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All photos by Nataraj Hauser(c)Feature Article
Exploring Human Vitality: The Touch That Gives Life
An Essay on Contact Improvisation
By Mandy Herrick, revised from December 2000
Slowly, with depth and gravity, I feel the warmth of a body releasing into mine. Her body heat radiates through mine as if her skin were breathing with my cells. As she curls around my ribs, we find ourselves swiftly stumbling toward the ground in a descending conglomeration of arms, legs, and soft bellies. The stability of the steadfast ground rescues us and our supple bodies allow for an easeful fall. We chuckle with instinctive gratitude for what is below us and continue with our dance, in full trust of each other, ourselves, and the floor.
Because we know the floor offers a sustaining support for our bodies and can therefore lessen our fears of falling, we have acquired a sense of security and trust with this inanimate object. It is dependable, honest, and constant. We have imposed humanistic qualities on the floor through our interaction with it. This human contact with non-human entities proves that we do not exist alone in the world; we need inhuman entities to invoke an understanding that we are human. Therefore, the human touch not only enlivens other people, it animates lifeless objects as well, thereby creating a space of beings energized through human contact.
The translation of human touch unto inanimate beings can be found simply by tossing a ball between people. The ball alone occupies a minimal amount of space and appears lifeless as it dwells in its own kinosphere. However, when the ball meets a person, the pathway and existence of the round figure becomes animated, taking on a life of its own. The energy of simple touch, whether it is through tossing, holding, rolling, or squeezing, is translated into the ball and responds in motion. Moreover, by throwing the ball around with several people, sharing the newfound vitality of this object, the ball acquires many personalities and humanistic characteristics as it bounces off people and suspends in the air. If the ball is buoyantly tossed around, it can seem jovial and light as if it is laughing and loving the time spent flying through the air, defying gravity. The ball could also be seen as distressed and lonely as if weighted down, when it rolls leisurely across the floor. And when the ball is still, it can seem pensive or as if it is anticipating something new to happen. Certainly then, the simplicity of the human touch can energize not only other humans, but can also impose a sense of vitality within the seemingly lifeless state of a ball. In this way, it is entirely possible for a dancer to be engaged in a duet with a wall, a set of stairs, a chair, and of course the floor.
The floor serves as a non-living object that we cannot survive without because it not only establishes how we align ourselves in space, but also provides a constant sense of security and refuge. By maintaining physical contact with the ground, it becomes apart of our being; it is given human characteristics that we cannot always provide for ourselves like stability, efficiency, strength, and consistency. We rely on the floor because it inhabits these qualities. Yet in the same way, the floor can facilitate the essence of animation and energy. If an area of the floor appears untouched by people, the region might seem isolated, empty, and quiet. However, when the surface of the ground meets the sliding of a foot, hand, or any part of the body, and provides a firm base for human movement and physical contact, the floor seems to join forces with these humanistic qualities and thus becomes part of human movement and interaction in an animated way. By surrendering our bodies to the floor and not fighting this urge to fall, we establish a powerful and energetic connection between a living and non-living being.
Furthermore, the ground, representing an inert and inanimate entity, not only serves as a means of connection through life and the non-living, but also establishes a link between one person and another. Because we are all at some point joined with the ground from a downward gravitational pull, we are associated with one another through the energy that passes through the ground from one individual to the next. Our human senses are relatively similar, and by imposing these feelings onto the floor, we are figuratively passing or sharing them with one another. For example, if a person jumps across the floor, releasing dynamic energy into the air and ground, an individual who rests his or her body flat on the floor would absorb these vibrations and vigorous movements because their body knows to listen and be open to incoming sensory information. In this way, the "lifeless" floor facilitates the energetic connection between two people. It transfers a release of energy from one person to the embracing energy of another.
By opening our senses and freeing the body into our surroundings, we can feel the sensations of others who share the same space. Establishing physical contact with another human being can evoke feelings of wholeness and empowerment within our bodies by treasuring senses that were translated onto us through human touch. In the same way, we can also feel a sense of connectedness when we transfer our humanistic qualities onto an inhuman object. The lifeless entity begins to establish a connection with these human characteristics and seems to enliven itself. With this awareness, we may now be able to offer a different approach to our relationships in our everyday interactions with inanimate objects. We may notice the aura a pencil emits. We may feel the connection of another person through a wall. At best, we may recognize that the simplicity of human touch is an effortless but powerful choice.top
“Falling, carrying, lifting, balancing, rolling – use gravity in your movement, accept impulses … the spectrum ranges from soft meditative movement through to a rollicking athletic dance. Why? To immerse into a new, harmonious movement experience.”
