Questioning Contact Improvisation

By Keith Hennessy

October 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

INTRODUCTION

For more than 15 years I’ve been working to understand and to explain how the social contexts of contact improvisation (CI) remain predominantly white and heterosexual despite the radical potential of the dancing and the utopian intentions of many CI dancers. The whiteness and gender norms in CI parallel many other predominantly white alternative cultures developed since the 1960s (e.g., yoga in the West, Burning Man, rave cultures, Radical Faeries, new age and tantra scenes…), which in turn parallel the development of neoliberalism and the backlash against the social and political changes of the 60s. The central question of my PhD dissertation was:

How do predominantly white alternative cultures defeat their stated intentions and wishes by reproducing mainstream or hegemonic injustices?

At almost every CI gathering or festival some well-intentioned person asks, as if for the first time, “Why are there so few Black people here?” or “Where are the people of color?” Resisting rigorous self-reflection and political engagement, we fail to satisfactorily respond to the question. And then we go back to dancing, as if asking the question was enough, and as if the lack of an articulate response affirms the group identity as creative explorers. Recently, especially since the emergence and mobilization of Black Lives Matter, the way that race, racism, and white supremacy get addressed in CI contexts is changing, for the better.

No one ever declared that the intention of contact improvisation was to eradicate white supremacy and patriarchy. But how many times has someone linked CI dancing (or Modern dance, or dance in general) to freedom, to feminism, to peace, to community, to creating an alternative to the ugly aspects of mainstream cultures? My writing is not intended as condemnation. It is an inquiry. It would be too easy to reduce my observations and questions to an indictment of CI as racist and heterosexist. Early CI dancers rejected institutionalization and encouraged egalitarianism. I am offering this analysis with the same intentions.

The work of Black, African American, POC/non-white, queer feminist, and post-colonial writers and activists haunt and inspire this writing. They move me to challenge the claims and assumptions of too many CI practitioners, teachers and writers that contact improvisation is freeing, healing, and good for all people; claims that ignore or dismiss difference, pain, or critique. I reject the frequent claim of CI dancers who, when dancing, can’t see skin color, gender or difference of any kind. I reject naïve and poorly considered claims of the body as universal, of dance as universal.

THE QUESTION

Dominant cultures maintain power by naming Others while avoiding naming themselves. The white liberal question, “Why are there so few Black people here?” reflects this external gaze and helps to invisibilize whiteness and the supremacist structures that shape both mainstream and alternative cultures. So let’s flip the question from, “Where are the people of color?” to, “How is this dance exclusionary?” or “How does this dance space reproduce white supremacy?” Let’s put the focus on white people to better understand how whiteness is produced and reproduced. Too many white people ask, “Why are there no – or so few – Black people” as if the failure has been one of promotion or outreach rather than considering the impacts of colonialism and structural racism on all dancing and on the choices people make or cannot imagine making.

Progressive and regressive practices can be happening at the same time, in the same room, at any given jam. Contact improv is often praised for its resonance with feminist and LGBT/queer goals of troubling male supremacy and complicating distinct gender roles. Same gender intimacy and female agency are common in contact improvisation’s dancing duets. Male yielding and female strength are also core values or practices that shape the dancing. And yet CI social scenes too frequently espouse essentialist new age distinctions between women and men, between female and male energies, that further alienate queer and non-binary dancers who might already feel awkward or unwelcome. Simultaneously, the pleasure seeking hetero male is empowered in most CI spaces, which results in a steady stream of complaints by women about young and middle-aged men who exploit the ‘free body’ culture of the dancing to manipulate or betray consent. Every jam has its story of the ‘problem man’ who has had to be disciplined or ostracized after repeatedly creeping women out or betraying their boundaries, but until recently very few jams have taken collective responsibility for this sexist dynamic.

This zine presents questions with no answers as an admission that I am far from being able to propose an articulate program for un-performing white and male privilege. I answer questions with more questions, hoping to activate the readers’ answers, responses, and further questions.

QUESTIONS

Is contact improvisation white and straight?

Are most of the dancers white and the majority of the duets male/female?
Do we recognize or erase the people of color, the queers, and the non-normative bodies when we say mostly white and mostly straight?
Do these questions limit or liberate the dancing?
How does the social scene around the dancing influence the dancing?

How do I touch somebody?

Is it possible to touch each other, across lines of difference, beyond representational frames?
Is it possible to de-socialize touch?
Does contact improvisation produce sites where alternatives of touch, discourse, and imagination can happen?
Who is welcome to those sites?
Is anyone NOT welcome?
“Because if you can’t do it by dancing together, how else can you get past this stuff about being together as humans?”[1]

What are the multicultural influences on CI?

