101 Ways to Say No to Contact Improvisation: Boundaries and Trust
by Martin Keogh
Contact Improvisation is a dance that invites our entire body and being to be present and available. To dance this form, we need to build a capacity for trust with ourselves and our partners. We nurture or harm that trust by our ability or inability to set and respect boundaries.
I’ve found there are instances in which the community at large comes together to help individuals set boundaries. In the mid-1980s, many women who danced at the weekly Contact jam in Berkeley, California, complained about a particular man who regularly came to dance. I will call him Roland. They said dancing with him was unpleasant because of his lack of awareness of boundaries. It was difficult for the women to describe the behavior they didn’t like; they could only call it a “feeling.” One said, “Dancing with Roland is like dancing with an overly enthusiastic puppy, the one that’s trying to hump your shins.” The general feeling was that he was “getting off” on the dance, and stealing something that was not being offered by his partners.
From my ongoing inquiry into what’s needed in order to cultivate clear boundaries, I’ve developed a workshop called “101 Ways to Say No to Contact Improvisation.” The premise of the workshop is that until a person has the confidence and ability to say no to something, he or she won’t have the trust and capacity to fully say yes to it. In the workshop, we explore physical and verbal skills to say no to dances, to touch, to being lifted, to weight exchange, to momentum, to manipulation.
During the 101 Ways to Say No… workshop, I teach another safety skill, this one for learning to communicate quickly in high-energy situations. We learn to shout one-syllable words that demand immediate attention: “Stop!” “Back!” “Wait!” (I don’t use “No!” anymore because it’s a word rich in nuance and, as anybody with children knows, a word prone to be tested.) We also practice exclaiming words that specify a part of the body that is in pain or about to be: “Knee!” “Ankle!” “Neck!” It’s rare that this skill will be used, but knowing that the words are in place reassures the psyche and allows us to open the door to more athletic, acrobatic, and disorienting dances.
Steve Paxton has been known to say, “Contact Improvisation is not a gland game,” meaning, in part, that it’s not a sexual dance. I often hear people say, “I love this dance form because it’s a non-sexual way to be physical and affectionate and playful with people.”
When I’m in the backyard of our home watching our children play with friends, their improvised games are a constant setting and testing of boundaries. Sometimes in their play they are famous paleontologists digging up the biggest dinosaur ever discovered. Sometimes they are empire builders—running around with their swords and cardboard shields, crawling on their bellies into forts under the hedges—making and breaking and negotiating the rules as they go. Sometimes it’s a physical cue or a single word; sometimes the play stops completely as they work out the rules of the game. They are constantly working to make the flow of attention and power be fair and balanced. It looks similar to what we do in our dance community.
© 2005 Martin Keogh, all rights reserved