- Rusty Lester
The Art of the Lift - Using Momentum and Overcoming Fear
by Nataraj Hauser
There is nothing particularly muscular about executing a lift in a contact improv dance. It is a matter of both partners understanding that several things have occured and following the momentum where it leads, surrending a bit of control, and letting go of fear. Let's spend a moment looking at each of those things.
In the course of a dance, with both partners moving at least a little bit, several things must occur for a successful lift to flow easily. One partner must make an invitation to the other to 'go for a ride'. This can be an offering of a hip, the back, or a shoulder in such a way that weight bearing is possible. The one making the offer needs to be in a position of relative structural - not muscular - strength as the offer is made. For some that may be an intuitive thing, but for most of us it will require some practice to familiarize our body with what that position of strength feels like. You won't get there if you don't try it. Just start small and build. In the meantime the other partner needs to understand that a lift was just offered. This is a bit harder for most of us. Unless the offer is quite blatant we may hesitate to take the lift and then the moment of opportunity has passed. To the recipient I say: Listen closely and trust your intuition. If a lift feels like it's being offered, it probably is, so allow it to happen at least a little bit. That means, surrender your weight to your partner and see what happens. As you build confidence your commitment to a lift can become greater, allowing for a bigger lift. Instead of merely lifting your feet you might actually jump or propel your momentum into the direction of travel. This introduces two related topics: surrendering control and letting go of fear.
You cannot effectively enjoy a lift if you insist on remaining in control of your body, momentum, horizon, and weight. Practice letting go of control to the forces of momentum as they arise in the dance. Many times your partner is also not in control; that is, she is not holding you and guiding you. She has provided a platform and your shared momentum makes it possible for you to "fly". Using momentum can be practiced with relatively little risk and as confidence is gained you can extend your flight, both in time and elevation. You can practice falling and moving in an 'out of balance' condition to see how momentum keeps you on your feet. It is the same principle that keeps a motorcycle from falling over when leaned over in a turn. If the angular momentum ceases, the bike tips over. Try this exercise: Imagine that the top of your head is being constantly drawn to a pole that runs from floor to ceiling. Walk in a brisk circle about 3-4 feet in diameter with your head constantly leaning in to the imaginary pole in the center of the circle. Your body can be at quite a steep angle relative to the floor if you walk quickly enough (have enough momentum). If you stop quite suddenly, your body will fall into the circle you were just walking. Let it fall and learn what to do when your partner suddenly isn't there. You could put a large pillow in your circle until you learn to fall without getting hurt. Learning to fall may be the best skill you have at your disposal in a contact improv dance.
Frank Herbert's book 'Dune' contains a great description of fear: "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration." Fear is the mind killer. It causes us to take a fight or flight response. In this case, the fear is relatively small, and our fight reaction is to stiffen up and resist the lift. We're afraid we'll get hurt or look foolish. In Dune, Herbert goes on to say, "I will face my fear. I will allow it to flow over me and through me, and when fear has passed I will turn and see fear's path. Only I will remain." This Litany of Fear was used as a means to overcome fear for the characters of the novel. It is a useful tool for us as well (if a bit dramatic). When we have a moment of fear, if we look at it and question ourselves about what we are afraid of, we can identify the root of the fear and take steps to resolve it. If we try to hide from our fears, they gain power over us and become a Scary Thing that circles outside our hidey hole and will get us if we emerge. When you ascertain why you might be afraid of a lift or allowing that moment of surrender of control, then you can take some steps to overcome that fear, step by step, inch by inch. There may be perfectly valid reasons why you don't want to risk a fall (prior injury) and it is prudent to respect those choices. It may also be that there is simply a Scary Thing that has never been faced, and once faced loses its power over us. I urge you to actively decide which is which for you.
Having faced your fears, played with momentum, and learned to recognize the invitation to a lift, all that remains is to allow that moment to occur in the dance. Start small, releasing your control in stages that keep you almost comfortable - risk is uncomfortable - and let yourself expand into bigger, longer, and more fun lifts.top
The Physics of Dance - This one will let you wrap your head around what's involved when we dance. Really interesting, a bit technical, and lots of food for thought. Here's a bit of an excerpt:
Velocity (v): How fast and in what direction something is moving.
