Fear and fun in making choices – Improvisation (not only) in CI

When the fear begins we almost automatically fall into established habits. For improvising, learning and growing personally we need to be able to notice the upcomming fear, we need to look for the discomfort and research alternative options – which can be actually fun.

This text started as a preparation for an interactive lecture at the contact festival ‘Contact Meets Contemporary’ in Goettingen/ Germany, August 2014, where I am the artistic director. After the lecture I transformed my preparation thoughts and the realizations I had through this interactive event into a text. Here it is:


how nice to see so many of you being willing to receive some more theoretical input on this festival, with all the frames to move and practice. We had the wish to invite more moments to get the mind engaged to consider what are we doing here and why and how?

The title of the lecture is ‘Fear and fun in making choices – Improvisation (not only) in CI’. It also had the subtitle ‘areas of improvisation’ …

Improvisation is one major link between CI and contemporary dance, that we use on this festival. Improvisation is also a link between dance and ‘normal life’, which are both very present in a frame of a festival. I wanted to feed the curiosity to explore improvisation on different levels on the journeys through a multilayered event like this. So, let’s start with a look at our CI practice.

What is the improvisational part of Contact Improvisation? I want to briefly introduce four different views on it.

The myth of improvisation

Improvisation carries the myth of doing something new and exciting all the time. I think this pressure easily kills the improvisation. We get caught in an over toned state of mind chasing the extraordinary. But the base of improvisation is to be ease-fully alert, in the moment and ready for as much as possible. On one hand I’d like more modesty in our approach to improvisation. On the other hand more honesty – acknowledging where we really are – which will push us into our courage, so that we don’t hide behind being something supposedly creative, beautiful or amazing.

The dark reality of improvisation

Some important improvisation teacher said to a student who was working on a performance: ‘Oh, you want improvise, so you just want to repeat your patterns?!’ A part of improvisation is to notice my impulses and motivations and to follow them before getting stuck in a judging mind if this or that is good enough or too much. If we practice improvisation as following my ‘natural’ impulses we will mainly make similar choices over and over again and basically repeat our patterns and habits. I find that thought in combination with ‘the myth of improvisation’ beautifully irritating and refreshing.

My basic definition of improvisation

Having the choice and making decisions – is my basic definition of improvisation. It might sound very flat and not-exciting, but it is an essential part of what I do when I improvise and I don’t get bored so easily with this attitude. About the challenges and gifts of this approach I will talk more in a moment.

Joho Viori’s thoughts around the improvisational part of CI

I was very happy to read the thoughts from a dear student of mine about the improvisational part of CI. It sounds like the opposite of my definition…

‘Despite the name clearly describes contact improvisation as a form of improvisation, I often think that what I’m doing while contact improvising is actually not improvisation at all but something else. I imagine improvisation is something like ‘staying present all the time and making a choice all the time over and over again based on what is there and not on your expectations or the like. Well, I like to avoid making any decisions at all while contact improvising. I like the idea that I just keep on observing and ‘following’ and not really putting anything there that is mine, but just surfing on the flow of events.’

What is it that makes me feel ‘I am improvising’?”

This was the question I put into space at this point of the lecture. I asked people to exchange thoughts in groups of three around this question. Maybe you want to take a moment to think or write yourself about What is it that makes me feel ‘I am improvising’? before you continue reading.


I enjoyed to hear a couple of very different insights from my listeners. To understand and sort those differences I find it helpful to look at the way people engage their mind when they improvise. I see a polarity from switching it off to maximum control. I think four common options in this polarity are

  1. unconscious flow

  2. conscious flow/ witnessing my choices

  3. conscious choices

  4. contact planning

Unconscious flow

This seems to be a rather common state or even aim and the main source for CI addiction. There is a strong desire for many contacters to have a safe space, where they can switch off their minds just to be in the ‘here & now’. It is more like diving into a dream state, surrendering to what wants to happen. I am writing this with a skeptical note, but I see the need for this experience and can honestly value it – to a certain amount.

The emerging longing for this unconscious flow in the CI community was maybe one of the reasons why Steve Paxton, the founder of this dance form, let go off CI at some point. Steve understood CI as a physical research, as very clear and mindful work in a dance studio, and the idea of seeking an unconscious, unthinking flow is at odds with this.

Conscious flow

I also like to call it ‘the state of intuition’. It is as if I was witnessing myself, appreciating all the choices I make with a sense of ‘Yes! Wow! Great!’. It is a state of heightened awareness and freedom. I am clearly in a position to make shifts, to cut or redirect the flow – if I want to. It is a state of bliss, a gift that falls into the dance. I can’t make it happen. It is out of my hands. There are ways to make it more likely for this state to appear but I can’t force it or work directly on it. So…

Conscious choices

This is the state that I can work on.

