Thesis Thursday!

Thesis Thursdays

Happy Thursday Framers!

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What better way is there to take a break from your busy week than to read a little thesis material that explores the very beginning of Contact Improvisation??  In a nutshell, this series features installments of my senior thesis written for Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. It explores the topics of Contact Improvisation, Feminism, feminist performance art, and female empowerment through movement. Enjoy and leave any comments/questions/suggestions you have below!

If you want to catch up on parts of the thesis that have already been posted then go here. But no fear, you will not be lost if this is your first post to read.

Here’s a re-cap of my general thesis statement:

I will argue that CI is a complex feminist practice. The relationship CI has to feminism is complex because it is not inherently feminist, but enables women to have a feminist experience.

This week will feature Part IV of the first chapter of the thesis, which goes into detail of the very beginning of CI…


Ch. I Part IV. “Come and we’ll show you what we do.”[1] The Beginning of CI

By Lena Silva

This section of the thesis will proceed by analyzing primary source video material of CI performances from 1970 – 1983. Each subsection is named after the seminal CI performance that is explored. In 1972, Paxton was concerned with the anarchic nature of improvisation in the Grand Union postmodern dance troupe (to which he belonged) and sought to make a slightly more codified technique. He wanted to maintain room for creativity while establishing parameters that would make it more accessible to the untrained public. During this period Paxton also began experimenting with Aikido, a Japanese martial art form that features extensive rolling, falling and other partnering skills, which is widely recognized as pivotal to the early development of CI. Beyond the physical similarities, the ideologies of Aikido and CI similarly prioritize non-violence and harmony. Aikido training focuses on redirecting an attacker’s movements so as not to injure them. The goal is to use available momentum requiring less physical strength. Both CI and Aikido aim to create a harmonious use of naturally occurring forces, like momentum and gravity, and to avoid opposing such forces with brute force. Paxton was practicing Aikido when he initiated contact improvisation.

i. “Magnesium,” 1972

During the Grand Union’s residency at Oberlin College in January 1972, Paxton taught a men’s improvisation class. He taught a technique he had been experimenting with that entailed both extreme “stillness” and “imbalance.” Paxton recalled, “I wanted to launch myself off the planet and see what happened without having to worry about the re-entry a few seconds later.”[2] Paxton joined his students in the performance of the seminal piece, “Magnesium,” which marked the formal beginning of Contact Improvisation. “Magnesium”[3] featured twelve men engaged in highly athletic contact improvisation: running, diving, jumping into one another’s arms and then inevitably falling onto several gymnastic mats. After a full ten minutes, the piece ends with the “small dance,” another improvisational technique developed by Paxton in which the performer quiets every facet of their body and is overcome by a subtle sway and tension that is required to keep the body vertical.

Steve-Paxton-1984-©-Peggy-Jarrell-Kaplan3Steve Paxton

In this first piece, the choice of using an all-male ensemble was purposeful. The gendered nature of this choice is apparent considering Paxton’s refusal to re-stage the piece using male and female dancers for the 25th anniversary event held at Oberlin University. Director of Dance at Oberlin College, Dr. Ann Cooper Albright, attests to his reluctance: “He thought it would be ‘too rough’ for women. We ended up not doing the piece while he was here.”[4] This discriminatory choice foreshadows future issues in CI. CI often adhered and still does adhere to heteronormative movement. More specifically, CI has used gentle feminine movement and aggressive male movement despite the intended gender neutrality of the dance. This conflict between ideological gender egalitarianism and practical gender conforming movement continues to be a source of division. While gender divisions are maintained in several instances, at the same time, opportunities for androgynous and gender non-conforming movement in CI are often encouraged. These opportunities were more fully embraced in the second performance of CI.



Dr. Ann Cooper Albright




[1] This slogan was used widely on flyers and posters to advertise the earliest shows of CI.

[2] Novack, Sharing the Dance, Contact Improvisation and American Culture, 60.

[3] Steve Christiansen, “Magnesium,” DVD Program #2-A, Videoda: Contact Improvisation DVDs, choreographed by Steve Paxton (Charleston: Videoda/Contact Collaborations, Inc., 1972).