Where does the term “jam” come from?[2]
Can we theorize the pelvis’ centrality in contact improvisation as an Africanist aesthetic?[3]
How do we theorize and historicize the dropped center that Simone Forti learned from copying a Black man dancing in an erotic exchange?
Did you know that Anna Halprin modeled her naturalist walking on Black embodiment?[4]
Did you know that Halprin considered “white walking” to be too stiff and not free?
What is the influence of rock n roll and therefore of Africanist music and dance on the arts scenes from which CI emerged?
How is the approach of free improvisation linked to jazz, to Black innovation and resistance?
What are the Japanese influences on CI dancing?
How did Aikido and Zen influence the embodiment and awareness practices of early CI dancers?
How did centuries of Chinese and Japanese philosophies and martial arts practices produce the Aikido roll?
How did Western dance, especially CI, change with the introduction of Aikido’s spiraling, yielding, redirecting, flowing?
How have Buddhist meditation practices influenced the somatic awareness practices taught in CI classes?
How has Taoism, through its healing arts and somatic practices, been syncretized into CI dancing?
How do Chinese American dancers, especially as CI teachers, influence the cross-cultural development of the dancing?

When did dancers start sitting in circles?

How have Native and Chicanx dancers influenced CI?
How does the dancing change when engaged by queer Latinx femmes?
What are the regional and cultural dialects of CI?
How does the dancing shift or hybridize as dancers travel from Beijing to Seattle, from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo, from Freiburg to Berkeley, from Kisingani to Dakar to Ramallah to Melbourne to Kiev…?
How does a more complicated understanding of CI’s non-European influences transform our understanding of CI and therefore our dancing and therefore ourselves?
What is the difference between appropriation, fusion, and syncretism?
What are the settler or colonial dynamics of cultural fusion or hybridity?
Is it too late to care about cultural appropriation?
Does decolonization depend on reparations?
Can cultural debts be repaid?

Can a segregated subculture be politically effective?

 

How do white people who identify as anti-racist or not-racist continue to reproduce privileged and segregated social contexts?

Am I too impatient, or was Nina Simone correct in singing out, “Too slow!”?

Is CI a site of political refuge?

Why does it flourish during or immediately following social unrest, national trauma or crisis?
How does contact improvisation invite or allow a withdrawing from political engagement, a space of retreat and refuge?
How does the notion of dancing-as-refuge privilege whiteness and middle class access?
How does political dis-engagement allow other kinds of cultural research and social experimentation to flourish?
Do CI dancers consider the jam as “safe space” and what does that mean for folks who sense danger, especially with respect to issues of self and collective identity, determination, agency?
If contact is for fugitives or refugees, what are they fleeing?

Do you want to talk about consent before dancing?[5]

Do you want CI teachers and jam organizers to create contexts for learning new practices of clarifying boundaries, non-verbal consent, saying no, and saying yes?
Does the mention of rape culture in a CI opening circle make you feel more comfortable or more awkward, more willing or more resistant?
Is massage or cuddling, especially towards the end of the dance, part of your expected CI dance vocabulary?
Is all touch OK until someone says no or is it every dancer’s responsibility to listen more closely to non-verbal cues with the intention of avoiding forcing anyone to say no?
How do your romantic feelings influence your dancing or the choosing of dance partners?
What are the best conditions for nurturing a dance of increasing trust, pleasure, and intimacy?
How are men or women or queerly gendered folks reading these questions differently?
How are white and POC dancers reading these questions differently?

Can CI be supportive of decolonial or queer…?

Can an improvised dance of shifting weight (shifting centers) be used to de-center modernity’s Eurocentric norms?
How do we negotiate CI’s hippy tendencies and identities?
Is it true that no one is free unless we’re all free?
“What political territories are exposed, broadened, or critiqued through the simple act of two bodies in contact?”[6]
Can CI dance experimentation expand our relational awareness, ethical capacity, and mutual solidarity?

What am I doing right now?

Am I listening?
Where is my body?
Will I yield to this dance of questioning?


Published by Circo Zero, San Francisco, 2018
Reprint, 2019
Responses welcome: keith@circozero.org

[1] Ray Chung. 2015. Personal interview re: dancing in Ukraine and Israel.
[2] DIXON GOTTSCHILD, Brenda. (1996). Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance. Westport CT: Greenwood Press.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Anna Halprin, Ceremony of Us, created with dancers from Watts/Los Angeles, 1969
[5] This question and the following section are adapted from:
GOTTLIEB, SARAH. 2018. “Myths to Break Down: Moving Toward Ethical Communication and Ethical Sexuality in CI.” Published on Contact Improvisation Blog, http://contactimprovblog.com/myths-to-break-down-moving-toward-ethical-communication-and-ethical-sexuality-in-ci/
[6] Scott Wells. 2016. Promo text for Touchy Subjects, co-choreographed by Wells & Hennessy.

This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of In Dance.


Keith Hennessy was born in a mining town in Northern Ontario, Canada, lives in San Francisco, and tours internationally. He is an award-winning performer, choreographer, teacher and organizer. Hennessy directs Circo Zero, a laboratory for live performance that plays with genre and expectation. Rooted in dance, Hennessy’s work embodies a unique hybrid of performance art, music, visual and conceptual art, circus, and ritual.

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