Subtle Energy and Contact Improvisation
Another recent area of research for me is in the relation between subtle energy and Contact. As soon as one starts referring to subtle energy within an academic context, the ice gets thin and flags are ready to raise. To discuss in full the theories and understandings behind energy healing and subtle energetics requires a book in itself. It is not the focus of this one. I will do my best to briefly address some of the ambiguities of writing about such a subject and then shift to relating some of the actual explorations I have been doing with a small lab group. When working within systems of experience that are non-verbal, applying language is an inherently reductionist process. All the same, I will attempt to communicate some elements in order to offer a map of experience.
If, after my definitions and explanations, this section still reads as new age fluff with nothing to back it up, consider it an illustration of the flexibility of the contact form. It is a form that can be combined with other special interest explorations, whether that exploration is of power and BDSM, subtle energetics and qi gong, or scientific understandings of fascia and other physiological phenomenon. None of these sub-sects of research will appeal to everyone.
Energy and Form
According to modern physics, everything is energy. Broken down to its smallest elements, particles oscillate between being and non-being, wave and particle. There is exponentially more space in the universe than there is matter. What we experience seems to be energy moving quickly enough within the same general patterns that they appear to be solid, fixed, and unchanging.
In the human energetic system, the blueprints that will shape the human personality begin before conception. The womb exists within a woman who exists within a particular family, culture, ethnicity, and history. All of these overlapping fields begin affecting who the human will become before they are born. According to pre and perinatal psychology, the experiences of the mother in the time around and during birth affect the energetic blueprint upon which the first cells divide. The level of anxiety and mental state of the mother leaves deep imprints on the forming nervous systems of the embryo and infant. Before the infant is able to create autobiographical memory, sense impressions of their safety and access to nourishment form what is called intrinsic memory. As the child, and later adult, ages and experiences life, his sense impressions are formed into reflexive responses, beliefs, habits, heuristics and identity. The longer these patterns are reinforced, the more stabilized they will become in the ego. These psychological and sociological phenomena shape the structures of the body and its tissues. This is the process through which energy translates into form. The shape of the body (which is the lens through which life is experienced) in turn shapes what can be experienced and how it is colored.
As energetic patterns get established in the body they begin to manifest in physical form. These patterns crystallize and may appear as slumped forward shoulders, a locked pelvis, a forward leading head, and other physical patterns. These physical postures and patterns often result from held emotional and mental perceptions and experiences. Where blockages of energy flow persist over time, dysfunction and illness arise.
The lab group I'm working with is made of individuals with varying degrees of exposure to maps and practices of subtle energy including Annalisa Adelberg who runs the Luminous Body Energy Work School. Kristen Greco and myself have both been practicing therapeutic bodywork and energy work for much of the past decade and Kristen is a current student at Luminous Body. Rajendra Serber, Kristen and myself have each been exploring subtle energy in the context of performance for well over a decade. As mentioned in the previous "chapter," a large part of performing is learning to shapeshift and take on various textural, archetypal, and emotional constellations. This is energy work. We are all also studying qi gong and are all CI teachers.
Here are some of the exercises we have explored:
Elemental Work and Characterology
Characterological strategies were first identified by Freud and further elucidated by Reich, Lowen, Barbara Brennan, the Hakomi teachers, and many others. These characterologies relate to interpersonal strategies that tend to arise at particular points in existential development. They are called characterologies because the strategies are often based on early imprints. When strategies become habits they can set up unconscious patterns in the body. Over time these patterns shape the physical structure, and, eventually the individual can identify them as part of their ego-protected personality. The names of these strategies have historically focused on their pathological aspects. The names reflect this tendency (schizoid, oral, masochist, psychopath, rigid). The Hakomi lineage has attempted to rename some of these to shift some of the emphasis from pathology. They use names like safety-seeking (sensitive emotional, sensitive alnalytic), nourishment seeking (longing, self-reliant), burdened, tough/generous, seductive/charming, and industrious (to name a few). While these names leave have more room for the strengths to be a part of the characterologies, they still don't sound positive.
