Monday, November 05, 2018

The norms of contact improvisation dance

Every social environment puts some limits on human conduct and expects consent to certain type of conduct. The limits can concern matters ranging from sexual conduct and bodily functions, which are so internalized that they get hardly ever spoken about, to expectations of being quiet as part of a concert audience. Expected (implied) consent may be to being in presence of people consuming alcohol or to hearing vulgar language in a bar. It might be said that in imposing the limits and implying consent a given social environment is coercive.

At any rate, a social environment defines a norm - a normal behavior and conduct. We know the standard concert hall ceremony when the orchestra comes in first, takes the seats, and then stands up when the conductor comes in while the audience claps until the conductor turns to the orchestra and raises the baton - then the audience falls silent and music can begin. This is normal conduct for a concert and the details are not important. People in their individual roles are to behave normally in order for the expected function of the gathering to be accomplished - in this example it is that of making music.

Physical contact is the norm in CI

I would submit that in contact improvisation (CI) we normalize physical contact. This is in contrast to most other social interactions where physical contact is very much avoided. Forms of dance other than CI allow physical contact but there it exists in service to some other goal: constructing the form of the dance or delivering an expressive experience. The examples of tango and butoh come to mind from my own experience. In CI physical contact is the main goal.

When I say that CI normalizes physical contact it means that within CI we can answer the question what normal physical contact is. Thus:

  • contact anywhere the pressure of the body is felt - including weight due to gravity
  • contact is not insistent - it can be stopped or changed at any moment
  • contact is not inquisitive, not an examination aimed at knowledge of the other body as an object
  • contact is protective - of one's own body and of the body of the other

Many would agree that this is a very broad and liberal definition of normal conduct.

The question of consent.

The form of the group dance involves expression of wishes and limits (boundaries) about actions and situations that a participant can get into or not. These are best handled non-verbally. Wishes are less than demands whereas limits are more than dislikes. It is the responsibility of the individual participant to step out of activities they dont want to be in. It is an art of its own to express one's wish in a group in such a manner that it becomes fulfilled. The art develops with practice. Between the wish and limit there is a place of discomfort - while frustrating for the beginner, with experience it becomes an ideal place of departure into a new activity.

Departure from normal CI behavior

Participants who wish to conduct themselves outside of the normal physical contact - for example to perform acrobatics - should certainly negotiate their mutual consent. Their nonconforming conduct would ideally not disturb the normal conduct of others. Those who have not negotiated participation in nonconforming conduct should stay away. It is perhaps needless to say that if too many participants opt for nonconforming behavior then we will see a breakdown of the form.