It helps me in moments when I am not in any kind of flow, but also, when I drown in the unconscious flow. And it sometimes opens doors to enter the conscious flow. Having the choice means to have options. Part of the job is to open my awareness, so that I notice that I have different options. The other part is to make a decision, which option I want to go for. Our conscious awareness is rather limited though. A regular frustration in learning processes is a sign for this. If we use our conscious mind to learn new movement options, we easily get to a point, where even things that used to work smoothly are suddenly bumpy. By far the biggest part in our movement organisation has to be performed ‘below ‘ our consciousness – in a way on automatic pilot mode. What our mind can give to an improvisation is to know the areas, in which we can make choices and noticing the actual moment, when a decision could give a new direction or flavor to the dance – different to what the automatic pilot would do. It is mainly to give a direction and not so much controlling every little step. The body – or the unconscious wisdom stored and developed in my body – still has the responsibility to organize itself within the direction asked for by the mind. Thinking of Juho’s CI practice, where he feels like ‘following’ the dance in every moment and not to make conscious decisions, I would say that even following gives a lot of options of how to follow and how to keep the feedback loop of sensing and acting/ responding alive. But there are also re-occurring moments when I fall out of a flowy following mode and I am forced to make decisions.

Contact planing

is a rather familiar and annoying state. It feeds the hesitation to teach contact technique through offering set pathways. People so easily want to make them happen in jams. The idea or image of what should happen next becomes stronger than the ability to listen to what is actually possible.

We have a plan and pull it through even against minor or major resistance of our dance partners. We sacrifice the communication in order to achieve our goal – and end up with a slightly numb aftertaste in the body and the mind even though we succeeded. I like the question ‘do I know where I’ll be in three seconds?’ If so, I am not improvising.


Fear responses are invitations to make choices

As mentioned before I want to have a closer look at my ‘making choices’ way of improvising. There is a special re-occurring state in an improvisation, that asks for conscious decision making: The state of fear.

Fear responses or fear reflexes kick us out of the improvisation. A fear reflex is a one-option-choice, which is not a real choice. I am not in a dialogue anymore. It is a dead end road. I see three major ways of fear responses:

  1. Contracting – Getting stuck in a maximum tone

  2. Collapsing – Pretending to be dead

  3. Running away – actively taking distance from what we are scared of

Those first two options I want to observe a little closer: Contracting and collapsing. Both options follow the belief that we can’t change anything. We stay where we are. Maybe there is a hope that things will change by themselves if we survive a little longer.

There are two basic contraction patterns. One is the arching reflex, where the whole body over extends, especially the lower back and neck arch to the maximum. It is developed in babyhood to prevent the baby’s head from hitting the floor when it falls belly first. We find this beautifully expressed in CI in pelvis lifts. When the ‘over-dancer’ roles from the belly over his/ her side to the back people tend to arch with neck and lower back. The arching is often accompanied by legs that want to wrap backwards around the partner and arms that hook into the partners torso. The other contraction pattern is to curl in. It is meant to protect us, when things from above might fall on our head. But it also occurs as a fear pattern in pelvis-lifts: we wrap belly first around a partner like a baby monkey to not fall off the mothers back.

The collapsing or ‘pretending to be dead’ pattern in a pelvis lift leads to the ‘potato sack technique’, where arms and legs hang down from an under-toned center. When we are told to reach instead, we often do it from hands and feet but stay collapsed in the center. Our will makes us reach, our fear takes care that we don’t enter the dangerous place of fragile balance that our mind wants to achieve. When trying to get on someones pelvis there is a common reflex to not extend upwards but to either bend the knees slightly or to soften in the center and to slide down a tiny bit while pouring the weight on our partner pelvis. We end up with the upper belly carrying our weight, which is draining down towards the feet, feet just off the floor. We feel very heavy, while trying to think ‘I made it!’

It is another example how our body, when driven by fear, sabotages our mindful intensions.

A sweet side note: I find it somehow touching that the mentioned fear patterns of arching and curling are linked to highly pleasurable and functional movements and shapes. We teach center-push and center-reach from the developmental movement patterns. It is almost the same posture than the fear-arching only it is used in different moments of the dance. We use it e.g. to find an alive arching as an over-dancer as a basic organization for flying. And the curling in corresponds to the embryo position. It is very comforting and an important transition position to move through spacial levels.

A short word about the third fear pattern – ‘running away’ is often performed when getting off someones pelvis, or when we fall in a shared weight position. We try to get out of the zone, where the partners weight can’t fall on us. But through that we easily invite exactly this possibility. When leaning it is physically very hard to move away from the partner. We usually only manage to separate a few inches, which leads our partners body into a free fall – landing on top of us. The contact answer would be to invest even more into the physical connection, in a way to throw myself into my partner when we fall and stumble. Moving into each other slows down the falling and prevents us from the falling weight of the partner.

The same happens on a mind level when we get under stress. We can imagine the mind as a muscle that can also contract and collapse. Pushing through or giving up/ vaging out. In both options we are not able to see the actual moment and its possible changes.

