Skills and Principles
Contact dances can be highly acrobatic dances that fly through the air, slow and low dances that roll along the ground, sensitive dances of deep listening, playful dances that evoke childhood mischief, sensual, compositional, and dances of any other quality you can put on an interaction between two or more people.
While the qualities and varieties of interaction in a contact improv dance are, indeed, infinite, there are identifiable building blocks from which dances are made. To describe them all, even if it were possible, is beyond the scale of this undertaking. What follows is a partial list of skills and concepts that are central to development as a CI dancer.
“Rolling point of contact” is one of the oldest and most central CI practices. Some outdated or ill-informed descriptions of CI actually substitute a description of this practice for the whole of CI. With rolling point, the couple rolls the point of contact continuously, drawing a line on their bodies without skipping or jumping a spot. Rolling tends to take the most advantage of momentum in dynamic situations by reducing surface area and friction. (Rolling up)
Sliding is also sometimes called sloughing. One might slide the point of contact to adjust their position with their partner. This is sometimes necessary if going into a weight bearing position or a lift. This allows the bodies to find their fit. Sloughing is the term usually used when sliding is being applied to increase surface area, usually to slow a dissent. For instance, if one partner is coming down from another partners shoulder, sloughing allows them to slow their dissent towards the earth, while an attempt to roll would increase their downward velocity. For sliding to happen one body must be stationary or both bodies must move in oppositional directions.
Bridging is a term often given when the contact point is discontinuous. This is the act of transferring the point from one point, say my hand on your shoulder, to another point, say my shoulder to your hip crease, without interim rolling or sliding.
Sliding Under the Skin
This is terminology that I’ve heard in regular use in the Finnish contact scene. In this communication through the point of contact, the location of the contact on the skin does not move, but there is a pull offered as the skin slides across the underlying tissue, indicating directionality. It is in fact giving directional input to the subcutaneous fascia. In laymans’ terms, it uses the 360 degree mobility of the skin around any given point to communicate where you or your partner is going. The brief lag time as the skin pulls on the underlying tissue allows for sequencing between bodies. The communicative aspects of this principle are also at work with sliding, though less so, and with rolling even less so. The gradient of resistance effects how deep into the tissues the fascial pull is felt.
I’m not sure whether this term is in regular usage. It is a term I use when contact “areas” stick together and remain consistently linked while the other structures of the body move through space or in orientation. For example, with my hand linked around your neck, we can traverse the room, alternating a counterbalance where I have the weight and where you have the weight.
Linking can also include three-dimensional wrapping such as my arm and underarm linking over my partners shoulder and chest. From this position, more three dimensional information can be communicated across a broader surface giving clearer input between the two structures. Three-dimensional linking is especially useful when in situations where one dynamic helix is being shared between two partners (more on that later).
Compression and Traction
There are numerous applications of these terms. They are what make counterbalance possible. We either compress into a shared center or pull away from a shared center. Compression of tissues into the bones is way to give your partner a sense of where his skeleton is and of his structural integrity. Compression into the joints along the length of the bones is an offering of support. It provides new solid ground that the compressed dancer can push against. If the compressed dancer organizes around a pulsed compression through oppositional compression, he can use the transfer of force as a means to mobilize his own body through space, creating resilient buoyancy. If compression comes from multiple sides, and the dancer fills into the resistance, it can be used for lift or redirection much like a rock-climber climbing a crag by pushing into multiple walls at different vectors. The idea that compression offers mobile ground can be seen by a dancer who is able to redirect his directionality mid-air by pushing into a support (i.e. when someone jumps at a wall and pushes off with their foot to change directions).
Traction, likewise, can be used to create motoric potential. When the traction is initiated it engages the elastic quality of the tissues. Engagement in a well-timed moment can take advantage of this elasticity, organizing around it to create a sort of rocket boost. Also, like with compression, traction in multiple directions can be tractioned against to get lift. So either pushing into a push or pulling into a pull can take the slack out of the system such that it can be used as support.
To utilize rebound from either compression or traction for motoric effect there is an element of timing. Buoyancy or spring is achieved by meeting the impulses as they enter the system with an oppositional force in a head on way while organizing the body to minimize friction with the floor.
