The challenges and rewards of offering ‘open level’ workshops

Thoughts from Joerg Hassmannn – July 2021

The last years I was in the privileged situation to mainly teach Workshops experienced Contact Improvisers. Whenever asked to teach beginners or open level classes I got quite nervous. It is amazing to me, that new teachers usually have to cope with these much more difficult teaching frames.

Now living in Australia and starting to teach in my local community ‘from scratch’, I am going through quite a learning and growing experience. Especially lately I had extremely satisfying workshops with people from total beginners level to very experienced contacters.

I was very busy with some questions:

How to make sure that beginners have a good first experience with this dance form, that they feel safe enough when being confronted with being lost, overwhelmed by the physical closeness with strangers, not feeling good enough compared to people with more experience, feeling embarrassed to be exposed in their weaknesses…

As a teacher I put myself under quite some pressure: If newcomers have a bad first experience, we might lose them forever, even though they might have benefited a lot from the practice in the long run.

Having these questions present in my teaching I also need some awareness for the more experienced people. How to make sure that they get their needs met, finding their dance, learning something new, getting excited… when there are many people around, who don’t share the contact language yet and who need more support.

In my early years of teaching I lost quite a few long term practitioners, because my main focus was on keeping the least experienced people happy. And didn’t manage to give my experienced students the challenges and appreciation they needed to continue learning and growing.

Advantages of mixed level groups

I am grateful that I was forced in the last months to discover the advantages of these mixed level groups. I heard them all before but disregarded them as paedagical romanticisms. But now I experienced them on an almost regular level.

Beginners can already see in the space what’s possible in this dance form if they continued to practice. Working with a far more experienced person can create safety and enhance the learning process immensely. Beginners can get much more instant, mainly non verbal feedback about what is working well and what isn’t – and being gently guided towards new possibilities. If two beginners dance together it is very obvious that failing is an essential part of the form – and that it’s ok.

But what’s in there for more experienced people?

There is the positive aura around the ‘beginner’s mind’ in the field of Contact Improvisation: The openness, which beginners sometimes reach and which allows them to connect to all the new and unknown; a form of surrendering to the overwhelm and the discovery to be able to swim instead of drowning. It also entails the curiosity, the state of not knowing and being on a journey of discovery.

We easily lose that state, once we have more of an understanding of what we are doing. At some point we notice that we have done more or less everything and the promised land from the beginning can feel dull and grey, like groundhog day, a random repetition of always the same.

It usually needs a lot of work and discipline to find the beginner’s mind again – often by diving into details or by looking at the familiar from a different angle. Having real beginners minds in the space can spark this curiosity and excitement also in more experienced people.

Dancing with a beginner can also be a great teacher or lesson. So many things that I unconsciously take for granted, suddenly disappear. It gives me the opportunity to ask very essential questions and support me to understand better what I am habitually doing – and why.

But the crucial thing is something different in my experience. I had extremely satisfying dances with beginners. And the main ingredient was that I experienced myself deeply connected to the other person. What we are doing becomes secondary. We hear and see each other, we inspire each other, we share time and space while feeling safe – we meet, being to being. I had a beautiful dance with an 80 year old man who couldn’t walk anymore and had to sit on a chair. I was 30 years young and we managed to discover which language we shared to feel connected.

What is the bridge to get from the challenges that those very different needs of beginners and experienced people entale to the rewards?

In short my answer would be: Feeling safe, being able to trust myself and the others.

Trusting that I won’t be judged for my weaknesses and ‘mistakes’. Feeling seen, heard, acknowledged and valued. Honestly trusting that I am allowed to respect my boundaries, and that others are willing to respect them, too.

Trusting that my needs matter.

For me as a teacher it is the main job, to set the right tone. The quality of a workshop is often set much before the first instruction is put into the space. With all the knowledge around the nervous system that has been entering the somatic world in the last years, I’d say: it is all about the nervous system. When we are able to notice what makes people unsafe and what let’s us ease up again, when we are able to read stress symptoms in ourselves, others and in the group, we have a good starting point.

More concrete:

What I do more and more often is to speak out what’s happening anyway in the room, especially uncomfortable, hidden notions. There are typical moments when many people feel lost or overwhelmed, like in the very beginning of a meeting or in rather open frames to dance.

Another classic is to ‘find a partner’: that’s the moment, when many school Traumas are popping up: ‘I am always the last’, ‘no one wants to work with me’, ‘I know with who I want to work, but I don’t dare to go for it’… Just naming a few of those stressful thoughts and strategies that are filling the space can create quite a relief.

If we manage to balance generosity and determination well, as individuals and also as a group, then we’ll be all fine. There are moments when I have to be picky for various reasons. And there are moments when I feel so safe, that I am honestly open to work or dance with everyone and where I do my part to support the whole.

And there is the wisdom in the background, that I can learn something with everyone. It just might not be the thing that an exercise was proposing, but maybe something different or more important can be learned.

And something else seemed important in these mixed level scenarios. Everyone needs to feel taken seriously. It is a trap to unconsciously treat beginners like kids, trying to oversimplify things and saying that everything is fun and easy. Or to fall into a state of ‘I know’ and ‘you don’t’ – let’s teach you the simple basics.

There are no simple basics in my experience. The basics are the foundation, where everything else is built on. How can that be simple? Already the question is quite a challenge: What are the essentials of this complex dance form? So, my starting point is already a question and triggers my curiosity. What happens if we can’t take anything for granted? In groups with mainly experienced contacters, so much is already clear and agreed on, which we often don’t even realise.

Having more experienced people in the space also makes it more obvious that over simplifying things wouldn’t address their needs. The beauty of working on the essentials is that practitioners of all levels can find something interesting and worthwhile in them – just on very different levels. One proposal can find very different forms to be explored in the same space. If it goes well it creates a strong feeling of trust and togetherness, when very diverse activities appear and co-exist in the same space.

A last crucial thing to mention:

It also depends a lot on the people who are coming, especially those who are very at home in this dance form. I am very impressed and grateful for the generosity I find from the most experienced regulars here, how welcoming and generous they are towards new people. I am not sure how I’d go without them. Luckily it seems that Contact Improvisation attracts generous and group minded people :)