The Root of Contact
by Cara Cadwallader
"As a social species, we are hard wired to need meaningful contact with others in our communities and families."
-- from the Clinical Implications of Touch
Can we, for just a few moments in time, release the tension, anxiety, and pent-up bodily emotion that come with the fear of rejection and the denial of the body? Can we, for just a few moments in time, take on the gravity of another's weight,
without taking on the invisible yet equally palpable baggage that can come with a lifetime?
It is these questions that drive me to facilitate an experience with Contact Dance every other Friday night. Contact Dance Improvisation is a dance form that grew out of the rebellious '60s. It evolved as a response to the antiquated, visual aesthetics that modern dance came to mirror by the mid-twentieth century. Moving with an acrobatic twist of martial arts proportions, Steve Paxton and his band of male dancers began to play with disorientation; they listened and responded to the moments at hand; and they laid a foundation that was both "malleable and non-conforming." In other words, they helped usher in the post-modern dance movement, thereby turning the dance world on its head. Soon, Paxton had attracted members of both genders and, with the addition of Nancy Stark Smith, Contact Dance Improvisation spread like wildfire across a tumultuous nation.
Contact Improvisation (CI) was revolutionary in that it challenged the status quo, especially in regards to hierarchies. For within CI, there is no established leader, or follower. Rather, the dance is an organic flow that evolves into something bigger than the two or more dancers involved.
Paxton once described it as a "third eye."
I was first introduced to the form in 1995 as a naive nineteen year old. I had just joined the modern dance department at Sonoma State University when I noticed that the older women in the group enjoyed practicing a very sensual and slow duet in which their bodies seemed to tumble and roll over one another with a sustained ease and a fluid grace. "They must be lesbians," my mind chirped out for only myself to hear.
As the semesters passed and my studies evolved, Contact Dance class became a favorite, looked-forward-to event. I discovered that I could weave my initial first love for gymnastics into the form as well as my joy for unadulterated movement. Contact Dance also came to mirror my experiences with my favorite carnival ride, the Big Dipper, a Ferris Wheel that spins in a tight, oblong circumference. There are roughly twelve carriages placed around its perimeter that also spin and, within each padded, caged unit, sits two people whose bodies, along with the cage, are permitted to flip a full 360 degrees.
Growing up in San Diego County, the Del Mar Fair was a seasonal event where, every summer, I could experience, for a few fleeting seconds, weightlessness. With friends and suitors, I would intentionally rock the cage back and forth, forth and back, while eagerly awaiting the moment when the momentum of the wheel would take myself and my companion forward and over, our heads chasing our feet, spinning wildly in a delectable universe where the heaviness of the past, the mistakes of the present, and the fear of the future, were noticeably absent. There was only this moment, now, and these vivid seconds of free falling -- of hurtling face first into the unknown. Without hesitation and without fear, I would jump in for the ride.
As Ann Cooper Albright writes in Taken by Suprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader, "I have come to realize just how much the physical state of launching myself into the unknown has deeply influenced not only my dancing and thinking but also my being in this world." For me, a cheek-to-cheek grin, an innocent squeaking of laughter, and the pride of resilience always accompanied these rides, just as they now also accompany each and every contact dance that I participate within.
I also equate my experience with Contact Dance to being a child and diving in, backwards and upside down, into the deep end of a swimming pool. I did not know where the dive would take me except for in, below the cool surface, and back, perhaps, to a primal place of liquid beginnings. Each dance partner, tall or short, male or female, lean or round, is like a pool -- a glossy surface that reflects back my own image, and that harbors both a shallowness where hurt is a possibility and a depth that cannot be fathomed.
As a practitioner of contact dance, I must also speak candidly to its nefarious ability at placing people within compromising situations. There has been many a time when I have found my face just inches away from someone's groin. Positions only spoken of in terms of sex have become a common occurrence. I have been unintentionally fondled and "felt up" and, likewise, I have needed to grab hold to breasts, buttocks, and other errogenous zones in order to keep the momentum moving forward. There have been other times when the specific
mechanics of a particular lift dictated that my partner's chin be placed on the clothing just above my rectum, for example.
It is precisely because Contact Dance reminds me that the body is a tool, a form, a medium, a container, a living, breathing organism, that I can let go of my preconceptions of it as only a vessel with which to act out my sexual urgings and needs. In fact, Contact Dance reminds us of our inherent sensuality, from the loving caresses to the vulnerability of surrender. Those very same innate qualities that we try so hard to forget, diminish, and hide. Contact Dance is a vehicle that can move us beyond our aesthetic hang-ups and back into the visceral world of touch.
As the modern touch studies of the 1950s pointed out, touch is a human being's biological imperative. "The idea that specific patterns of touch are innate, preprogrammed, and hard-wired in humans suggests that touch is much more powerful than many of us had previously imagined. This naturally endowed tool should be nurtured and encouraged."
Come on out to Eveoke Dance Studio and try your hand at shifting your (mis)-perceptions, challenging your angular limitations, and making contact!