Contact Improvisation Dance – Open letter

by Cunt Incognita, VITTU in Tampere, Finland — she=he

This is an open letter I wrote, after feeling angry, disappointed, uncomfortable and frustrated at the regular Sunday session of “Contact-Impro” taking place at the Cable Factory in Helsinki.

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Contact Improvisation Dance is liberating, creative and fun. It’s exploring movement, balance, weight, physical contact and communication, involving two or more persons at the time. Try it out!


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Hello Juha and everybody else taking part in the Contact Improvisation community,

First I would like to express appreciation for the efforts made by everyone keeping this alive, and then..

I would like to share some thoughts and feelings that came up during the improvised exercises lead by Juha on Sunday, February 14th, in Kaapelitehdas, Helsinki.

I had some uncomfortable experiences with how this training session was performed, and am hoping with this open letter not only to share these thoughts and feelings with you, but also to start a discussion within the community on questions touching the topics on how Autonomy, Trust, Safety and Self-expression are realized at any given CI event.

I’m not a dancer. And I participate very irregularly in these sessions, maybe 3 or 4 times per year. The training session before the jam this Sunday got started when Juha entered the studio, and gave us instructions on what to do. After having had exercises with our eyes closed, where we had had random physical contact with others in the space, we sat down in a large circle and were told to look as many persons in the eye as possible while taking turns saying our name.

Then we moved on to doing an exercise in pairs where we were told to treat our partner as laundry. Washing the laundry, a laundry that was “very dirty” according to Juha.

During the instructions of the laundry exercise, Juha was saying “dirty laundry” and “naughty laundry” and encouraging us to take out some of our aggressions on the other.

I reacted strongly to this type of wording, and at the end of the training we had a closing circle where Juha was speaking for a while. Saying that we are “not married” to our partners and that we can separate and break off physical contact, and that we don’t have to force ourselves to have contact. And then Juha, after being the only person speaking in the closing circle, announced that the training session was over.

I was very emotional, and I asked some of the others how they had felt about the “naughty laundry” comment, to which one replied that it was “inappropriate” and another said “weird” and “out of place”, so I came up to Juha and said that I hadn’t appreciated the comment, since I thought that it had given the exercise an unwanted slippery, mainstream, sexual twist. Juha’s response to this was: “of course”, and that it was supposed to give that extra “sexual spark” to the space. My face was twitching, and my mouth was wide open with disbelief, since the very thing that caused me discomfort had been done on purpose to create a “spark”, without any consideration of the different experiences that these words might cause, and no space made to discuss it after.

I’ve been at other contact impro sessions where I have expressed the importance of clarity and transparency in relation to the common rules of the place. When a person unfamiliar with this art form steps into the space, the habitual reflex is to adapt and conform. When something is very new and unfamiliar it is very easy for us to give up our autonomy: “When in Rome..”

It should be expressed clearly in the beginning of every session that everyone has the right to step out of an exercise at any time, and break off contact or reject contact with anybody at any time without having to give any reasons for why. That we should listen to ourselves as much as possible and respect ourselves and our own feelings.

When this wasn’t said in the beginning of the training, I had a feeling of discontent throughout the session, since to me it felt as if we weren’t there on equal terms. I felt strongly that there was a “teacher/student” relation there, and that it was difficult to express dissatisfaction or affect what was going on. Sort of the same feeling you can get when stepping inside a library – everybody goes quiet.

The person leading the exercises has a responsibility to share and make known the culture of the space. Telling people to listen to and respect their own boundaries, as well as telling them that it’s okay to speak out if there’s something feeling strange about how the exercises are conducted. Even when this is encouraged and spoken out loud, not many would grab that opportunity to react or change anything, but at least there’s a bigger chance that something such could happen.

The way the training was held, I felt like I had lost all autonomy and self-expression, and my disappointment was great when at the end we weren’t given a chance to give feedback. I felt like I was a puppet awaiting instructions, silently obeying.

I felt, because of the structure of the training, that I missed out on the joyfulness, safety, trust, harmony, CONTACT & SPONTANEITY I feel should be a part of any CI meeting.

So, again, what is important to me, is to, before starting the exercises, make clear what the common rules are, and encourage everyone to speak out when there is discomfort — to ask for and create space for feedback (contact, dialogue) if not throughout, then at least at the end of the training.

Curiously awaiting any kind of response,
With love, and the sincere hope that this spontaneous contact,
and dialogue, can create a difference in the community,

Cunt Incognita, aka Milla

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4 Responses

  1. I believe that it is good to encourage open discussion, so that those who wish can express their feelings. I also think that it is also smart to adress these kind of things personally to the person in question if no other opportunityto express your feelings emerges. I hope everyone can have understanding for their own and others’ feelings.

