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The Small Dance (part i)

February 13, 2011

In contact improvisation we speak of “the small dance.”  This dance is not a dance as a spectator would traditionally see it.  This dance is the rhythm of the body in stillness.

But it’s not really “stillness”.

As my first teacher would say “We are never truly still,” we are bodies in constant motion.  Minute adjustments, the waves of cascading motion fall through us as we stand erect, “unmoving”.  When I first stopped to listen to this small dance, I was in a course and our instructor took us from intense movement—walking, runny, leaping—to stillness, to closing the eyes, and to turning our attention inward, to the internal dance of the body.

At first, this seemed like logical phenomenon.  Yes, of course we are constantly moving, constantly adjusting, blood pumping, lungs breathing.  This makes anatomical sense!  However, in time the experience of that internal movement gave me a fuller, richer perspective on my body and on dance.

Standing there that day, I found myself first aware of the tiny adjustments in my feet and then how that translated to shifts of weight in my torso and the slight inclinations of my neck.  They were movements; I was aware of them.  I took note but I didn’t initially think of them as a “dance” in the strictest sense.  Just as the lovers of classical baroque art may look at abstract field painting and think “ok, I see some squares and some colors….what’s the point? Where’s the narrative?  Where’s the composition?” so too was I aware of these movements but not of their connection, not of any broader sense of weight or implication.

My first sense of greater motion came as I began to feel a sway in my tiny movements:  the pattern, the sequence, the flow of movement through limbs.  Back and forth, side to side, and round it moved.  This was starting to feel more like a dance.

Later on, I became aware of how meaningful those small movements were.  This past fall I was at a jam where we began a partnered dance by going inward in our own small dance, then moving to stand back to back and turning our attention to the small dance created between two people standing in contact and finally, we were instructed to let this small dance grow and become the impetus for our dance together.

Ah, then the magic truly took shape!

As we began to let our small sways and movements expand into larger ones and take flight our dance together grew forth in a way that felt natural and full.  The movements of the small dance connected to each other and to the motion of a large full-bodied dance in a very real way.  For the first time that day, I had a glimpse of understanding, a knowing in my mind and in my muscles how the small dance integrally shapes our movements.  The small dance was the seed, the whisperings on the edge of consciousness that moved through us and allowed us to move fully into the experience of dance.

For more information on contact improvisation, check out Contact Quarterly.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Erin permalink
    February 13, 2011 1:39 pm

    Rachel,
    that is so beautiful, and just what I needed to hear today. I have been struggling with wanting to focus on what my body is feeling and telling me, but always feeling so stuck in my head that it is difficult to listen. I periodically think about trying contact improv. I think that it would be really helpful, but it is scary to open myself up like that. Today I am making a promise to myself that I will take the next available class. Thank you!

    • February 13, 2011 5:03 pm

      Erin, I’m so glad this fit for you! I know that contact can definitely be intimidating when you first start out but too I’ve found folks are really good about meeting you in the dance wherever you are comfort-wise or experience-wise and you may just surprise yourself. I’d love to hear how it goes!

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