In the early 70’s, Steve Paxton’s embarked on an series of experiments with physicality that he said was missing from dance at the time. He was inspired in particular by the martial arts. Steve submitted a grant proposal to the NEA, who proceeded to fund these experiments – initially a small group of athletic men literally throwing themselves at each other to see what could happen. If you manage to see some footage of these first experiments, it looks pretty nuts, and it was – the first participants couldn’t keep up this level of intensity, and they toned things down rapidly after the first couple of weeks! This video shows some of the preparation for their first performance. You can see there that women had already been included, and – while it may be much harder to see – there’s a clear focus on safety.
From those initial experiments, Contact Improv has become a true folk art, and it’s now under continuing development (somewhat anarchically) by the community that practices it. There is no appreciable culture of critics, and no real audience to speak of (though some claim it is the “largest” influence on where contemporary dance has gone in recent times). One particular point of contention is embodied by Steve Paxton’s assertion that “If you’re dancing physics, you’re dancing contact. if you’re dancing chemistry, you’re doing something else.” But this debate is an aspirational one at best – any interaction between two human bodies will involve both physics and the emotional stuff that comes up.
If you know me, it’s likely no surprise that my initial experience of Contactwas pretty much “dancing physics” – I get this attitude, and I think this physics-oriented attitude is a great place to focus on developing the skills you need to stay safe and have fun. I had come from a longish history of practicing things like juggling and acro-balance. And I like physics. But I’ve been dancing long enough to come to know folks for whom Contact Improv (or any dance) is profoundly emotional, social, or even “sexual” in some sense. This view is well-represented in the community, and the variety of attitudes is generally not a problem – in the end, the reality of two or more people dancing simply is what it is. An important aspect of that is negotiating with partners to have the kinds of dances that you want. But no matter what you think Contact Improv is “about,” it’s easy to see that there are issues surrounding both physical and emotional safety in the context of the dance – particularly when you’re dancing with people you don’t know very well.
I was one of the organizers of Camp Contact one year, and I had conversations with my friends who ran successful jams to get tips on how to help make it a great experience for everyone involved. I got a surprising bit of advice from a friend who runs the Open Movement Jam in New York – he gave me tips on how to identify sexual predators and suggested I interrupt certain kinds of movement interactions. He was not simply imagining things – he told me how he’d recently had to ask one attendee of the jam to leave, and that later this man did commit an act of sexual abuse at another dance event in the city.
So, going into running the camp, I was on alert and doing everything I could to encourage our members to look out for each other. In spite of this effort, there was an act of sexual abuse at the very first jam at Camp Contact. This was a tragedy, and I realized that whether I “try hard” or not, abuse can still happen – it takes more than just words. So, I became engaged in the community to build awareness and a more distributed defense against this kind of thing.
Some time later, a couple was visiting me from Naropa University. I was experiencing a great connection in particular with one of them about social structures that support meditation and positive action. Her partner and I are huge Contact Improv enthusiasts, and we both really wanted her to be able to share in our experience. She resisted coming to a jam with us, however, because of an experience she’d had previously with sexual predation in a similar dance setting. But, we convinced her to join us. And, to my shock and subsequent outrage, it happened to her again.
A colleague overstated my feelings only slightly when I told him about this incident. He guessed I must have “wanted to rip somebody’s balls off.” Certainly, I wanted to confront the guy. But the victim of this assault didn’t even want to tell me who it was – she wanted to handle it on her own. My “taking control” of the situation would simply have been another aggressive male taking actions that weren’t supportive of her wishes. In short order, we all calmed down a bit, and she had a talk with the organizer of that particular jam – also a woman. The organizer had a talk with the man who committed the assault – a newcomer – and he seemed to understand that he needed to change his behavior in the jam.
This was an even more profound and important lesson. The wishes of the victims of abuse are what matter. Through my imperfect capacity for empathy, I’ll have my own emotional reactions and my own wishes. But, I need to check in with the wishes of the victim, and support them in determining the resolution that is best for them.
But it’s not simple to follow this principle. An individual may have difficulty “determining their wishes” given the psychological shock of an abuse. And as a society we may need to prevent an abuser from being able to commit further acts of abuse. But whatever policies we adopt, it can still be done with an orientation towards the wishes of victims, both actual and potential.