Amber Steenbock

May 1, 1977 - December 17, 2014

Thoughts on Contact Dancing

Something really amazing happened to me last night. Sometimes, on Thursday evenings, I go to a dance class (I am a part of DanceAbility,) that is less structured and smaller then my Friday evening performance-based class. Usually, the classes work on similar themes, but this time was different.

I was introduced to the wonderful world of contact improvisational dancing.

I am going to try to describe it a little here, but I will probably not do it justice. I can only speak from my experience, and I know that it is a very individualized expression, which does different things for different people. Here is what I understand about what happened, and hopefully will keep happening, to and for me.

It started with the Natural Dance after a warmup. This is a kind of meditation (that word always makes me squirm a little because of otherworldly connotations; and also because meditation the way I knew it before never really had the desired result for me) in which you place your initial focus in your tailbone area and try to relax, or at least imagine relaxing, the tension in your little muscles all along your spine, working your way up to the top vertebrae. You then experience a freedom of movement because of the lack of tension. I was so surprised when it worked for me! Completely and utterly surprised. Some say it feels like liquid that you can move in. But for me, it is definitely more of an electrical current that I can feel the flow of, actually feel.

When you reach the top vertebrae, you imagine a string or a pencil on the top of your head long enough to reach the ceiling or sky. You began to draw tiny circles above you with your head, the first so small that it is imperceptible to anyone else, then getting bigger and bigger until your whole body gets into the motion and sometimes you end up drawing on top of or inside other people's circles.

This point, for me at least, was when the contact layer began to come into play. In the Natural Dance, you are dancing with and freeing your inner self, the physical part, the stuff under your skin. When left to its own conclusion, this flows into contact with other people in the room.

We started playing with this by pairing up. One person is stable and the other person gives them small physical impulses to move in a direction. The receiver usually either chooses to lean into the point of contact (i.e. a hand on their shoulder) or away from it.

If I am the receiver, and I choose to lean in, I get a sense of connection from the weight of the other person. If I choose to stop actively leaning, which sometimes feels like fighting, I can rest for a second, still feeling strength and weight from both of us connected, and knowing that neither one is going to fall. The moment when I first realized I could do that was so freeing for me. The world stopped, and I wanted to stay there forever.

If I am the receiver, and I choose to lean away, the freedom comes from a different place. I can lean very far, past the point where I feel like I would fall out of my chair, and my partner's support is still there. Because I have a heightened fear of falling, my body was so scared when I first tried this. But at one point, in my perception anyway, one of my partners, who is also one of my teachers, purposely push-guided me past that point of extreme fear. I imagine it's a bit like skydiving, or my experience on a summer camp ropes course. There I was, the floor getting a little close for comfort, a little too rapidly. But I didn't fall. I didn't hit the ground, even after my body stopped struggling to rescue itself. The support was there. I could feel the strength, and it was my strength too. That was mind blowing. I also wanted to stay there forever, so that the world could see how brave and strong I am becoming.

If I am the giver of a point of contact and impulse to a stable partner, my strength is a little more obvious, but no less freeing and amazing. As a disabled person, sometimes I feel like I have very little control over my world. But the body I am connected to (which eventually includes my own because the giver and receiver lines become blurry after awhile) is responding to my every movement and creative idea for movement. Even if my partner is bigger and stronger than me outside of the dance, their strength, creative spirit, and energy become mine as well, so I can move them in any way I can dream up. Small ways. Big ways. Beautiful creative ways I wouldn't dare to think of outside. The power to matter and make a difference.

Eventually, the partnership blurs, and the whole group becomes connected. I can push on one chair, back, head, shoulder, or whatever, and everyone moves. Some people call this the amoeba. Again, some say it feels like liquid. But I still feel electricity instead, mostly, and shared energy. That is my strongest sensation, because I have been always conscious of that energy in living things. I always knew I had the power to sense it and use information about the levels to an advantage. But I never really knew before now that I have the power to manipulate it.

It was very difficult when class ended to have to become a separate, disabled, being again.

Actually, I thought that what I had gained would disappear when I had to separate. But I am very joyful, because it didn't. The strength stayed with me! The knowledge that I am stronger than what people know; the discovery that what people think is strong about me and my body isn't very strong, and that what they think is weak is actually stronger than what they call strong.

I am giddy, strong, and feel just plain amazing. I couldn't stop laughing after class last night. I felt like I could just get out of the chair and start running. Nobody or nothing could frustrate me. And this morning, there is still less spasticity in all my muscles and much less pain as a result.

And the Natural Dance works for me by myself! I slept on my wrist wrong last night, and it was hurting really bad when I woke up. I tried using what I learned, focusing on at least imagining relaxing the wrist muscles, and it worked! The lack of lower back pain is particularly huge for me.

I have caught the Contact bug. I'm going to keep doing this. I have to.

Thank you again, very much, to Alito, for creating DanceAbility, a wonderful art with freedom to add elements to it, such as the contact elements. Both forms of dance are different and can be separate, but having finally had the chance to experience contact through my class, I understand how they facilitate each other.

And deep gratitude also always to my dance partners, especially my teachers, Curtis and Erik.

Copyright © 1995-2014 Amber Steenbock
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