    • This is an answer to Milla´s letter here and on the Ki-fi list.

      Her letter was sparked of by the ´washing the dirty and naughty laundry´ ten-minute exercise I led during the pre-jam class on 14.2, and by the fact that Milla was frustrated that there was lack of time for feedback in the ending circle, as the time for the class ran out and the jam time began….

      Thank you for your letter Milla..

      On my part I wish to say that in my opinion the form of Contact Improvisation is both emotionally and in relation to its sensual/sexual dynamics an essentially flawed and deeply problematic form of movement and meeting…

      Contact Improvisation is in my opinion, and only in some ways… an extremely insensitive way of meeting other people intimately.

      In CI participants of the form connect with each other (often with total strangers) on the level of touch and intimacy…. very indirectly and obliquely.

      In other words, participants of a CI session can experience very intimate moments with other people, without doing it more or less directly… and without taking responsibility for it.

      In CI there is always available an “open backdoor” attitude or statement that “This is just dance”. Nothing happened. The form makes it extremely ease to negate everything that has occurred and to disappear, or escape, elsewhere….

      In fact, often participants of CI are, more or less consciously….. surfing on each others bodies and on the sensuality and sexuality of the bodies of others.

      CI can be a form of autoeroticism, as participants of a CI session are often USING each others bodies for “tripping” kinesthetically, sensually and sexually.
      And this is all done in a very indirect and non-articulated way.

      Some of its practitioners have said that CI can sometimes be similar to foreplay.

      I believe, Milla, that all your emotional reactions are extremely valid, and point to the core shadow areas which are in the form, and which are not being discussed widely, especially among, and with, the beginners and initiates into the form of CI.

      Experienced Contact Improvisation practitioners with a reasonable level of awareness and self-reflectivity take all this as an ´of course´, this is how life is and CI life is….

      The discussion about over-sexualisation is often avoided, as it is felt to be uncomfortable and creating a ´sex cultish´interpretation of CI.

      And this is also true, CI can be what you want it to be, as long as you are free in every moment to frame your private and sacred body space… which you are in fact.

      Thank you Milla for your comments in your article about over-adaptation and over-conformity in a class and in the jams … Contact Improvisation IS essentially an open and free format… which is a precious thing to be reminded of.

      CI is however a very, very challenging form, both acrobatically, emotionally and sensually/sexually.

      As a participant one may need extended personal skills to navigate all the constant challenges on emotional and intimate levels in CI.

      And there is most often simply not TIME (nor interest) to coach all beginner participants in a CI class in extended “boundary setting” skills, nor time nor interest for the twenty minutes of de-briefing every time new participants about the emotional and sexual ramifications of the form.

      Also there are very many different opinions about the whole issue of intimacy and sensuality/sexuality in CI, as it is such an energetic and also shame-saturated subject, which can spark very strong emotional reactions and statements.

      And CI is not therapy, nor is it a course in sexual self-defence. It is a hard-core sensual and acrobatic form, which is not the most safe, supportive or emotionally nourishing thing for many people to participate in.

      Yet many things can be done for awareness and depth in CI, and I wholeheartedly support Milla´s comments in her article on how CI classes could be improved.

      One other reason for why the emotional problematique or emotional-sexual swamp in CI is so deep, is the fact that getting closer into touch and contact in CI is most often an “autobahn of intimacy”.

      Going into intimacy, then swishing out of intimacy….

      Usually getting closer in CI is facilitated by the “dance form” and does not relate in any way to how the two people meet each other on a deeper and more aware level, and what would be the distance where they would feel comfortable, and what would be the pace in which they would get closer….

      No, the two persons dive contraphobically and essentially insensitively into very extended touch experiences through large areas of skin/clothed contact.

      CI creates a space for getting into a very light and intimate trance….

      And usually after a dance… there is no “time” for a more organic negotiation and processing also on a verbal level of the intimacies and touches that have occurred.

      Instead most often there happens a deflection into more consumption of more touch, experiences and intimacies, all under the illusion and in the guise of “This is dance”.

      The “dancer” just leaves the other person after the contacting the other in CI, and often the other one feels left. Hard emotional economics.

      This is all due to how the “form” is practised most often.

      Then there are the occasionally cruel and universal hierarchies of the dance-floor: who gets chosen to be “danced” with, and by whom.

      I participate in them, totally, sharing the picky selectivity, which is also crucial so that we can respect and cherish the sensitive needs of our fragile bodies.

      We can truly choose in every moment with whom, and how, we choose to do CI.

      (I wish to state that Petri and I have searched for more grounded and aware ways of practising CI in our Gestalt therapy and CI courses. There is always space, and indeed, for change and evolution.)

