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The soft revolution of Contact Improvisation

Over the past four months I’ve been discovering and experimenting with Contact Improvisation (CI). I’m primarily interested not so much in the performance side of CI, but in its potential as a tool for exploring and better understanding what it means (and entails) to have an experience. After all, this is the kind of interest that drives me most of the time, no matter what I happen to be doing. In this regard, I’ve noticed two very interesting and related aspects that I’ve never encountered in other practices I’ve been involved with.


The first aspect is the ability to understand, relate and interact with others and the environment in a truly intuitive way. In other words, CI is an excellent tool for providing a concrete example of what it feels like to ‘follow intuition’. When we move through the world, we’re usually guided by our eyes (what we see) and our ears (what we hear). These two senses are deeply connected because we tend to see what we have conceptualised and learned through language. Language training is the thing that people seem to do the most in their lives. In fact, we practice some form of verbal communication (sometimes using several languages) for most of our day, from cradle to grave. And as all philosophers well know, language isn’t just about conveying information, it’s a performative activity through which we shape and partly constitute our world (especially the symbolic world of meanings in which we as humans tend to live most of the time). There is an interplay between seeing and hearing as we learn to ‘see’ and ‘recognise’ the things we talk about. We all have more or less implicit ways of ‘decoding’ the outside world, based on our familiarity with the habits and customs of our culture. We learn to ‘read’ another person at a glance, to get a rough idea of who and what they are (in terms of social role or status, mood, opportunities for interaction, etc.). All of this thrives on the feedback between eyes and ears. And all this is socially, culturally, politically, conceptually constructed, sometimes helpful, often distorted in many ways.


What happens in CI is that this mechanism is somehow bypassed or largely set aside. This is partly because we relate to each other on a very simple and basic level (sharing body weight and movement, without any further special meaning), and partly because to do this we need to ‘see’ with our skin, with our sense of touch, more than with our eyes (which are still important, of course, but for other purposes, such as coordinating movement in space). The sense of touch is much less analytical than the sense of sight, and so it is through touch that we get an overall impression of what the other person is, where they are, how they are. In fact, through touch we simply feel the presence of a certain dynamic force of movement with which we can interact because we are the same force. I’m probably biased by Spinoza here, but to me this is exactly what ‘intuition’ means, namely the ability to feel and know (clearly and distinctly, adequately and with certainty) what the other ‘essentially’ is. The other is not the social role with which we clothe them. It is not the approximation to the standards and ideals that our society imposes and promotes about how one should look (depending on the circumstances, or even in general). The essence of a person is their presence, and to be present means to be able to do something, to have a certain power of expression and action. This power is precisely what we can ‘touch’. And I’m not speaking metaphorically, I’m speaking literally.


The second aspect of CI that strikes me is the ability to learn to let go of forms and shapes. Most of what we do in our lives consists of inventing, learning, building, maintaining some kind of form or shape. A social role, a job, a speciality, even a relationship, are all ‘forms’, structures that we construct and then have to maintain in order to keep them going (since ‘everything that has the nature of arising also has the nature of ceasing’...). This is great, of course, and much of our lives are built on the ‘forms’ we have chosen (or ended up constructing). But the problem with forms is that they create demands, needs, expectations, and provide a criterion for judging possible or real failures, with all the social and psychological shame that failure usually brings. Nevertheless, it’s not possible to live a formless life, because as long as we live as humans, we have at least a human form, and we can’t avoid it. The best counterproof of this is the contemplative attempt to dissolve all forms into a formless experience, which is possible, but only at the price of giving up human life as such. So are we condemned to be prisoners of our forms? Are we stuck between the struggle to remain trapped in a form or the alternative of renouncing all forms and giving up our human life?


Surprisingly, CI suggests a simple solution: use the form as a reference point to evaluate all the other possibilities that more or less approximate it. Let me illustrate this with an example. In CI it is quite common to ‘lift’ people. Lifting is great. As a ‘flyer’ you feel completely rested and without gravity, fully supported by another, and as a ‘base’ you feel completely grounded and paradoxically more relieved by receiving more weight. There are many ways of ‘lifting’ and this can be seen as a ‘form’ or ‘structure’ in CI, something that in a way ‘defines’ what CI is (or what you do in CI). In reality, however, there are a million ways in which a ‘lift’ might not work: you’re not aligned properly, there’s too much difference in body weight and constitution, one of you isn’t up to it, you name it. What I find fascinating is that in most cases, instead of experiencing a ‘failed lift’, the movement that follows is just another way of moving together, often unexpected, improvised, exciting and quite beautiful, which in turn can lead to new movements and explorations. A ‘failed’ lift is just an approximation to the ‘canonical’ form of a ‘lift’, but as such it is not really a ‘failure’ to instantiate that form, but just another option within the range of movement. Much like hiking through a mountain, you can take a number of paths, or no path at all, and you don’t necessarily have to end up at the top. If you did, you would probably know very little about the mountain as a whole.


