Read My Body: The Language of Touch

To the sound of heavy breathing, our reporter tests the waters at Contact Improvisation Wien

On The Town | Sophia Chung | February 2013

Contact improv dancers respond to partners in fluid movement (Photo: Contact Improvisation Wien)

In the far corner of a whitewashed studio, a young man kneels, offering a shoulder to his partner. She drapes herself over his shoulder and he effortlessly lifts her into the air, one hand at her waist. As they spin, she leans against him and he rotates her until she is cradled in his arms. A few feet away, an improvised roll ends in a tangle of arms and legs, as three dancers collapse in laughter. There is no music; still, the sounds of heavy breathing form a rhythm of its own. I stand by the door, scanning the room for someone in charge.

There’s no such role at the weekly Contact Improv jam.

For the last 20 years, amateur and experienced dancers meet every Friday and Sunday at the WUK (Werkstätten-und Kulturhaus) to explore "contact improvisation", a system of movement invented in 1972 by American choreographer Steve Paxton. Many are not professional dancers, but all are dedicated to this social art form in which points of physical contact inspire movement. Curious, I nervously step into the studio and warm up alone.

A hand grazes my ankle – an invitation to dance. I don’t quite catch his name, but within moments, we are no longer strangers, but partners. Our palms meet, a catalyst for the scrambled thoughts cluttering my mind. I look stupid. Where do my legs go? I hope my breath doesn’t smell. Oblivious to my worries, my partner moves to his hands and knees, and his back becomes a surface for me to rest against. I summersault, the only roll I know, over his back and, inexplicably, I am in the air. I give him my weight, and the freedom is blissful and addicting.

No words are exchanged, but our dance takes on the inquisitive nature of children’s play. He gently lowers me to the ground, and I leap towards the wall. He follows, and we collapse against each other, laughing. Later, I muster enough courage to ask a woman in her 20s to dance. We’re both new, but the awkwardness is reassuring as we learn to predict less and feel more.

Afterwards, the conversation flows; she is an Italian fashion student studying here. Vienna, I learn, has just hosted its first contact improvisation festival at the WUK in October, a four-day exploration of dance through classes, labs and performances.

By midnight, the buoyant energy settles into a relaxed hum. Dancers, in many gender combinations, lay curled around one another. My partner and I also ease to the floor, and I rest my head on his chest. He strokes my hair and we breathe deeply. It’s impossible to ignore the intimacy of the situation, and so I embrace how liberating it is to touch and give comfort without expecting anything further.

Most of the day, communicating occurs without words, making it terrifying and exhilarating as we learn a language that depends solely on movement and trust. But without the clambering competition of words, I am more aware of my body and its relationship to my environment. When it’s over, I nearly run home. In the stillness of the night, the air seems brisker, the street lamps shine brighter, and I feel… what? A little wiser, perhaps. Whatever it is, I like it.



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