Round Robin Transformations – an alternative or addition to Jamming?

I never really liked the Round Robin structure and wasn’t sad that it seemed to almost disappear in the last 25 years. Many fresh practitioners might not even know what it is, though …

The Round Robin is the core format to practice and perform Contact Improvisation in the very early days of the form, when jams hadn’t been invented yet. Everyone sits in a circle while two people dance a contact duet in the middle. After some time someone from the circle enters the space and a transitional trio emerges until one of the duet people leaves the dance and goes back into the circle.

I haven’t found out what the name ‘Round Robin’ actually means, but it is a term that stands also outside the Contact Bubble for this particular way of changing constellations, like in kids games.

This communal form with a circle around the duet seems to be rather archetypal and found its way also into other contemporary movement practices like in hip hop battles or capoeira.

It is a very powerful structure that raises a lot of energy, which is probably the main reason why it disappeared in the field of Contact Improvisation. And also the reason why it was used for the first CI performances.

I found the Round Robin usually very intimidating. So many people watching, from all sides, no where to hide, but also nowhere to perform towards. The round space doesn’t give much inspiration. It feels like being under a magnifying glass being pulled out of any context, where the focus is drawn to the dialogue of the dancers and their pure physicality. It is like instant composition, where many compositional tools are taken away. Contact Improvisation used to be more like a laboratory. Putting people together and let them explore the laws of physics when they move with touch and shared weight. A group trying out new things and observing what happens.

This is not the core spirit that I find when I visit local CI communities or international CI events. The focus lies more on the experience of the dance, opening the senses for inner connections, the touch, the dialogue. Easily we create duet bubbles that are self sufficient or disconnected from the rest. Then I miss the witnessing power of the Round Robin.

While the Round Robin seemed to disappear more and more the Jams took over its places for providing the main frame of practicing CI together. And Nancy Stark Smith’s work on the underscore is having a huge and beneficial influence of our Jam practices. Opening up the awareness for the whole group, strengthening interactions that go beyond the duet form. And watching as an integral part of Jamming. But these options that go beyond the duet bubble usually feel more random.

So, this is what I started playing with lately in my teachings:

I prefer to explain the Round Robin based structure first and then to go more or less non-verbal through the practice. After this verbal input I like a short while for people to move on their own, warming up/ tuning in individually, while acknowledging the presence of the others. How much time I give for that depends a lot on what happened beforehand. After this ‘warm up’ we gather in a circle, all standing, ready to dance. Depending on the situation a moment with the small dance can support the sense of togetherness.

The basic rule is that there is at least one person dancing in the circle and a maximum number of around half the group. A challenge for the beginning is find a sense of slowness and spaciousness. Time to see how the space changes when one after the other enters the empty space. On the other hand it often needs some support that people don’t get into a hesitation mode, feeling shy to enter or disturb the space. If people are not familiar with a structure like this I strongly encourage them to mainly practice entering and leaving. Entering without having a clear impulse, just to explore how it feels different to being on the outside. Walking, standing and looking are highly valuable options. Very easily subtile interactions and movements evolve from that easeful starting point. The focus on entering and exiting helps a lot to get an awareness for the space and the group with a non pressured compositional attitude.This awareness of the compositional aspects of our practice is something that I often miss in regular jams, even the ones that are underscore based. In our usual Jam frames the beginning phase needs to give a lot of space for individual needs and curiosities to get into a state of being available for interactions with out getting lost in it. To find the transition into a stronger awareness for the whole is pretty advanced.

After a quite a while of playing within this circle, like maybe 20 or 30 minutes I like to give a clear sign to let go of the the limiting rules and the circle structure. It is nice if the group plays in a conscious way with this transition into a more Jam-like scenario. The circle often leaves a pretty strong impact in the space. Even when only a few people stand in a little section of the former circle it provides a bit of the original focus.

But the Jam setting invites a different kind of options and qualities: more freedom, permission to get lost, letting go of the compositional focus to dive deeper into ones own inner journey or into the physicality and the sensations of the dance and the interactions. More duet bubbles can pop up. But at the same time the space becomes bigger since the walls are accessible and there is no impulse to keep distance to the watching people. More spacial movement is possible for the whole group to move together.

It is great to get back into the circle structure at some point. At least at the end, to finish together in a standing empty circle. Depending on the time frame it can also be very inspiring to revisit the circle one or two times in between to let the freedom of the Jam and the focussed compositional awareness with the watching people enrich each other.

So far I only used this dance structure in workshops. I wonder though, if it could also bring some freshness and new focus into guided Jams. Different to a Jam, this Round Robin based structure needs a frame and quite some time to warm up beforehand. It works well in a workshop, where the basic information around touch, weight and committed interactions are developed already.

How could this Round Robin based structure be integrated in a Jam. For sure it needed to be explained explained beforehand and people would need to be ‘warmed up’ before gathering in the circle. As you might know – I hate Jam warm ups, because they often don’t encourage the necessary self-responsibility and the improvisers mind that is essential to find ones own way through the challenging openness of a jam. In this Round Robin based structure though I could imagine a very traditionally guided warm up, to get people connected with their body and to find a way into the communication through touch and weight.

After this warm up the Jam could have a clear starting point with the Round Robin Score. If you try this out, I’d be super happy to hear from your experiences.

I very clearly feel, that this Round Ronin based structure benefits from repetition, bringing awareness to different phases and potential gifts of it, like the accumulative entering in the very beginning, all the questions around watching/ witnessing/ holding the space, entering and exiting. The whole discussion about compositional awareness: How much ‘making composition’ and how much ‘noticing composition’ that effortlessly happens? And of course the transitions between the circle structure and the openness of a Jam frame and how they can enrich each other.

I still feel pretty much in the beginning of this exploration and would love to hear and see similar or other attempts to investigate dancing frames that can help improve and vary our Jams.