Contact improvisation is a dance form invented in New York in the 1960s by Steve Paxton and other members of the Judson Dance Theater. It was one way that postmodernism was expressed in the dance world.
Contact is sort of a combination of aikido, the jitterbug, and dry humping. Or another way to describe it is to remember the last time you watched two dogs romping at the park. They run and jump and gambol all over each other, get up and run and fall down all over each other some more. That’s what contact improv is like.
Contact improv began as a performance form. During the 70s it was adopted by California hippies and took on a New Age aspect. Since then it has become almost entirely co-opted by the New Age movement and has been turned into a form of movement therapy. I couldn’t stand the New Age shit and stopped doing Contact around 1983. My piece below, “My Rise and Fall in Contact Improv,” expresses all my sour grapes.
There’s more information at this link. Also there’s a zine about contact improv called Contact Quarterly available in many bookstores that have extensive periodical sections, such as Borders Books.
My Rise and Fall in Contact Improv
Note: I wrote this in 1990 and it was published in Contact Quarterly later that year.
In 1974, after seeing a visiting dance company during my senior year in high school, I sign up for modern dance P.E. as a freshman in college. Astonished that I had made such an effeminate choice, my parents make me switch to basketball – which, since I’m only 5’4″, I hate.
Three years later, a fellow writer on the college newspaper invites me to a performance by Deborah Hay, who has just moved to Austin. “She’s kind of a hippie, but you may like it anyway,” my friend predicts. I hate the first half of the show, and then love the second. A few months later, I take the first dance classes of my life with Hay. One of the core members of the Judson Dance group, Hay’s classes during the late 70s are run with a kind of New Age anti-elitist philosophy, in which everybody is allowed to think they can dance. Fortunately this includes me.
During the next two years, I learn a philosophy of movement and performance from Hay; at the same studio in Austin, I also take modern dance and contact improvisation. I get a crush on every one of my teachers. I even become brave enough to take modern dance at other studios. After two years, I’m in the best physical shape of my life. More important, the realm of dance has been opened to me. Best of all I love contact improvisation; learning how to do it is like relearning a language I had once spoken and then forgotten.
After a terrific summer, the core group of contacters that began in my class slowly fades away until I’m literally the only one left who wants to do contact any more. Frustrated with this and other evidence that Austin is full of space-outs who don’t really want to do anything, I move to San Francisco. It’s 1979.
One of the reasons I moved to San Francisco is that I knew I could do contact improvisation here. Mangrove, the most successful of CI groups, is at the peak of its career, and there are several other active groups. As soon as I get to San Francisco, I head up to Vancouver Island to take part in a two-week long contact jam. I’m excited to think that at last I’ll be among people who like doing contact as much as I do, including all of Mangrove and most of CI’s biggest luminaries from across the continent.
Unfortunately, these stars seem mostly interested in dancing with each other rather than with nobodies like me. I’m not the only person who feels this way; three days into the event, there is a general discussion about elitism. The CI stars protest that they don’t have to dance with anybody they don’t want to.
Intimidated by Mangrove’s self-preservation stance and feeling insecure, I link up with the only dancer at the event who’s really friendly to me, a contact teacher from San Francisco named Keriac. When I get back to the city, I join her group, Walkabout Dance Collective.
Walkabout had been formed a couple of years before by enthusiastic participants at a big CI conference of some kind in Berkeley. As a new nobody in town, I’m grateful for how they welcome me and the skills I learned in Texas. Three months after I arrive, I do my own performance, in which some of Walkabout’s members participate, a mixture of poetry, film, music and dance. It’s a fair success.
I also start attending contact classes taught by Alan Ptashek, who had been one of the only people willing to show me a few things at the event on Vancouver Island, and I go to all the CI jams There are a lot of friendly, enthusiastic people to dance with, and I’m really glad I came to San Francisco.
But there are some currents that I don’t understand, even in this non-elitist group. During rehearsals for my piece at Walkabout, it became clear that there was a misunderstanding about whether the performance was going to be a collective process or mainly my creation. Ten days after the show, I visit one of the performers. At first she tactfully criticizes my creative process, but then gets angrier and angrier when it seems I don’t understand. After a long tirade, in which she calls me sexist – which deeply disturbs me, since in Texas I seemed to be one of the most feminist men around – she throws me out of her apartment.
In November, seven months after I arrived in San Francisco, I do my second performance, in which the main piece is a long apology for all the things I’ve been criticized about, like being macho, walking too heavily, not melting sincerely enough, and not trusting my feelings. Afterwards, the woman who threw me out of her apartment comes up to me and says, “Mark, Mark, I loved your piece.”
I like Walkabout because we have our own studio, and a twice-monthly performance series, so I get plenty of chances to do my own work and interact with others in the community. Even better, we all support each other on our projects, even if we privately realize it’s not very good art. It’s great to be accepted and to belong to a real creative group.
In addition to my involvement with Walkabout, I help produce the Bay Area Contact Network (BACN) newsletter, and I take it upon myself to show up on time at every single Sunday jam in Golden Gate Park, in case someone new comes on time (everyone else is always late). I go to performances by Mangrove and other groups. I conscientiously develop my skills in Alan’s class and in workshops taught by visitors like Andrew Harwood. I collaborate with others on several shows. I get fired from a job for reproducing the program for a show on the office copier.
Eventually, through sheer effort if not dance ability, I begin to belong. I stop being a nobody and become one of the people closer to the center of the CI community. I’m always ready to do the door at my friends’ shows; I produce a couple of large contact improvisation concerts, one to benefit CQ, the other for abortion rights. I do my own pieces at Walkabout shows every two or three months. The peak of this period is mid-1981.
