I hate warm ups – thoughts about jamming

For many years I was struggling with warm ups for jams, more under cover than really consciously or even outspoken. To understand myself I find it helpful to remind me about the experiences with Jams I grew up with.

My growing up with Jams

In most jams, which had some kind of facilitation, someone was put in charge to get people together for a little hello and then to guid the warm up. Ideas for moving the body and sensing gravity were included. Often there were little partner exercises to get in touch with other bodies and familiar with the concept of giving and taking weight. Eventually there were so called mixers – scores to get briefly in touch with different partners to break the tendency for people to stay in duets. That was often pretty fluffy and fun and lead into the jam without further instructions.

It doesn’t sound so bad and in a way it often worked somehow – with a sense of well meaning and care taking. I didn’t feel any questioning behind it: We do it like this because this is the way we do it. That’s probably why it took me many years to acknowledge my resistance against it.

When I moved to Berlin I got introduced to two very different ways to start jams. One was the (in those times) anarchic version at Tanzfabrik and K77, where there was no supportive input given at all. I had many fantastic jams, very unpredictable, partly wild, sometimes magical – the group as one organism, but pretty often also very un-focussed and disconnected. More people came because they loved this space of freedom, where people did whatever they felt like doing. Jess Curtis had his famous moment, when he turned off the music and shouted: ‘ This is a Jam – a space to practice practice Contact Improvisation!’

And then there was Christine Mauch, who put a question into the space at the beginning of a class: ‘What are you actually warming up for, when you warm up? And does what you do get you prepared for what’s coming?’ That was the moment when I understood that most jam warm ups forgot to asked these questions – and somehow missed point.

From what I heard from the early days of Contact Improvisation the jams were un-facilitated spaces. People had to find their way into the dance. As CI spread outside of the circle of professional movers many injuries happened in the jams. More CI specific technique was taught in classes am sometimes in the beginning of the jams to prepare people physically for what was coming. (Kristin Horrigan is researching about this period and hopefully publishes something soonish in Contact Quarterly.)

When I started with CI in 1991 the main events in Germany were weekend jams, like in Potsdam, the Black Forest Jam or the Christmas Jam in Bremen. Festivals hadn’t been invented yet. I got a little flavour of the past, where pure jamming was enough. People followed their own flow during the days and nights in and out of the actual jamming. But there were already additional formats offered. One warm up per day, maybe one mini-class, a performance night. During many hours of the day the jam space wasn’t very full maybe even discomfortingly empty. Did people not really want to dance? Were they scared to enter the space? I remember once offering a lab around acrobatic fun stuff with Günther Klingler who I just met. An excitement entered the space in the early afternoon, that had been missing so far. Was pure jamming not enough? Do we get lost and bored in too much freedom, falling into the limitation of our personal patterns?

I felt I – together with many CI colleagues of my generation – grew into not trusting people’s desire to dance. We invented more and more save frames, classes, scores, jam warm ups, schedules without any gaps, trying to eliminate all chances to get lost. We are the festival generation. I remember being in the jam facilitation team of festivals detecting where the jam looses focus and trying to intervene creatively. From the big-freedom and boredom we re-geared towards over-caring. We formed the jam police.

‘What are you actually warming up for, when you ‘warm up’?

What a simple and obvious question. As mentioned above, this question made me understand my discomfort with the general warm up habits on jams. My answer was already ready: We are warming up to be able to make our choices to go safe and satisfied on the journey through a jam. The core is ‘making choices’, my choices, which are good for me and in contact with my surrounding. That means that I need to get into a state, where I am physically, mentally and also emotionally ready to navigate myself through this very full and challenging environment of a jam. The tools or material is well known from many guided warm ups: Sensing my body, sensing the influence of gravity on my moving body, moving through space, allowing encounters to happen …

The main point is, that in a traditional warm up the facilitator is making the choices and I follow them. Once the ‘orders’ fade out I need to make my own decisions – without being prepared for it. To make the step from a state of ‘following suggestions’ to ‘making my own decisions’ can be very big. I noticed too often how after a jam warm up the space was very alive for maybe 10-15 minutes and then things fell apart. People went to the toilet or just to the side starting to watch the jam and soon got lost in talking.