[4] Dr. Ann Cooper Albright (Oberlin, Ohio), telephone interview by author (Houston, TX), January 28, 2013.



Ecouter Recap and Thesis Thursday!

Thesis Thursdays

Hey Framers!

We’ve been recovering from our  jam-packed show week and Lydia’s tooth surgery 🙁 (Leave her a get well message in the comments!) Hope you have had a wonderful week! Almost the weekend!

Ecouter was FABULOUS last weekend – each night was close to capacity and filled with local talent! A BIG thank you to all who came out and supported the event!



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Now onto Thesis Thursday! Written by Frame Development Assistant, Lena Silva.

In case you’re not caught up with Frame’s newest weekly series, Thesis Thursday, you can catch up on the last three blog posts here. In a nutshell, this series features installments of my senior thesis written for Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. It explores the topics of Contact Improvisation, Feminism, feminist performance art, and female empowerment through movement.

If you don’t have time to read through the past blogs, have no fear! Here’s a re-cap of my general thesis statement:

I will argue that CI is a complex feminist practice. The relationship CI has to feminism is complex because it is not inherently feminist, but enables women to have a feminist experience.

This week will feature Part I of II blogs detailing the connections between CI founder Steve Paxton and radical feminist Yvonne Rainer.

Ch. I Part III. Contact Improvisation and Feminist Influences 

As a white, unconsciously ambiguous artist, oblivious to art world sexism and racism and ensconced in dancing (a socially acceptable female pursuit), I started reading…Sisterhood is Powerful…Scum Manifesto and…Dialectics of Sex. I had never thought of myself as belonging to an oppressed group – nor privileged one, for that matter – especially as I began to achieve recognition.[1]

These words belong to Yvonne Rainer, a colleague who danced alongside Paxton under Cunningham and in the Judson Dance Theatre. She became intimately involved in the women’s rights movement and declared herself a “political lesbian.”[2] She is today renowned as the quintessential feminist performance artist, and has received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1990 and two Guggenheim Fellowships. She is widely known for her solo dance “Three Seascapes” (1962), in which the female dancer performed a screaming fit downstage in a pile of gauze and a black overcoat. Sally Banes notes that critics have understood Rainer’s piece as feminist in the sense that the screaming dancer’s actions “…may be seen as a critique of hysteria – that is, of the female dancer’s image as gripped by out-of-control emotion.”[3] This criticism of hysteria is common to many feminist writers of the time period including the author of one of the above-mentioned texts, Shulamith Firestone.



Yvonne Rainer on the cover of her autobiography, Feelings Are Facts.

In 1970, Paxton joined the Grand Union improvisational dance company spearheaded by Yvonne Rainer. The Grand Union was a collective of nine performers, many of whom had danced together for many years, like Paxton and Rainer, who gathered to investigate dance, theatre and performance.[4]  Rainer’s piece entitled Continuous Project-Altered Daily (CP-AD) was the pivotal work that led to the consolidation of the group. CP-AD was named to describe the ever-changing process that was the “show” seen by audiences. This “show” entailed an anarchic, free-associative performance with dialogue, props, costumes and music. The show was an exploration of the dance-making process, which included both improvisation and choreography, as well as pedestrian and professional movement.


Steve Paxton

            The organization of the Grand Union allowed members to “participate equally, without employing social hierarchies in the group.”[5] Paxton thoroughly enjoyed “…the development of trust within the group, the necessary precondition of mutual agreement for dependency, the pleasure of establishing firm communication and sharing explorations.”[6] He was critical of the dictatorial hierarchies that were often imposed within traditional ballet, modern and even post-modern dance companies. He wrote: “It was the star system. It is difficult to make the general public understand other systems, inundated as we are with the exploitation of personality and appearance in every aspect of theatre. Though this basic poverty of understanding on the audiences’ part is a drag, unique and personalized forms have been emerging, such as those seen in…the Grand Union.”[7] Yet again, Paxton prioritized the opening up of new “systems” of movement beyond the exploitative nature of commercial dance in a capitalist society.

