The Dance Beat

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What’s new in the world of dance? Bwog’s resident dance specialist, Siobhan Burke, returns to answer the question.

Dancers, non-dancers, musicians, people who dance/make music alone in their rooms/cars/the shower: All are invited to come out and play—with movement, with sound, and most importantly, with each other—at Sunday night’s no-experience-necessary contact improv jam session, 7–9 p.m. in Barnard’s Streng Studio.

A contact improvisation jam—at least the one I attended last weekend, my first ever—is, for a dancer, like recess for a restless first-grader or playtime for one of those puppies that gets hauled to the grocery store in a purse. Next to the daily rituals of dance class, in which you basically move as you’re told, or academic work, in which your mind churns but your body stays still, an improv jam is magnificently freeing. Quite simply, your body can do what it wants, without the pressure to master, comply, or perform in any particular way. The one guiding principle—which puts the “contact” in “contact improv”—is to let movement grow out of physical touch with the people around you, to lift, nudge, embrace, and support your way through a fluid give-and-take of bodily weight.

The organizing force behind Sunday-night contact improv is Lorene Bouboushian, Barnard sophomore and devoted dance collectivist. In an effort to cultivate a wide-open “creative space” for music and movement, Lorene has successfully orchestrated two jams this semester, drawing fifteen dancers and a lively drum circle to the first, and a smaller but equally eager group to the second. Encouraged by the response so far, she’s hoping that next semester, the jam can become a bimonthly gathering. (If you can’t make it this Sunday, keep an eye out for future fliers.)

The key to a successful jam, Lorene says, lies in finding enough people who feel comfortable in a highly physical, improvisational setting, and who are willing to step outside the structure of a conventional class or rehearsal. A fulfilling contact experience, trite though it may seem, is mainly a matter of moving in the moment, of maintaining a ready, responsive physical awareness. That’s why, according to Lorene, the most important tool you can bring to a jam is not necessarily your dance training, but an adventurous, inquisitive attitude. “Even if you come in with little experience,” she says, “you can learn from the others who do have it. What’s important is that you come with an open mind and a willingness to listen to signals from the people around you.”

Contact improv, as open-ended and widely practiced as it may be (go to Australia, Norway, or Argentina, and you can find a jam session), is steeped in theory and history. Springing from the movement studies of postmodern dancers Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, it traces its roots to the anti-establishment dance of the late sixties and early seventies. Before my first jam session last weekend, I had read about Paxton’s 1972 Magnesium, a fearlessly athletic work for eleven men catapulting (at each other) through space. I had also seen footage of Paxton and Smith dancing together in the studio, their two bodies moving like a single unit in swift, effortless symbiosis. As I warmed up pre-jam, these images of virtuosity, of expertise, came to mind, and nerves set in. Unsure of what to expect in the hours ahead, I pictured something like Magnesium coming to life right there in Streng Studio: bodies flying at each other high-speed, my own tossed around, disoriented, in an unhinged kinetic whirlwind.

Of course, that’s not how it went down. While some people broke out a noticeably advanced kinesthetic vocab of full-tilt lifts and spins, others were newer to the form. Depending on the style of your partner(s), your own frame of mind, and the mood of the music, the pace could be rapid and reckless, or tempered, slow and gentle. In either case, dancers and musicians were sensitive and receptive to each other’s impulses, and Lorene’s words held true: “It’s really about learning to listen.”

For many contact improv enthusiasts, one of the most exciting aspects of a jam is the potential for discovery, for invention by chance. Lorene recalls a session at American Dance Festival when two women danced palm-to-palm, trancelike, for an hour. “A lot of cool stuff can happen,” she says, “that probably won’t get repeated ever again in your life.” She also points out that while contact jams stretch the boundaries of body-to-body physicality, stillness and solitude can be just as compelling. “A jam setting doesn’t necessarily have to be about constant touching and dance. Mainly it should be a creative space, both for the dancers and the musicians.” So bring your bodies, your instruments, or both, and, as Lorene puts it, “just see what happens.”

Sunday 11/18, 7-9pm, Streng Studio, Barnard Dance Annex.

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  1. grace  

    lorene is wicked awesome.

  2. I really  

    enjoy these pieces. They make me want to be more cultured. And Siobhan is a good, unpretentious writer. Nice to read people writing about something they really understand.

  3. word up

    i played music for contact improv at barnard. it's the fucking bomb.

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