      Contact Improvisation DOES have its deep riches and absolutely beautiful potential, also emotionally. It can be a pre-school for meeting other people more authentically…

      And through its “dance” techniques, CI can help and facilitate meeting, physical openness, bodily relaxation…

      However I believe that CI is also a form that supports the growth consumerism, non-commitment, superficiality, greed, avoidance, and sexualisation of contact, just to name a few problematic issues…

      …. and as such, CI is essentially flawed, like also life itself is.

      I think it is always precious when the over-sexualisation of being in contact with others, that is sometimes present in CI, is questioned.

      In the extreme deep end of the jam pool, CI can be seen (for some of its practitioners) to be akin to hedonistic cult, or as an over-sexualised subculture.

      More open discussion on the subject is truly welcome.

      I am grateful for Milla´s contribution: to invite more discussion about ways in which awareness about both emotional and sensual/sexual dynamics can be increased.

      And I wholeheartedly agree in principle with Milla with the wishes she has stated in her article:

      Milla:

      “It should be expressed clearly in the beginning of every session that everyone has the right to step out of an exercise at any time, and break off contact or reject contact with anybody at any time without having to give any reasons for why. That we should listen to ourselves as much as possible and respect ourselves and our own feelings.

      Telling people to listen to and respect their own boundaries, as well as telling them that it’s okay to speak out if there’s something feeling strange about how the exercises are conducted. Even when this is encouraged and spoken out loud, not many would grab that opportunity to react or change anything, but at least there’s a bigger chance that something such could happen.

      So, again, what is important to me, is to, before starting the exercises, make clear what the common rules are, and encourage everyone to speak out when there is discomfort — to ask for and create space for feedback (contact, dialogue) if not throughout, then at least at the end of the training.”

      To all of the above I agree, even though I believe that verbalising all this text-mass in every session would be a cumbersome task, AND it would create a slightly “top-heavy” atmosphere for a CI class.

      Some of these things ARE articulated on the Fi-fi website…

      In the beginning of jams I used to give out these A4 size leaflets to beginners, which had similar statements to Miilla´s written on them.

      If someone wishes, that practice is always open to be picked up again, for those wishing to take more responsibility for the well-being of beginners into CI.

      (I personally am not taking that task on myself anymore.)

      I cannot personally endorse one wish in Milla´s article:

      Milla:

      “….what is important to me, is to, before starting the exercises, make clear what the common rules are, and encourage everyone to speak out when there is discomfort — to ask for and create space for feedback (contact, dialogue) if not throughout, then at least at the end of the training.”

      In my opinion there is no ONE culture in CI. There is a multitude of different cultures, every person having their own culture and interpretation of what the open format of CI is, and how it serves their beliefs and needs.

      And there are simply no common rules. The only shared rule, as I perceive it after twelve years in the form, is not to place oneself or other practitioners of CI in physical danger…

      Great to have discussion on these issues.

      However this is all I have to say on this subject. I give the response-ability to others to continue this discussion.

      I will not write one sentence more about these issues here, or through the ki-fi list. This was a mediated response (containing my private opinions) to Milla´s letter, which had brought into focus questions about autonomy and intimacy.

      I will also not answer in writing to responses to this letter. I have other things to do in my life.

      I will probably be open to talk briefly about this issue more with those who wish to call me by phone or outside the jams. I will not talk about these issues in the jams, since I go there to practise CI.

      As with my body, also with my soul, I am allowed at any moment to say ´No´…. as are all of you.

      Thank you for reading!

      Juha

  2. Hi,

    I still wish to add a few more beautiful phrases about CI and boundaries, as my first reply was written realy on the spur of the moment…

    What I have written now is a more mediated response to the letter by Milla…

    Sacred bodies

    I totally agree that it is good to give basic ´boundary-setting´ awarenesses at the beginning of every CI class.

    Our bodies are sacred. We have a birthright to protect our body´s sacredness through limiting to what happens to it… in a CI class, in a CI jam, and elsewhere and everywhere in our lives.

    Although we as humans are social beings that usually tend to adapt and conform in a group situation (which is even a part of our genetic nature), we are also individuals having choice, who are allowed to…. or even more precisely, individuals who have a sacred response-ability to say ´No´ to that which does not nourish our souls.

    We have a choice (outside extreme circumstances) to decide what we choose to do with our bodies…

    … and how and when we touch others.

    This is an awareness that cannot be repeated too often.

    I agree that experienced (and sometimes perhaps de-sensitized and jaded) practitioners of CI (like I am) do forget this often: that the intense assault to the senses that is CI, is not a usual experience for most newcomer or beginner participants to a Contact Improv class.

    It does not hurt to repeat that setting boundaries is not only allowed, it is also supported… thus reinforcing the awareness of participants, that it is a valid and respected choice.