In CI, ‘form’ still exists and still has a normative function (there is a relatively clear way of indicating what a ‘lift’ is and what its proper form should be, and why this is ‘safer’ than exploring other options). However, this is a ‘soft’ norm, in that it does not prescribe other options, but simply provides an orientation, a sense of direction. A beautiful aspect of CI (at least from a Buddhist perspective) is that one of the first things you learn is ‘not to grasp’. You can’t be in contact while physically grasping the other person’s limbs, because then the movement just doesn’t flow, and it’s not safe for either of you (the Buddha would agree). However, ‘not grasping’ extends to the more subtle and structural level of ‘not grasping’ at forms and norms. They’re still there (like the other person’s body, with whom you’re in touch without grasping), but only for guidance, inspiration, invitation, without undermining the freedom to do something else and to explore responsibly what that would entail, feel like or bring about.


When I compare these two aspects of CI with the way our social lives are structured, I can’t help but see them as profoundly revolutionary. Consider touch. For the most part, our society prescribes that ‘physical touch’ can only legitimately occur in three main cases: between family members and (to some extent) friends, in the medical profession when a doctor visits or operates on a patient, and in sexual intercourse. In most other cases, ‘touch’ is not only considered inappropriate, but we have internalised a kind of aversion to it. Remember the last time you were on a train and the coach suddenly became crowded and you had to let people sit next to you or squeeze into the space. Then you dissolve into your phone, a book, the window, trying to avoid and minimise contact with other human bodies. Of course, touch is frightening because it’s so honest and direct. As I said, it gives a very clear picture of your essence or core. Sometimes we don’t want to share or show our core, sometimes another person’s core is not so nice for us to see or touch. Fair enough. But the point I’m trying to make is more general. As our society tends to compress population into relatively small spaces (most people now live in large, overcrowded cities), we seem to compensate by trying to create a symbolic distance between us, we learn to ‘see’ others as strangers so that we can keep them at a sufficient distance. After all, we need some ‘space’ to breathe and to live.


But since we can’t live without being in touch with others, we need to keep some area of life where this is still possible. The medical domain is not the most rewarding example, mainly because when we get in touch with our doctor or surgeon it’s most likely because we have some health problems and are not really ‘in the mood’ for deep sharing. Family&Friends’ is a good place for ‘being in touch’, but it is surprising how little we actually practice this with our close relatives. I remember my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother loving to hug and squeeze me when I was a child. My mum was OK with cuddling, but my dad wasn’t. So I was a bit confused by my grandparents’ behaviour and I felt that they wanted to ‘see’ me in a way that I wasn’t ready to let them see me. Now I can understand that they (born in the 1920s) may have grown up (I can’t ask them anymore) with different social standards than my parents themselves (born in the 1950s), and I myself (born in 1986) grew up with even more restrictive standards. In fact, I’ve learnt that it’s best to avoid ‘touch’ in most cases, just to be on the safe side. And today’s sensitivity to sexual abuse (which is, of course, well-intentioned and justified) reinforces this message, as any ‘touching’ can be seen as inappropriate behaviour. But ‘touch’ is a much deeper, larger and more complex phenomenon than sex (and the latter is only one of many ways in which people can be ‘in touch’). The structural problem here is that by progressively reducing the spaces and occasions for ‘being in touch’, the natural and inescapable need for it tends to concentrate in the only space left (sexuality), which is not broad enough to support all the possibilities that would be involved in ‘being in touch’, and thus often produces distorted and harmful consequences. Overall, this is good for business, since our society is explicitly driven by sexual arousal as a major factor in getting people to spend money. But the whole structure is quite unhealthy and unbalanced. Perhaps if ‘touch’ were less ghettoised, sexual abuse would be less common, or much of the stress that people experience and conceptualise (see and hear) in terms of sex would resolve itself, as it would have already been fulfilled and expressed in other (perhaps more appropriate) ways.


In any case, this is the current social structure. Is it possible to let it go, or only to implement it in a ‘soft’ way, ‘without grasping’? We often think of ‘revolutions’ as a linear process, where system A is replaced by system B, which tends to be the opposite of A. We think of revolutions in two dimensions, as going up and down, or back and forth. In CI, movement tends to be tri-dimensional, and the most common pattern is that of the spiral, which extends simultaneously in opposite directions and in all dimensions, offering multiple possibilities at the same time, so that we can decide on the spot (improvise!) which one we want to explore for now. In this sense, CI is a ‘soft’ revolution that doesn’t replace one system with another, but could provide a concrete example (and a pattern, a template, a blueprint) for ‘lifting’ some of our current social structures and creating more spaces that allow us to ‘be in touch’, both safely and bravely. In our overpopulated world (i.e. overpopulated by humans, or overpopulated insofar as humans remain as greedy as they are today) we have tried to find space by distancing ourselves from others, thus limiting and restricting our opportunities to be in touch. This doesn’t seem to be working very well. Perhaps the opposite would be a better alternative: to create more space for everyone, precisely by creating spaces where people can freely be in touch, without any agenda, motive or need other than to explore this basic structure of our being human animals.

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Apr 22

Yes, that’s what the world needs – a touch without grasping, and a hugging revolution. Have you ever noticed, walking down the street, how many people look like they need a hug?

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