I feel like swimming through the air

I went to a lesson of contact improvisation by Kahbam and Loby Lam. Contact improvisation is a form of improvised dancing that focuses on body awareness, sharing touch, weight, body contact, and movement.

The workshop took place in Prismare in Enschede. The group was not big. There were eight of us altogether, mostly international people from all over the world that had somehow got lost in this eastern Dutch town. It was my first experience with contact improv, leaving aside the occasional leanings and playful movements initiated by a friend who does this regularly.

It started with us greeting and hugging each other. Usually, I am not into hugging, especially when it comes to strangers, but given what was to follow, that was nothing. It might have even felt rather nice, if I may say so.

We went upstairs to a music studio with lots of floor surface. The teacher, Loby, started to clean the dance floor with a mop whilst most of us changed clothes. We did that in the same room, all of us, without any privacy. I am not sure if it was intentional to get us comfortable with each other immediately, but I suppose that we simply did not have access to any changing rooms. I had not taken this into account, so changing into my sports bra was a bit challenging, but I managed in the end. We danced barefoot.

The workshop started with us sitting in a circle, looking into ourselves trying to find a word that described us the best at that moment. It could be anything. Even a made-up word. Mine was “homeless”. We introduced ourselves by stating our name and our current word or phrase.

We did some warm-up jumps, stretches, and movements to get our ligaments and muscles ready.

The topic of the workshop was “How to catch yourself while falling?”. Very suitable for Valentine’s Day. This means that at the beginning we played around with balance, leaning into a direction and discovering where our limits run. Where is the angle from where we cannot stay up anymore and need to stop ourselves from falling by taking a supportive step?

We did the same exercise in pairs, stopping each other from falling and pushing the partner back up again into a stable upright position. The eyes of the person leaning were closed. To give assurance that we are going to catch the partner, the catcher could keep their hands lightly on the faller’s shoulders. Sometimes I caught my partner too late, making him take a supporting step. The lower the angle, the more difficult it was to push my partner back upright, even though I had my knees bent and my legs were in a small lunge for extra support.

Next, we practised leaning and falling in a circle. One of us would stand in the middle of the circle and the others would catch them, support them, lift them. It was an exercise in shared weight and directing the movement by redistributing your weight. At first, I simply gave most of my weight into the leg that was firmly on the ground and fell into the waiting arms of others. However, the trick to get into a flying position, being easily carried by others without any contact points on the ground, was to distribute the weight equally, in a controlled matter, throughout the whole body. That includes reducing the weight carried by the leg on the ground. Once up, it was interesting to control the direction I wanted others to take me by simply focusing my weight towards that point. As a supporter, I simply had to feel the weight to figure out what I should do.

Once everyone had been “pushed around” in the circle, we did some individual exercises and then paired up again, exploring rolling and sliding. One person acted as a support, like a relatively volatile rock or a mountain, while the other tried to find pathways for moving around said rock. The supporter had to constantly shift their position and posture to ensure that the partner had enough surface to move and enough possibilities to sink their weight into the supporting person. It was certainly interesting and rather difficult. When rolling and sliding, I felt like I was getting stuck, repeating the same movements over and over again, not being able to find alternative pathways without feeling unnatural, losing my balance and collapsing into the floor like a sad pile of wet laundry.

Throughout the session, I enjoyed the role of support more. I could simply make sure my body was underneath someone else’s and push upwards, trying to lift them up from the ground. I felt like I had more purpose than simply sliding around all over the place.

As a final exercise for the workshop part, we had tiny performances in groups of three. Each of us had to think of a role, either rolling, sliding, or negative space (filling the space between the other dancers while avoiding any actual body contact with them). We then started moving in our role without telling others who we are. In some cases, it worked out beautifully. In other cases, it became extremely funny. For example, when there were three people who had all selected the role of rolling and were simply twirling against and around each other until a point of equilibrium was achieved, or when there were two negative spaces trying to avoid all body contact and one roller spinning around like a practising ballerina.

After having gained some knowledge from the workshop part, we had a Dance Jam. That was the opportunity to just go crazy, put the learnings into practice, or just do what felt comfortable or challenging. Basically, just do whatever you want, exploring your body and movement in relation to others. I did some sliding, rolling, pushing, supporting, simply imitating swimming on the ground, and waves.

The latter was really cool. Two persons are lying perpendicular to each other with one slightly on top of the other with their upper back. The bottom one starts rolling away from the top’s butt, bringing the top’s body along with them like a sea wave. Once the legs of the top person have reached the body of the bottom person, the bottom can simply roll back creating a wave in the opposite direction. It was amazing to feel my body move through space without doing anything. Just being carried with such small movement from others. It was also great carrying others that way.

Contact improv felt very similar to improvised theatre that I had done before. As long as I did not think too much about what is happening and had no clear plan for the “scene” or, in this case, the choreography but just let myself be inspired and directed by others, everything felt right and worked out well. The moment I started to think hard about my position and movement, where I wanted to go or what I wanted others to do, nothing seemed to work anymore.

There were definitely some mental boundaries for me. I could easily pull myself out of the flow of the movement and just think, “What the hell am I doing?” Come to think of it, why exactly should a bunch of grown-ups just create a moving pile of bodies like maggots in a dead cow’s flesh or snakes warming up after hibernation? Could this have been considered a very weird orgy, had we been naked? Were clothes the only thing making this into an art form? How come I do not feel uncomfortable with such close and rather intimate touch from strangers? Am I crossing some boundaries here? Where is it acceptable to touch and support others? What are the places on my body that make me feel uncomfortable when touched by these people I have only met today? Why does it even matter?

I did feel loose and slack after the contact improv. Usually, when I dance, I look and feel like there is a long metal rod up my butt. I am very rigid and feel uncomfortable. After this session, though, I had no problems with expressing myself using my body, letting my limbs flow without feeling stupid for it. Just as it should be. One should not be worried about what others think about them and simply feel comfortable in their own body. I felt relaxed and even my mind was more at ease, not focused on the daily troubles and worries about my thesis or musical productions.

Immediately after the session, the air felt very thick when I moved around in it. It felt like I was floating in water, yet I was standing firmly on the ground with my two feet pressed onto the floor. I wanted to swim through the air, so I did it by imitating the hand movements. The air felt like water and I felt like swimming in the air. That is the best way I can describe how I felt after contact improv.

(Before leaving, we did another analytical round of words that describe how we feel inside. Mine was “korisev”, meaning “rumbling” in Estonian, because boy was I hungry.)

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