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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."
Bales of hay, black umbrellas, bicycles—this Midsummer Night's Dream would be unrecognizable to the Bard. Alexander Ekman's full-length, inspired by Scandinavian solstice traditions and set to music by Mikael Karlsson, is a madcap celebration of the longest day of the year, when the veil between our world and that of the supernatural is said to be at its thinnest. The Joffrey Ballet's performances mark the seductively surreal work's North American premiere. April 25–May 6. joffrey.org.
"There's an ancient energy in Fana's movement, a deep and trusted knowing," says Jeff, director of the Chicago-based Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. "Because I witnessed the raw humanity of his dancer's souls, I wanted my dancers to have that experience."
When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:
"Dance isn't for everyone."
This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.
In his final bow at New York City Ballet, during what should have been a heroic conclusion to a celebrated ballet career, Robert Fairchild slipped and fell. His reaction? To lie down flat on his back like he meant to do it. Then start cracking up at himself.
"He's such a ham," says his sister Megan Fairchild, with a laugh. "He's really good at selling whatever his body is doing that day. He'll turn a moment that I would totally go home and cry about into something where the audience is like, 'That's the most amazing thing ever!' "
Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.
"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo asked the women auditioning for ensemble roles in his newest musical to arrive in guys' clothing—"men's suits, or blazers and ties," he says. He wasn't being kinky or whimsical. The entire ensemble of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is female, playing men and women interchangeably as they unfold the history of the chart-busting, Grammy-winning, indisputable Queen of Disco.
Have a scroll through Agnes Muljadi's Instagram feed (@artsyagnes), and you'll notice that in between her ballet shots is a curated mix of lifestyle pics. So what exactly sets her apart from the other influencers you follow? Muljadi has made a conscious effort to only feature natural beauty products, sustainable fashion and vegan foods. With over 500k followers, her social strategy (and commitment to making ethical choices) is clearly a hit. Ahead, learn why Muljadi switched to a vegan lifestyle, and the surprising way it's helped her dance career.
He may not be a household name, but you probably know Brandon Stirling Baker's work. The 30-year-old has designed the lighting for most of Justin Peck's ballets—including Heatscape for Miami City Ballet, and the edgy The Times Are Racing for New York City Ballet—but also Jamar Roberts' new Members Don't Get Weary at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a trio of Martha Graham duets for L.A. Dance Project.
He's been fascinated by lighting ever since he attended a public performing arts middle school in Sherman Oaks, California, where he had his first experiences lighting shows. He also has a background in music (he plays guitar and bass) and in drawing. Both, he says, are central to the way he approaches lighting dance.
Update: Due to an overwhelming response, the in-person audition has been moved to a larger location to accommodate more dancers. See details below.
For the first time in more than 10 years, Janet Jackson is holding an open audition for dancers.
Even better? You could land a spot in her #JTribe simply by posting a video on social media.
What does it take to become an international superstar? Carlos Acosta might have a few ideas.
At the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this month, the BBC sat down with Acosta to ask for his life lessons. His answers—which he says he will pass on to his kids one day—give incredible insight into how he's become such a beloved worldwide success.