The performances by the Grand Union would last for several hours often with no set beginning or end; the audience would ebb and flow. Grand Union performances were opposed to the commonplace paradigm of dance shows that relied on stylized manipulation of dancers’ bodies to entertain audiences. The emphases put on democratic leadership and decision-making led to performances in which no single dancer was the “star,” which also broke from the traditional dance show paradigm. The “star” was the spontaneous process itself that manifested onstage, a process that had been previously discussed and conceptualized in a democratic manner and a process that gave, according to Sally Banes, “…permission for the dancers to make choices and exercise freedom within an overall structure.”[8]

With such a high level of cooperation and exchange, Yvonne Rainer’s feminist practices that were anti-hierarchical and overtly anti-sexist become more than perfunctory detail and venture into the realm of purposefully influential. Rainer was a self-proclaimed “political lesbian” who responded to Audre Lorde’s famous quote: “You can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools” with “You can, if you expose the tools.”[9] The main “tools” that Rainer may have been referring to are the patriarchal organization of society and commercialization of nearly every facet of humanity that, through art, can be exposed and symbolically challenged and changed. The political exploration and experimental dance processes spearheaded by Rainer and complimented by her feminist ideology epitomize the early work of the Grand Union, and strongly influenced the work of Paxton who was often featured in Rainer’s work and often used Rainer in his own pieces.

[1] Yvonne Rainer, Feelings Are Facts: A Life (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 385-386.

[2] Ibid., 437. The full quote reads: “Through most of the 1980s, in close friendships with a number of younger lesbians, determined not to enter into any more ill-fated heterosexual adventures, and already showing up at Gay Pride parades, I was calling myself a “political lesbian.”

[3] Banes, “Feminism and American Postmodern Dance,” 36.

[4] Sally R. Banes, “Grand Union: The Presentation of Everyday Life as Dance,” Dance Research Journal 10 (1978): 43.

[5] Steve Paxton, “The Grand Union,” The Drama Review (1971): 130.

[6] Banes, “Grand Union: The Presentation of Everyday Life as Dance,” 45.

[7] Paxton, “The Grand Union,” 131.

[8] Sally R. Banes, “Judson Dance Theatre: Democracy’s Body, 1962-64” (PhD diss., New York University, 1980), 194.

[9] “Yvonne Rainer,” Wikipedia, (accessed December 17, 2012).

Thesis Thursday!

Thesis Thursdays

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Happy Thursday!

One more day to the weekend, but more importantly ONE MORE DAY UNTIL ECOUTER OPENS!

Get your tickets here, still only $15 until tomorrow!



In case you’re not caught up with Frame’s newest weekly series, Thesis Thursday, you can catch up on the last three blog posts here. In a nutshell, this series features installments of my senior thesis written for Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. It explores the topics of Contact Improvisation, Feminism, feminist performance art, and female empowerment through movement.

Here’s a re-cap of my general thesis statement:

I will argue that CI is a complex feminist practice. The relationship CI has to feminism is complex because it is not inherently feminist, but enables women to have a feminist experience.

If you don’t have time to catch up on the first two posts, have no fear! It’s a perfect week to dive in! In this post, I will explore the relationship between CI’s history and postmodern art of the 1950’s-60’s. Enjoy!


 Chapter I. Part II. CI and Postmodernist Influences

The Living Theatre opened in 1947 and is the longest standing experimental theatre group in the U.S. “Over the course of almost fifty years, The Living Theatre has been known as the most radical, uncompromising, and experimental group in American Theatrical history.”[1] It pulled Steve Paxton (see past posts for more info on Paxton, who is hailed as the originator of CI) into its vortex of action and awakened his political consciousness. The theatre is known for the radical politics of its founders’, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, specifically their commitment to nonviolence, anti-hierarchy and anti-commercialism of art. Their politics manifested in a unique theatre experience that transcended the specific medium such as film, painting, or dance, and aimed to engage the audience by dissolving the “fourth wall,” which separates audiences from the stage, and exposing them to what Antonin Artaud theorized as the “theatre of cruelty.” Artaud was a French playwright and actor prolific in the early 1900’s in Europe.[2] He is widely known for his writings regarding the theatre of cruelty, which was a stark portrayal of reality meant to propel the audience from passive complacency to thoughtful action. According to theatre critic Albert Bermel, Artaud believed that, “If theatre is a necessary part of our lives…[i]t has an obligation: it’s every performance must, by virtue of its cleansing and purifying, transfigure those audiences.”[3] One example of such theatre is Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection, which featured actors already on stage as the audience entered the theatre.  The actors are waiting for their heroin dealers and walk through the aisles asking for money to get a fix during intermission.[4] In the words of Julian Beck:

            To call into question

            who we are to each other in the social environment of theater…

            to set ourselves in motion

            like a vortex that pulls the

            spectator into action…

            to move from the theater to the street and from the street to the


            This is what The Living Theatre does today.

