The social unrest and rebellious youth energy that epitomizes the cultural climate of the 1960’s in America, was a fertile ground for the growth of political, social and cultural reforms in the arts--as well as a catalyst for questioning gender and performance within the field. The unique, egalitarian, un-gendered nature of Contact Improvisation allowed for its significant influence on social and cultural outlooks--then and now--that few other dance forms have ever matched.
The ‘60s were marked by the rise of a bevy of cultural movements such as: racial equality; the pacifist, anti-war movement; women’s equality and the feminist movement; and the earliest rumblings of the LGBT-rights movement. The country was changing, and changing fast. A younger, bolder generation sought to stand up for their political beliefs and make their voices heard. This transformational energy was alive within the arts world as well; experimentation became commonplace in nearly every performing and visual art form. Challenging the status quo, self-critical focus and rule-breaking quickly became the ‘signs of the time.’ Steve Paxton’s Contact Improvisation (CI), emerging at the beginning of the 70’s, carried with it many of the socio-political concerns of the 1960s. Like many other art forms linked to cultural concerns, it could perhaps never have come about in any other time--a true product of the culture and society of the ‘60s/‘70s. InSharing the Dance, Cynthia J. Novack’s ethnographic study of CI as it relates to American Culture, she writes:
The very nature of CI dictates that it is a product of the efforts of the whole group, not a creation of one individual. In spite of Paxton’s uncomfortable status as father/guru of CI, he continually emphasized his desire for the form to uphold the values of “egalitarianism and communality” (ibid) characteristic of the members of the Judson Dance Group. The very framework of the contact “jam”--the mode of both practice and performance of CI--creates the open, inclusive environment the dance form is known for. A partnered form, CI can not be danced alone, thus relying on the presence of community to engage in its practice.
Contact Improvisation can also be credited for significant advancements in terms of gender and sex politics--societally, as well as within the field of dance. Novack, drawing from her experiences within the CI community notes the general feeling was “. . . that the movement structure of contact improvisation literally embodied the social ideologies of the early ‘70s which rejected traditional gender roles and social hierarchies (ibid 11).” The sensual nature of the form allowed for any combination of gendered pairs to have a truly intimate, physical interaction, removed from overt sexual intention. Functional concerns of ability relating to a particular gender were also eliminated by the framework of the improvisatory nature of the form. CI is essentially the outcome of a quite simple duet score: fall, spill, press into and ride a maintained point of contact with another dancer. There are, to be sure, various techniques, skills and mechanics that develop out of the practice of CI over many years, but an understanding of its simple score--coupled with an open, willing mind and body--is all that is required to begin practicing. What emerged from the framework created by Paxton’s ideas, and his work with the initial groups that helped to unearth/realize the form, was a dance that had no requirement of a particular degree of strength, stability or power--thus, CI operated outside the concerns of gender for participation. Anyone could/should/would dance with anyone, regardless of biological sex. The outcome of dancing a CI duet with another body was easily framed in relation to the abilities of each dancer. The dance resulting from a particular pairing was as varied--physically and visually--as the participants involved; this was a source of great pride for the dance form’s practitioners. Both technically and philosophically, this egalitarian dynamic upheld the somewhat utopian values of the Contact community, as well as those of the larger postmodern community it emerged from, and operated within.
Novack, Cynthia. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.