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  • Diana Thielen

Contact improvisation – self-indulgent or subversive?

Contact Improvisation- self-indulgent or subversive?

Part One: About sex in relation to contact improvisation, and reflections on the meaning of “improvisation” and “contact”

“We don’t need more sex in contact improvisation; we need more contact improvisation in sex” - that’s a phrase a contact improviser and friend of mine wrote on a wall at NIM (Nordic Improvisation Meeting) in 2016.

I find this an important and interesting sentence. To be honest, firstly because there is something I feel is missing in my relationship to sex that’s not missing in my relationship to dance… A sense of many possibilities, of being fully present, of connection, of fun… But why is sex so lacking in all this? And does it have to be like that? And why is it an issue at all?

I have some thoughts on these questions. I believe that delving into the question of why sex seems to be an issue some people (me among them) want to deal with in the context of contact improvisation in the first place, can open up possibilities for changing patterns of behaviour, not only in dance and in sexuality, but in other parts of our lives as well….

That’s not to say I am in favour of blurring the boundaries between sex and dance. I think a very undesirable kind of blurring of boundaries happens when we aren’t conscious of and don’t talk about an issue that is actually already there. I think we need to start looking at what is going on to be clearer in our choice making, about what our wishes and needs are, and how this affects the people we dance with/live with/are close to.

Why is sex an issue at all?

We are immersed in capitalist, patriarchal, sexist stories about sex. Sex is an amazingly useful tool for capitalism to influence us. Walk down any street with advertisements and think of how many of those images that are trying to sell us something that has connotations to sex, in one way or another. Go online and be introduced to a world of porn you can buy. Capitalism takes our needs and dreams hostage to make us consume, consume, consume.[1] We are supposed to believe that we will get our needs for closeness, love, appreciation, affection, sex, and so on, fulfilled by buying more products and watching more ready-made Barbie doll fantasies. Disney for children and porn for grownups, aren’t they pretty similar in a way?

Porn and advertisement present ready-made pictures that burn themselves into the backs of our eyes. No need for reflection or analysis, these images “are” sex and sex “is” these images. They provide certain (heteronormative, patriarchal...) roles we are supposed to identify with, flat and inflexible like paper dolls. Easy to swallow whole, no need for complicated explanations, they tell us how it’s “supposed” to be for us, what we are supposed to long for, for the eternal time that capitalism wishes to keep us in its grip.

Another social phenomenon that seems to be important in connection to sex is religion. I was surprised how central sex seemed to be when I read the beginning of the Old Testament. The basic meaning of life seems to be reproduction, and to reproduce you need to have sex with someone, and for it to be the right thing to do; with someone you are married to. To get married, to have children inside the marriage, to not have sex and not produce children outside marriage, to be ashamed of not being fertile (when not producing children inside the marriage), to be ashamed of being a sexual being outside the marriage. Don’t think of sex, while always surrounded by rules about the practice of sex. It’s like “don’t think of pink elephants”!

Capitalism and religion, sometimes opposing each other and sometimes reinforcing each other, but always limiting and determining what we can do and be. Keeping us perfectly locked into small boxes of shame and obsession, longing and fear, all connected with images and ideas of sex.[2]

Whether we try to conform to, or furiously fight, the plastic Barbie doll pictures that advertising, porn and other popular stories bombard us with, that cling to the backs of our heads - we can’t help but be affected, to our very core, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually…

For example, an experience many different women around me seem to share is: when being asked (by men) “but what do you want? (in sex)”, and when listening inwards, just finding a silent, empty space. No pictures, dreams, wishes, longings, creativity. Thank you, patriarchal, capitalist society, you took them away. In your system, I’m not supposed to be an active, choosing, dreaming individual anyway, I’m supposed to be an object, a tool for someone else’s pleasure, like the pictures and objects and stuff we buy in the shops, thinking that they will satisfy our needs. On the other hand there is the big, silencing shame, shame of having sexual feelings and needs, and at the same time, shame for not knowing what I want, for not taking charge of my life (always being wrong, no matter what I do, always being confused…)… But sex as a tool of oppression is not only capitalist and patriarchal – it is also a great tool for other kinds of oppression.[3]

