(Dis)Connected: Segmenting the Elements That Constitute Contact Improvisation as a Form of Communication

Erin Leila Stahmer

(Dis)Connected: Segmenting the Elements That Constitute Contact Improvisation as a Form of Communication
Stahmer, Erin Leila
Thesis Advisor(s):
Garafola, Lynn
B.A., Barnard College
Dance (Barnard College)
Persistent URL:
While there is no single, standard definition of contact improvisation, a particularly illustrative description defines it as "an evolving system of movement based on the communication between two moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion"”gravity, momentum, and inertia." While contact improvisation can be performed in larger groups, it is most often practiced between two people who attempt to maintain a point of physical contact as they sense and react to shifts in their partner's energy and weight. As bodies roll, slip, and slide along one another, non-verbal communication and the ability to respond fluidly to impulses of movement become paramount to individual volition or will. Furthermore, formal choreography and classical technique are largely incompatible with the practice of contact improvisation, which focuses instead on spontaneous generation of free-form movement. The form's physical demands, which involve working in partnership with another moving, thinking body, have led some practitioners to argue in favor of the positive effects that result from engaging in contact improvisation, including but not limited to interdependence, shared vision, negotiation, mutual respect, and communication. These same virtues, however, can be interpreted as overly-idealized hopes for what the form can theoretically achieve. Can the practice of contact improvisation truly spur an individual to change his or her social conduct, beyond the dance environment in which contact improvisation occurs? The implications of practicing contact improvisation have generated discussions and writings that date back to the form's creation in 1972. Questions of sexuality, gender roles, democratic ideals, and communality have surrounded the practice and continue to elicit conversation among the global community of contact improvisers today. In this thesis, contact improvisation is analyzed in terms of its success as a facilitator of communication, focusing on the exchange of values, thoughts, and ideas between improvisation partners. I will argue that the utopian claims of contact improvisation's ability to facilitate communication have not been adequately qualified in light of the form's global expansion. While physical aspects of the practice can and do promote communication across cultural barriers, this communication is also supplemented by the "elitism" or selectivity of the contact community, which has not shifted, even as the form has globalized. Furthermore, although authors and practitioners have claimed that the form's communicative virtues spill over into everyday life, it is my belief that this phenomenon is not universally experienced by today's global body of practitioners.
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Suggested Citation:
Erin Leila Stahmer, , (Dis)Connected: Segmenting the Elements That Constitute Contact Improvisation as a Form of Communication, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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