What is Restorative Contact Improvisation?

This is a draft of an article I’m working on that discusses one of the themes I have been working with for many years. I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

Restorative Contact Improvisation is most closely related to Contact Improvisation. I see it as a style of dancing, or implicit score, which has been developing with Contact Improvisation at Jams and in classes, though rarely in performances. And while it is part of Contact Improvisation it challenges some of the often-assumed “rules” of Contact Improvisation.

Contact Improvisation involves relational principles, some of which are consciously chosen and some of which seem to be taken on by a community implicitly. For instance CI is often built on the idea of both partners “listening” to the other through opening the senses to the other, especially the sensation of touch and other kinesthetic senses. Unlike most forms of social partner dancing, there isn’t a fixed leader or follower in contact improvisation. Both partners initiate and respond to movement. A common habit of Contact Improvisation is also that we respond actively to the touch of the other.

So what is particular about Restorative Contact Improvisation? To begin developing the idea we could call it “improvised forms of simultaneous, mutual self-cultivation and bodywork.” It is based on the idea that all humans have an innate capacity to move themselves toward wellbeing, balance, development, etc. . . and that this can be facilitated through a synergistic relationship with other people. It is something we can learn, but I think it is also part of our innate wisdom. So first off, we follow that inner wisdom. In what I have been calling the “Open Restorative Contact Improvisation Score”, we are invited to bring elements of bodywork and self-cultivation into contact improvisation. Participants are given permission to move toward and indulge in what is restorative and for their wellbeing. This could mean moving more toward stillness, it could be more active. It could mean giving massage or bodywork to someone. It could mean receiving the touch of another in a more absorbing, passive way. It could mean responding actively to touch. Hands are invited to give and receive information. It could mean rolling someone on to you to let his or her weight deeply massage you. It could mean draping over someone as you stretch and open. Everybody is encouraged to take responsibility for their own safety and to expand this into taking responsibility for following their own wisdom of what is going to cultivate wellbeing.

A key to this score is that there is no obligation of reciprocity. Sometimes this takes a bit of de-habituation. If one person gives to the other, the other is not obliged to receive or to give back. It is a contact improvisation dance. It is based on the idea that everybody follows there guiding wisdom in the moment. Sometimes our wisdom of what is restorative and balancing is about giving to others. Not because we will get the same back later, but because it is what our wisdom guides us to do in the moment. So in this score differentiated roles of passive/active, giver/receiver, are welcomed to arise and disappear.

One thing that seems to make this possible is the sense that there is plenty of time. When there is plenty of time, people seem to be able rest into the present. You can stay with your state, role, non-role, etc . . . until it organically transforms into something else. You don’t need to push it. And you don’t need to stick with it either. Just because you started to give somebody some bodywork doesn’t mean that in the next moment you have to stay in that role. And similarly if in one moment you are moving more with your partner in the next you might become very still, or more oriented toward your own movement.

Teaching the building blocks of this this score involves exploring different roles and polarities in dancing. It also helps to delineate some of the fields from which this practice is pieced together.

The principles of Restorative Contact Improvisation can be thought of as the combination of (1) self-cultivation practices, (2) bodywork , and (3)Contact Improvisation. These fields are very diverse , as are the people who engage in them, so I will focus on how each contributes something different to Restorative Contact Improvisation. I will then talk about some of there commonalities, which are also highlighted in Restorative Contact Improvisation. These ideas, and definition of practices are offered as a stimulus for people to work with in there own ways. In the open spirit of Contact Improvisation, this is not about what is “the” practice, but a conceptual framework and questions to explore openly with curiosity. The name alone “Restorative Contact Improvisation” might help clarify something for you to work with.

Further more, I didn’t invent this practice, I’m naming something that I do and observe people doing, the naming has helped in developing teaching and deepening research. If you are experienced with contact improvisation, we might evoke images of the softer lower to floor styles of dancing that people often engage in, especially in warming up and warming down.   Or perhaps we might imagine passive-active scores given in a class. People do it in their own ways, we can’t help it, we all have different histories. In any case, something seems to be happening in the CI world, which involves mixing at least three general domains of practice. What gets mixed in depends on the background of the people involved, amongst other factors.

 

  1. Self-cultivation practices: in particular somatic practices like yoga, qigong, awareness through movement® (Feldenkrais Method®), dance training, physical training, Pilates, auto-massage, improvised unwinding and stretching, etc. . . This category of practices involves engaging in an activity that balances, and develops ones self and brings it in to union or harmony with the environment. They usually involve a mixing of sensing oneself, and an activity or movement. For the sake of elaborating the idea of Restorative Contact Improvisation we will highlight that in these practices the self moves the self and a substantial portion of attention is internally-oriented. (Even if these self cultivation practices follow verbal guidance, traditional sequences, group practices and have a theory or end directed toward merging in harmony with the universe and transcending the self. This aspect of “the self moves the self and self “will become more clear as it is compared to the other two practices we combine it with.) Many people involved in Contact Improvisation have explored many practices we could put in this category.