    I wish to reiterate, we are beings who find it challenging to do differently than a group, and we are beings who conform extremely easily in a group situation.

    The pressure to conform is especially high, if the situation is relatively unknown and new for oneself, like a class or jam is for CI newcomers.

    In such situation each and every participant carries their responsibility and their response-ability. It is empowering oneself to respect one´s sensitivity and intuition, and to use this response-ability to listen to what does not feel good and say ´No´.

    I do not wish to support that there would be political discussions about what exercise is ´ok´ and what is not ´ok´ (or is using a word like ´naughty´ allowed or not allowed). A CI class is a space for teaching CI in a manner that the specific teacher chooses to teach it; it is not a space for political discussions.

    I wish to support that participants as individuals can voice their discomfort, and then choose to either participate or not to participate in any given exercise…

    Also more experienced practitioners, through verbalizing their own experiences and awarenesses, can help newcomers to articulate, structure and clarify the substantial mass of experiencing in a CI session.

    All this support and verbalization not only gives safety and clarity to practitioners of CI, it also gives (also boundary-setting) awarenesses and skills which can be put to good use elsewhere in life.

    Open form- Unclear structure

    It is somewhat more challenging to be clear in CI than in many other movement and meeting forms, as the CI form itself is so ´open´ and unclear…

    (If you can even call CI a form, as it is more an intention to move and contact, in connection with touching other people often, and as there are no preset pathways or qualities which should be expressed or explored in CI.)

    One thing that makes CI different from many other forms is the lack of clarity about what is the structure of the form, and what are the limits of what happens in the space.

    This is also the thing that makes CI so fascinating, and challenging at the same time.

    It is an existential exploration journey, where you both have to the possibility to explore what you are interested in, in your own fashion and rhythm, and you also have the response-ability to frame your own and your body space and rhythms from one second to another.

    A good practice for the whole life, if taken with awareness.

    Another viewpoint:

    Going to a CI class or jam, you do not know what will happen. You only have a very vague idea of what might be coming up….

    Also there is no clear idea of how sensually oriented, and how emotionally challenging in that sense, the class will be.

    On the other hand, if you go to ballet, salsa or karate classes you often have a fairly good idea of what will happen during the course of the evening, and what will happen regarding touching others, and you have a fair idea about the limits and safety of what will happen in the classes.

    However, entering a CI jam or even a CI class, you can be directed or slip on your own into sensual or even intimate realms, without even being aware beforehand that there was a possibility of such a thing occurring.

    …. one may end up in different kinds of sensual/emotional brushings, leanings and meltings, without too much clarity or even awareness of what is happening, especially if one is a newcomer or beginner into the form…

    Therefore more awareness in this issue can only reinforce and empower our awareness of ourselves as individuals having choice.

    And not to demonize CI, even though it truly merits to be also viewed critically, there are wonderful and beautiful things happening in jams in ways that are not usual elsewhere, and that allowed publicly in many other places.

    There is a possibility to receive both emotional and physical support through touching and being touched by others… much needed support for everyday life.

    And the needs of bodies (e.g. to become softer, more flowing and sensitive) are well taken care of, if participants take the time and care to listen to the rhythms of their bodies at the beginning of a CI session.

    In CI it is possible to move and contact others, listening to and sourcing from one´s inner sensations and from one´s own dance… in addition to imitating externally the acrobatics of the more 3-dimensionally minded experienced practitioners.

    Thus we have a possibility to learn more about ourselves, and to respect the smallest and most sensitive sensations within our own bodies, and within the bodies of others…

    In-to-me-see

    The core thing about intimacy is visible in the structure of the word itself, as ´in-to-me-see´…. Intimacy at its truest could be said to be: letting another person see into oneself, how we are, who we are, and how we feel… with our insecurities and weaknesses.

    And this does not happen too often, for ´real´, in CI.

    In CI intimacy (in this sense) if often circled around, even spinned around, and CI partnerings most often begin and end too rapidly for safer, deeper and more intimate contact to arrive… People come in, surf on meetings and experiences, and then leave, as happens in most other places.

    This, in my opinion, is one challenge of the form. And as you Barbro said it, the sometimes challenging emotional dynamics are also present in everyday contemporary life, where many of us often lack more closeness and real intimacy with other people, especially on an emotional and non-touching level.

    Ending circles

    I also support having long ending circles, where there really is space to listen to each and everyone. And it is part of ´non-perfect´ life and also of the improvisatory nature of even teaching contact, that sometimes time runs out for having a long circle.

    Even more, I would advocate that more support be given to the ones who usually stay silent, to articulate their experiences.

    Let us celebrate with awareness,

    Juha

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