In the lecture I gave some time for the listeners to be more active. I invited them to move solo while contemplating following task:

Find one example for a fear response of collapsing and one for contracting. It can be a physical or mental fear response”


Moments of discomfort

It is not possible to work directly on those fear reflexes. Once they are triggered and fully expressed, there is no return. It is the reason why I am a fan of noticing discomfort. Discomfort arises, when fear is in the air, but I haven’t fallen into a fear response yet. It is an alert moment of negotiating my options and eventually choosing one. It is the moment, when we are pretty close to finding something new. Most of our patterns prevent us from slipping into the discomfort. Usually if it becomes uncomfortable or challenging, we jump back into situations we are familiar with. The thing is, that the first taste of the NEW, is usually not wonderful. Maybe exciting but usually with a slight taste of scare. I believe that maybe 90 % of the people who say they want to overcome their habits are actually not willing to do so. Could we just acknowledge our fear of changing and find other ways to be interested and full filled than to find something new? Or could the NEW be less fantastic than we wish it to be?

If improvising is to have the choice and to make decisions the necessary first step for that very often is to notice the taste of scare.

When teaching CI technique I offer principles and pathways, that allow physical comfort and flow. That’s what I consider basic technique. But even in this work on CI specific technique I am interested in the sensation of discomfort. This is the most fruitful place for learning. When feeling physically uncomfortable I get a clear sign that I haven’t got it yet – otherwise a movement would work smoothly and pleasurably. I actually very much prefer if students stay honest in their communication and fail to perform a suggested pathway than to push their way through in the contact planning mode.

On this festival Nadja & Dino even proposed awkward staring positions in their class to force the participants in an improvisational mind while exploring the communication in weight sharing moments. I love that!

Especially when teaching lifts and upside down material I am very interested in the moments when the fear kicks in. As the teacher I see my role more and more in providing an atmosphere, where the participants can notice their physical fear responses and then start to look for the moment, when this fear response begins. I want them to look through a magnifying glass on this moment. Maybe they need to adjust the exercise a bit so that the beginning of the fear response becomes more clear. Where they can slow down, go back and forth and sense how the fear is building up and softening down, experimenting in the discomfort, finding more ease in the discomfort, seeing new options where there used to be just one. And then going slowly further to the place where the fear becomes almost too scary, then going back into the comfort zone etc. It is very subtle work, with a technical focus, but engaging the heart very much.

When improvising I enjoy moments of awkwardness, as long as my partner stays calm and curious. The tendency of course is, to quickly slide the point of contact to the next familiar place or to separate. But in my experience there is almost always a sweet solution to get out of the felt dead end.

Sometimes I like to start a CI duet with a technically useless contact point, like knee on calf. I know that I don’t want to stay there for ever, but I am also relieved that I am not directly forced into obvious movement choices, where it is not necessary to listen properly to each other. In the awkwardness we are forced to really listen. No one knows the way out. We can only discover it together. The quality of communication can grow, before we enter familiar places. In this way awkwardness and discomfort can open doors to improvisation.

But of course, I still value the desire to find the flow in a dance. Surrendering to what wants to happen anyways, we don’t really make decisions anymore. I wish – when being in the flow – to witness the choices my body (or what ever that is in me) makes. When I am able to witness the choices I make I could potentially make different choices, but sometimes I choose – in every moment – not to.

Other re-occurring situations of discomfort and making choices on this festival

For this festival ‘contact meets contemporary 2014’ I’d like to create a more general awareness for the choices we make, so that we have the possibilty to try out other options.

In taking classes there are many familiar re-occurring situation, where we have our established patterns. ‘And now find a partner’ – is one of the darkest moments in most classes. What is my habit? Do I choose a partner or do I tend to be chosen? Do I place myself next to a person I’d like to work with, while an exercise is explained? Do I already have a back up plan? Do I try to miss the moment and be left over, so that I don’t have to choose at all, so that I can work with the teacher? …

How do I follow instructions? Do I try to get it right? Do I always find that my partners don’t get it? Do I tent to stick to the proposal even when I know that it will never work with this partner in this moment? Or do I leave the task as soon as it becomes challenging for me? …

Leading – following. In most exercises and dances the roles of leading and following at some point dissolve. Which role do I tent to take on? What is my activity when I follow? How much independence do I allow myself when I follow? Do I actually follow? Do I take over unconsciously? Do I mentally (and physically) collapse when I follow?

How much listening and following is part of my leading? How do I deal with moments, when my partner ‘doesn’t get it’? Is my leading style more directive or seductive or do I make open proposals? How much of a dialog does happen?

But there are also many re-occurring patterns on a festival, where I make my choices. When do my choices limit my experience in a way I eventually don’t like?

Where do I sit at lunch. Do I ‘open’ a new table? Do I queue up with friends? Do I chose always the same table. Do I usually choose to sit next to someone new?

Am I always late for classes and meals?

Do I feel I have to do every class because I might miss out on the best?

When do I notice that I need some privacy? When I am falling apart – or already before that?

I am not that interested to overcome all my patterns. My patterns are an expression of who I am. They make me recognizable. They usually have a supportive reason why they became part of who I am. What I’d like to achieve is to be more conscious about my choices. If I consciously choose to follow a habit I am in charge of my action. If I do it unconsciously I am a victim of my action, without the option to change and adjust.

So, it is 6 pm, that’s kind of it. Enjoy your choices around your dinner journey. Bon apetit!