A slingshot is a good metaphor here in the case of traction. By pulling the base of the slingshot away from the point of the stone, the kinetic potential is loaded. In Contact, it’s as if the slingshot elastic has been split in two and either can choose to engage with or without tone. This means, to achieve this elastic quality, both partners must engage simultaneously at the moment of maximum pull away to take the slack out of the system and coordinate propulsion.
A pool ball is a good metaphor in the case of compression. A pool ball reduces ground friction by being round. Therefore, most of the impact is absorbed into locomotion. A human receiving input can reduce ground friction by taking their feet off the ground as the input enters. This allows them to absorb the input in locomotion.
A great basic exercise, once counterbalance has been learned, is to practice counterbalance with a pulse, releasing contact at the height of the resultant arc, finding the rhythmic rebound, and repeating. The slingshot and pool ball exercises are great for inviting students to direct force through the structure. This adds possibilities to the typical contact patterns that go around the partner’s structure.
As mentioned above, counterbalance generally refers to a compressive “A-frame” shared center of balance, or a “V frame” shared center achieved through hanging weight away from a shared center. Both patterns require the ability to have an aligned push into the floor. If the connection into the floor is broken, either because of a tucked or over-arched pelvis, excessive locking in the legs, excessive slack in the shoulder girdle, or any other reason, the body becomes functionally heavier and less responsive.
A major component of becoming skilled at CI involves making friends with gravity. Learning to fall using the body's natural fleshy landing pads saves uncomfortable bruising. The term falling can elicit an immediate fear response in many people. They have a negative and fearful connotation associated with the word: falling is what happens before injury. In teaching skills for falling, the contact dancer is reprogramming these protective patterns. For the skilled contact dancer, the momentum contained in a fall is free energy. Falling creates momentum and kinetic potential without muscular effort. It is efficient. We fall with every step before we catch ourselves on the other foot and redirect the momentum. A fall is not a dramatic event, it is the relative free fall of an object from a height. When we lie on our back, we can muscularly hold our eyes in place or allow them to fall into the fatty cushions behind our eyes. In teaching falling, we have to teach a new understanding of the term.
Falling up. Falling around.
When I teach falling one of the first exercises often travels across the floor. When I first suggest falling across the room many people slam themselves to the ground or jerk themselves around this way or that, calling up the uncontrollable violence of an accident. Then I introduce the concept of falling up. While continually moving forward the top of the head reaches towards the opposite corner of the ceiling, keeping the spine long and the nervous system and senses in a manageable range.
Another common falling exercise is a trust fall exercise. There are countless variations on this. It is done in partners or in a group. In either situation, the faller releases towards their supporter, attempting to keep an aligned spine. Again a common tendency is to collapse through the back or the front and hold oneself away from the fall. Any contraction in the core that pulls the faller away from their vertical extension will make them heavier. This contraction can show up in the toes, knees, pelvis, or just about anywhere else. Often, a good hearty sigh of enjoyment on the way down can help the faller release into the exercise.
Clearly, one of the major resistances to falling is past experience of bruising and injury. Many Contact teachers, and all Axis teachers employ the term Landing Pads to refer to the soft fleshy parts of the body that are useful for transitioning to and from the ground or other hard surfaces. These surfaces include the plantar and the lateral dorsal foot, the tissue lateral to the tibia, the lateral thigh and buttocks, the back on either side of the spine, the lateral arm and hand, and the palm. By utilizing these structures one can enter and exit the floor without coming into contact with hard bony surfaces.
Many dancers use knee pads to protect their knees. While this can be an important protective measure it can also become an enabler of poor alignment. If a dancer is protected from feeling the patterns that are causing them injury they can not adjust to learn new patterns. This is a matter of personal choice. I have never used them and many advanced dancers won’t be without them.
Advanced Falling/ The Slinky
In an advanced dance utilizing momentum, falling is a fairly constant component. The falling of any part of the body creates a sequenced pull through the next part, through the next part, through the next part, and so on. The result is a recycling of momentum in under-curve and over-curve waves. A helpful illustration of this is the slinky walking down the stairs, never needing an additional push. The dropping of an arm sequences through the chest, which in turn throws the other arm to begin the cycle again. In this kind of sequential movement, the momentum of the falling is is channeled part to part through the elastic quality of the tissues. It is not the fall alone, but how the energy of the fall is channeled that allows for the most yield.
