Contact Improvisation: In Service of the Dance

The “Dance” I am in service of…
I pause and lean into the dance
I wait, and there it is
The moment of fall in our connected bodies
My body twists so I can follow the landslide
I extend my landing gear
Our backs stay connected and I adjust slightly
      so my fellow dancer falls over my centre
We are together in service of this dance.

Contact Improvisation as a Dance of Service
I participate in both Ecstatic Dance and Contact Improvisation. In Ecstatic Dance, I am dancing on my own spot, shaking my body how I want as the music takes me on a crescendo of expression. Yes, I still need to be aware of community considerations. I need to dance and engage with the community in a way that does not prevent others from having their own cathartic experience. I would be taking away from their dance if, for example, I thrashed my arms around causing people to fear being hit or ran around the room bumping into people. So even in Ecstatic Dance, there is not a complete freedom. But essentially, I show up to primarily experience my freedom to express myself.

Contact Improvisation however has an entirely different feeling for me. It is as if my partner and I have climbed on a surfboard traveling on a wave. To do this well, we both need to be in humble service of the energies of the wave and each other’s movements. It requires heightened “listening” and co-attunement. If I started twisting my body and moving my arms in an expressive way just because I felt like it, I would likely fall off the surfboard into the water tumbling my partner down as I go. I still have personal expression on this surfboard, but I need to fit it in within my service to the wave, to the other person I am riding the wave with, and to the laws of physics that govern this co-relationship.

“The Dance”
When I dance with another person, there is a feeling that our energies coalesce to create a third entity that I call The Dance.  For me, The Dance is a liminal space created by dance partners co-following what is emerging between them. It is not me and is not you but instead feels like its own thing. The Dance might want slow and introspective. It might want playful. It might want lots of space. I can say yes or no to The Dance. I can guide it somewhat, but I don’t get to choose The Dance because The Dance chooses itself.  This act of service to The Dance can take me on a journey that may bore me, move me, amaze me, cause me to weep, be wild and energetic or take me into great moments of beauty, power, or fragility. I give up my freedom so that I can be contained in the service of co-creating.

As partners, or trios or quartets, we can attend to The Dance that is emerging. To do this, I “listen” with my skin surface. I follow the momentum created by our bodies. I work to make choices congruent with physics that aim toward ease. I work to find the just right amount and quality of muscle tone that optimally opens me up to responding. My landing gear and falling pathways are ready to be used at any moment. For me, it is an alert, present and humble state of being in which I can never fully surrender to myself or my desire for self-expression.

I see Contact Improvisation not as a freedom-to-express dance like Ecstatic Dance, but rather as a dance of service. For me, while there is freedom “to” express in Contact Improvisation I work fit this personal expression within the main goal of co-attuning and being another. When I show up at a dance jam, it is to practice this act of service. And the state of being I need to do this well is a lifelong challenge. It is not easy. I never actually arrive at an I-finished-learning-the-skillset moment. It is a continuous never-ending practice.

“Freedom from” versus “freedom to”
In the article Freedom “To” vs. Freedom ”From” by Sandro Galea (1), they explain that freedom “From” occurs when you attain freedom from a pervasive issue or problem that has made your life hard or unhappy.  When you go away on vacation you may experience freedom “From” the slog of everyday life. A dancer attending a POC or women’s affinity jam might feel an increased freedom “from “From” racism or misogyny in their community that makes them feel on guard at regular jams.

Freedom “To” is a differnt type of freedom and is about what you are free to do. An example is that in the United States, the freedom “to”To” carry guns is important to many in their culture.  Feedom “From” and freedom “To” can come into conflict when they interesct and gun culture in the US is an emxpale of this. If people want freedom “From” the reality and fear of mass shootings, then the freedom “To” carry guns might need to be taken away or amended. In this case, freedom “To” interferes with freedom “From”.  

