I love Contact Improvisation and I would like to share a reading of this dance form that doesn’t come from my experience as a dancer but from the experience I have gained as a body-worker and a teacher. As a Shiatsu-Shintai practitioner I constantly witness movement dynamics and I have gained awareness that this dance form can be approached from different perspectives. I also bring my intention of codifying some of its elements. “Contact Improvisation” isn’t the mere sum of “Contact and “Improvisation”. These two joined terms bring to life a brand new identity. They don’t limit improvisation to a personal “experience” (as it happens in other dance techniques), but they activate a flow, shared amongst more dancers. The individual becomes only one of the stimuli and the catalyzer of a dance. This dance involves different aspects: grounding, the use of the centre, trust, release, skills, spirals and many more. Through this article, I intend to focus on two systems constantly at play while we dance Contact Improvisation: proprioception and autonomic nervous system.
We have many receptors spread all over our bodies. These receptors collect information that are sent to the central nervous system and amongst all of these receptors – in this article – I will focus on the musculotendineous receptors and on the joint capsule. The receptors’ function is to inform our brain on the status of lengthening-compression-flexion-extension of tendons, ligaments, muscles and articulations, allowing the brain to process our proprioception.
In simple words: we know wether an arm is folded or extended, even if blindfolded. It’s our proprioception that informs us. Proprioception most important function is to help us organising our bodies for the movement that comes next.
When we take a step, our body is already preparing itself for the following one. For example – we are climbing a staircase, at each step our bodies are getting configured for the following one and if the body doesn’t find a step (due to darkness or some sort of distraction) we fall in the void.
Our proprioception organised the movement as if the next step was about to come, but it didn’t find what it expected. If we were to climb that staircase very slowly, maybe we would have the possibility of directing the new piece of information (i.e. the step is not there), thus allowing our system to adapt to the new situation.
Moreover, if someone told us that sooner or later a step could go missing… that’s the point!
We climb stairs unconsciously, automatically. If we were conscious of every single movement, if the proprioception was always set in the present moment (without expecting nor preparing anything), everything would work smoothly.
Actually this is how we first started climbing stairs when we were kids: focussing on each step, we created our ability to go up and down the stairs, writing the program. Science tells us that the unconscious part of our brain is 10 millions time faster than the conscious one. While climbing stairs, we can speak over the mobile phone, look for keys and fix the jacket we are waring without paying particular attention to each and every single gesture.
Through our unconscious we don’t create anything. We simply execute a pre-written program; we are moving from a repetitive and non-creative mode. Proprioception is set on autopilot and we take it to the present moment only if faced by the unforseen (such as a missing step). This is how proprioception works.
Before coming to any conclusion, I would like to introduce proprioception playmate – within the dance realm: the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (not the voluntary one) is divided into two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system acts on the surface and gets alerted when in danger. It activates those reactions that it finds useful, such as accelerating the heartbeat and the breathing cycle, or pumping adrenaline. The parasympathetic nervous system acts more in depth, relaxing the body. The sympathetic nervous system creates a perceptive separation in the body. It tries to isolate any invasive stimuli in order to minimize the impact. Everything gets contracted and movements aren’t organic any longer.
If inhibited, on the contrary, it allows a sensation of unification in the body through relaxation, therefore allowing organic movements to develop. Has it ever happened to you to react to a situation of danger maintaining a sense of relaxation? Was it a better sensation? Were you impressed by how you ended up “improvising” to get out of this situation?
I believe it’s easier to solve something unforseen while the whole body is holistically available, rather than having to rely on tense and disjointed body parts.
Clearly the sympathetic nervous system, also known as “Fight or Flight System”, is a necessary system. Reactions to dangerous situations somehow set the body in a condition of higher performance. The issue is that excessive activity creates paralysis.
Moreover, once the igniting event has come to an end, the nervous system should return to its normal condition. Let’s return to the missing step example. A strong sympathetic reaction to face an unforseen situation would probably result in a chaotic response. The body would be tense and not fully available, lacking of the flexibility needed by this new situation. An increased relaxation could help us to better evaluate what to do, to use the whole body organically and to be predisposed to a higher level of flexibility. How could we be more relaxed when facing an unforseen situation? By telling ourselves that unforseen events can be of help. Isn’t this what improvisation is about? Isn’t this the reason why next to the word “contact” there is “improvisation”? Obviously, not all the unforseen situations are dangerous. If someone told us that few steps were missing from the staircase, most likely we would climb it differently. How?
We would anchor our proprioception in the present moment, hence without executing pre-established programs (repetitive and non-creative); like kids, we would problem-solve on the go, based on the information sent by our proprioception. How quickly could we do it? The quickest proprioception manages to get organised for this new situation. Proprioception is a system that can be trained through its conscious activity, the more training the faster its reactions.
How does this principle apply to Contact Improvisation? Let’s consider two dancers: A and B.
Case 1: A gets close to B, B lowers the centre offering his/her back, A carries the weight while B supports it (classical example of a lift). Both A and B know what’s going on; there are no unforseen events; everything is happening exactly how the two proprioceptive systems got pre-organised. Aside from the skills side of things, the pleasure for receiving weight and being in contact, there is nothing new for the proprioception (maybe only analysing the gesture in the correct way). They are following a program that was written in the past.
Case 2: A gets close to B, B lowers his/her centre, A brings his/her weight slightly out of centre, not so well positioned. Solution 1: A contracts (sympathetic response) recovers and adjusts his/her position; B doesn’t move or adjusts his/her position as well; there is no news for the proprioception, no improvisation: what has just happened it has been considered as a mistake.
Solution 2: B doesn’t move and activates the sympathetic nervous system as he/she was surprised by an unforeseen event (paralysis), A slides down (he/she adapts) and falls supporting him/herself for the remaining of the pathway – there is no longer communication between the two – sympathetic nervous system of the dance (no fluidity).
Solution 3: A moves his/her weight out of centre, B follows the apparent mistake and they both fall supporting each other and using their bodies. Both A and B proprioception have re-organised in real time, improvising and creating nearly instantaneous communication; both proprioception inhibited the sympathetic nervous system making the most out of momentum: the mistake (the new one) was transformed into a creative stimulus.
In Contact Improvisation the staircase represents our dance partner while I am the staircase for him/her. Imagine that the missing step is coming towards you and is accompanying you in your next movement. Isn’t this more pleasurable, is it? Could I trust a little more knowing that the staircase, despite being a little different from how I expect it to be, will support me? In this sense, “dancing well” means tuning in with our partner’s proprioception and nervous system and his/her reaction times.
Proprioception needs to be trained as any other system, within a safe environment. Yet we should constantly push the boundaries of our comfort zone – just enough to make ourselves present in the moment without allowing the automatic pilot to be turned on – that’s to say our unconscious and our skills – to guide us. Moreover, a further evolution in Contact Improvisation that from a logical perspective could overwrite what has just been described.
This finds its manifestation in those wonderful dances that we sense as extremely fluid, flowing and creative. This happens when both partners, in the present moment, create the staircase while sharing an absolutely unique dance. In every given moment the two dancers are both the staircase and the climber. Thus they represent a parasympathetic unforeseen scenario: without thinking, there are in the present moment and their proprioception is free from automatisms.
My ideal partner? A missing step that understands me