Sexual energy in Contact Improvisation

For an outside eye watching contact improvisation is usually very irritating. 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. Rather, it’s a possible by-product that we have to deal with. Contact Improvisation is first of all a dance form based on physical exploration around touch and weight exchange. That at least is my understanding of CI – and I believe that this core aspect of the form should be the reference point each time we talk about intentions or boundaries when engaging with touch.

And to make it longer…

The areas in which we receive touch in CI are usually reserved for intimate relationships. Especially in the beginning of practicing CI there is confusion around the intention of touch. If the pattern in our brain is “sensing & listening touch = sexuality” we have a big problem dancing CI. Or if more experienced contact dancers 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 into 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 organise my body in order to meet direction and weight that I receive through touch? How much information of the inner structure of my partner’s body can I get through touch – especially around the mechanical logic of bones and joints as the core of our weight supporting structure, but also in terms of fascia, which is the elastic connective tissue that can allow the information of 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.  In this kind of touch we give 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 each other beyond the narrative of words and the meaning-creating mind. 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 instances of touch even during sex.

The absence of sexual intentions is one reason why we can open up so much in CI and bodywork. And it is also why unclear and abusive intentions can be so hurtful and dangerous.

I find it very helpful to consciously choose a state or role when working with touch. We let go of social roles. We become living bodies. Many experiences we have in CI have parallels to infancy. All this makes the CI dance form powerful on an experiential level. As babies we were carried, we received most information through touch. Sucking, being held, experiencing compression (many babies calm down when being snugly wrapped in fabric or tucked in tightly). Babies trust touch first of all because it is their main connection to the rest of the world.

But touch is not the only way this dance form connects us with early childhood. With its strong focus on dealing with one’s own weight plus the weight of a partner, most of the time CI naturally starts on the floor. In this way, there is less danger of falling and being hurt. What’s more, weight creates a comforting type of compression and much more skin gets information through being in touch with the floor. So 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.

What happens 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.

This is why I use a lot of Baby, Mama and Papa imagery in my teaching. Especially for bodywork that includes touch of intimate areas, such as the pelvis, sit bones, groin or armpits, but also when the head and face are exposed to touch. I find it helpful to model the role of the bodyworker after the parent with the baby. This encourages sensitive, heartfelt and caring touch – and, importantly, one that 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, and we are not the parent of a dance partner. We are grown-up sexual beings. And especially (though not only) in the first stages of learning CI, erotic intimacy and sexual arousal might come up. For men there is the practical issue of getting an erection. I believe that we can find a way to address that. To ask for a pause to rearrange the penis and let ourselves calm down. Sometimes we can take care of the situation without calling attention to what is happening. But even if we must be direct, arousal is not the main issue, but rather a minor side effect that we can’t ignore.

For me the main point is to be aware of any sexual energy that is coming up and to be honest about it. I have to make conscious choices in those situations.

Basically I have four choices:

I can ignore sexuality. But I will miss out on a profound energy of dance and force myself into a certain superficiality. What’s more, this energy is now out of control. I don’t know how it influences me subconsciously and that might lead me to not accepting my partner’s boundaries as carefully as needed.

I can say no and stop this dance. Not the worst choice. I will get around any possible complications. If I am not sure how to deal with sexual energy in a situation this 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, which 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 and into the physical. In my experience we can dance this energy out, finding 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 in touch with my partner. Instead of feeding only the intimate and relational sensations, I want to let this information connect to the rest of my body. Instead of sinking into a single focus, I want to widen my awareness of sensations and movement. In a way that’s what I want to do in any slow and gentle dance, anyway, even without sexual energy involved.

Whatever my choice and path might be with erotic tension and sexual energy, I find it crucial to engage 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. As in all situations where I am leading, I need to be able to hear the responses of my partner to the directions I suggested. Again and again I need the clear “yes” of my dance partner. “Are we 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 about my doubts or my “no.” In my opinion, it is not an option to just go with the flow and secretly push away my discomfort. This is also my responsibility. That said, I am aware that this can be very difficult or impossible, especially if trauma-related experiences get triggered.

