I’ve written a few times about contact improv, my contact improv class, and my general dorky love for improv. My semester recently ended, so as a sort of culminating reflection, I’m going to discuss my dorky love for improv and where that comes from. I really only started having an active improv practice this year, and it’s done me a lot of good as a human, a dancer, and a choreographer. I started using improv as a method of devising choreography for a piece I was working on for a student choreographed concert at my school, and realized how valuable this practice is to my growth as a dancer and understanding of myself as a human. And just how much I love to move.
As corny as it sounds, improv really made me fall in love with dance again. I’d spent a lot of years being unsure of what exactly my relationship with dance was, in the sense that I spent hours upon hours in a dance studio every week and certainly enjoyed it, but was never really sure if that was a space where I belonged. This was for a number of reasons, but one that’s easy to pin down is that I broke my knee when I was about fourteen and have been dealing with the physical and mental aftershocks of a pretty serious injury since then. I’ve obviously come up with a number of ways (weight manipulation, development of other muscles, etc.) to work around the limitations this presents, but it’s always felt a bit like I’ve had to either change the way that is healthy/natural for my body to move to make the movement happen (which always felt tentative, because I felt like I was pushing the injury too far) or change the movement to fit my needs (which is often frowned upon). Improv gave me a way to see the movement that my body naturally produces as valuable and enough, even if it doesn’t fit within the category of movement that is traditionally defined as good within dance. Furthermore, it gave me agency to find ways to make movement impetuses from others work for my body.
And that’s part of the power of the body politics of an improvisatory practice – improv values movement without attaching it to a whole host of aesthetic/societal standards. Dance has a rather ugly history of ascribing to highly problematic, and often appropriative, aesthetic standards. These privilege the white, thin, cisgender bodies and perpetuate the same toxic and oppressive norms that exist throughout society. Contact improv works to undo this in that it doesn’t seek to create one aesthetic so much as it seeks to be interested in the ways bodies interact with each other in space. And it says this is interesting regardless of the aesthetic it creates. There’s not one standard for what interesting movement looks like, and it allows for a lot more freedom of interpretation in what dance really is and it provides a space for working through some of the more negative aesthetic standards ascribed to by many parts of the dance world.
Importantly for me, personally, contact improv and an improvisatory practice in general helped me to a mental place where I could learn to love my body. In a society where everything a woman’s body can be is scrutinized, surveilled, and criticized, it can be really difficult to look in the mirror and like what you see. Naturally, this has bled into my dance practice. Especially when I was in high school and was rather committed to training in classical ballet, I spent a lot of time looking in a mirror and fixating on what parts of me were not and would never be within the rigid and oppressive aesthetic standards that ballet has ascribed to its women. Improv has helped me take my head out of the mirror and away from the aesthetic standards. It’s given me a way to see my body and its associated embodied knowledge as valuable as they are. It’s given me a space where I can be unapologetic about what my body is and, inherently, unapologetic about who I am.
Thus, improv has been a feminist dance practice for me. It’s been a practice of self love. It’s been a practice of finding agency in my movement. And for me it’s also fostered a sense of community in which people are looking out for each other in a loving, trusting, embodied sense. A contact improv jam is this beautiful environment where people come together to appreciate what our bodies can do with each other and with the space that we’re in, and it involves a mutual sense of trust that each mover will take care of both their own body and the bodies that they’re dancing with. There have been many times, especially in our current political climate, where I’ve felt like I don’t know that I can trust the intentions of people around me, and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Improv has provided me with a space where mutual trust can be bred, and that’s been such a beautiful reprieve and a way to get out of my own head.
So yeah, I’m an improv dork. I walked out of my contact class tonight feeling more fulfilled and genuinely happy than I have in a long time. Part of that certainly stems from my sheer love of moving and being active. But a lot of it stems from the positive environment that these kinds of classes and jams create. Improv gave me a way to find my niche in the dance world, to come to love and appreciate my body and its abilities, and to come to love movement in a totally new way. A couple of years ago, I enjoyed dance but was ready to slowly phase it out of my life because I was fairly certain it was a world I didn’t fit well in. Now, I can’t imagine taking it out of my life. And there are many more reasons for that than I care to list, but improv is definitively a big part of that.