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Paul Langland Dance

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines
Nancy Allison, CMA
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The Develpment of Contact Improvisation

Although contact improvisation is now included in many dancers' repertory of techniques, it originated in the 1960's amid a wave of experiments that challenged the traditions governing the conception and presentation of dance.
Stylized movement, mythic narrative, and stage spectacle were jettisoned in an effort, led first by Merce Cunningham and then the Judson Church Group, to find ways to connect dance to the realities of contemporary life.
Judson Church productions featured movement taken from work, sports, and the martial arts and often investigated ordinary activity, such as sweeping a floor. What was eventually called "Contact Improvisation" first appeared in 1972 in "Magnesium", a piece presented by Steve Paxton, a choreographer and dancer who had been a member of both the Cunningham Company and the Judson Church Group.
The dancers of "Magnesium" did not attempt to "perform" anything; they instead reacted to one another, improvising their movements and going with the flow of the experience. Later in 1972, Paxton presented a performance evolved from "Magnesium". It retained the use of a group of improvising dancers but focused on the interaction of mixed- and same-sex partners and became the prototype for his subsequent work with contact improvisation.
Assisted by teachers such as Nancy Start Smith and Daniel Lepkoff, Paxton started to offer workshops and performances in contact improvisation. By the late 1970's, it had its own publication, the Contact Newsletter, later renamed the Contact Quarterly, and was becoming a major force in the development of postmodern dance. Dance companies that based their work on contact improvisation were mushrooming in the United States, and by the early 1980's, dancers in cultural centers throughout the world, especially Amsterdam, Berlin, and London, were adapting its principles.
Contact Improvisation entered the world of body-mind therapy through an outpouring of popular support. It had been attracting a huge amateur following during the 1970s and 1980s and gradually made its way into the curricula of many colleges and universities.
In this context of self-discovery and liberal arts study, Contact Improvisation began to be viewed as a technique accessible to anyone interested in enhancing his or her understanding of body-mind communicaiton.

For some, Contact Improvisation became a complement to the practice of t'ai chi, aikido, or yoga. For others, it offered a means of helping children, senior citizens, and people with disabilties. Today, three organizations, Touchdown, DanceAbility, and Mobility Junction, are at the forefront of the work being done to incorporate Contact Improvisation into therapy programs for people with special needs.

The Principles of Contact Improvisation

Despite the diversity of its sources and improvised structures, Contact Improvisation has a remarkably consistent look and feel, whether done by professional or amateur dancers. This is because, like a conversation, it has a few ground rules that everyone understands and follows as they meet and exchange responses. Trust is a top priority. The dancers need to release tension and uncertainty and meet one another in an open, relaxed way. Otherwise they will not be able to establish the connection that is essential to the process of reciprocal improvisation. Trust and physical listening are key factors in determining the actions of the dancers. They drop concern for the look of the body in order to concentrate on the flow of energy between them and their partner. The outcome is a collaborative process described as "a cross between jitterbugging, wrestling, and making love." The dancers focus on the physical sensations of touching, leaning, supporting, and falling with one another. Awkwardness matters only if it is a symptom of one dancer's lack of focus and withdrawal from the spontaneous release into the here-and-now of physical experience. The emphasis on being present in the moment links Contact Improvisation to the martial arts, yoga, and meditation. All these disciplines encourage the individual to let go of blocks that prevent him or her from apprehending the energy that constantly courses between mind and body.

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