For an outside eye watching contact improvisation is usually very irritating. Is it an orgy? How can people touch each other in this way without sexual intentions?
But also in my classes people get sometimes emotionally very close and wonder how to deal with the experiences of intimacy and touched boundaries.
To make it short: If you are looking for erotic intimacy – a contact class or jam is not the right place. Erotic intimacy might occur, but that shouldn’t be the aim, it is a possible byproduct, that we have to deal with. Contact Improvisation is first of all a dance form based on the physical exploration around touch and weight exchange. That at least is my understanding of Contact Improvisation – and I believe that this is the core of the form that keeps it going through all other intentions and irritations.
And to make it longer …
The areas in which we receive touch in CI is usually reserved for intimate relationships. Especially in the beginning of practicing CI there are confusions around the intention of touch. If we have this pattern in our brain “sensing & listening touch = sexuality” we have a big problem in dancing CI. Or if more experienced contacters consciously abuse the fuzziness of these boundaries when dancing with beginners, we seriously harm those beginners and eventually the whole Contact Community. But we are sexual beings and have to acknowledge that and somehow integrate it in our practice.
In my approach to teach and practice CI the base for touch is the physical exploration around the laws of physics. We want to understand the physics of communication through touch. How do we give and read directions through touch. How do I adjust and organize my body in order to meet direction and weight that I receive through touch? How much information of the inner structure of my parters body can I get through the touch – especially around the mechanical logic of bones and joints as the core of our weight supporting structure, but also about the fascia – our elastic connective tissue that can allow the information of the touch to travel in unexpected ways through the body.
This sounds (hopefully) very unromantic. The base for touch in CI should be completely unromantic and non-sexualized, in my opinion.
But even this kind of touch can touch us very deeply – and that is a good thing. It is a touch, that gives everything to understand the partner on a physical level. We are deeply engaged in a state of listening and curiosity. There is the potential to really meet eachother beyond the Seriously – when does it actually happen that someone gives everything to understand me? On a level of communication that might be more satisfying and touching than many communications through touch while having sex.
The absence of sexual intentions is one reason why we can open up so much in CI and body work. And it is also a reason, why unclear and abusive intentions can be so hurtful and dangerous.
I find it very helpful to consciously choose a state or a role, when working with touch. We let go off social roles. We are becoming alive bodies. Many experiences we make in CI have parallels to babyhood – which makes this dance form so powerful on an experiential level. As babies we were carried, we received the main information through touch. Sucking, being held, finding compression (many babies calm down when being pucked/ wrapped in fabric very tightly). Babies first of all trust the touch – it is their main connection to the rest of the world.
Not only in terms of touch we reconnect in this dance form to babyhood. CI with a strong focus on how to deal with my own weight plus the weight of a partner naturally starts most of the times on the floor, where there is less danger of falling and being hurt, where weight creates easily comforting compression, where much more skin gets information through being in touch with the floor. We consciously or unconsciously reconnect to how babies develop their movement range. They also start on the floor before they are eventually able to come up to sitting, standing and walking.
It is a sort of conscious regression. Part of it is that we open up beyond social limitations. We become vulnerable in order to learn and to connect in nurturing ways.
All this is a reason why I use a lot of Baby, Mama and Papa images in my teaching. Especially for bodywork that includes touch of intimate areas like the pelvis, sit bones, the groins or armpits, but also head and face – it helps a lot to think the role of the body worker towards parent with baby. It encourages a sensitive, heartfelt and caring touch but it is non sexual.
From there I usually direct my inner state more towards physical exploration. I believe, that we have a choice around our inner state, as long as we stay aware of it.
But of course: we aren’t babies anymore, we are not a parent of a dance partner. We are grown up sexual beings. And especially (but not only) in the first learning stages with CI erotic intimacy and sexual arousals might come up. For men there are the practical issues of getting an erection. I believe that we can find a way to address that. To ask for a pause to re-arrange our important bits or to let him calm down. Sometimes we can take care without naming the topic, sometimes we might have to. But it is not the main issue, more like a little side effect that we can’t ignore.
For me the main point is to be aware of and to be honest with sexual energy that is coming up. I have to make conscious choices in those situations.
Basically I have four choices:
I can ignore sexuality. But I will miss a profound energy of dance and I force myself into a certain superficiality. And this energy is now out of control. I don’t know how it influences me subconsciously and that might lead to not accepting my partners boundaries as carefully as needed.
I can say no and stop this dance. Not the worst choice. I will get around possible complications. If I am not sure how to deal with sexual energy in a situation it is definitely a good decision.
I can transfer the sexual energy into something different. Instead of feeding the erotic tension I can direct this rather powerful source into my movements. They might get a sense of aggression that goes beyond my normal habits. I can turn sexual energy into a very juicy, squeezy quality, using a lot of push and pull. It is mainly about finding a way out of the very personal into the physical. In my experience we can dance this energy out, finding a relief through pure movement. It is a choice that I believe we can make. We are not victims of our sexual energy, or are we?
