I try my best to embrace the chaotic, contradictory, random abundance and confusion around me (and inside me) and bring it all into balance. Balance for me means not getting overly attached to any one outcome, laughing at myself regularly and learning to flow. It doesn’t come easily – if ever – and so I practice every day. All day long. Results vary.
If tango is my spiritual practice, Contact Improvisation has also inspired me deeply. This somatic dance which grew out of 1970s experimentation among dancers and choreographers in New York is about play, about making contact without words, about moving again like a child. You know, just for the sheer joy of it.
When we are babies, we all do Contact Improv as we explore the people around us, finding the points of separation and integration that hold us together. But as adults most of us lose that free physical playfulness (except perhaps in the heated, often-troubled exchange of sex) and live in mute isolation from all those people whom we want to touch and connect with.
As in so many things, our challenge as adults is to claw our way back to the way we were as children.
In that quest, I started going to Contact Improv jams around Buenos Aires. Just as a milonga is a place where people gather to dance tango (another improvised dance, just more dressed up), a jam is a gathering where people get together to explore Contact. Patchouli may be the perfume of choice, but other than that it’s the same quest. As in all children’s games, there are a few simple rules: no words, stay in contact, improvise, explore, have fun.
One of my favorite jams was the one on the grass at Parque Centenario on Sunday afternoons. I felt right at home. As a registered if lapsed Northern Californian, I am in my element among tree huggers, folk guitarists, capoeira dancers, acro-yoga flexers, bared abdomens with piercings, pot smokers, dreadlocks, mate drinkers, colorful baggy pants wearers, sitar players, vegan sandwich vendors and everyone pursuing their individual path to ecstasy.
I learned Contact from a tango dancer in Paris then started going to jams in BA. Feeling my way around the community, I tried to enlist friends to join me. Celia, from Portland, was good company for such an infiltration: she is the only person on the planet who was both a rugby player and a cheerleader in high school and anyone who can twirl pompoms AND tackle, gets my respect. Add in a shaved head and abundant tattoos and you get a potent combo.
The Contact Improv people had hauled in a massive piece of vinyl, a remnant of some abandoned circus tent, to the park. They unrolled it under the flashy mesozoic Araucaria trees. (“Pine trees that want to be Palm trees,” Celia called them.) This would be our dance floor.
Celia and I ventured out to play. Admittedly barging into a Contact Improv Jam where everyone is writhing and contorting could be intimidating – unless of course you’re a rugby-playing cheerleader (or a tango-crazed California transplant) in which case it isn’t at all. We had fun though we knew it could be much more once we learned to surrender fully to the Contact Improv dynamic.
Eventually, Celia, who had come with a friend, moved on, but I wasn’t ready to let go just yet.
Which left me sitting on the edge of the flattened circus tent, wanting to break in. There was a woman stretching beside me (or rather I had sat down near the woman who was stretching) but I didn’t know how to break the ice. (“So, do you come here often” didn’t seem the right tack and the cabeceo from the milonga probably wouldn’t work here either.)
Finally, I worked up the courage and just said, “Do you want to play?” (Play was the only word I could think of to describe what I was seeing out on the mat.)
There was an excruciating pause, then she said, “That’s not how it’s done. Not verbally.” Her words weren’t directed at me; it was more like she was speaking to herself out loud and I just happened to overhear. I felt myself starting to shrink.
I chose the path of total honesty: “I’m sorry. I’m new. I don’t know how it’s done.”
“Let it happen,” she advised. “Otherwise, you’ll seem kind of square.”
We chatted a bit. She was from Russia, an acrobat, passing through. She asked me about life in Buenos Aires, not yet comprehending why I had chosen BA over California. (Give her time to get to know this bounteous city; then she’ll know.) We continued stretching; the conversation petered out and we drifted back into our private, silent spaces.
When I am nervous, I hold to words. I know how to use words for certain ends. I have gotten myself out of many tight spots with words, avoided tickets and fines and jail time, escaped blame, salvaged relationships on the brink, diffused violence. Some people buy revolvers; I carry a bag of words and assume I can out-smart or at least out-talk trouble.
But I didn’t know how to connect with someone to dance in that park without words. I guess I had forgotten how to be a kid. So I just sat there and watched the other dancers play together in the park on a January summer afternoon, feeling all the world like the teenager I used to be sitting yearningly on the bleachers at the high school dances.
In a while I felt the acrobat’s foot pushing firmly against my back, increasing in pressure, and I knew the invitation was on. I accepted by acceding to her pressure. Then, in a change of strategy, I pushed back. In this game, both can play.
“Share your weight,” she coached me softly. “Don’t push.”
Another time she whispered, “Look for the space, for opportunity. Find the places you fit.”
When she herself found those places and spaces, she would say slowly in her Russian-tinged English, “That fits.”
Making use of her acrobatic skills, she would suddenly stand erect on my thigh, leaning out like the prow of a ship, or surprise me by perching on my shoulder, as if it were the best, most comfortable place to sit and observe all the crazy dreamers in that Sunday park. Up there, making like “The Thinker,” she even rested her chin in the palm of her hand.
“That fits, too.”
We went to many places while expending very few words.
I find that I am of two minds: Sometimes I want to dance without words; other times I want to let the words out to dance all by themselves.
That afternoon I didn’t need words. Today it is my pleasure to let the words out to re-conjure that afternoon dance in the park.
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