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The 4 Rules That Will Get You Through Your First Contact Improv Class
Experienced practitioners of contact improvisation appear to float through the air and move through the most daring positions with ease. Those new to the form, on the other hand, often feel awkward and impatient. Some dancers hesitate, worried they will hurt their partner by giving them too much weight. Others move too quickly, trying for impressive lifts without laying the proper groundwork. Having spent so much of their training focused on aesthetics, many dancers struggle to stop fixating on what their movement looks like. But just like any other form of dance, contact improvisation skills can be developed with practice and the right approach.
1. Forget Your Assumptions
Contact improvisation was created to be done by anyone, regardless of dance experience. While dancers have certain advantages, like familiarity with movement and partnering, they also face specific challenges.
"Some students may be familiar with partnering techniques where the places people touch and the ways they lift are very composed," says Stephanie Nugent, who teaches contact at Indiana University. "Other people may have improvised, but not with partnering." Dancers may have also learned that men should lift women, that bigger people should lift smaller people, or that one person should be in charge. None of those things are considered a given in contact improvisation.
Rather than thinking of picking a partner up and putting them down, says Barnard College professor Colleen Thomas, dancers should focus on the connection from the floor, to their core, to their partner.
2. Know When to Say No
Part of contact improvisation is learning to say yes to your own ideas and your partner's. It may seem counterintuitive, but one trick that can help you feel more comfortable saying yes is knowing when and how to say no.
"Touch has so much social and physical meaning. It's important to acknowledge when you feel uncomfortable, and then make a choice either to be interested in that or say 'I want to stop,' " says Nugent. "Being able to say no is really fundamental to safety." Thomas suggests taking a moment to pause and reset if you begin to feel uncomfortable.
For Nugent, saying no is fundamental to safety. PC Crow's Eye Photography, Courtesy Nugent
To get students more accustomed to touch, most teachers begin with simple exercises like placing hands on a partner, starting with neutral places like the shoulders. "Through my contact practice, I've learned to recognize my own boundaries, whether physical or emotional," says Nugent. "It's really powerful to have that awareness and make conscious choices based on it inside and outside of the studio."
3. Be Okay With Not Knowing
As with other forms of improvisation, part of contact is learning to notice your own impulses without judging them. However, the addition of a partner can complicate efforts to go with the flow. "Dancers have a harder time getting out of their choreographing mind. They want to make a lift happen, or try to control their partner," says Thomas. "But in contact there is shared weight. You would fall if your partner left and vice versa. There are no followers. Everyone is a leader."
Instead of thinking about what the dance might look like, focus on your sense of touch. Feel the connection between your body and your partner's, and work on maintaining a point of contact as you move through space.
Colleen Thomas emphasizes that everyone is a leader in contact improv. PC Alex Escalante, Courtesy Thomas
Thomas feels that the freedom of contact is especially beneficial for her college students, who are striving to succeed in a high-pressure environment. "This is the one time during their day that they get to come in and not know," she says. "It really opens up new pathways in the body."
4. Think About Quality
Dancer Christina Robson has worked with several choreographers who rely on contact improvisation for movement generation, including Bill T. Jones, David Dorfman and Alexandra Beller. Robson's biggest aha moment came when she started to think not just about giving weight to her partner, but about whether she was being active or passive in that exchange. "I realized that surrendering into softness or engaging into active tone creates different transitions into and out of my partner or the floor," she says. Focus on the quality of your touch. Is it firm or light? Are you pushing or softening into your partner? Experimenting with different intentions will change the trajectory of the dance.
Christina Robson (in white) in Bill T. Jones' Analogy: A Triology. PC Ben McKeown, Courtesy NYLA
After years of practice, Robson says she still has to remind herself to be patient and listen to her partner. According to Thomas, honing those physical listening skills will benefit your dancing beyond contact. "What's happening in the brain in contact is similar to what's happening when we meditate," she says. "You learn how to take care of yourself, and trust, and take risks, and it creates a lot more range in your dancing."
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.