Momentum (p): The magnitude of an object's momentum gives an indication of how hard it is to bring it to a stop.
momentum = mass x velocity (p=mv) (Heavy but slow, light but fast... both are hard to stop.)
Force (F): Just like you'd think. It's a push, characterized by a magnitude (how hard) and a direction.
Force changes momentum:
- The harder you push, the more rapidly the momentum changes.
- The longer you push, the greater the total change in momentum.
- The equation: dp = Fdt (where "d" = "delta", or change)
If you don't push on something, its speed doesn't change. Greater momentum -> harder to stop.
If you don't push on something its direction of travel doesn't change. Note that (v) and (p) point in the same direction.
If you do push on something, you can change its speed and/or its direction of travel.
...now go read the rest!
Contacting the Soul
An excerpt from the contact improv page at NurtureDance.org.
Contact Improvisation for me has been like riding the vanguard of human development. So here we stand at what may be one of the edges of human expansion, stretching the envelope that contains us.
Contact Improvisation is not just another dance technique or discipline. It is a forum for discovering who we are beneath our skins. It is a place where our self concept is questioned. Who am I? What is the shape of my fear? To what degree am I present? What particular trance am I in at this moment? What dialog is running through my mind? What ghosts gnaw at my soul? I stand so naked on this dance floor, I cannot stop from being witnessed in all levels of who I am.
To be off balance. To loose control for that split second. To be plucked out of the air by a sure hand. To have that hand miss. To land on my sure hands. To land on hands that are not so sure. To come to the edge of my envelope .
I ask why?, and why not? When we question what comprises our reality, we are about to push the boundaries of our awareness. We are now on the "Heroic Journey". This journey is heroic because we may die, not once but many times. In the house of mirrors where we reflect on ourselves. We see ourselves standing before us. This particular body, our profession, the good parent, the athlete, the charming smile, the twinkle in the eye, our higher learning credentials. The body will disintegrate. The rest is intangible. When we reach out to touch our hand passes through. It is only a concept we call self.
If we are to construct an evolved self, some of the premises we call ourselves have to be discarded. We cannot avoid dying, and in dying we are reborn. Perhaps less encumbered by ghosts. Maybe more present for the next dance.
Ken Martini, Sept. 6, 1996
Reasons for moving
Excerpt from Eye Weekly, Toronto's weekly newspaper.
BY REBECCA TODD
Sometimes, as dancers mature, they become less interested in looking beautiful and executing difficult technique than in dancing so they can be more aware and alive. This has been the case with Vancouver's Olivia Thorvaldson Wood, who brings an improvised duet to fFIDA tomorrow and Saturday (August 18 and 19) in fFIDA's Art of Improv Series J. Trained as a classical dancer, for the past 16 years Wood has worked for a who's-who list of Canadian choreographers, including Serge Bennathan, Jean Pierre Perreault and Vancouver's Jennifer Mascall.
But now, although she's still known for her strong technique, Wood says, "I'm more interested in feeling what I think is genuine in the moment. I love dance, but I find I grow less and less interested in just moving for the sake of moving."
At this point, dancing becomes something like a Buddhist meditation practice, allowing dancers to check in with themselves and the world. To dance is to ask: What am I feeling and experiencing right now, in all my senses? How am I dancing with the world and other people around me? For dancers who practise contact improvisation, dancing can be a form of testing principles of physics and biology while remaining in constant dialogue with another person's body. Just as a rock climber has to be attentive to the rock in order not to fall, in contact dance you can't space out -- you have to be awake, or someone gets hurt.
Contact dance is the point of connection between Wood and her improvisation partner, Quinton Bennett. They first danced together at a workshop in Vancouver in 1995, and were intrigued by their differences. Bennett was an expert rock climber who had fallen in love with contact improv. Although Wood hesitates to speak for Bennett, she will say, "I think he's drawn to contact dance because while mountain climbing is about you and the rock, contact is about you and another body. It developed him in more intimate and human ways."
If you have something you’ve written that you want to get out to our community: An article, a poem, or even just a paragraph you think is important, send it to me and I’ll include it. (nataraj.hauser (at) gmail.com)
One request has been for more photos, so I included a bunch in this issue. If there is something else *you* would like to see, let me know.
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