If it is a more intimate and gentle encounter I find it important to bring awareness to other parts of my body than those which are in touch with my partner. Instead of feeding only the intimate and relational sensations I want to connect this information to the rest of my body. Instead of sinking into a single focus I want to widen my awareness in terms of sensations and movement. In a way that’s what I want to do in any slow and gentle dance, even without sexual energy being involved. So, just the regular…
Whatever my choice and our road might be with erotic tension and sexual energy: I find it the most important to be in a very sensitive and honest dialogue first of all with myself and then of course with my dance partner. I want to be really sure that we are on the same track. Like in all situations when I am leading I need to be able to listen to the responses of my partner to the directions I suggested. Again and again I need the clear “Yes” of my dance partner “Are you still on the same track?” If I am not sure I have to leave the sexual road.
If my dance partner is the driving force of the sexual energy I need to be very honest with my doubts or my NO’s. In my opinion it is not an option to just follow the flow and pushing my doubts secretly away. This is also my responsibility.
Whenever only one of the duet partners is serving the sexual track we are in danger of an abusive situation. If I am not sure I have to leave the sexual road. Otherwise I will harm my partner, myself and also the CI community.
But there will always be situations where we didn’t make the right choice and we feel uncomfortable after a dance. I might have felt pushed beyond my limits. Or I am not sure if I listened carefully enough to the NO of my partner or my own NO was not clear enough. It is important to sense when we break boundaries. Usually we need to talk about it. Sometimes it is enough to ask “Are you ok?” Pretty often I can sense only an unclear discomfort. Then I have the task for myself to say “Hey, something feels weird. I don’t know what it is, yet…” Very often this is a big relief for both sides. Just to name it. Sometimes it doesn’t need anything else.
If I feel that a relationship has changed in an unpleasant way after a dance I prefer to name it after the dance, to speak out loud my sensation and figure out together where we want to go. The hidden wounds are the first step to hell.
Being in dialogue with my dance partner is only one side of the coin – the more obvious one. But in a jam or a class situation I am not alone with my partner. My actions need to be within the provided frame. I wish my actions to be a support for the entire space and to be supported by the space or at the very least tolerated. A jam or a class is not a private space. What I do is not private, it is part of a group experience. I am taking on responsibility for the whole. Otherwise I should stay at home.
But of course, we don’t always know what is ok for a space. We need the permission to make mistakes.
There are basic safety rules in CI like: don’t grab, don’t put weight on a partners joint or head, don’t lie or rest in the jam space … In terms of erotic intimacy basic rules are ‘no kissing’, ‘no erections’ …
But no rule is completely true. Of course I can give a lot of weight on someones head, if I know how, how much and if I do it in a sensitive dialogue. I can have an erection and find clear acceptance from my dance partner. I can imagine jams, where even having sex is supported by the frame. I believe that a jam can develop in astounding ways. There are certain frames that explore very specifically these options. But I am personally very skeptical about the maturity of the involved people. And the risk of deep wounds is rather high. It doesn’t take much to be pushed beyond healthy personal boundaries with an outside force. And the more we wish to explore these edges, the more the frame needs to provide space, time and tools to process, when boundaries got crossed.
Unfortunately that easily doesn’t get enough attention and care. Naming these issues is the first step. Giving space to talk and exchange about it the next one.
To finish I like to repeat my beginning statement: If you are looking for erotic intimacy – a contact class or jam is not the right place. Erotic intimacy might occur, but that shouldn’t be the aim, it is a possible byproduct, that we have to deal with. Contact Improvisation is first of all a dance form based on the physical exploration around touch and weight exchange. That at least is my understanding of Contact Improvisation – and I believe that this is the core of the form that keeps it going through all other intentions and irritations.
I am also aware that other people think very differently. CI is an open source and no one can dictate the rules. But we all need to be highly aware that we carry a big responsibility to keep a jam space or a workshop environment a save place, where people can open up.
A few additional thoughts from 10 years later, February 2024
We are living in a touch deprived society, where touch between adults is usually either competitive, violent or sexual. A deep human need is not satisfied in most of us. We have a craving for touch, for listening, non-demanding touch. Touch that says “You are ok, I see you, I value you for who you are, you are ok.” We are wishing for touch that doesn’t demand to be paid back. Touch full of curiosity. Touch that has a genuine interest in respecting boundaries. We want to be held, and supported. We want to hold and support. We want to be seen and met in our vulnerability, where we let go of pretending or putting on a show to deserve the attention. If we experience touch with these qualities, we feel met, intimately met.
It took me two decades to understand that it is intimacy that I am finding in many precious dances and that it is one of the important reasons, why I am still intrigued by this dance form after more than 30 years of practice. The big misunderstanding that was in my way was based on the entanglement of intimacy and sexual desire. Sex has the capacity to be deeply intimate, maybe even the deepest possible in our human experience. But very often I guess it is not. We pretend, we hide, have the pressure to perform, to satisfy the other, to be good enough. Or is is a fun activity, where it is not about meeting the other and being met but to get our sexual needs satisfied. Intimacy can be connected to sexuality. But it also exists without any sexual or erotic flavours. Intimate as being close to another being with an open body, mind and heart.
Contact Improvisation offers spaces for listening, non-demanding, non-sexualised touch, which are very hard to find on this planet. It is an incredible gift that our world desperately needs.