What do I need to be able to make good choices?

In very short: I need to be present – in the present moment and not in the past or the future – the notorious ‘here and now’. I need to be connected to myself and aware of what happens around me and to be potentially available for it. In a way this is more a mental thing, a particular state of mind, and probably less about the body as we usually think. For sure it is not about the body being warmed up through moving or stretching intensely. A gentle curiosity is a core part of this state of mind. But since CI is a physical practice the body still has a prominent role. I need to be present in and through my body. The physical sensations my body is producing all the time are a constant feedback of the ‘here and now’, nothing abstract or spiritual but something ultimately concrete. It is a main anchor for the curios mind, being aware what there is in this body right now and how it is shifting in every moment.

The biggest misunderstanding in many Jam warm ups is, that the facilitator feels obliged to tell people what to do. Instead the main question should be how to create a space where people can find their own way to become present and take over responsibility for their own actions and through that responsibility for the whole space. In other contexts we might call this ‘self empowerment’, which is a challenging concept for a teachers ego.

So, how can we create a space, where people want to be focussed?

First of all I believe that the question is more important than the answer. That we don’t assume that we know how to do it. Each jam is different. Spaces differ a lot, the mixture of experience levels, the history of a particular jam, the time of the day and what happened before …

But of course I want to share what I found is working pretty well in different environments. If it needs some kind of more clear guidance my core approach is to phrase my words like this: ‘continue what you do – or change what you do and notice/ be aware of xyz’. I often refine it – inspired by Malcolm Manning – by saying ‘bring 20 % of your awareness to xyz.’ From the beginning on people need to do what they imagine is good for them to become present in their bodies and minds. I can support them by proposing an additional focus. The ’20 % idea’ wants to prevent that people get lost in following completely the given proposals and forget about the own, maybe conflicting needs and curiosities. My offers should be compatible with very different activities. Noticing the breath, noticing the effect of gravity on the body, like compression where the body is in touch with the floor or where tissues hang downwards from supportive structures, different sensations on and under the skin, sensations within the body, like elastic stretches, different muscle-tones in the body, observing connections in the body …

Depending on the situation I sometimes like to encourage people to once go to the limits of their perception. Can I let go even more in a certain body part? Can I witness, when my inhalation-reflex kicks in without influencing it? Can I extend further with out building up more muscle-tone?

I wouldn’t do this with an experienced, well connected group. But in rather nervous environments, like opening jams of festivals I sometimes sense, that people are too excited or overwhelmed of the situation that most of them won’t be able by themselves to take enough time to connect more deeply to their bodies. Easily such a jam can have a restless energy.

In my own practice it is essential for arriving in a jam to once narrow down my focus to the smallest possible, the grey zone where my perception becomes fuzzy. And on the other hand to once work towards finding a maximum openness for what happens inside and outside of my body and to be available for it.

Many suggestions I make come in polarities, making people notice where they are within a sliding scale of tow poles, activation or relaxation, letting the body make its intuitive or habitual decisions or making changes with a conscious mind. Enjoying the inhalation more or the exhalation or the breathing pause? Having eyes open or closed and when to switch, being initiative or in following mode, busy with inner or outer awareness…

The base for a good jam is that there are enough people, who find interest in their own body and dance. Otherwise the touch is based on neediness, the fear to be alone, which is a dreadful (but very common) starting point for a duet.

I find the moment crucial when people begin to interact with each other.

When I feel this transition needs support, I ask people to continue what they do but to do it sometime close to another person and sometimes with more space around while simply noticing how different that feels. No conscious interaction, just doing what you do with an observing mind. We are social beings and cannot not interact. What happens around us is influencing our choices anyways. It is enough to be aware of it. We are connected already, without any effort. If most people pass through this awareness the jam almost can’t fall apart anymore.

A next step would be to get in touch with other people, to allow physical connections. The challenge for most contacters is to not get lost in the sensation of touch, to suffocate the touch. An idea from Lisa Nelson is to use the touch to get more information about myself (and only secondarily about my partner). This invites a re-freshing mindset with more independency.

Almost everything I am suggesting here is part of Nancy Stark Smith’s underscore. In underscore jams, where people know all of this, it is not necessary to give all this information. But on most jams, this knowledge doesn’t get much space, so it can be helpful to remind people.

