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Three, two, one -- contact!

It looks like child's play, what with all that flying and colliding, but contact improv is a serious workout.

July 31, 2006|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

We're squirming around on the floor tangled up like puppies -- my friend Laura, the dance instructor and I. The teacher rolls his leg over mine as he moves an arm over Laura. He's talking very quietly about the importance of getting in touch with one's center.

Laura, a former dancer and choreographer, clearly understands what he's talking about. Me, I'm thinking my center is probably pretty close to my stomach, which will be receiving a well-earned cheeseburger when this is all over.

Attending this weekly "Contact Improv" jam at Dance Home in Santa Monica had seemed like an excellent idea when I first heard about it from a trainer.

An off-beat progeny of modern dance, contact improv is usually performed by two or more people who stay in near constant touch via rolling points of contact, while exploring the physics of shared weight -- bodies pushing, lifting, colliding, charging and rolling off one another.

This sounded right up my alley -- something akin to navigating the half-yearly sale at Nordstrom.

When performed well, contact improv reportedly improves balance, agility and core strength. But I was quickly finding that getting to the "performed well" part is tricky, involving intense concentration, an ability to lock into the mood and physical intentions of your dance partner, an evolved sense of body awareness and a willingness to move with childlike abandon.

Oy. On this quartet of characteristics, I'm 0 for 4.

This highly tactile art form emerged in the early 1970s as part of the postmodern dance movement. Dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton is credited with introducing contact improv in 1972 at five afternoon performances at the John Weber Gallery in New York. Paxton said that the term "contact improvisation" was first coined at those performances.

Since then, contact improv has spread throughout the world, with unofficial centers in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Australia and Russia, among others.

Contact improv dancers resist organization. There is no governing body, no rule book, no registered trademark. One of the few publications devoted to contact improv is the Contact Quarterly, which comes out biannually. The magazine has a readership of more than 1,000 worldwide, about half of that in the U.S.

There are a number of groups scattered across the U.S., including in the Bay Area, that are practicing contact improv. However, in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, it's slimmer pickings. The one dependable weekly jam is held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Sundays at Dance Home, an unpretentious yoga studio with mirrored walls and scuffed wood floors.

Every third Sunday, the Santa Monica jam devotes the first part of the evening to beginners instruction, which explains my presence here on a sweltering night in July.


Bodies in motion

Contact improv tends to attract an interesting spectrum of people -- a lot of architects and engineers on one end and therapists and dancers on the other. Builders and designers are apparently captivated by the trajectories of bodies in motion, and those who work in helping fields appreciate the physical connections involved. It also transcends physical boundaries in more ways than one. Of the 15 participants who arrived for the jam, there were two Bulgarians, an Israeli and a Russian.

We began by simply standing, eyes closed, "getting in touch with our centers." Then we separated into pairs. Laura and I began back-to-back, rolled arms against each other a few times ... then ran out of inspiration. The instructor, Matt Faw, came over and joined us.

A TV producer and editor, Faw has been doing contact improv for about 15 years. He's very light on his feet and quick as a bug. With very little talking, he began weaving himself between and around us, as we moved from standing to lying down to standing again, continually rolling onto and off of one another.

In short, Laura and I were tumbling about with a complete stranger like overgrown monkeys -- something I hadn't seen close up since my first and last frat party. Which brings us to the nitty gritty of contact improv. It's not inherently sexual, but observers might be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion.

"The only context we have for people touching each other that closely is either wrestling or sexual," says Shel Wagner Rasch, a UCLA contact improv instructor with more than 20 years experience. "Obviously there's a lot of caring involved, so it tends to be interpreted toward the sexual. But when you're doing CI, there's no time to be keying into these feelings because your limbs are flying

Nevertheless, contact improv dancers acknowledge that this can be a difficult area to navigate, particularly for beginners.

There's a lot of gray area between what is -- and is not -- OK, says Kristen Horrigan, a dancer, choreographer and operations manager at Contact Quarterly. "It seems to vary by jam and by community," Horrigan says. "I've found some communities are more tolerant of sexuality in the dance space than others."

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