While tango is the traditional dance of Buenos Aires, a new form of post-modern dance called Contact Improvisation (CI) has begun to emerge on the scene. Part acrobatics and part physics, this dance provides both the challenge of improvising a dance each time, with the freedom to let loose and become fluid in your movements.
In a silent studio, several students learn CI – no music, no rhythm or beats, nothing but pure movement, inertia and gravity to guide them. This is a very typical scene in a CI class. “You play with sensation and the rhythm within,” explains instructor of Jam Telmo’s class and 12-year student of CI, Laura Barcelo. “Music provides a tempo, everyone would dance the same. This is why often we dance without it.”
With the only sounds breathing, sighs and lightly padded movements, the students and Barcelo herself take to the floor to practise their sprawling moves. They slide, glide and writhe across the floor in a series of endless motion, using each other and the floor as places of contact from which to choreograph their unique dances.
The Gravity of Contact Improvisation
Contact Improvisation is considered a social dance, and to Barcelo it is more of an art form than it is an athletic practice. Dancers of CI experiment with the motion impacted by gravity like rolling, suspension, weight sharing and counter balancing each other and on surrounding objects such as chairs, walls and the floor. “Dancers can dance with each other, with the floor – it is quite possible to dance CI alone,” says Barcelo. “Gravity is always there.”
As she continued to lead her class, she instructed techniques on how to properly descend and ascend again through a series of pivoting and twisting, appearing almost snakelike on the studio floor. To an outsider, the dance itself may seem sexually charged and a bit too close for comfort, but those familiar with it, the dance and the concept literally and figuratively embrace their close proximity to one another.
The dance itself was created in the early 1970s in the United States by dancer Steve Paxton. Paxton was dancer for several companies at the time, as well as being trained in acrobatics and martial arts. Since its early days in the US, CI has moved from coast to coast and country to country, finding growing popularity in the post-modern dance world. The movements and motions included in CI are not just utilized on the studio floor, but also in other more recognizable dances to the standard audience.
Modern and Dance Applications
Evidence of CI is everywhere in modern and post-modern dance, from studio warm ups to the creation of choreography. Barcelo notes that CI exists in all or many dances, even those like tango and ballet that far preceded it. The exchanges of weight in the duet of a dance are applied and heavily involved in the basic elements of CI.
Such techniques, Barcelo elaborates, are not just helpful for dance, but for life and meditation too, and she alleges they have a therapeutic quality outside of the palpable eroticism. “I believe Contact Improvisation helps to harmonize the mind and the body,” she says, going on to explain the applications of CI in everyday life. Not only being able to dance out frustration, the spontaneous choreography that goes into creating a CI dance of your own assists in more subtle contexts, such as the pushing and shoving on a subway. CI methods can transform a hectic and crowded subway into a system of weight balancing and trading to take the frustrations out of a morning commute – that is, if your fellow commuters can figure out what you are doing.
After a closer observation, CI became more and more reminiscent of a physics class in motion, which is exactly what Paxton intended. “If you’re dancing physics, you’re dancing contact, if you’re dancing chemistry, you’re doing something else,” he said in 1987. Laura Barcelo broke CI down to a science for her class, harnessing their own gravity and letting the free motion of their bodies guide them trance-like across the floor.
These scientific aspects of CI are particularly interesting to those who study it. According to Barcelo, they are often people interested in the natural movement of the human anatomy. “In general, people who dance this have professions on body and movement,” she says. “However at the same time there are people who study CI who are doctors, lawyers, actors and musicians.”
A “jam” as referred to by CI dancers is a free-space for dancers to create and collaborate together. Jam Telmo witnesses from 20 improvers and up per jam session, and people of every age, too, from early 20s to late 50s. Even children involved in CI have their own space to work and play. “Jam is a space of improvisation, like a milonga,” explains Barcelo. “There isn’t a teacher in a jam. It is a space to practise.”
Learning the basic concepts such as spatial awareness and always paying attention to your surroundings are some of the most important first steps of dancing contact improv. Careless students are likely to receive a foot to the face or end up planting their face on the floor. Because of the amount of physical contact involved in the dance, being wary of your fellow dancers at all times is literally an unmissable step.
However once the basic principles of care and caution are mastered, Barcelo says it is perfectly fine to cut loose and dance, freeing muscles of resistance and tension. “It isn’t about thinking,” she says. “It is about movement.”
To those unfamiliar with CI, it may look rolling dance party a bit heavy on body contact; however CI’s complexity and growing popularity can be noticed by serious students and first-timers, too.
With many people attending jams and classes every week, Barcelo is proud to admit that Buenos Aires has a healthy community of CI and possibly the highest concentration of classes and jams of any city. Classes can be found throughout the city, any day of the week, and taught by different instructors in different studios. Still, Barcelo doesn’t deny that they are all a community who know each other and work together to cultivate the CI experience, working harmoniously. “Like how children have a ball pit to play in on a play ground? This is our version, as adults.”