In her energy work school, Annalisa explores each of these characterologies, but also goes in depth into the strength of the characterology. The schizoid that tends to leave their body to swirl off in analytic or emotional storms is also thought of in its strength as an "air-bender" that can take ideas, information, and inspiration from high fields and channel them down to earth. These are often highly intuitive people with one foot in another world. The oral character, who, when out of balance can have an unquenchable neediness, in health becomes a "water-bender." Water-benders have a deep sensitivity to the emotional world. Their compassion overflows and one can feel deeply seen and nurtured in their presence . The self-punitive, resistance-ready masochist who's willing to stubbornly wait out any potential problem becomes the patient grounded "earth-bender." The manipulative psychopath becomes the sparky, life-bringing "fire-bender." The attention-seeking, accomplishment seeking rigid character who is validated by their actions and the perception of others, becomes the "crystal bender." The rigid control of the pathological state is transformed into clarity, specificity and a detailed attunement that cuts through the excess to that which is relevant and effective.
In bringing these strategies into a CI exploration, we went through each characterology. We explored them in a pathological state and then in their strength. In so doing, we identified many of the challenges and habits of CI.
The schizoid is not often drawn to CI because of the amount it asks them to be in their body. For a schizoid character, being present in their body is an unsafe and threatening circumstance. When they do find their way to Contact, their emphasis is not very focused on the physical exploration. They are often exploring fantastical imaginal worlds or fluttering about faster than you can catch them. When dancing with them it may be hard to feel where their attention is. In the air-bender mode, when they are able to bring some of these subtle explorations and imaginal realms into interaction, the result can be a joyful, light, magical feeling dance.
The dysfunctional oral dance is clingy and needy. It constitutes a large portion of the CI social dance scene in some parts of the world where people are drawn together to get theIR touch needs met in an eternal cuddle-puddle. This can also be the person who says he love CI because he loseS HIMself to the dance, meldS with HIS partner and becomes one undifferentiated flow experience. The water-bender can mold and flow around their partner's every impulse with a deep sensual and responsive listening. They are yielding and feel connection deeply. This skill of melding is vital to an experienced dancer, but without choice it becomes a co-dependant dance.
The masochist dance, in its heavy form, doesn't leave the ground. The dancers meld with the earth and surrender to gravity. Impulses are felt and absorbed, but don't transform into a motor response. The whole room slows down and the sensing goes on forever while they wait for an impulse to finally move them. The earth-bender, in his strength, offers stable support. His partners feels secure and held and, as such, can take more risks. The term "going out on a limb" comes up for me here. Because earth-benders are so strong and rooted in the ground, it is possible to fly way out on their limbs and trust their ability to draw you back again. This dancer tends to focus a great deal on the physical aspects of the dance. Compression may also be a major component.
The psychopath is the one who picks you up and tosses you over his shoulder without listening to your impulses. They also may be the ones that brings sexuality into the dance. They use a lot of physical manipulation. Fire-bender dances can be spicy. They can be acrobatic. A skilled manipulator, if able to listen, can become an incredibly dynamic support. This is a dance that invites the unexpected and requires a high level of attention. I have had some dances that feel like I'm on a battlefield, except my opponent is also my platoon mate. These are fire-bender dances. They can transform the entire state of the room during a jam.
The rigid character is also not often drawn to contact. It is too mushy. They'd prefer tango or ballet or something with structure to which they can compare their process and see how they match up. CI's cultural value set, that demotes shape and virtuosity to secondary values to deep listening and true internally arising impulses, makes it a hard form for the rigid character to approach. If they do, they are interested in the compositional and performance aspects of the form. Many rigid characters will find CI when they are ready for this strategy to soften and learn to be in touch with their protected soft insides. The crystal bender dancer can connect through space and brings their partnerto an awareness of their own choices. The dance has awareness of context and an openness to the room.
Many performer contact dancers struggle with the lack of crystal clarity in the form and leave it for periods to study tango, Axis Syllabus or other practices that can bring more clarity to their lives and minds. The CI culture tends to value soft vision, wide acceptance, and a general fuzziness of boundaries and lack of structure. This makes sense considering that it largely grew out of a time that was invested in breaking down dysfunctional structures. I love offering a degree of specificity and clarity in my teaching. I feel the contact community is ready for an integration of the gifts of structure.
Tracking from an Energy Center
Here's a little more background. In the map of energy medicine utilized by The Luminous Body School, and by Barbara Brennan, and others before them, the human energy system has different fields and different centers. The centers, often called chakras, exist on all of the different fields. The fields that the school primarily deals with, in order from the closest to the body to the furthest, are the physical, emotional, mental, relational,archetypal template, visionary/intuitive, and transpersonal.
