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Contact Improvisation

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

Contact Improvisation was initially developed in the USA during the first half of ‘70s by a group of dancers guided by Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith. Its development may be led to diverse sources but social and cultural circumstances of the ‘60s and the early ‘70s certainly made possible this type of dance. However, the Contact has been the result of specific practices and ideas of movement of the ‘60s filtered through the particular sensibility and Paxton’s talent.

1939 Steve Paxton was born. (Tucson, January 21st). He was a gymnast and started dancing at the high school in Tucson, Arizona. He is relatively known because of his work with Cunningham, the Judson Church and the Grand Union. He is known to be the Contact Improvisation’s creator.

1952 Nancy Stark Smith was born. (Brooklyn, January 11th).

1958 Paxton moves in New York.

1961 He joined in Merce Cunningham’s company.

1962 He was one of the founder of the Judson Dance Theatre with Trisha Brown.

1970 He started working with the Grand Union (Group of collective improvisation which has been active until 1976). Paxton is one the dancers with which Yvonne Rainier realized the “continuous project altered daily”, a creation in a continuous evolution that involves the process of proofs in a performance. “We were interested in unexpected events, effort and to the spontaneous answer, reminded Rainier”. That interest pushed dancers of this project to work as a group and for this reason was born the Grand Union.

1972 Magnesium by Paxton was presented to a public gathered in a big gym. Magnesium is the first show of this technique and Contact’s dancers recognised it as the “seminal project” of this type if dance.

1972 Chute. Several months after Magnesium Paxton received a scholarship of 2 million dollars by Change Inc. in order to exhibit in front of the New York’s John Weber Gallery. He set up a group and also invited his Grand’s Union colleagues Barbara Dilleys and Mary Fulkerson, lecturer at the University of Rochester that worked with the Release for a long time. Patterns drew in the space by bodies outlined three-dimensional spiral, because Contact dancers refers to the need of acquiring a “spherical” sense of space with which – as Paxton commented in the video “trying to turn the vertical Momentum into horizontal movement”. The group continued working with the research made by Paxton in Magnesium on two edges of physical disorientation: the first one consisted in randomly projecting yourself in the space and the other one in remaining still perceiving the smallest pulses of body’s movement (what Paxton called for years “The Small dance” or “Stand”).

1973 In January Paxton with Nancy Stark Smith, Curt Siddal (Oberlin College), Nina Little and Karin Radler (Bennington College) and Steve Christiansen (Magnesium video-artist and Chute that at this pointed had started dancing) travelled around the West Coast presenting “You come. We’ll show you what we do”.

1973 In June Paxton brought with him to Rome, Smith, Danny Lepkoff (Mary’s Fulkerson student) and Anette Laroque (Bennington College) where with Fulkerson, David Woodberry and other dancers presented a series of Performances at the Art Gallery Loft. The footage entitled “Soft Pallet” selected some parts the performances held at the Loft. The Contact conception had already been changed a year before, and now dancers make phrases longer and link them one to the other to create continuous sequences of 30 seconds or more.

1975 The West Coast Touring Group of 1973 met again in California (without Radler but with the addition of David Woodberry) giving itself the name Reunion. By the time some exercises used in the teaching that often were used became recognisable and defined and the more the performances were given the more people identified themselves as Contact Improvisation, both style of the movement and dancers that used to practiced it. Reunion continued its yearly tours until 1978.

1976 The Contact Quarterly, born as a Newsletter, became a magazine. Contact Quarterly Foundation had a transformative impact on the Contact and made it a unicum among American’s dance techniques. It was able to be a vehicle of promotion and maintenance of a social network all over the country, a forum where is possible to discuss dancers’ activities and techniques. For the first time, it verified the existence of a movement when the Contact spread among a wider number of people than the one it had been predicted and participants started talking about a “Contact community” and a “Contact network”. Contact’s activities started emerging gradually and also started developing local and regional interpretations of this kind of dance and particular approaches to it. New teachers and performers became leaders in their cities. New collectives were organized in order to teach and explore this type of dance. The Contact Jam became popular as weekly event in many places. The Contact Quarterly passed from a first edition offset of 350 copies during the spring of 1977 to 1500 copies in 1980. It allowed everyone to know everyone’s work and the contact list on the magazine provided a network that people used also by planning an itinerary that could take them to certain places. Ellen Elias told that “the network really worked”, “you could call anyone who was in the Contact Quarterly list and go to stay with them” because contact dancers’ knew that wherever they went they would have found someone else to live, talk and dance with.