 

  1. Bodywork: This includes activates such as massage, shiatsu, thai massage, and hands-on somatic education methods such as Functional Integration® (Feldenkrais Method®), Alexander Technique®, and Body-Mind Centering®. The characteristics of these practices to highlight are that they involve two people working together in different roles. While there is an element in all of these practices of self-movement, these forms are fundamentally based on relationship and touch. In particular in the context of Bodywork there is one person who gives more of their attention to the other. It is generally based on the dichotomy of giver and receiver. (While many of these practices, especially in somatic education, speak about these roles being less clear in practice, they are there in some form.) Another aspect, which is important to note, is that the giver usually moves the receiver, or stimulates and guides the movement of the receiver. In some forms of bodywork this is more manipulative in orientation, in other forms the orientation is more educational. (perhaps we might also include in this section Authentic Movement Practice in which there is not hands on contact but we have a dyad structure that involves different roles)

 

  1. Contact Improvisation: What we can highlight about Contact Improvisation is that it involves two or more people touching, communicating and moving together with fluidly changing or non-existent roles. In contact Improvisation people move themselves, move the other and are moved by the other. Moving with the other involves both physical forces that are transmitted between the partners through touch, as well as communication involving a mutual signaling and reading of direction and organization of movement. Other notable elements that are emphasized in Contact Improvisation are that it is improvised and participants are encouraged to assume responsibility for taking care of themselves.

 

Now to speak some about the commonalities between these practices: One is that they have a somatic orientation. (They are all concerned with the “body as experienced from within,” which Thomas Hanna usefully defined as the soma (For more on soma, and the somatic orientation see, http://somatics.org/library/htl-wis1 .) Another, is the intention is to realize our capacity to move in harmony with nature. This is understood in various ways such as working with gravity, or optimizing the function of our physiological/anatomical being, or re-harmonizing the micro-cosmos of the person with the cosmos as a whole. Other intentions for these practices include: to be present; to cultivate balance, ease, comfort and capacity; and to appropriately tonify/relax different aspects of ourselves. There are more you can elaborate in your imagination and practice.

Many of these common intentions are used as guiding principles for practicing “restorative Contact Improvisation. Giving permission to direct the dance toward these intentions is largely what we are doing. It is usually, but not always, a departure from the fast paced disorienting situations of contact improvisation, which pose immediate questions in the body related to orienting and navigating our survival. (see “Contact Improvisation: A Question” by: Daniel Lepkoff, June 2008 ) And yet this restorative mode poses related questions. While many contact improvisers avoid immediate trauma while dancing there are many who experience repetitive strain injuries or recurrent inflammation from dancing. For our long term survival and wellbeing how do we orient ourselves in relationship to those we are in contact with? This does not need to be an abstract question posed verbally, it is a question that can be posed at the level of sensation and movement. Interestingly, while it does not seem to pose the same kind of physical risk as some practices of contact improvisation. It does seem to pose social and relational risks. An example can be seen in how it differs from bodywork for instance.

Unlike most bodywork practices there are no designated roles of giver and receiver or teacher and student. These might not be definable at all in some moments and if they do arise they are unstable because they can change at any instant. If you think about, it would be awkward if you went to receive a massage at a massage center and at a certain point in the massage you started giving massage to the massage therapist. It would go against the implicit (and in some US states legally explicit) relational dynamics. Different then massage, but more similar to Somatic education, such as the Feldenkrais Method® and Body-Mind Centering®, in Restorative Contact Improvisation people are free to respond to touch actively and on a large scale. And this activity is not directed delineated by the “giver/teacher.” In both of these ways the implicit social contract is different and is more closely related to contact improvisation. (For more on this see Cynthia Novack’s book Sharing the Dance on Contact Improvisation and American Culture.)

It is also interesting to compare this restorative style of contact Improvisation to sexually oriented activity. There is a great potential for intimacy in slower, gentler movement, passive reception of touch, an orientation toward pleasure and other elements common to Restorative Contact Improvisation. Because of the openness of the situation, it gives a great deal of responsibility to participants to orient and negotiate boundaries and consent. (This element of intimacy also appears to push it to the margins in some Jams and classes. Spatially to the edges of the room, or temporally to the beginnings and ends. This slower restorative contact also seems more easily accessed when trust is built through more athletic and risky dancing.)

The depth of experience in the domains of bodywork, self-cultivation and contact improvisation inform how people practice Restorative Contact Improvisation and how it is differentiated or integrated with sexuality and sensuality. Our training and experience inherently orient and bias our activity and perceptions. Those whose experience of touch has primarily involved sexual relationships often take some time to learn to expand their modes of touch. The other realms of experience also have their biases. Those more experienced with massage methods based on an active giver using the hands to give to a highly passive receiver often take time to learn to engage more of themselves in the dance and to balance on the edge of self and other orientation. Those more experienced with Contact Improvisation sometimes take time to unwind the habit of needing to respond actively to touch or to give touch with the hands. When teaching I observe these habits as they come out in the different interpretations of an exploration. Fundamentally there is isn’t anything wrong with this diversity. In teaching I focus on respecting the different experiences and ways of doing, while proposing further options to expand peoples repertoires. In addition, the particular modes of accumulated somatic wisdom are shared directly between dancers.

