The art of waiting – suspension in the skin and beyond

I am constantly amazed about the impact that the focus on the sensations under the skin has in my work. So often it becomes the turning point from ‘having a good time and learning a lot’ to ‘something is really happening’. It just happened again on the 7th Madrid Contact Festival and I was surprised how deep the investigation went with 55 people…

So, another insight into my fascination :

Leading and following with randomly changing roles is a basic principle in a CI duet. We communicate changes of directions mainly or even completely through touch – if we have our eyes closed. I like to imagine the skin and the soft tissues underneath as a three dimensional web of rubber bands. When not being touched these rubber bands are in a state of low tension. They are not floppy but also not stretched. When we touch and move the skin (most clearly to feel if bones are close to the surface) these rubber bands are changing their tone according to the given direction. The starting point of the work is to sense the first notions of stretches in the skin. That is the moment when we begin to understand the proposed direction. It is also the moment when we habitually begin to follow.

The main part of the work is to wait. I want to create more time between sensing the first stretch under the skin and the moment that I am actually following into the proposed direction. I need to be able to know how much these rubber bands can stretch comfortably before they reach their maximum length and loose the elasticity in their response to the touch. In this time where the rubber bands get more and more stretched the understanding in giving a direction as well as in taking in the proposed direction becomes much more clear. It is the extra time we can gain to deepen and clarify the communication.

But the happening in and under the point of contact is only the local part of the communication process. In a verbal communication the mouth and the ear play important roles like the skin in the communication through touch. The mouth has to articulate the sounds clearly and the ear has to be able to hear the sounds properly. But the meaning of what is said is not created by the mouth or understood by the ear. It is the persons behind it, which are communicating.

In my work I put more and more focus on how the centers connect to the point of contact. The centers are – seen from how we develop our movement patterns as babies – the originators of intention and the organizers of movement. As a starting point I like to have the leading person holding gently but firmly the lower arm of the partner. Both stand in front of each other. The leader begins to slowly move backwards – just centimeters, pulling the partners arm. The follower needs to have the discipline to not follow immediately with the whole body, but only with the arm. Sensing how the elastic stretches under the skin slowly connect upwards through the elbow into the shoulder and from there through the torso into the center, down into the pelvis, which eventually makes a leg swing forward into a step. This can become a truly exciting adventure. Lots of wonder, not knowing, listening and a huge amount of interesting subtile sensations. It is as if each centimeter from the touch towards the pelvis opens up, bit by bit.

This only happens, if I have the patience to wait, to stay in my back – as the Alexander Technique people say. My arm starts already following the proposed direction while my center (maybe really the back of my torso) stays back. It might even slightly shift backwards caused by the change of balance through the forward moving arm. That means from the first moment my partner can sense that I am willing to follow. I don’t resist. But I take as much time as possible to follow with my entire body to heighten the understanding.

Gabriel Forestieri (a dance and improvisation teacher from the states) named very well a common habit in verbal communications. When we listen we often move forward towards our partner who is talking. We nod and smile and mirror other emotions to say immediately that we understand him (or her). His recommendation was to try to stay back, to reduce mimic and to just listen. We would actually be able to have more awareness for the actual listening and might understand our partner better.

This is exactly what I discovered in the leading-following exercise I described above, just on a completely physical level.

Noticing the little stretches under the skin and allowing them to successively travel through the body makes me as the follower much more connected in my body and detailed in my awareness. I find it remarkable that this way of active waiting and detailed listening to the leading person is a way to feel my body as a whole, while sensing all different body parts elasticly connected. This physical communication has the chance to open and connect my body. And the same is true on the side of the leading person. The connection from center to the shoulder, through the arm into the touch should be elastic too. The connection might be a little more instant and less successively than in the followers body but not less detailed. Good communication can be a healing experience.

A few last thoughts: When we stretch the time in our following response the leading person has much more options to play with timing, especially acceleration and momentum. I find it amazing that detailed sensations in the skin under the touch can help a lot to find common momentum and build the base for all the lifting and highflying stuff in Contact Improvisation. That’s the direction I want to research in my 2-weeks Summer Intensive in July in Berlin.

I forgot to mention, that the rubber bands in and under the skin are part of the myo-fascia web, that connects all our body parts. The three dimensional web of rubber bands, sheets and bags wrap all body structures, each muscle fibre, blood vessel, all nerves and bones. It holds all the soft parts in place and suspends them into the bony structure of our skeleton. It is essential for coordinating the different muscles that have to work efficiently together and it is our biggest sensory organ. In a way it is no wonder that a touch that clearly connects to the fascia will make us feel as an intelligent communicative whole.