            It is what it has always done[5]

Robert Dunn’s composition (choreography) classes taught at Merce Cunningham’s studio in The Living Theatre from 1960 – 1962 were the impetus for the development of the Judson Dance Theatre two years later.[6] Dunn’s first composition class started with only Paxton and four other students. Paxton worked with Dunn for the next four years, and Paxton was forced to challenge the conventions of his modern dance training. Paxton says of the experience:

The work that I did there was first of all to flush out all of my “why-nots,” to go through my “why not” circles as far as I could until getting bored with the question…It was a very permissive time…which was my first contact with the rise of political consciousness – where I first saw a peace symbol, where I first saw dope smoked, where they were doing plays like The Connection and talking about prison reform.[7]

Yvonne Rainer, a fellow dancer in Dunn’s choreography class at The Living Theatre recalls a piece by Paxton in which he sat on a bench and ate a sandwich.[8] This piece was minimalist and its rejection of modern dance conventions and refined technical vocabulary was groundbreaking for the time period. It demonstrated anti-commercialism and criticized over-the-top entertainment. Dunn’s classes led to Paxton and his classmates creating many diverse dance scores. Eventually the classmates decided to present their collection of work as the Judson Dance Theatre (JDT), in the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, New York City on July 6, 1962. So began the Judson Dance Theatre’s twenty-year domination of the postmodern dance scene. According to dance scholar Sally Banes, “It was the seedbed for post-modern dance…The choreographers of the Judson Dance Theatre radically questioned dance aesthetics…”[9] The JDT is widely regarded as the first organized instance of postmodern dance. It defined postmodern dance as a reaction to modern dance that rejected many of modern dance’s technical constraints. The result was an embrace of everyday movement. The techniques of musicians who used non-traditional instruments, chance composition and improvisation complemented this new type of performance. These elements would be seen later in Contact Improvisation, which also utilizes improvisational musicians to create a musical score in jams and performances.

The group’s success was partly due to the egalitarian and democratic nature of the organization. Judith Dunn, a dancer in the first concert and wife of Robert Dunn, wrote, “No important decisions were made until everyone concerned and present agreed.”[10] Again, this lesson, taught by Cunningham and Limón, was not lost on Paxton as evidenced by the anti-hierarchical, cooperative and egalitarian organization in his own movement form and practice. However, the JDT pushed Paxton outside the technical and apolitical style of modern dance and exposed him to postmodern experimentation with the mundane and pedestrian as a form of political critique which I will argue set the stage for a feminist experience to develop.

[1] John Tytell, The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), xi.

[2] Albert Bermel, Artuad’s Theatre of Cruelty, (London: Methuen, 2001), vii-viii, 115.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Jack Gelber, The connection, a play (New York: Grove Press, 1960).

[5] Julian Beck, “Our Mission,” The Living Theatre, history (accessed December 17, 2012).

[6] Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theatre, 2.

[7] Ibid., 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theatre, xi.

[10] Sarah Doran, “The Judson Dance Theater,” Greenwich Village, (accessed November 8, 2012).

Thesis Thursday

Thesis Thursdays



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In case you’re not caught up with Frame’s newest weekly series, Thesis Thursday, you can catch up on the last two blog posts here. In a nutshell, this series features installments of my senior thesis written for Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. It explores the topics of Contact Improvisation, Feminism, feminist performance art, and female empowerment through movement.

Here’s a re-cap of my initial post:

I will argue that CI is a complex feminist practice. The relationship CI has to feminism is complex because it is not inherently feminist, but enables women to have a feminist experience.

If you don’t have time to catch up on the first two posts, have no fear! It’s a perfect week to dive in! This is the first post to go beyond the introductory material and into the “meat” of my first chapter. Enjoy!


