with very little effort. The Pacini corpuscles are activated leading to a sense of connection and communication between the many parts.
The interstitial sensors are by far the most numerous. They are known as introceptors. Just as proprioceptors help us to deduce the nature of physical objects outside the body and in the joints, introceptors give us information about how we are in the confines of our own body. Interstitial receptors are partially responsive to high threshold sensation and partially responsive to incredibly subtle sensation. I have led classes in which we stimulated these sensors using various techniques from craniosacral therapy and then went into a CI dance. People emerged into the dance incredibly slowly and with low nervous system and muscle tone in the body. Their capacity for subtle listening was quite heightened, but response time was slow. This kind of preparation might be useful if there is a long time to transition into larger movement or if there is no desire to progress to higher dynamic movement. The state evoked is a generally pleasant, intimate, wombic, nurturing state that has many therapeutic properties.
Tensegrity is a word coined by Buckminster Fuller to describe the architectural
phenomenon at work in his geodesic domes and similar structures. These structures are not primarily supported through the compression like that of a post on top of columns. Rather, a tnsegrity system responds through an interconnected web of parts to disperse incoming force. This is how the fascial system works. It has more in common with a circus tent made of posts, anchors, guidewires, and stretchy fabric than it does with a house, made of vertical and horizontal unmoving supports.
(image of a tensegrity based play structure from climbnet.com)
One of the major ways I apply knowledge of fascia to the teaching and dancing of CI is through explorations of sequencing and elasticity. Sequencing refers to movement in which an initiation moves through the tensegrity chains of the fascia, pulling one bony lever after the next, allowing for locomotion that is driven by a mechanical force channeled through a series of "falls" and mechanical tugs, rather than through muscular contraction. This is useful in any movement practice and is one of the core priniciples of efficiency in the Axis Syllabus system.
In CI this is the principle that tends to create situations where "something is left behind." Like a comet tail, a body in a lift will not come all at once. The distal parts will wait patiently as the sequence channels through the chain of parts. When the leading motoric element has come to a pause, that caboose part has an opportunity to swing to the lead and create the next pull in the chain, thus conserving momentum through a game of elastic slinky tag.
Changing the Shape
The fascia moves from the superficial tissue seamlessly into the deeper structures, even wrapping around the bones (periosteum) and the organs. When approached therapeutically, stretches, holding and other stimuli are held for an extended period of time, creating a transformation in the sol-gel structure of the fascia from solid to gel in a process called unwindng. This process often triggers a parasympathetic response, resulting in deep relaxation and release of old patterns, experiences, and held emotions. I call this use of fascia "changing the shape" because the intention is to shift the tensegrity and release the adhesions in the tissue.
Moving the Shape
In its application to CI, "moving the shape" is often a much more common application. All surfaces of the skin have 360 degree mobility. If you put your hand on your arm you can move the tissue any way and it will slide for a period, until it stops. In the previous section I called this "Sliding under the skin." It is a phenomenon created by the outer skin sliding over the subcutaneous fascia. The fascia will stretch to a degree until it reaches its end, and will then begin pulling on the structures beneath it. This pull creates a directional impulse. This communication is happening all the time in contact improvisation. It is a primary means by which we can tell what direction our partner is moving in.
If there is contact made in a three-dimensional way around some aspect of your partner's structure (i.e. a hand on their front and back or both sides) the amount of information is much greater. For illustration, imagine you are rolling a beach ball along the ground with one hand. Now imagine you are rolling a beach ball on a moving sidewalk that is moving in the opposite direction. The ball gets twice as much spin but doesn't locomote as far through space. This greatly magnifies momentum. If the beach ball is a human it also increases the degree of suggestion of a directive impulse. If the directionality is met with resistance, it can increase the tensegrity of the shared sytem to provide heightened support.
If I maintain three-dimensional contact with my partner through fascial touch and set up a spiral in my own sytem, the spiral will continue from our superficial connection into the structure of their body and result in a continuation of the spiral. When teaching material based on this concept I often remind students of places where the connectivity of the spiral is often broken due to ground friction. Many students will stop the spiral at their ankles. The pull through the tissues will then cause them to fall in through their arches and may also cause torsion in the knees. To allow the spiral to move all the way through they merely have to allow the surface area decrease so the structure can turn. By raising the heel and allowing their weight to be supported on the lateral aspect of the plantar foot, perhaps following through to the dorsal foot, the spiral can move all the way through the structure without jamming in the joints. Often, the spiraling of one partner will bring the other partner into a support situation so he can release his feet completely. This creates what I call a Centrifugal Lift. I speak more about this lift in the skills section.
If the partner receiving the three-dimensional fascial impulse spirals against it and resists the suggested direction, the tone of the connection between the two structures increases. The initiating partner could use this tensegrity support at that point to channel the directive force back through her own structure and move herself. Sometimes this phenomenon can provide enough support so the initiator, met with their partners oppositional resistance, is able to easefully spiral themself up onto their partner's structure.
When a directional impulse through the fascia is resisted and the boundary of the "sliding under the skin" potential is met, the resistance in the tissue itself can provide a shelf where no bony support exists. This shelf is not usually ideal for resting your entire weight upon, as that creates a great deal of drag on your partners skeleton and the muscles will need to work hard to keep rising into the pull. It can be quite useful for redirecting your own structure at any point. It can also be useful in flight, when your own momentum is the primary support and the fascia touch to your partner just adds a little additional lift.
Mid Air Re-direction
The application of these concepts in the midst of a lift offers the possibility of changing direction mid air. Because someone in a lift has no surface tension except at the point of contact, they are very east to re-direct. By creating a fascial link through the torso and changing your own direction you can change their trajectory multiple times in one lift. This is easier to do on the way up than on the way down.
These sections illustrate a beginning of how an understanding of a movement phenomenon can be explored in its application to Contact Improvisation. Study of each field can offer great insight into the other. The above illustrations are a scratch on the surface of where such explorations might go.