Some of the other methods others and I have been using in teaching this work seem to fit into two general categories. One is creating scores or exercises where different polarities and modes of relationship are combined and sequenced in various ways. For my self the elaboration of this idea of developing harmony through polarities is related to the philosophy and practices associated with Shiatsu, qigong, and elements of Chinese philosophy and somatic practices. Here is a list of some of those relational polarities, which can be used in scores:

 

 

Polarized roles Non-polarized roles
Giving Receiving
Focusing on sensing another Focus on internal sensation of self
Movement Stillness
Actively responding with movement Passively receiving by letting go of activity, and allowing to be moved
Moving Witnessing
Helping Constraining
Physical Psycho-spiritual
Active Breath Passive Breath
Standing Near the floor
Stabilizing Allowing movement
Periphery Core
Yin surfaces of body Yang surfaces of Body
High tone Low tone
Close Far
Eyes to witness Touch to witness
Embodied Disembodied
Relational tendency to match Relational tendency to polarize
Serving another Serving oneself

 

These polarities are reference marks on a spectrum of gradients between the two ends. In practice we can explore all of the gradients in-between and also how we can combine and intermix the polarities.

Here are some scores that sequence through these different roles and work with the gradients between modes of action. I won’t go into detail to explain what these all mean. They need to be practiced in some way to develop there meaning. They are not meant to strictly define a practice but are rather markers to orient and inspire explorations:

 

< sensing — tracking — moving with — suggesting — directing — manipulating >

 

< passive — following initiations of other — receiving actively by following others and ones own initiations — using the contact of the other as a means to realize ones own initiations — own initiating and moving independently of the other >

 

< silence — load breath — vocalization/sounding— verbalization without structure — speech>

 

< physics — emotion — abstraction >

 

sensing to effect à effecting to sense à give bodywork

 

 

The second piece of research used in teaching follows the traditions of somatic education that train us to sense and initiate action through different systems. For instance sensing different tissue systems such as the fascia, the skeleton, muscles, etc. Training to sense and move from these different systems has been a major contribution of Body-Mind Centering® to Contact Improvisation and forms an important part of the social field of Restorative Contact Improvisation. Following the theory of Body-Mind Centering®, through the conscious embodiment of these systems people redistribute the work being done by these systems, giving systems that are heavily relied on a chance to rest and other less used systems to widen their role. (see Sensing, Feeling and Action : The Experiential Anatomy of Body-Mind Centering, by Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen) Exploring these systems with another person benefits from a synergy of attention and also creates a context for the transmission of somatic wisdom. Perhaps what is specific about how this is practiced in the context of Restorative Contact Improvisation is the fluidity of roles and the openness of the improvisation in a Jam context. What may specify it as a restorative mode of contact improvisation is the intention to redistribute energy in the different systems and to generally balance the systems.

As a Feldenkrais Method ® teacher I also bring into this work two particular elements. One is the detailed study of transmission of forces through the skeleton. The second is the methodology used to uncover our intertwined perceptual and movement habits to create greater freedom. Moshe Feldenkrais argued that if we are not aware of our habits of perceiving and action we aren’t really free to choose otherwise (see Awareness Through Movement by Moshe Feldenkrais) . In restorative contact improvisation we explore both relational habits, such as leading or following, as well as the habits of perception and how we mobilize our selves to fulfill an intention.

Another method that is used is to explore different types of actions in the context of a contact improvisation dance. Here is useful list of some of the activities we noted that felt good. All of these can be explored extensively, or they can be voiced out in to the space to stimulate an opening to new explorations in a more open space.

  • Spiraling and opening
  • Draping over
  • Cradling and nurturing
  • Rubbing into the other in a way that feels good to oneself
  • Moving with the whole body and mind in awareness together
  • Sinking or digging into the tight muscly parts of the other with more solid or bony parts of my self
  • Moving with the other and reading onto where they are going and supporting them going there
  • Stretching
  • Squeezing
  • Resonating with the other as they are moving
  • Pushing
  • Extending
  • Downward pressure/release of weight
  • Folding and unfolding joints
  • Folding and unfolding whole self on multiple levels
  • Brushing /sliding/slipping/friction
  • Bringing another toward my center
  • Breath
  • Pulling
  • Wrapping to maximize surface contact
  • Opening to connect through single point

 

One may note that many of these include actions are directed toward another. Yet they are things we feel good doing. In this sort of dancing there is an immediate felt sense of satisfaction for everybody involved. It is also notable that many of these things that restore our balance and increase our sense of vitality and wellbeing are more active and expansive in quality. It is the balance between more yin (passive, yielding, relaxing, being) and Yang (active, expansive, invigorating) qualities that facilitate this.

It seems that one of the basic things we are doing in this activity is accessing a very deeply rooted capacity to cultivate wellbeing through human contact. The capacity is there it is more a matter of uncovering, giving permission and developing it. I am very thankful for all of the people who have shared these practices with me. My wish in writing this is to inspire and clarify the ongoing development of these practices.

Please leave your Comments and share your experiences in this domain.

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