As a former ballerina, I felt freedom “From” in the first few moments I did CI. It blasted through my soul like nothing else ever had. I rejoiced in a feeling of coming home to my body in a way that was not painfully pulling apart my joints. It was a feeling of freedom that came from surfing momentum rather than making calculated movements through sheer will and muscle power. Contact Improvisation gave me freedom “From” worrying about my aesthetic form. Generally, people at jams do not care so much about how the dance looks but rather how the dance feels. After twenty years of looking in the mirror to correct my ballet form, this was a liberation for me. The fascination that Contact Improvisation had with falling also gave me freedom “From” a pervasive fear of falling and working to stay upright, which I had learned in ballet training. The improvisatory nature of Contact Improvisation was a freedom “From” the pressure to preplan and organize all my movements. The level of touch involved in the form was a freedom “From” the lack of social touch in my everyday life. The platonic intimacy I experienced in Contact Improvisation was freedom “From” relationship norms that placed all the touch needs onto one person who was my partner.

But not all people feel freedom “From” when doing Contact Improvisation to the same degree that I did, or even at all. Pervasive societal issues such as racism, misogyny, and ablism in the broader culture show up on the dance floor. For example, while Contact Improvisation gave me much freedom “From” the tight constraints of the ballet world, it did not give me freedom “From” pervasive misogyny, sexism, and ableism in our society that was inherent on the dance floor and social scene. As a woman with autism, I still experienced these in the Contact Improvisation community. Also, the freedom “From” that I did experience was because of where I was coming from. One’s life story often dictates how much freedom “From” a person will experience. For example, if prior to starting Contact Improvisation, someone had been doing Ecstatic Dance for twenty years rather than classical ballet, CI might feel constrictive because they are being called upon to give up some personal expression to enter a space of co-creation. Similarly, this can occur for some people whom society affords power and privilege. They might be so used to walking through life without needing to “read” others or adjust themselves in co-relationship with others that being called upon to do so in Contact Improvisation spaces can feel like a painful reduction of their personal freedom or flow.

I also wonder if sometimes people experiencing exhilarating ground-breaking freedom “From” in Contact Improvisation might confuse it with freedom “To”. They then may think the dance form itself as all about freedom.

In my role as a jam facilitator, I once had two men corner me as I packed up from my jam, yelling at me “You’re taking away my freedom with your guidelines!”. I had created guidelines stating expectations for behaviors to create a dance jam where women could experience increased freedom “From” unwanted touch and predatory behaviors. Did these two men want to have unininhibetted freedom “to” on the dance floor? Did they want this while experiencing “From” needing to think about consent? This story represents intersecting freedom “From” needs. Do some people want freedom “From” need to think about consent and other people want freedom “From” unwanted touch and predatory behaviors on the dance floor? I am curious if the idea of Contact Improvisation as a dance of service rather than a freedom dance might have helped these men better adapt to my dance jam guidelines and help soften intersecting freedom “From” needs.

If you are coming to a CI dance jam expecting or looking for freedom to express and freedom to be, then you might be in the wrong place. In this mindset, your initial reaction might be anger when a jam facilitator comes up to you and says, “Hey… remember the guidelines”, or, “Hey… remember to work towards lifting using momentum rather than muscle power”, or, “Hey… let’s talk about consent”. You may feel like your freedom is being taken away. You may even go into attack mode to try and hold on to your freedom “To”.  But from the perspectives I have presented here, perhaps a freedom “To” is not inherent in the form. Pulling back from pure self-expression and a desire to fulfil one’s own needs means there is space to move in service of cocreation… in service of The Dance.

Contact Improvisation is not codified. There isn’t one definition of what it is or what it should be and instead just different people’s views. This idea of Contact Improvisation being a dance of service is just my idea.  I offer that you try on this idea and see how it fits… see what worlds of co-creation can open up for you when you dance in service of The Dance.

Galea, S. (2017). Freedom “to” Vs. Freedom “from. BU School of Public Health. Downloaded on May 12, 2023 at

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