Keeping in touch
Contact improv classes
Every Monday evening, a small group of people gathers at Flux Movement Lab, 646 Eureka Ave., to practice contact improv dance, a form that blends modern dance, improvisation, and the kind of weight exchange with which martial arts practitioners are familiar.
Flux’s weekly contact improv jam usually draws five to 10 people, sometimes more. It’s led by instructor Erica French, whose been dancing since she was a child.
“My mom put me in ballet, so I grew up dancing,” French said. “But it wasn’t until I was in college, and I went to school for dance at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, that I discovered that I love modern dance. It seemed more natural for the body. It seemed easier and just more organic—not trying to force things. It was more of an authentic giving of expression that I think a lot of people in society are looking for right now.”
French discovered contact improv during college but said she only began practicing it regularly about two years ago.
“I had a divorce that was pretty traumatic, and then contact, in short, was a great way to connect with people in a way that felt safe and wholesome and healthy and fun and playful,” she said. “As an adult, you don’t really get that a lot.”
When French first started organizing contact improv jams in the Truckee Meadows, people began turning up for different reasons—but a common one, she said, was to feel a sense of connection.
“There’s the fun and the game of it and the challenge of it, of course, but there’s also that feeling connected, too,” she said. “Contact, in a way, is an offshoot of modern dance. But there are a lot of people who get into contact from other mediums, like martial arts.”
French has met the people who make up her regular cadre of contact improv participants in many different places. Many of them have different dance backgrounds and interests. They all describe contact improv in different ways, and they became involved in French’s weekly jam events for different reasons.
Jack Rothschild is a regular jam participant who met French swing dancing at a club. He said a sense of connection with other people was an important part of contact improv’s initial appeal to him. He used to attend jams like French’s when he lived in Boston, where he said there are at least four or five such weekly events.
“I’m also a physical kind of person,” Rothschild said. “I used to be a phys-ed teacher. To me it’s a combination of ballet and gymnastics almost. I like both parts of that.”
Another regular jam participant is Marius Poliac, who met French blues dancing out on the town a few years ago. He’s a mathematician, a tango dancer and a former rock climber among other things.
“I think contact is somewhere between rock climbing and tango dancing,” Poliac said. “Rock climbing requires you to be right in the present because, otherwise, you can die. Tango, you don’t die, but you have to have a very strong connection with your partner. Also, tango is improvisational.”
Before French established contact improv jams in the Truckee Meadows about two years ago, Poliac used to travel to the Bay Area to attend them. He said the local jam has made him “so happy,” because for him, it’s more than an opportunity for connection or play. Poliac uses the improv dance sessions as a type of therapy for his Parkinson’s disease and said it helps him maintain balance mobility and, importantly, posture.
“Parkinson’s will make you walk stooped over,” he said, “When I go home after contact improv, my wife says, ‘You grew two inches!'”
In a jam
What does a contact improv jam look like?
Before leading an impromptu one on a recent Sunday evening, French explained, “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’re just rolling on the floor with each other.’ It’s like, ‘No, you’ve got to get past that.’ There’s a lot of awkwardness and a lot of laughing and weird noises.”
The basic premise is to create shared points of contact with other dancers and, in turn, new centers of gravity that change as partners lean into, push and shift around one another.
“Contact is like empathetic mirroring, kinesthetic mirroring,” French said. “There’s no lead and no follow, and there’s no right or wrong. It’s just really being open to that connection point. … There are lots of little techniques we use to help people find natural ways of moving, but that’s just scaffolding. It’s framework. Playfulness is getting away from the fear of the unknown and your body doing weird things and just exploring.”
At a recent jam, French put participants into a playful mood by first leading them in an exercise where they were to imagine their heads had a great enough weight to slowly pull them to the floor. The dancers slowly tumbled to the ground, rolled and rose again. Giggling ensued.
The next exercise had them bring their heads together, as if magnetically pulled and then repelled. As people warmed up, French invited them to move freely—to “jam"—without instruction. As the jam progressed, the participants’ movements became more exaggerated—the mock magnetic forces between them resulting in intertwined somersaults and dancers spinning circles around a series of ever shifting axes created by their constantly maintained touch.
Watching contact improv, some inexperienced dancers might initially feel intimidated by the flowing, almost contortionist-like movements—but French insists that it’s a dance form that can work for anyone and encourages newbies to attend a jam.
“The first time I really did contact, it took me about three hours to really let go,” she said. “It can be scary, but once you figure it out, it’s very grounding.”