Respect Your Roots; Contact Improv and the Blues

By John LeFan

September 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Contact Improvisation is a physical dialogue. Listen and speak. Two people, listening through the point of contact.

The Blues is an aural dialogue. Instruments and voices listen and speak.

Contact Improvisation, like Blues music, is a very simple art form. It is dance created by dialogue, given and taken as clearly as possible. There is always, at the core of Contact Improvisation, attention to clarity of contact, often one spot no bigger than a silver dollar moving and connecting to a partner to form a shared aesthetic moment. Instant upon instant, the partners turn for information to that single point.

The basic Blues is three chords and twelve bars. Contact Improvisation is a point of contact. The variations possible in these two mediums are endless. The capacity for individual expression is staggering. Change the chords to a B flat root and you can make the blood run cold. Shift the contact point and the world shifts with you.

The lineage of Contact Improvisation can be directly traced from Isadora Duncan’s return to barefoot dance and to Louis Horst’s teachings on primitive dance. Although Contact Improvisation has been long associated with Post Modernism, I have always felt that it fit more into the Modernism of Erick Hawkins, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Merce Cunningham. Many of the early Contact teachers came directly from these lineages.

One of the fatal weaknesses of Post Modernism is its reductionist, deconstructionist tendencies. Steve Paxton is quoted as saying, “If we don’t do what our predecessors did, we’re doing what they did.” This is to say that Paxton rejected Cunningham who rejected Graham who rejected St. Denis who rejected Duncan. I prefer a lineage that embraces the past and adds to those learned skills and ideas. José Limón embraced and enhanced the work of his mentors, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

It is as if the Post Modernists would have us tear some of the pages out of our dictionaries. What do you bring to Contact Improvisation? Checetti? Perfect. Graham? Bring it in. Tap? Luigi? Let your body embrace everything that feels good and then lean on a partner. Bring yourself.

The Blues brings in everything and keeps everything. A lick from Robert Johnson’s “Breakdown Blues” gets electrified by Hound Dog Taylor and twisted beyond belief by Hendrix. Hawkins technique and ballet all have a place in Contact Improvisation. Cast off guitars? That’s the lucky ones. Muddy Waters took baling wire and nailed it to the side of the barn in three different lengths and tuned them to a Blues progression for his first instrument. What kind of fancy equipment is needed for Contact Improvisation? Kids sit in houses full of electronic toys, impoverished by abundance. The Blues and Contact stand unadorned and urgent.

The Blues has been electrified and rhapsodized. There have been attempts to sanitize the Blues. Ever feel like singing an old Pat Boone song? Magically, there is something about the Blues that is always a bit dirty, the haunt of desperation in joy and sorrow, the release from perfection. Churches recognize its power. Some fear the Blues. And yet the Blues also reaches the sanctified places. I’ve been blessed to see Mississippi John Hurt’s tears fall on the strings of his guitar.

I’m sure there will be plenty of people trying to sanitize Contact. White body suits and rigid faces or maybe happy faces. I’ve seen “Contact Yoga” classes, happy people stretched and stiff at the same time. Contact will always, even if only the tiniest bit, push your boundaries, get you a bit dirty, let you embrace the imperfections that society has deemed you possess. Deep Contact is sometimes sort of like blowfish sashimi. The chef leaves just a little of the poison in the fish so your lips tingle. Contact is always pushing you.

But more than their shared simplicity make these two distinctly American art forms kindred forces. Both Contact and the Blues come from a cultural desperation. The Blues reaches the common ground of grief and joy and fear and anger, confusion and jealousy. It is all in there. Contact Improvisation came out of a time when the body was being liberated from two thousand years of oppression, women more than men by a long shot, but oppression of desire and play and open joy weighed everyone down. There are roots of Contact Improvisation in the sexual work of Alfred Kinsey.

People were desperate to shake off the cobwebs and use, really use the freedom of their bodies. And yet, they weren’t even sure how. There was social dancing and fucking. Both, more often than not, were stilted and awkward. Contact Improvisation isn’t fucking and it sure isn’t standing there bobbing and weaving to the Beach Boys. It was almost as if Contact nourished something in us that we weren’t even aware of…the need for a richness of human touch.

Contact Improvisation is a return to understanding the richness of physical communication that is our underdeveloped birthright. I worked with thoroughbreds using some of the techniques of the famous “horse whisperer,” Monty Roberts. He developed this extraordinary understanding of the language of horses by watching wild mustangs, season upon season. He discovered that the language of the bred horses, stabled and civilized, was crude and simplistic compared to the richness of the wild herds. The waltz is a well-groomed thoroughbred in a fancy stable. Contact Improvisation is a wild mustang racing across a vast prairie, watching for prairie dog holes and rattlesnakes, intimately in tune with the earth.

Anybody can do Contact. One of the great lessons of Contact Improvisation is the expansion of what we think of as a beautiful body. I see it as one of the greatest challenges for many of the “hot” Contactors who, at twenty-five, preach fancy words of tolerance in a Contact class and choose the “pretty people” to lean on. I see Contact Improv’s greatest triumphs in wheel chairs flying. A quadriplegic can become a “master” of Contact Improvisation without ever learning the athletic flips.

The Blues expresses a longing and a reaching out from the desperation of three hundred years of the most brutal of racial oppression by a country founded on the theory of equal rights. Contact Improvisation expresses a longing and a reaching out from the desperation of two thousand plus years of oppression of all forms of intimacy and connection except under the strictest legal guidelines.

Son House is considered, by most, an inferior guitarist, lyricist and vocalist to contemporary peers like Robert Johnson, Mance Lipscomb and Blind Lemon Jefferson. But all revered him for his absolute mastery of the Blues. When he sings, “I folded my arms and walked away. I said I see you come judgment day,” shivers run down the spine. How could Son House become a master without mastering the tools of his art? How do you learn Contact? Tricky lifts? How do you master Contact?

One of the most beautiful Contact Improvisation duets I think I ever saw was in 1976 between Curt Sidall, one of the earliest “masters” of the form, and a person who had never done Contact before in her life. They approached one another with truth and good will. They began simply. They went everywhere. I taught the rest of the class with tears in my eyes and a full heart.


John LeFan has been teaching Contact Improvisation since 1974. He has served as Contact Improvisation consultant for Royal Canadian Ballet, Houston Ballet, Val Caniporoli, Joe Goode, and Whoopi Goldberg, and his former company, Mangrove, performed and taught throughout North America and Europe. Contact him at john.lefan@sbcglobal.net.

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