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  • Diana Thielen

From oppressive structures on the dance floor to a world of dance

CI- self-indulgent or subversive? Part 2.

From oppressive structures on the dance floor to a world of dance

I do think of contact improvisation as a safer space, in which we can be physically close in ways that we might never be able to with anyone off the dance floor; not with a close friend or a lover, and definitely not with a stranger. Inside the dance, movement and closeness have different connotations, mean different things than outside the dance studio. We learn that leaning hip to hip can mean bone structures supporting each other for weight sharing and new movement possibilities together. In another context maybe it would be more of an invitation to sexual feelings and acts (or, just weird…). A light skin touch can awaken sensitive nerve endings, inviting many kinds of movement possibilities in my body. It’s not necessarily an invitation to cuddling, kissing, sex or such, but an open question about what is possible in this moment.

I dream of finding new languages, creating new possibilities of being close and creative, outside of the dominant norms and the habits that capitalism thrives on. If we had other ways of satisfying our needs than buying and using capitalism’s products, we wouldn’t need that system anymore, it would become toothless. If we had languages (movements, words…) outside the box, we could communicate and be close in open and present ways, instead of in rigid, predetermined ways, banging our heads bloody against a wall. Hurray, I mean, that is subversive, right? Contact improvisation, the road to freedom...

We’re as in cold water, our heads dipped under the surface, sometimes pushed way down. But we’re always taken under the arms and dragged up just above the surface again. Because society needs us alive, the system thrives on us. It’s not going to let us go easily, not easily at all...Our thoughts and feelings are coloured by the system. It’s in our bodies, in our language. Sorry but no, you can’t escape the capitalist, sexist, racist, hierarchical systems we are immersed in.

What happens when we decide, as many contact improvisers claim, that contact jams and communities are already “safe spaces”? Spaces where we are all just dancing bodies, spaces where we are equal and everyone is welcome, and we all follow our hearts, improvising freely in contact... It’s so easy, let’s just dance and stop talking...

We forget the systems we are a part of, the patterns we breathe. The air doesn’t stop outside the door of the studio; it comes in and out and flows through us. I haven’t chosen how the world is, you haven’t either, but it is part of us, working through us. We have to deal with it. If not, there will be no safer spaces, no choices, no improvisation, but we will be following paths that have been chosen and prepared for us by capitalism, patriarchy, racism...

Sounds harsh? Let’s see why it is harsh…

How do I restrict my dance? How do I think different people want me to dance? Who dances in the middle of the floor and who dances at the sides? And who is not there at all, in the space of the contact jam, never ever?How do I dance with one person and how do I dance with another? I go to a contact improvisation jam - and I dance with someone – who do I dance with? Who is there that I don’t dance with?

Now, if I answer to these questions with social identities connected to privileges and oppression in mind, what’s the result? Try it for yourself.

Of course it’s not just a question of who is represented in a contact improvisation space, it’s also about how the people that are in the space are there. The prejudices, fears and hostility, the exoticism and lots of other stuff that comes with the systems of oppression that traverse us, are all part of our way of dancing, moving, touching, gazing, including and excluding bodily in space. And look, what a coincidence, the people most affected by ableism, racism, homophobia, class oppression… are not a majority in contact communities, are often not there at all. If you think that’s coincidences and leave it at that, well, you are reinforcing the oppressive structures this society wants to maintain.

I hear friends that don’t want to come to jams because they don’t feel comfortable and safe there. It’s fucked up. I’m angry. I don’t agree with one leader of a big contact festival expressing that he doesn’t care about who’s coming to contact festivals or not because contact improvisation simply appeals to some people and to others it doesn’t. You can claim that some people like to earn more money for their work and others don’t, some people apparently like to have security in their lives, others are happy without it. This is ideology: counterfactual beliefs that serve to protect and maintain the social status quo. Conclusion? - A friend of mine says she love to dance, but doesn’t want to enter contact improvisation spaces because she doesn’t feel at home there, is not interested in contact improvisation. Then I’m not interested in contact improvisation either. I’m not interested in a certain way of moving my body together with a certain group of people, indulging in this form as if it was a religion, selling and buying classes and festival tickets to whoever manages to feel at home and has the money to come, just like any other commercial sport activity or yoga practice. Where is the improvisation, where is the contact, when it’s already been decided what this is about and for whom?