Bones and structural support
“Bones connect us to the ground. The skeletal system levers body weight toward the earth and gravity so that we can push away, allowing reach and stretch through air and space (Olsen, 95).” Of course, bones, by themselves would sit in a pile. Bones, like the poles in a tent, are the anchors around which a complex tensile system of connective tissue operates to keep us upright and allow articulation. Together they define the system through which we interact with gravity.
Weight Bearing and Alignment
There is a common belief in the CI community that anyone can dance it and that the physical state of the body should not be a factor in participation. In my view, this is true. Satisfying CI dances can happen without any weight bearing and risk at all. However, the common view that anyone should be able to enter a contact jam and begin lifting people or launching themselves at other dancers is dangerous.
If safety and health is to be a factor, the level of weight bearing one engages with should absolutely be relative to the integrity of the dancer's own skeletal alignment. Once weight exchange comes into the picture, the amount of force moving through the joints is increased dramatically. That increase becomes exponential when momentum comes into play. If the dancer has not patterned healthy alignment within his own structure, eventual injury is probable.
I see many beginning dancers fall in through their medial ankles and knees, depending on their connective tissue to hold them up. This pattern is amplified under weight. I go further into optimal alignment in the chapter on Axis Syllabus and body work. For now, suffice to say that to become a skilled CI dancer one must build healthy patterns of alignment that use the bones within their optimal support ranges to channel incoming weight back into the earth,
Separate Articulation of the Legs
Another common pattern of beginning CI dancers that must be addressed is the tendency to lock the legs together in a symmetrical manner. I use the term lock, because it requires a great deal of unconscious muscular effort to keep the legs together in this way. When lying on the floor, if one were to roll their pelvis towards the right while totally relaxed, the right leg would rotate out slightly and the left would rotate in. This is true because of the way the femoral head rests in the acetabulum of the pelvis. This pattern remains true whether the mover is rolling, walking, or leaping.
Allowing for this natural pattern cuts down on core tension, and gives the mover countless possibilities for taking advantage of momentum and the elastic quality of the tissues. It is this phenomenon that allows for the back leg to trail behind, and as it catches up, whip the momentum back into the system.
The most common platform for lifts is the pelvis. When lifting from the pelvis, it is important to engage a pattern I call “duck-butt.” Duck-butt refers to maintenance of the lumbar curve while moving. This is of utmost importance in all dynamic situations in order to protect the lower back and maintain maximum responsivity in the legs. This imperative is amplified in weight-bearing situations. What’s more, with a rounded back, sometimes termed “dump-truck,” there is no ledge for your partner to place his weight upon.
In pelvis to pelvis lifts, the pelvis of the top dancer must be higher than that of the bottom dancer. Otherwise, the legs of the top dancer must dangle down heavily while their spine is stretched and the core of their mass remains unmoved. The pelvis is the fulcrum point for the weight and length of the legs. Thus, if it is supported, the legs can be articulated to further align the weight over the weight bearing structures.
Many beginning dancers have an unconscious pattern of dropping their pelvis lower as they are about to be lifted. This is usually a result of hesitance about leaving the safety of the ground and a core contraction that happens in times of fear. This lowering of the pelvis and contracting of the core makes them a challenge to lift, and most skilled dancers would breeze past this possibility and find another, more easeful option.
In taking a partners weight, the base dancer can make the least work of it by starting the lift off-balance towards the partner they will be lifting. The support surface of the lifting partner should be extended towards the center of the object to be lifted. So the weight is on the near foot and the other leg is empty and available for steering, counterbalance, and most importantly, to receive the weight in the transfer. In this way, they take advantage of the momentum of the shift in weight from one support to another.
As the lift is returning to the ground it is helpful to transfer weight again to the near leg and offer the descending partner a slight outward push to return them to their own feet, so they may immediately be available for support of themselves, and potentially, their partner.
It is common for beginners to learn to lift by creating a wide stable base in the legs and using a mono-axial tilt of the pelvis. While certainly this will keep the dancer firmly on the ground and safe from falling, it is a static and thus energy inefficient position. Once the lift has happened in this way, it is done. There is no further harnessing of the momentum. Lifts do not depend on stability or strength, but on alignment and coordination between partners. When a shared trajectory is followed momentum is allowed to do the work.
