On the Move

Improv Dancers Have Impact

Micah Trapp, top, and Ash Lee, practice Contact Improv dance in the Marvin Center at GWU. In the background, Amanda Abrams and John Glenn take part.
Micah Trapp, top, and Ash Lee, practice Contact Improv dance in the Marvin Center at GWU. In the background, Amanda Abrams and John Glenn take part. (Photos By Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
By Hetty Lipscomb
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 4, 2005

LYING ON HIS back on the smooth wood floor, a man lifts his legs, knees bent. Another dancer places the man's feet solidly on her hips. Grasping her hands, the man slowly pushes his legs up, steadying his partner before letting go. She balances in the air for a moment, arms outstretched, before slowing tilting back toward the floor, where the two spring apart like acrobats at the circus.

And that's just a warm-up.

Welcome to the Washington D.C. Contact Improvisation Jam, a dance event held Sundays from 11:30 to 2 at George Washington University's Marvin Center. Attracting dancers ages 19 to 70, the D.C. Jam has met continuously for more than 15 years. Although not, perhaps, one of the more well-known dance forms, Contact Improv has a widespread network of enthusiastic participants. "It's sort of underground," D.C. Jam coordinator Ken Manheimer says. "It's like folk dancing in that it's grass-roots. But the big -- and somewhat beguiling -- difference is that you don't have a clear structure; you are constantly finding [one] with your partner as you dance."

Formulated in the 1970s by then-New York-based dancers Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, Contact Improv has roots in postmodern dance, which eschews formal choreography and incorporates pedestrian movement. Added to the mix are Paxton's and Stark Smith's different athletic backgrounds -- his in aikido, hers in gymnastics. Their eclecticism reflects that of D.C. Jam participants: former professional modern dancers now working in foreign policy think tanks, athletes who are computer software designers, yoga and Alexander Technique (body realignment therapy) instructors, and "a number of dance students and dabblers, like me," says Manheimer, 46. As a result, a typical jam will feature elements from various disciplines: One woman will stand in the Proud Warrior yoga pose while another will execute high jumps with the straight-legged grace of a classical ballet dancer.

For all its freedoms, there are some guiding principles in Contact Improv. An essential one is "point of contact." "Simply, it's the place on two bodies where you are leaning into each other," explains John Glenn, 39, a D.C. Jam regular. "In Contact Improv, inspiration for dance doesn't come outside from music, like in traditional dance; it comes from the moving point of contact, the exchange of weight and balance." You may start out leaning against your partner, say, palm to palm, but eventually your weight will shift, and you'll press into your partner's arm or shoulder. "The point of contact can change infinite ways," Glenn says, "so the dance can go in infinite directions."

Other jam guidelines are described in the Underscore, a set of notations devised by Stark Smith that define possible connections between Contact Improv participants. Underscore elements are not directives, but descriptions, a visual "alphabet" of sorts that dancers can use to create richer improvisations. Sitting in on a recent jam session of a small group of dancers, I can identify some of the Underscore connections, including Intersection, where two dancers momentarily cross paths. Here, one woman slowly rolls along the floor when another dancer skips over her, as if jumping over a puddle, and continues on her way. In Divergence, a couple walks grandly together holding hands as if engaged in an elegant minuet before drifting apart. Most impressive is Collision, where the energy of an improvisation attracts a group: Two men carry a third across their backs and shoulders. As they lunge in one direction, other dancers join in and, leaning together in support, momentarily create a composition reminiscent of the famous Iwo Jima sculpture, only instead of a flag, some guy's foot is in the air.

Despite its intense physicality, Manheimer declares that Contact Improv is also "an active meditation. . . . You're engaged in being alert and acting on that awareness." That mind-set is evident in "small dance," improvisations based on modest, everyday movements. Two people, for example, can touch fingertips in "E.T." fashion and follow the wavering line that develops. I try this exercise with Manheimer, keeping my eyes closed. As a result I am more aware of the subtle motions of our dance. Up, down, across and through, I see in my mind's eye the depth and range of the line we create, akin to an Alexander Calder mobile. Furthermore, neither one of us is "leading." "Just following the contact point together can be extremely engaging," Manheimer says. "It doesn't require athleticism; it just requires attention."

Contact Improv participant Gretchen Dunn, 70, expands on the importance of that meditative communication between dancers. "There's always a compromise, a guiding-leading amalgam that makes a dance. It is the 'listening' which is so crucial and such a pleasure."

A person's skill level or movement background is irrelevant. "One of the wonderful things about Contact Improv is that people of all different sizes, shapes, skill levels and so on come and dance," Glenn says. "And you'll see different improvisations based on who is dancing . . . a tall person dancing with a short person will have a tall-person/short-person dance and two athletes will have an athletic dance and two beginners will have a beginner dance -- and often beginners have the most beautiful dances!"

"Critical mass is vital to a jam's success," Manheimer says. "The more the merrier."

WASHINGTON D.C. CONTACT IMPROVISATION JAM -- Marvin Center, second-floor dance studio, George Washington University, 800 21st St. NW. Metro: Foggy Bottom-GWU. Sundays 11:30 to 2 when university is open. Free.http://www.contactimprov.net. An introduction to Contact Improv Underscore is offered the first Sunday of each month.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company