Let’s be honest about where we are, and if we can’t see it, let’s help each other to open our eyes - and ask questions! In the first part of this text I wrote that improvisation is about being curious and honest in the moment. What are the feelings you have, what are the feelings I have? What are the needs you have, what are the needs I have? What are the patterns you have, what are the patterns I have? What are the fears you have, what are the fears I have? What is the curiosity you come with, what curiosity am I coming with? How can we support each other to stay honest and humble and alive?

A friend described it so interestingly. When the dance space becomes so important for people personally, it’s like a holy space for them, it’s a space to “be who you are”, a space to “breathe” outside of the daily life in society. It becomes a space that’s so important for these individuals, that you can’t question it. So, when there are people knocking on the door; people saying “hello, I don’t feel invited”, or “I don’t feel that everyone is invited and gets a safe / open / fun / comfortable space to dance here”, then their ears are closed to this - the need for personal space and to do what I as an individual want in that space, has closed the doors for others’ possibilities to be and have space in that same room.

Again I’m thinking of Nina Björk. She writes about the individual dream versus collective utopia. Can we think in a utopian and collective way about spaces for dance and closeness, not just as individual dreams for a few?

I find queer theory and queering useful and hopeful in this work*. Queer, meaning weird or strange, was reclaimed and used in queer theory and queer activism as a word with positive power- a way of playing with and transforming gender (and fundamentally challenging the binary system of two “sexes” called “men” and “women”), otherwise fixed by a heteronormative, patriarchal society. It inspires me in thinking of other rigid norms around identity. Playing with what a normative dancer’s body is, how it’s supposed to move and interact in the space, how it’s supposed to relate to other dancing bodies, what it’s supposed to think about dance, how it’s supposed to talk about dance… I also find it helpful to think of children and clowns. Play is about speaking the truth and taking life seriously, allowing yourself to question those rigid norms from a place of curiosity, playfulness and “naïveté” (which I think is actually just about seeing beyond the norms of a dominant culture that we have taken for granted…).

Coming back to the question of sex and contact improvisation in the first part of this text; how can the queering and clowning of the dance space affect how we look at and deal with sexual practice and closeness and so on in our whole lives? Also, life is not just about sex, surprise surprise; when we move beyond the obsession with sex, what is here and what do we wish for? And what would we wish for if what is here were different… How do we play with making what is here different? How can we work on a queer, clowny, playful improvising contact dance that includes all people that want to dance, people with all kinds of different histories and stories and needs? How do I support a dance space where I actively work with my oppressive patterns as a privileged dancer and acknowledge my need to be close to people around me in a present, honest way?

In dance, movement is our language, but I think spoken and written language can be useful, too, as a tool, or as a tickling feather, or as a gentle but firm smack in the face, for that matter. We need to see the connections between the world of dance and the social world “outside”, to cross the imaginary boundary between what’s going on on the dance floor at a contact festival, and in the street, or on the internet or wherever… We need to speak about what is going on, and then we need to act, to start playing and improvising and living, to get close to each other, in a utopian way, a collective way, a way that can be subversive and finally make us powerful together to destroy the systems of oppression, opening the way to a world of contact, and improvisation, a world full of dance…

*Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of gender” (1990) seems to have inspired how I think of the world a lot, especially how I think of creativity and language.

How does it feel to come to one dance space after another with only white people when you’re a person targeted by racism? How does it feel to always see intimate dances (and insinuations of flirting/sensual/sexual approaches) between men and women when you’re not heterosexual? How does it feel to dance in a space where the division of people into men and women is taken for granted when you don’t fit into this binary pattern? How does it feel to come to dance in a space where everyone is running around on two legs when you are the only one using a wheel chair for dancing? Not once, but repeatedly, almost always. Does that feel safe? Do you feel that your body, your history, your needs and ways of dancing, of expressing yourself are being represented, included and accepted in the contact improvisation space? From what I hear and see, that’s not the case.


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