Aligning over Your Partners Support
The pelvic-based lifts section mentions the importance of the pelvis of the top dancer being located above the pelvis of the support partner. This concept can be further generalized to say the top dancer should try to align his weight over the offered support of the bottom dancer and vice versa. Because the support is always moving, this is a dynamic action of listening and response. Side-bending actions, discussed in the Axis Syllabus chapter, help with an understanding of aligning the weight of the head, torso, pelvis, and legs over the support.
As a ball rolls, there is always a surface rising to the summit and another descending towards the ground. This is also the case with a dancer spiraling up and down from the ground. The point that is rising represents the culmination of support in a moving object. The top dancer can offer the duet the most levity by aligning their weight over this continually shifting support.
This is an advanced counterbalance that I’ve named based on its approximation of the DNA spiral. Two bodies helix around each other with the arms or some other appendage linking the two strands so centrifugal force doesn’t spiral them out away from each other. This highly dynamic relation allows a large amount of potential energy to move in any direction.
This is another phenomenon that I’ve named. It is a lift born out of a dynamic application of a helix counterbalance such that the lifted dancer’s pelvis traces a circle around the linking of their partner. It is differentiated from most lifts that roll the lifted partner in towards the supporting partner. In this arrangement, rather than having one partner roll up or around the other, one partner is channeling their sequential movement, recycling the force of their momentum through a “link” so the helix can continue from one body into another. I find that people experiencing this lift for the first time often express a surprised “whoa!” because the momentum is so much more than with other kinds of lifts.
Another central element in CI training is training healthy tone (of the muscles, organs, and nervous system. For now I am focusing on the muscles). The best route is usually the middle path. Too much tone and the information doesn’t communicate through the muscle tissue to the nervous system. This is like trying to have a conversation with someone who’s constantly talking. The information can’t flow in both directions. Too little tone and the dancer becomes unresponsive and passive. Inertia overcomes any possible impulse. The responsive system can yield to incoming force or can fill to offer resistance. If the starting place is too far in either extreme, the sytem lacks responsivity.
As we enter into a weight-bearing situation, it is important not to crash onto the supportive partner. Most people wouldn’t enter a conversation with a new acquaintance by diving head first into the biggest therapeutic crisis of their life without saying "Hi" first. We must feel out the degree of support that our partner is capable of and is offering. From there we build trust and offer and surrender more. Even with deep friendships, it is presumptuous to assume that their support is available at any given moment.
In CI we talk about pouring weight into a support. Rather than crashing all our weight in at once, we let it enter little by little, sensing all the while whether our partner's support is rising to meet it, collapsing out from under, or redirecting elsewhere. This sort of listening without assumption is key in the response-ability that is central to skilled CI dancing.
Pouring weight does not need to happen slowly. When one is skilled in it, it can happen quite rapidly, but it is still gradual and not a crash. The hands and arms can be useful as an extension of the body to slow the weight as it enters. Sequential movement in which one part pulls the next, pulls the next, pulls the next, is also useful in pouring weight. This allows the body to arrive bit by bit instead of in one definitive chunk.
Response-ability, the Solo Dance
One often hears in CI circles that we need to be able to take responsibility for ourselves. A dancer should never attempt a jump or a lift unless they are willing to deal with the consequences of their choice. Though they may choose to, it is not their partner's responsibility to catch, support, or save them. Although there is a context of care, the hope is that each person will take care of their own limits. Because it is an improvisation, there can be no assumptions that your expectations and your partners plans are aligned. Thus, the only thing that can actually be counted on is one’s own response-ability.
Training in response-ability includes training in listening. We break down our perception into smaller and smaller moments, so redirection is possible every micro-millimeter of the way. It also means training a diversity of safe patterns and reflexes in ones own body. This is where practices such as Axis Syllabus become useful. The more available healthy patterns of movement we have in our own body, the more options we can bring to our dance. This not only makes us more response-able dancers that can safely take more risks, it also makes for a more articulate, diverse and unexpected dance.
There’s another concept that feels relevant here. The cognitive development theorist Lev Vygotsky coined the acronym ZoPeD, which stands for Zone of Proximal Development. This was defined as the difference between what a learner can accomplish independently and what they can accomplish with the help of a more experienced person’s help. Contact is a practice that is extremely affected by this reality. Two beginning dancers are capable of far fewer options than are available to a beginning dancer partnering with an advanced dancer, which again pales in comparison to the ways two advanced dancers can engage.