In this exercise, one person brings their attention to an energy center on their partner that they are drawn to. They begin with their hands off their partner's body while their partner begins dancing. The dancer goes "open-system" so the amplification of their partner's awareness is allowed to affect the dance. After tracking one center for a while, the tracking partner adds another center. Their tracking can move through the different layers of their partner's energy field while staying focused around the same centers. The dances transform into duets.
Structured and Unstructured Fields
Some of the energy fields in this model are structured and some are unstructured. The physical, mental, archetypal and transpersonal are structured while the others are unstructured. Most contact dancers tend to operate primarily in the unstructured fluid fields, with an emphasis on internal sensing and flow. One of the dancers in our lab group, Rajendra Serber, has a propensity and tendency to engage a great deal from the structured fields. It is as if a grid has been laid down through the space, and he is dancing in on and around the grid, moving parts of it about, and generally changing the size, depth, and density of the space around him.
In our exploration of working in these structured fields, first we tried simply naming the phenomenon and dancing within it. The result was more shape, ease in movement through space, ease in effecting across space, and a tendency for the energy to rise into a quite dynamic place. We experimented with a trio score in which two people were in a duet across space, attending to and transforming the structured field between them. A dancer in the middle danced in and around their communication. This structure worked best when the two people on the outside stayed in an honestly connecting dialogue. When one of the two outer dancers lost track of their partner the clarity of the structured field between them was harder to honestly relate to for the middle dancer.
I've found this languaging useful in offering tools for dancers that may not have experience with energy work to engage with this exploration. Most people are familiar with the photoshop toolbox and can apply the visual imaginings to a three dimensional world. I invite them to try tools like pixelate, sharpen edges, smudge, outer glow, fill, crop, and so on. Then I throw in dredge, tonify, purge, soften, and other terms that may seem more applicable to a healing process. This is good practice for marrying intention and imagination. They use these tools on themselves and their fields, and then on each other. For most people, if the concept of subtle energy is not accessible to them, the activation of their imagination is still an option.
We have also been developing a practice that, for now, we have been terming Radiatory Dances. These explorations are somewhere between an authentic movement practice and an energy work session. One person is the focus of these dances. The others go into radiatory witness. This involves bringing your awareness wide and tall and linking into transpersonal fields. The witness may choose to track from the heart or the third eye or any other center, all the while connecting to fields that contextualize the dancer's experience in the infinite. This allows the witnesses to engage with the present moment experience of the dancer while holding the possibility of change and remaining linked to a larger perspective. From this place, the dancers can use whatever is in their toolbox to support the dancer in a transformative experience.
The mover drops into her own felt sense and begins to move from whatever impulses arise. After spending some time in radiatory witness, the other dancers begin to engage with the prime mover. They may use dredging techniques derived from qigong, or agitate the mass and get things moving by offering re-directional cues. They may offer support or resistance. They may use any of the "photoshop" tools that I previously mentioned. From the outside the dance probably looks like a cross between psychic surgery and contact improv. The work is powerful as it weds imagination, intention, and action with clear listening and deep trust. An object in motion is easier to move and offer new possibilities than a still object. This is true of patterns of energy flow as well. From the dynamic state of a dance, the recipient is very available to integrate incoming information.
As an interactive witness in this form I find that trust is the most important thing. If I try to figure out, from a cognitive standpoint, what someone needs and try to make that happen, I get in the way and have access to limited information. If I trust the unfolding process and act on my impulses within the unfolding improvisation without second-guessing, the intelligence unfolding in the room with the support of shared intention can unfold. I find myself sometimes doing sharp, direct, even confrontational movement or intimate and caring gestures. I attempt to enact all my movement choices with a trust that whatever they elicit in the mover is part of an unfolding process that is ready to come to the surface. I keep acting from a place of listening and care, trusting that we have cultivated enough resource and capacity amongst us to navigate any process that might arise.
I should emphasize again that his is a group of highly experienced movement and healing arts practitioners who have known each other for awhile, and thus can traverse to a certain depth together. However, I do have a sense that the shared intelligence in any room will direct the depth at which a group engages in a process. Our innate intelligence will not often allow us to engage a process that a container can not hold. All the same, I do not recommend experimenting in this realm unless someone facilitating has training and capacity in holding transformational space.