1977 Paxton, Nelson, Smith, Lepkoff, Roger, Neece and Elizabeth Zimmer created the Contact Collaboration, Inc. a non-profit company to participate to necessary work for the magazine and to support video archives in rapidly growth and sponsor conferences. Thanks to this association, Contact Quarterly could have several funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Meanwhile the magazine continued to be directed by Nancy Stark Smith and Lisa Nelson (who started supporting Nancy from 1978).

1978 A record of a Performance held in Northampton in Massachussets realized in April by Stephen Petronio showed the qualities that in general at that time connoted Contact and especially dancers’ style like Andrew Harwood, Stephen Petergorsky, Lisa Nelson, Eleanor Huston and Danny Lepkoff. It is clear that if we compare it to footages of the ’70s it reached a higher definition and wider techniques abilities are accompanied to ways of presenting dance slightly closer to aesthetic rules. This performance is a dance with no interruptions where are evident choreographic rules to enter into the space. At times dancers enter repeating someone’s movement who is dancing yet. Sometimes only one serves as and enter and it is more complicated and longer version rather than rolling, falling and shifting that we can see in Soft Pallet. Petronio’s footage offers an image of Contact six year later its birth.

1980 Conference Improvisation : Dance as Art-Sport. At the beginning it was thought as a conference about Contact, the Dance Guild Board of Directors extended the subject to dance’s improvisation in general but Paxton remained the keynote speaker. The event included lessons, round tables and performances. More than three thousand specialised in improvisation dancers took part and more than a third belonged to Contact’s world as an organization nationally operative. About sixty people held at least seventy courses for five days.

1983 Contact at 10th and 2nd has been the national conference that indicated directions that maybe Contact was about to take. Paxton organized the conference at St. Mark church precisely between the 10th street and the 2nd Avenue in New York by inviting people through a letter to come and show what they were working on. The conference included nine night shows opened to the public as well as a round table and a big jam. During these events appeared evident the existing continuities and mutations intervened between 1972 and 1983. Dancers carried on long sequences of movement that were more fluid, soft and controlled by past dances and they had also learnt how to do extraordinary lifts and fallings finely articulated and often by using suspensions. Weight exchange does not constitute anymore the only theme because now Contact concerns how to provide weight, how much you provide of it and with which attitude. In a certain sense, dance includes all the varieties of touch, from a lighter touch to the whole body one and also contact may involve the spaces one. The last night of the conference exhibited seven dancers in an open session: David Appel, Robin Feld, Steve Paxton, Alan Ptashek, Nancy Stark Smith, Kirstie Simson and Peter Ryan. A video recording of the performance, realized by Michael Schwartz, offers an overview of Contact in 1983 and shows the general style of movement which would have spread in the following years.


Among fundamental values of movement typical of Contact we may find:

1. Generate movement changing the point of contact between bodies.

2. Percive through skin : use of all body surfaces’ to hold our own weight and the one of someone else maintaining an almost constant contact between partners.

3. Roll with body: concentrate on body parts’ and move towards different directions simultaneously.

4. Experience movement from the inside: by perceiving space inside body then attention (depending on performers) begin to give shape to the body in the space.

5. Use space at 360 grades: three-dimensional paths in the space by using body to draw spiral, curve or circular lines. These paths are in close connection with physical characteristics of lifting the weight and falling with a minimum effort. If you lift by drawing an arch it will require less muscolar strenght and if you fall by drawing an arch the impact will be cushioned.

6. Proceed with Momentum by emphasising weight and flux: Contact dancers often emphasise the continuity of movement without knowing where movement exactly will bring them. They can push, pull or lift in order to follow the energetic impulse passively leave that the Momentum carries them.

7. Tacit involvement of the public: conscious informality of presentation, shaped on practice or Jam.

8. Dancer is an ordinary person: dancers generally avoid movements that belong to traditional dance techniques and they do not distinguish between daily movement and dance.

9. Let dance happen.

10. All dancers have the same importance.

Contact Jam: Jam is an event where Contact Improvisation’s practitioners meet to dance together without a leader. There can be live music, registered o silence. Jam is the place where you can practice techniques learnt during lessons, you may discover new elements and explore our own movement related Contact Improvisation principles’.

Surfing: when someone rolls on the ground perpendicularly on the other.

Stand / The Small Dance: stand still by perceiving the smallest impulses of body movements.

These valable informations, reformulated in a short summary, have been obtained from google searches and an Italian book that I highly recommend you read in order to deepen this topic. Cynthia Novack, Contact Improvisation, storia e tecnica di una danza contemporanea. Editated by Francesca Falcone and Patrizia Veroli, traductor by Sergio Lo Gatto, Dino Audino Editore, 2018.

I link below an interesting video from 1972, Chute, Jonh Weber Gallery New York City 1972 - Made possible by Change Inc.

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