I write about sex in relation to contact improvisation because I think we are indirectly working on and with sexuality all the time. Partly why we’re attracted to dancing contact improvisation is because we hope for this to be a place where our needs for closeness can be satisfied in ways that feel more meaningful and alive, than the rigid images and ideas society has given us regarding sex (sex here confusingly being used synonymously with closeness, because how they get mixed up in the society…).

Here is a definition of “Contact” and “Improvisation” that works for me at the moment. I wonder if practicing “contact” and “improvisation”, understood in this way, can be helpful in finding your voice, your will, your curiosity, your human ability to improvise and create. Could it be something you can apply in all parts of life, as a big fat opposition to the oppression and frozenness capitalism forces us into:

Improvisation – to have all directions possible at any moment open to you. Using your senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch...) and all inner possibilities to reflect on them (using your reason as well as your emotion…), working with you in the moment, to take decisions that fit exactly this moment without restricted, frozen ideas from the past forcing you to act in patterns of what you think “should” happen, how you are “supposed” to act. One impulse follows another with an open and listening mind (both inwards and outwards).

Contact – a channel that can open between two or more persons (or towards a certain place inside yourself) through communication, allowing us to see each other with less rigid social masks. Based on consent, honesty, trust and mutual agreement. I’m trusting that you take care of yourself by communicating your feelings and needs and acting as you need to act accordingly. We agree on supporting each other in this, knowing that it can be hard sometimes and that we make mistakes. Being open to learn and grow through the communication will make the contact between us (and us and the rest of the world) closer and more interesting for everyone involved…

Just imagine, for a moment, a sexuality with these qualities of contact and improvisation... “We don’t need more sex in contact improvisation; we need more contact improvisation in sex”…

This text has a second part- so stay tuned! It’s about identity, oppression and privileges, and why I think CI communities, though the name “contact improvisation” might suggest it, are not amazing society challenging spaces (yet).

[1]Inspired by Nina Björk. She talks in her book Lyckliga i alla sina dagar (2012) about how advertisement uses our feelings and dreams to sell products.

[2]There is probably so much written about this that I don’t know about. I’m thinking of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality – how sex became institutionalized and we are constantly asked to talk about sex, and categorize it, analyze it and conform or be punished for our sexual thoughts/ideas/activities, that our sexuality is something fundamental to who we are...

[3] Just think a few seconds of words like class, race, sexuality, age and the word sex in connection to them (what prejudices do you have, what oppressive patterns, what exoticising or romanticising images…). Think of how men keep other men from showing affection and “soft” feelings, by threats of violence – “educating” them to become abusers and oppressors…

edited by Daniel Mang


Aurora Westfelt is a Swedish dance artist, activist and teacher. She was born in Stockholm in 1985 and currently lives in Järna, just south of Stockholm. She studied dance at North Karelia College in Outokumpu, Finland, and trained as a fritidspedagog (after-school teacher) at Södertörn University. Contact improvisation has been an important part of her life since she started practicing it in 2005.

In 2016 she co-organized the Radical Contact Spring Gathering, together with Diana Thielen and Daniel Mang, with whom she is currently working on a new gathering on the topic of body politics and contact improvisation. In her own explorations she focuses on the (power) relationship between audience and performer, and on the site and time specific nature of dances. Writing and reading are an important part of her creative process.

Re-evaluating co-counseling, a peer-based counseling procedure, which she has been practicing for many years, has had a strong influence on her. More recently she has begun exploring and found inspiration in Non Violent Communication, a process of communication designed to improve compassionate connection to others.

Aurora identifies as queer, able-bodied, cis-gender, “white” and middle class.


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