Less is more

Less is more. As teachers we might be very excited about all the smart invitations we can give. But the effect of what we put into the space is very much dependent of how much time we give in between the information. It needs quite some ability to step back and notice, when it doesn’t need anything else anymore. Usually it is earlier than we think, unless we are in ‘hesitation mode’. On the other hand: the quicker one information follows the other the less likely it is that people get into their own research mode, the more superficial their interest will be and the shorter they can survive without new input, which makes us give the next information even quicker …

Working together with Christine Mauch I understood that very often it doesn’t need any talking through in the beginning of a jam. Maybe the most supportive ingredient of a focussed jam is that people start and end together. 10 minutes time beforehand for personal arrival followed by a meeting in a circle. Sometimes a few words can be helpful to tune into what’s gonna happen. Maybe naming one or two elements of the under score.

I am wondering, why this simple thing of starting and ending together is so incredibly powerful. I guess it is about a common commitment to invest a specific time for a common experience. Another effect is, that no one is anonymous. Whatever we do is part of the jam. At the end we are sitting in the circle again. We can’t hide. And we can’t pretend what ever we did hasn’t happened. The jam is not a private space, that sometimes gets forgotten.

Preparing the space instead of warm ups or Jam intros

An ongoing experiment on the contact festival I organize (www.contact-meets-contemporary.de) is to not do jam warm ups, but instead to prepare the space. Nina Wehnert came up with the idea to offer some activities before the jam starts. She called this half hour practice ‘soothing body and mind’. Doing something good, grounding and nurturing for people’s overstimulated system on a festival. She took elements from her yoga practice but in a very generous and rather slow way, giving lots of space for people to go with their own curiosities, making it easy for late comers to join in or to do something different a little further away. The magical thing was that at 8:30 pm, when the jam was supposed to start, there were already more than a third of the festival people in the space – calm, silent and focussed on their own body. From there it just needs a word or a brief thought to start the jam, and sometimes not even that.

A contact jam is a frame where people practice contact improvisation.

If everyone in a jam would agree on this basic definition, jams would be very different. Sometimes it might be important to confront jammers with this definition. If you are not interested in understanding and learning basic principles of the form, a jam is not the right place to be. A Jam easily gets misinterpreted as a space where everyone can follow his or her impulses and in that sense can do what he or she wants. Watching CI is opening a huge field of projections of what it might be. As an organizer of a jam I wouldn’t be too shy to talk to people who definitely do something very different than CI and check in with them about what they are doing and how it effects the space.

For most people learning CI by just going to jams doesn’t work. Quite a few things don’t translate from just seeing and copying it. Taking classes make sense, so that jamming can be a space where the information of the classes can become part of our practice.

Classic ways to kill a jam

If a jam starts with many people being connected to themselves while being aware for what’s happening around, the jam has a good chance to stay alive and focussed for a longer time.

But there are moments where we habitually kill a jam without intending to: It is when I feel something has found an end. Most often it is a satisfying duet. We come to a stillness, ending silently somewhere in the space, often on the floor. Eventually we might become aware that we turned into an obstacle for others and drag ourselves to the side, where we often get into a verbal exchange or bodywork.

In the bigger picture we take energy or aliveness out of the dance space. As an alternative I like to give a ‘thank you’ back into the space after the end of a satisfying dance. I actually feel a gratitude to these safe jam spaces that enable me to make such incredible experiences of trusting, daring, not knowing, failing … I wouldn’t be able to do something similar at home. My ‘thank you’ is, that I gently force myself to keep on dancing for another two minutes after the end of a duet (or trio, …). This is not the easiest choice. I am confronted with being lost and confused. But it is worth it for myself and the jam. Usually the sense of scary lostness or boredom passes already after the first 30 seconds. After that something else kicks in and I know much better, if I really need a break or not.

And by the way: Boredom and a sense of being lost are strong seeds for finding something genuinely inspiring. It is a good practice to face this scary place on a regular basis.

To finish: I have to apologize for the title ‘I hate warm ups’. I love warm ups. Just not for jams. I should have called the text ‘I hate jam warm ups’ but my compassion for aesthetic sensations won.