All during this time, however, as I practice contact improvisation for performance and as a pure movement form, I’m utterly bored by the aspects of CI that have to do with health, chiropractic, “healing,” various New Age therapeutic “techniques,” and mysticism. A title of a typical article in CQ, at this time when it seemed that the only way to salvation was to become as healthy and “natural” as possible, was “Can the Body Ransom Us?”
In reaction to all this, I write an article entitled “New Age Shuffleboard,” in which I warn that an emphasis by contacters on all this “healing” will lead CI away from art and performance and into some post-hippie suburb of the soul. My article is published in the BACN newsletter and reprinted in CQ. Some people like it, although they don’t agree with me. The number of people who are willing to approach CI as a performing medium rather than as therapy, and to collaborate with me on CI projects, gets fewer. I start to feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
By mid-1981, the people in Walkabout and I have gone about as far as we can go together; I’ve started doing theater and music and they aren’t really the people I want in my pieces anymore. I leave the group and start another CI group called Tangent Dance Collective with some friends from jams. We do a one-night “tour” to a small town 100 miles away, and plan a trip to Santa Fe, N.M. One week before the Santa Fe trip, the other male in the group decides that it wouldn’t be the best thing for his process. We cancel the trip and the group breaks up.
The moves I like to do most in CI involve jumps and carrying. Me and some other males start practicing these at a jam one evening. Flying through the air and throwing each other around, we’re having a terrific time. Then some women start teasing us, singing “Macho, macho men” after a currently popular disco song. “Mark, the jumping is fun, but you should really learn to melt more,” one of them tells me later. “Get in touch with your receptive side.” Around the same time, a contact improvisation teacher tells me mysteriously, “You need to realize your beginner’s mind more.” I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.
At some point in 1982, the attendance at jams really starts to fall off. The jams in the park fade away and eventually it seems that no one except me is interested in doing CI as performance, although you can see CI from time to time in choreography by some local modern dancers. The BACN newsletter stops publishing. Mangrove breaks up into two competing groups. Meanwhile my performances start to contain much less dance and much more theater and music. There are fewer and fewer CI events to go to, and my attention is taken by my writing and theater projects.
I still believe in CI that has an artistic emphasis. I write a couple of articles for CQ, but they’re rejected. I organize a symposium of contacters, with a panel made up mostly of people who were the bigwigs when I arrived in town 5 years before. We talk about what we think the future of contact improvisation is. There is no consensus, not even towards therapy. In fact, everybody sounds really depressed about the future of Contact. This is the last CI event I contribute to. Although there are still a few classes going on, the Contact scene that was booming when I arrived in town seems dead.
In early 1983, while the roof of Walkabout’s building is being repaired by a landlord whom we suspect wants all the artists out anyway, there is a huge thunderstorm. Water destroys the dance floor at Walkabout’s studio, and the collective seems ready to disappear. I feel glad to have gotten out when I did. Meanwhile, my non-dance performing is going strong. I also go back to school and become a high school English teacher.
By 1986, I’ve spent several years doing only theater and music. With two dancers who know nothing about CI, I form a group called Short on Attitude, which is dedicated to doing dance and performance art. I choreograph a wildly energetic dance piece that has almost no contact improvisation. There’s nobody around to tell me I have to melt or be natural, or do things according to a party line, but I am learning about melting in another realm. I get involved in s-m and learn, in a submissive role, what being receptive really means.
I go to Japan and teach English for 2 years in a stultifying provincial city.
When I return to San Francisco in late 1988, I attend a sort of Walkabout reunion. It seems they sued the landlord for the ruined dance floor and won a settlement; we go out to an expensive dinner with part of the money. It’s fun to catch up on what people are doing these days. One of the people at the dinner used to be a big wheel in the CI community. I ask him what he’s doing these days. “Holding safe sex orgies,” he replies. I get his phone number.
Keriac, whom I also see at this dinner for the first time in years, has become successful teaching contact improvisation in Europe. She makes enough there in six months to live in San Francisco for the other six months.
I resume doing pieces with Short on Attitude. Meanwhile, a group called Contraband, made up of people who are artistic descendants of Mangrove, is becoming well-known using CI, along with other kinds of postmodern dance, in choreography. Another rising company called the High Risk Group does the same. In fact, although there are no performances anywhere of plain contact improvisation, you see scraps of CI in almost every modern dance performance and even in rock videos.
Short on Attitude sponsors a low-tech performance series. To my surprise, a group of contacters signs up to do a piece, and I eagerly put them on the bill. When they perform, they make all the worst mistakes that I made, and learned not to do, ten years before. I feel disgusted, as if all the lessons we had learned in the early 80s, all the progress we tried to make, had been in vain.
I later learn, from an ex-Walkabout member, that CI is indeed making a comeback, especially in Berkeley. There are lots of classes and well-attended jams. Hearing this, I don’t want to go at all. I feel I gave Contact the best of my energy, enthusiasm and support, back in the days when I was young and impressionable, and that all my efforts were wasted because my priorities were different from other people’s. If I went back now, I’d probably get ripped off again. Also I’m older and fatter and wouldn’t dance well. It’s not worth it.
Moral: Contact Improvisation, when I discovered it, held a great promise. It let me do things with my body I never thought I could; it taught me valuable lessons in sexual and social dynamics. But by insisting that contacters follow a party line on the relation of contact to health and spirituality, and by neglecting esthetic issues, the CI community alienated me (and who knows how many others?). If it’s true that there is a new upsurge of interest these days, I would like to urge the CI community not to do this again. Don’t spurn the priorities and interests of new converts who love contact improvisation and have a vision of what it could be. It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you.