Whenever only one of the duet partners is following a sexual journey in the shared dance we are in danger of an abusive situation. If I am the one on the path driven by sexual energy and I am not sure if my partner is able or willing to join me in that, I need to look for a way to leave this path and if necessary disengage from the duet. Otherwise I will harm my partner, myself and our CI community.

But there will always be situations where we didn’t make the right choice and feel uncomfortable after a dance. I might have felt pushed beyond my limits. Or I am not sure whether I listened carefully enough to the “no” of my partner – or if my own “no” was not clear enough. It is important to notice when we break boundaries. Usually we need to talk about it. Sometimes it is enough to ask “Are you okay?” Pretty often I can sense only an unclear discomfort. Then my task is to say “Hey, something feels weird. And I don’t know what it is. Yet…” Very often this brings relief for both sides. Just to name it. Sometimes the situation doesn’t need anything else.

If I feel that a relationship has changed in an unpleasant way as a result of a dance I prefer to approach the partner for a check in and verbalise what’s happening. Then, my partner and I can figure out together where we want to go. It’s the hidden wounds that are the first step to hell.

Being in dialogue with my dance partner is only one side of the coin and it is the more obvious one. Because in a jam or a CI class I am not alone with my partner. My actions need to fit within the provided frame. They should support the situation I’m part of and they need to be supported by it – or, at the very least, tolerated. Importantly, a jam or a class is not a private space. Thus, what I do here is not private. It is part of a group experience. By taking action, I am taking on responsibility for the whole. Otherwise I should stay home.

But of course we don’t always know what is okay for a space. We need permission to make mistakes.


There are basic safety rules in CI like don’t grab, don’t put weight on a partner’s joint or head, don’t lie or rest in the jam space and so on. In terms of erotic intimacy the basic rules are no kissing, no erections.

But no rule is without exception. Of course I can put a lot of weight on someone’s head if I know how to do it, how much weight to give and how to do it in sensitive dialogue. I can have an erection and find clear acceptance from my dance partner. I can imagine jams where even having sex may be 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 sceptical about the maturity of the people involved. And the risk of lasting injury or trauma is rather high. It doesn’t take much to be pushed beyond healthy personal boundaries by an outside force. And the more we wish to explore these edges, the more the frame needs to provide us with space, time and the tools to process crossed boundaries.

Unfortunately this doesn’t get enough attention and care. Naming these issues, however, is the first step. And creating space for talking about them is the next one.

To sum up, I’d like to repeat my opening 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. Rather, it’s a possible by-product that we have to deal with. Contact Improvisation is first of all a dance form based on physical exploration around touch and weight exchange. That at least is my understanding of CI – and I believe that this core aspect of the form should be the reference point each time we talk about intentions or boundaries when engaging with touch.

I am also aware that other people think very differently. CI is an open source form and no one can dictate the rules. Nevertheless, we all need to be highly aware that we carry a big responsibility for keeping a jam space or workshop environment a safe-enough place where people can open up.


Additional Thoughts One Decade Later, February 2024

We are living in a touch-deprived society, where touch between adults is usually either competitive, violent or sexual. For most of us, a deep human need stays unsatisfied. We have a craving for touch and it is specifically for a type of listening and non-demanding touch. It is touch that says “You are okay, I see you, I value you for who you are.” We long for touch that doesn’t demand to be paid back. One full of curiosity, with a genuine interest in respecting boundaries. We want to be held and supported. And 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 “earn” the attention we desire. When we experience touch that has these qualities, we feel intimately seen and accepted.

It has taken me two decades to understand that it is intimacy itself that I am finding in many precious dances and that this is part of why I am still intrigued by this dance form after more than 30 years of practice. The big misunderstanding that was in my way for so many years was based on the entanglement of intimacy and sexual desire. Sure, sex has the capacity to be deeply intimate – it may even offer the deepest possible expression of intimacy available to the human experience – but often I guess it is not that intimate at all. We pretend, we hide, we experience pressure to perform or satisfy or be good enough. Or sex is seen as a fun activity and it is not about meeting the other and being met, but about getting sexual needs satisfied. So while intimacy can be connected to sexuality, it also exists without any sexual or erotic flavours. This kind of intimacy I like to describe as shared closeness among two beings, which is experienced deeply 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.