It is two hours into Karl Frost’s two-day contact improvisation workshop at Dance Jam headquarters in Ventura, and I am watching my partner, Brenda – a tall, energetic woman in her 30s – roll along the floor. We have been instructed to touch points on our partners’ bodies with our hands, drawing attention to their spine, head, shoulder, ankle, knee, hip and hand, without guiding their strange, deliberate movements. As she stretches and curls I hover, extending and retracting my hand, afraid of intruding on her careful exploration with my presence. When we finish, she thanks me, but casually mentions that perhaps next time I could hold my touch. Looking around at the roomful of observers, all comfortably following their partner’s progress with their hands, I realize she is right. I wonder: Could I be afraid of contact?
A curious activity
Curiosity may be Frost’s favorite word. The lithe dancer with the wild head of hair and red cotton pants uses it constantly, advising his students to "follow your curiosity" so frequently they repeat it back to him. While struggling to articulate a question, one man fumbles, "I don’t know how to express this curiosity."
Curiosity has played a crucial role in Frost’s life. It led him to discover modern dance as a student photographer for the UC Berkeley campus newspaper in the late 1980s, and later contact improvisation, during an Earth Dance retreat in Massachusetts. A science student, his "main curiosity was the physics." But in the 20 years Frost has spent sharing contact improvisation through international workshops and performances, he has discovered a deeper passion for the philosophy behind the movement.
"It’s about this touch, this connection, and we’re listening to what’s there. It’s an unfolding sensation," he explains. "We’re playing with our relationship in space, but really what we’re playing with is the feeling of it. … It’s never-ending, what I discover about my body, about my psyche."
A 36-year-old art-sport with roots in stage and performance dance, contact improvisation has evolved into what Frost calls a "post-modern social dance" that investigates "the possibilities of bodies moving into and through time." More well-known in Europe, where familiarity with the style is virtually required of contemporary dancers seeking work, contact improvisation in the United States has flourished primarily in dance subcultures, gaining popularity through workshops such as this and social gatherings known as contact jams: unfacilitated spaces where individuals gather to practice.
Contact improvisation defies easy explanation, because the only "technique" required is openness – to intimacy, to the desires of one’s own body and subconscious, and to the space it creates for the emergence of new forms and a physical dialogue with another person. It demands resistance to the linear part of the brain that tries to steer the body into familiar shapes.
Even for earnest beginners, accessing that interior freedom can pose challenges. So Frost says he encourages his students to approach the experience with, of course, curiosity.
"It just brings one into a much more sensual enjoyment of the body. There’s a lot of fear sometimes around getting it right – something about how our education system works," he says distastefully. "There’s a lot of fear in it, a lot of judgment. For some people, the encouragement they need is to let go of ideas of right and wrong. It’s just – what’s your curiosity?" He spreads his hands, an expansive gesture that encompasses him, me, the workshop, the world. "What’s your curiosity?"
Dorie Zabriskie, founder of Dance Jam, a freestyle dance group that meets monthly at the Makoto Dojo studio in Ventura and is hosting Frost as a special event, first fell in love with contact improvisation when she attended one of Frost’s workshops in Northern California.
"At first, I was really afraid of the floor, and I was afraid of people," the petite brunette says. But then she had an encounter with a male attendee that changed everything. "We just started dancing, and we had the most intense, personal, strong, physical conversation – without words. It was instant intimacy, instant communication. I just loved it. He had a partner – it didn’t matter. This isn’t about sex. It’s about body conversations."
For newcomers, the most difficult and rewarding aspect of contact improvisation seems to be, well, the contact.
"There’s this otter-like play that comes out in the physical exploration of contact that’s really delicious," Frost says. "At the same time, our culture carries so much ‘stuff’ around human interaction that’s always around the corner. We tend to be very nontouching. There’s something really magical about dropping some of our normal social codes and finding a new way of playing together."
Even some of the participants in today’s workshop approached Zabriskie beforehand to admit their nervousness about all this touching. "Just think about how puppies greet each other," she advised them. She scrunched her nose playfully, wriggling her head from side to side. "They wiggle, they snuggle. They get close."
Frost opens the workshop with a series of warm-ups designed to shift the class out of our heads and into our bodies. He invites us to walk around the room, slowly at first, conscious of the shift of our weight and the swing of our arms, then with increasing speed. He urges us to notice our direction and to change it. Now, to sense the bodies surrounding us, to make eye contact, and when we do, to drop to the floor.
"Bonus points if you can keep eye contact on the way down," he says.
Soon the room is buzzing as striding couples suddenly lock eyes and tumble to the ground as if parodying ecstatic love, holding contact through their somersaults before finally breaking the gaze and springing back to their feet.
He next directs us to pair off, and I meet Brenda, whose 5-feet-11-inch stature relieves my concern about crushing someone with my 6-feet-2-inch frame. We begin a human rolling pin activity in which one person lies on their front while the other settles their stomach at a right angle into the hollow of the first person’s back. The top person then rolls along the length of the other’s body, massaging the back, buttocks and thighs with her weight.
My body aches from a long week, and when Brenda reaches my shoulders, my spine cracks like staccato gunfire. When it comes my turn to roll, I at first support my weight with my elbows, anxious not to aggravate an old knee injury Brenda had mentioned. But with her encouragement I gradually relax my arms, discovering the surprising softness and elasticity of human flesh. Bodies, it seems, know how to respond to other bodies.
Contact improvisation may be the ultimate form of empathy, responding to the physical choices of another person without words or judgment. Watching Frost demonstrate the first true act of improvisation with a partner, I see a glimpse of what can be tender, funny and true in this art form.
The partner begins by creating angles and curves with his body, as Frost moves around and through him, creating complementary and opposing shapes in the negative space. The man forms a plank, and Frost steps over. A triangle bridge pose, and Frost offsets it with a leg planted underneath him. The partner sits erectly, hands resting on bent knees, and Frost mimics him, the two resembling a pair of toucans on a branch. The class laughs. Then the man drops to the floor in a fetal position, and Frost gently cups a hand over his head. The class softly aahs.
The animal inside
Brenda stands for her turn as the observer in the touch exercise, and I close my eyes to begin my own careful exploration of movement.
As I shift onto all fours, it moves to my spine, pulling me into an awareness of its curvature, and I play with its arc. I sink down into sitting. When I roll my head, Brenda’s hand is there, carefully following its small half-moon, then its larger sweep as I descend onto my back. Her hand rests on mine as I stretch my arms above my shoulders. I don’t want to break the contact. Instead, I bring my ankles over my head to meet my fingers. We hold that fragile position for a breath, and then the activity ends.
By the time I leave, only a third of the way through the 12-hour workshop, I feel spectacular: vibrant, alive, liberated and stimulated in a way I haven’t felt in months. Every nerve of my body tingles.
According to Frost, that is as it should be. "There’s a certain part of our animal that’s just a gregarious entity," he says. "[Contact improvisation] just allows that animal part of ourselves to breathe a little bit more, so we can feel like whole human beings."
For more info on contact improvisation, visit Karl Frost’s Web site at www.bodyresearch.org.