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Object

Contact dance is a 39-old dance form based on improvisation and a points of physical contact that provides the starting point for exploration through the movement. The first performance work recognized as Contact Improvisation is Steve Paxton’s Magnesium (1972) which was performed by Paxton and dance students at Oberlin College at Warner Main in Warner Center. Five months after Magnesium Paxton led the first Contact Improvisation performance series at the John Weber Art Gallery in New York City where dancers performed Contact Improvisation in marathon fashion on mats.

Contact Improvisation is practiced as both a performance and social dance form. In the performance context, Contact Improvisation is used either as a dance practice as a way to develop and identify a new set choreography. There are classes and workshops in Contact Improvisation offered around the world and one of the most common practice are weekly meetings that take place world-wide and called contact jams, where experience and new dancers are invited to take part.

During a jam session dancers work with different partners or groups in order to enhance their dance vocabulary and improvisation skills.
Although there is now an established Contact Improvisation Fundamentals technique, this unique dance vocabulary is open keeps contributing to its vocabulary. Another interesting part of this dance form is that dancers usually stay touching or in physical contact for much of a dance. With that said contact dance can occur even when partners never touch but there is a clear “listening” and energetic intention that creates the connection the their dance.

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Click here to watch a video of a jam session.

Environment

The contact jam in Toronto takes place every Sunday at the Dovercourt House. The jam co-directors are John Oswald and Pam Johnson and they have been running it since 1978. The Dovercourt house is a large space with high selling and hard-wood floor. The space is used for dance classes on a regular basis during the week and is given in-kind to the contact jam community.

The contact jam usually takes place without music so the room is pretty quiet other then the sound of movement on the wooden floor. There is another contact jam dance session that takes place once a week on Wednesday where musicians are also welcome and accompany the dancers in a jam of their own.

There are also jam sessions that takes place outdoors in the summer- such as Kensington Market and Toronto Centre Island. The important thing is to have relatively soft surface to fall and lay on the floor so the dancers can engage in spontaneous exploration in various levels of movement (lifts, floor, etc).

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Users

The contact jam welcomes everyone – from experienced dancers to those who never danced before. Since contact dance is based an improvised movement and relatively intuitive to learn, it is open to newcomers. The openness of this dance form breaks boundries and bridges the gap between recreational and professional dancers. It allows dance to become more accessible and inspire people to become more connected with their body.

Contact dance is often used as a therapeutic art form technique, so users can come from a wide ranges of experiences, cultures, abilities and communities.

Contact Improvisation with Jonathan Megaw @ Moving East – photography by Julia Burstein

Synthesis

Contact jams in Toronto usually begin with a physical warm up that collects all the participants and functions as an entry point to the jam. Usually the person who does the warm up also talks about personal boudries in the dance and the importance of listening to the body during movement. Since contact dance involves physical touch it’s important to explain this so newcomers to the jam will be aware of it.

The warm up usually takes place either standing or on the floor. Dancers are spread around the room and do not touch each other. The is an emphasis on the connection to the ground and the awareness to weight and space in the room. If the warm up started on the floor, dancers will end up standing and will slowly start connecting with one person. This will usually end up being their first contact dance partner.

When one of the couple feels they want to move on, they will leave the dance and find another partner. This transition will happen through movement. Sometimes the dancer will leave the dance all together and go back to the side and sometimes new dancers will come in to the space. Sometimes they will be dancers that dance alone in the space and sometimes it may be groups of 3 and more.

The opportunity to dance in an open environment truly shapes the experience of the jam. The openness in the room leads to openness in the heart which invites acceptance, changes and new encounters. The jam is not only about gaining technical skills in improvisation but it is also about learning skills that can be applied in life. It’s an interesting mirror on how one acts in a group and an indication of ones personal confidence. It’s also about learning to depart from situations and connections and about how to create new ones. It is also about listening to the other and learning how to move together and navigate through space.

It’s interesting to see how different users influence the jam and change its nature. When more professional dancers come, the expectation level is higher and sometimes the newcomers will be more self conscious and sometimes even decide to take a break or leave. Best jams are those who facilitate equality and allow dancers to focus on their own dance partners and not on the rest of the room. Most of the times experienced dancers enjoy dancing with newcomers because it’s way more challenging to do so then dancing with experienced dancers.

One of the important things about the contact dance experience is that it teaches the user the balance between listening and talking. This balance shifts depending on the dance partner, and the space it takes place but when this is achieved the movement becomes more fluid and there is trust between the dancers. This trust naturally brings more lifts and challenging movement into the dance and enriches the experience.

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