Contact improvisation is one of the most welcoming and friendly dance forms that you can do. It’s for people of all body types, ages, backgrounds, and athletic ability. We at the Los Angeles jam pride ourselves on being friendly and open to newcomers — we love to see new people falling in love with contact improvisation and we love beginners’ energy.
Here then is a compilation of tips, advice, and words of wisdom for those of you starting in contact improvisation.
What is Contact Improvisation?
Contact improvisation (or CI, or “contact”) has always been difficult to define, in part because it’s intentionally undefined, in part because it continues to evolve and change.
However, one definition might be that contact improvisation is a social dance that arises out of modern dance traditions. One of its central principles is a rolling point of contact between two (sometimes less, sometimes more) people through which both dancers give and share weight. It’s somewhere between tango, modern dance, aikido, wrestling, gymnastics, and none of the above, and usually takes place without music. People dance contact in any combination of genders, there are no “steps,” and it’s entirely improvised.
You can find a few more definitions at contactimprov.net.
How can I start? Should I take a class?
While a class can be helpful for developing good fundamentals and learning certain advanced skills, you can start by simply doing. Show up at the LA jam and let people know that you’re new to contact improvisation. People will be happy to give you introductory instruction.
The Bring (or Be) a Beginner Night takes place once every month at the Los Angeles – Santa Monica jam, at which beginners are especially encouraged to attend and we start the evening with a class/warmup suitable for all levels. Please click back to the “CONTACT IMPROVISATION LOS ANGELES” link above to find which Sundays are scheduled as Bring (or Be) a Beginner Nights.
What’s a “jam”?
A CI jam is where people come together to practice and play at the form/art/sport of contact improvisation. Though jams are as loosely defined as CI itself, any CI jam will nevertheless likely contain the following elements:
- dancing (probably mostly contact improvisation, although who’s to say?)
You may also find some of these elements: hardwood floors
-performance and workshop announcements
Can I arrive late or leave early at the LA jam?
Certainly. However, we do names at our opening and closing circles, so being there at the beginning and/or end is a good way to get to know people.
What to Wear
Dress comfortably in clothing that allows a free range of movement. It’s probably better to have clothing without buckles, buttons, or large zippers, as they can be uncomfortable to roll over while dancing. It’s usually better to have clothing that covers the legs, since you may be on your knees on occasion. Don’t worry about footwear; barefoot is usually the best option. (Although sometimes people have been known to dance in socks or dance shoes, socks can be slippery and dance shoes can accidentally squash toes, so you should be careful if you wear either.) I typically wear sweat pants, a T-shirt, and a long-sleeve T-shirt over that while warming up.
Avoid large dangly pieces of jewelry; they can get caught on or under something, which can be awkward and/or dangerous. If you need to tie your hair back, I recommend doing so with something soft — a scrunchy or rubber band instead of a hair clip.
– Richard Kim
What Else to Bring
Expect to sweat a fair bit, so you may want to bring a change of clothes. There’s filtered water at Dance Home, so there’s no need to bring any. Experienced contacters often wear Chinese kneepads, which are thinner than typical kneepads and allow more range of movement. However, you should be able to get through your first jam without any (and some long-time dancers don’t wear them at all). If you want to be super-prepared, you can order kneepads through the Contact Quarterly.
– Richard Kim
What to Expect
Every jam is a little bit different. However, a typical jam experience at the Los Angeles jam might go something like this:
The jam “officially” starts at 6:30 with an “opening circle,” which consists of a brief introduction and greetings. Sometimes, that will be followed by a class on some aspect of contact improvisation or by a “group warmup” for those who want to participate.
Often, individuals will continue to arrive throughout the evening. Most dancers take some time to warm up by themselves when they first arrive, using whatever routines work best for them. Over the course of the next two-and-a-half hours, people will join in and out of dances. Most of these will be duets, but occasionally—and often towards the end of the night—some contacters will dance in trios or larger groups. In between “partner dances,” many dancers will continue to improvise, stretch, and dance on their own.
Without music, it is up to the dancers to determine when they’ve arrived at an ending to their dance. There have been times when this writer has danced all night with only one or two others or has preferred to “solo” all night, but by and large, one can expect to have at least three to four different dances over the course of an evening. A short dance might last less than five minutes, while a particularly long dance might last over thirty minutes. Every now and then, a single duo or trio might dance together for the entire jam, but this is rare.
At the LA jam, we almost always end the evening with a “closing circle” and an exchange of names, after which, folks often go someplace nearby to eat or drink.
– James Ysidro
What Are the Weirdest Parts of Contact Improvisation?
Well, there’s contact. Lots of it, with no specified gender combination. While all of that contact can theoretically be a bit difficult to deal with, in practice most people acclimate to it rather quickly. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re uncomfortable with the amount or type of contact, consider communicating this to your partner, either verbally or non-verbally.
Socially, some aspects of contact improvisation can be difficult for those new to it, precisely because there is no set etiquette or rules. Beginners sometimes look for the rules that tell them when they’re doing things “okay” and when they’re not. The only rule is that each dancer is responsible for his/her own safety and comfort.
How Do I Ask Someone to Dance?
There is no set etiquette for asking someone to dance. At the LA jam, the majority of dances probably start as the result of someone verbally asking someone else to dance. But dances also start in many other ways. Sometimes dancing next to an individual or duo will result in a dance, as will wordlessly making contact with someone who is already moving in a “dancerly” way. Sometimes, a chance collision between different sets of dancers will result in a change of partners.
Of course, just like asking outright, sometimes these methods don’t result in a dance. However, by and large, most people are at the jam to dance and appreciate any opportunity to do so.
– James Ysidro
When Does a Dance End?
A dance ends… when it ends! You and/or your partner agree on when to end the dance. There is no wrong or right time to end a dance, and no wrong or right way to end a dance. Be aware of when you might want to stop, be sensitive to your partner, and end the dance when you think it should end. Dances can last (and have lasted!) from ten seconds to all evening.
– Richard Kim