Issue Arts Back Next


Contact improv celebrates 25 years

by Anna E. Hiller

"In 25 years, Contact Improvisation has gone almost everywhere," said Steve Paxton, leader of the two-week Contact Improv workshop that ends this weekend. In relation to the 25th Anniversary of Contact Improv, the art has blossomed; aside from the Winter Term course, the year-long courses in Contact and Paxton's workshop, there are two other large events planned. The first is a jam scheduled for Apr. 19 and 20 called Back to the Source, followed by a Jubilee Celebration and Conference from June 4-15.

Paxton was a founder of Contact Improv 25 years ago in Oberlin when he was working on his seminal piece, Magnesium, - described as being akin to "a bar-room brawl." But all jokes aside, the image Paxton evokes when speaking of Contact Improvisation in action is perceptively real in the unique energy that the dance creates. Dancers roll, fall on each other and collide at random, pairing and unpairing with ease, the dance itself surprisingly fluid.

Aside from the fact that Contact Improv was virtually born at Oberlin and now holds worldwide attention, it is the philosophy behind the dance that attracts the audience. Paxton, who was trained in other forms of dance as well as the martial arts, explained that Contact Improv came from a desire to explore the "democratic" in dance. Usually in the performing arts, a leader must be designated in order to maintain structure. "It's dictatorial," Paxton says, "and for good reasons."

Dancers who learn Contact Improvisation are told to listen to the other person's movement and to follow it. From the interaction comes "the third entity between two people in touch," explained Paxton. "It is the dance." This is a form of Contact Improv where touch, pressure and weight are the three main communicators. No one is a designated leader, nor follower. As the dancers move together, Paxton said, "You are able to feel something of their physical reality," and touch becomes the "uniter."

Paxton describes the body as a tool, reaching out to probe and explore the space around it and within it. In Magnesium, for example, the performers came to a standstill in the final minutes, backs straight, listening to what Paxton called the "small dance;" becoming aware of the smallest motions and workings of the body. He explained that he encourages students to call the mind to serve as "a witness and not as a dictator" of movement. "[Contact Improv] has been one of the great teachers in my life," Paxton said.

Others share his enthusiasm and appreciation. Contact Improv is now a staple of several dance programs in this country and abroad. With democracy as the goal, however, difficulties lie in teaching the art. Paxton said emphatically, "Everyone is considered to be a student." On the other hand, he noted that the teacher can aid in assessing physical weaknesses that students might possess, and help to find out "where they're at" physically.

Ann Cooper Albright, associate professor of dance, said that as a teacher, her job is to "give [students] the skills to facilitate their dancing...and teaching awareness and sensation." She explained that Contact Improv can be intimidating at first, and that the student must become open, mentally and physically, to touch.

Cooper Albright is presently teaching Continuing Contact in addition to working on the series of aforementioned events celebrating the Contact Improv anniversary. She originally envisioned a free-form "jam" that would be like "the old days" when people would get together and dance for free. "The best thing about it," said Cooper Albright of her involvement in the art, "is that I get to learn." She also feels that the series is important for the students, to help them realize what an important role Oberlin had in creating this dance form.


Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 14; February 14, 1997

Contact Review webmaster with suggestions or comments at
Contact Review editorial staff at