Body language: Contact improvisation dance uses touch to achieve perfect harmony between mind and body. Roberta Mock found it a liberating experience

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The Independent Culture
Body contact improvisation is a form of dance which incorporates elements from sporting movement and gymnastics, yoga, martial arts, philosophies of socio-sexual equality, and modern theatre practices of physical ensemble playing. Its invention is credited to American dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton in 1972, although contact improvisation's lineage can be traced to his work with Merce Cunningham and the Judson Dance Theatre in the early 1960s.

Contact improvisation stems from the idea that each body is unique. Dance is spontaneously created by the impulsive interaction of two different bodies, regardless of preconditioned reflexes and accepted notions of size, weight and strength.

Dance partners sustain physical contact and rely upon mutual trust and support. It is process, not product, which counts in contact improvisation dance; aesthetically-pleasing results are shunned in favour of an inward-looking spiritual integration of mind and body. As such, it is no surprise that its appeal has spread beyond professional dancers and choreographers.

Phil Tushingham, a one-armed dancer, has been promoting contact improvisation with a proselytising zeal for many years. He leads undergraduate courses in the subject at the University of Plymouth where he is the director of Theatre and Performance Studies. .

Together with Laura Kearnes, a dancer, he has established weekly workshops inspired by a fascination with the benefits of touching, with special reference to blind and disabled people. The sessions are described on posters as 'a shared experience of movement, where able and disabled bodies meet, move and dance together'.

The workshops I have joined have been attended by both able-bodied and disabled people. They begin with a thorough warm-up which includes shiatsu massage to relax muscles. Most of the preliminary exercises concentrate on developing the spine as the focus for giving and taking weight. These progress to training exercises in falling and tumbling.

It was while rolling across the floor in a banana shape that I decided my rigid body was unsuited to this type of activity. Only by looking across the mats at Karen, who is paraplegic and merrily unconcerned about appearing 'foolish', did I gain the confidence to attempt the next exercise. I lay on the floor, hurled my leg into the air from the hip and tried to swing my body around in a circle. I was inept but slightly less self-conscious.

The last hour of the session is spent doing contact improvisation itself. We begin gently by accepting a partner's full weight while kneeling on all fours and end up by rolling about on the floor in a heap, exploring areas of contact and resistance.

Comparisons have often been made between sex and a contact dance. This is because contact improvisation demands the de-particularisation of parts of the body. Dancers, even beginners, must be responsive to the entire body; avoiding socially-taboo genitals and breasts only leads to an inhibited and incomplete experience.

As a tense, non-dancing, large woman, I have been conditioned to believe that my weight cannot be supported and that all touching is primarily sexual. Contact improvisation, for me, is both a frightening and liberating adventure. - Body contact improvisation sessions, University of Plymouth, Douglas Avenue, Exmouth, Devon (0395 255411)

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