An interview between Simon Garbe and Rosalind Holgate Smith, which took place at Ponderosa, a dance centre in Germany in October 2022
Simon: What is Contact Improvisation?
Rosalind: Contact Improvisation is a dance practice that is about our relationship, our relationship principally explored through touch. Our relationship with the earth, our relationship with being in this world in which we are continuously in touch, continuously in touch with our skin. That is in touch with the air, in touch with the ground and in the practice, when we practice Contact Improvisation, we explore being in touch also with other humans, being in touch with other bodies, that can mean a lot. It can mean a lot to come into proximity with somebody else, let alone come into physical touch.
There is a lot of exchange, exchange of emotions, and chemistry. In Contact Improvisation primarily we investigate the physics. The physics of sharing weight starts with our relationship with the ground. When we come together as dancers we explore sharing weight and sharing forces, of momentum, of pressure, of resistance and in that there is the desire to move.
We seem to want to keep moving in the world and the momentum that moves through our bodies drives us into into space. In Contact we try to attune with each other, we try to follow through by getting into the momentum to create dances that are flowing and harmonious. I am perhaps, in this whole exploration of Contact Improvisation, looking also a bit beyond the dance.
I'm exploring how I can apply the principles of atuning with my dance partners to how I can attune to be and feel more with, of and in the world. Contact Improvisation prompts me to ask and explore also how I can be in other spaces with people, and so I am questioning in everyday spaces, how can I be with my family? How can I be at home? And how can I be receptive, playful and kind with myself in these different contexts?
Contact Improvisation involves a lot of listening. Listening within, to what's going on, to sensations and ones experience and listening that involves looking out externally to what's going on; to what's shifting in the room, or what's going on across the road. Listening, people tend think about typically as an auditory thing, but in Contact Improvisation we are listening through our skin, or through touch.
Doctors suggest that touch is the first sense to develop in the womb. In Contact the sense of touch becomes a window to connect with the ground, to connect with my experience of being in my body. I really love to come back to the sense of touch, and to explore it. In the very beginning of a jam or a warm up, I am often dancing on the floor. Contact Improvisers do this a lot, we move in relationship with the ground, rolling, sliding, giving weight into the ground, and reaching in. As my first partner my touch with the ground enlivens my skin, that seems to awaken many more of my senses. Like my sense of movement, my sense of smell, my sense of light. So I'm enlivened through my touch to my other senses.
Simon: Can you describe what you and participants actually do when you dance? In a Contact jam?
Rosalind: When we dance Contact Improvisation, we touch and we listen through the skin to the small shifts of weight. We start to learn to give our weight, we lean in, to look through the touch to where's there is weight, where can we fall, or pour weight into each other. So we are kind of falling into each other. When we exchange and share weight, we move and we try to move together, looking for where there's movement already happening and where we can go with the weight that comes in. We try to keep the movement going, to look for where the falling weight creates momentum, and where it wants to go, and then we dance with it, we raise it up and down and we spiral a lot.
We travel through space together, we roll in and out of the ground. We fly quite a lot on top of each other. And as a form of improvisation we're always going into the unknown. There are no set movements. If both partners can committ to follow the momentum unfolding we're always navigating through new spaces. Sometimes it takes a little bit of work to surrender to this because humans like and get used to patterns.
I think it's a human habit. We like familiarity. Nita Little, one of my teachers of Contact Improvisation from the first generation kept saying that ‘if you know what you're going to do next, don't do it‘. Sometimes I'm reminding myself with this, to open up to new possibilities, to listen a little bit more.
Simon: What do people do when they first come into a Contact Improvisation space or jam?
Rosalind: We arrive, first of all with ourselves, and with each other.
It's a lot about doing less somehow, taking away the moves that you might learn in salsa or, I don't know, Zumba or whatever other dance form that you might have encountered forms and patterns. Listening to yourself, to each other, to the small shifts happening to stay in balance. It can be quite meditative, learning to listen and finding the dance that wants to unfold together.
Simon: How do you think about touch?
Rosalind: I think about touch in lots of ways. I think about touch being right here where we are sat on the dance floor. I'm sat on a carpet, that adds a bit of warmth. I think about being in touch with you in this conversation, I've been trying to simplify a little bit, to think about touch as really that physical presence of another surface, but I'm aware touch can mean many things before becoming actually physical. Like consent, there is usually a yes, or a no, some kind of finding out whether I agree, do I want to meet in this place. Yeah in Contact Improvisation we like looking for the mutuality. We look for permission the openness to receive some information. Touch brings information and I decide if and how open I am to receive it.
In Contact Improvisation we open up alot to each other to receive information through the skin. I've been thinking also about touch and questioning what kinds of touch do we know from practicing Contact Improvisation? There's a vocabulary, there's stuff that we're doing when we are reaching into the ground, giving weight, listening through the skin, and playing with pressure. Through the touch we can be questioning how much pressure? how little pressure? In learning to dance Contact Improvisation, I'm exploring, testing and learning through this language of touch, how to read another, how to communicate, how to say yes, how to say no, how to explore all the folds, the textures, and the landscape in between. Every surface is unique. So touch for me is rich. It's really alive and complex and sometimes it brings with it lots of emotion.
There's also the touch of the clothes that come between you and I when we dance. The touch of what it means to be in a group, what it means to be held, and what it means to be outdoors in nature.
Simon: How do you see Contact Improvisation to be significant now?
Rosalind: Contact Improvisation Now? We're in these weird times, right? We’ve just been through a pandemic in which there were so many regulations on being with other people and it feels so important now to be in relationship, to really be in touch with each other. We're going through so so many changes in the environment, in the climate, political shifts and that does stuff with us, it moves us, collectively and personally, how it challenges us, how it feels and what it means to us?
We're so much now in this technological age, functioning with the support of computers and technology, and it's really fast pace a lot of this communication. In some ways I feel contact Improvisation remedies that a little bit, by inviting me to slow down, to tune in to myself, to be with another and to develop this listening, to develop this empathy and to realise that we are often experiencing very similar things. It helps me feel less alone.
In dance our struggles to show our selves and to be seen, tend to get revealed. Since Contact Improvisation has first and foremost this exploration through touch, that anchors me to accept being here in the present moment and that can encourage me consequently to show myself a bit more and it helps me learn to be with others, in relationship and community. I've been practicing for maybe nearly 15 years now and im still not bored because it keeps opening up new windows of acceptance, of being with myself and with others. So I think in 2022, Contact Improvisation is pretty important.
Simon: Is there anything else that keeps you coming back to Contact Improvisation?
Rosalind: …it's really nourishing. It's really nourishing my soul and it's really nourishing my sense of being in this world. I feel alive, being in touch, being with my emotions, and that I can accept myself, and that other people accept me. I keep realising things I didn't know were possible and that’s exciting. And there's these moments of of exhilaration also when in the improvisation of highly dynamic dances. I discover new pathways. I never now whats coming next and I think it gives me a lot of space to keep exploring myself and to maybe re-invent myself also. I enjoy also the poetry. There's a lot of poetry I see in Contact Improvisation spaces, when people tune in I enjoy noticing the magic of connections and seeing compositions occur. Experiencing relationships unfold can be beautiful and sometimes quite mesmerising.
Thank you Simon Garbe, also for the photo.