Chapter One: Influences, Feminist Connections and Contact Improvisation

Part I. Modernist Influences

By Lena Silva

Contact Improvisation, like feminist performance art, has a clear link to modern and postmodern dance as shown through the early career of Steve Paxton. He considered himself an outsider to the dance establishment. Despite having studied gymnastics in his childhood and modern dance at the University of Arizona, Paxton did not believe he was a “real dancer.” Only while dancing for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at age 22 did Paxton begin to identify as a dancer. Paxton admits, “It took me a long time to admit that I was a ‘dancer’…Because I held dancers in such high esteem… it took me a long time to feel I was part of [the New York arts scene]”.[1] Perhaps his affinity with postmodern dance and egalitarian approach to dance making was related to his outsider mentality.


Steve Paxton worked alongside or under many women and men during his formative years as a dancer before CI was initiated. These included Merce Cunningham, José Limón, and Yvonne Rainer. Rainer identified as a feminist performance artist, and Paxton had other colleagues that did so as well. Feminist belonged to the three dance communities that were most influential for Paxton: the Judson Dance Theatre, The Living Theater, and the Grand Union. These individuals and groups provided an influential legacy of egalitarianism and non-hierarchical organization for CI.


Steve Paxton

portrait-biographyMerce Cunningham (1919–2009), a major influence on Steve Paxton, was a dancer, choreographer and leader in the American avant-garde for over fifty years, at his most prolific in the 1950’s and 60’s when he worked with Paxton.[2] The most important legacy of Cunningham’s for Paxton was Cunningham’s reliance on collaboration with artists of many different types (including musicians, architects, painter, and actors) and his willingness to experiment. He coined the postmodern technique of chance choreography, which required collaboration John Cage a musician and Cunningham’s life partner. Cage composed musical scores for the dance shows independently of Cunningham’s choreography so that the resulting dance abandoned conventional efforts for dance to match music.


Merce Cunningham

However, Paxton’s style of dance making diverged from Cunningham’s insistence on heteronormative partnering. According to Sally Banes, “Cunningham could not, or would not, escape the heritage of classical ballet… men still supported and lifted women…in quite traditional ways. Men did not partner men, nor did women lift or support women.”[3] Paxton and other members of Cunningham’s company questioned the heteronormative conventions, which opened them to a less traditional choreography of gender relations in dance. As early as 1961, while still dancing with Cunningham, Paxton began complicating the gendered nature of choreography in “Proxy,” which the female dancer of the duet lifts the male dancer.[4]

Jose-Limon-40247-1-402Also during the early 1960’s in New York City, Paxton spent one year dancing with one of the most influential modern dancers in history, José Limón. Limón refused to codify his technique to avoid stifling the creativity of his students. He encouraged them to find their individual expression of a movement, an improvisational element shared by postmodern dance.[5] Limón’s sensitivity toward creative hierarchy was important for Paxton who also chose to set out a minimal frame of reference of movement for dancers rather than impose on them the necessity to dance exactly like him.



Jose Limon

humphrey_portraitLimón appointed Doris Humphrey to be the artistic director of his company rather than personally assuming the position. That he chose a woman is notable. Despite the prestige some women had in the modern dance world, such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, many others struggled to attain prominence at the level of their male contemporaries. Humphrey is acclaimed for opening up modern dance to the nuances of gravity with her principle of “fall and recovery,” which focuses on organic falls and rebounds of the body that arise from shifts in weight.[6] Humphrey said gravity was “…the very core of all movement, in my opinion.”[7] Her style is similar to what became central to CI movement technique: focusing on gravity and sharing changes in weight between partners as impetus for spontaneous movement.

Dorris Humphrey

[1] Steve Paxton, “How Important is Dance? I Think it May be Critical!” The Wise Body: Conversations with Experienced Dancers, ed. Jacky Lansley and Fergus Early (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 89.

[2] Sally R. Banes, “Feminism and American Postmodern Dance,” Ballett [sic] International,  no. 6 (1996): 34-41.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Banes, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theatre, 1962-1964, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 58-60.

[5] June Dunbar, Jose Limón: The Artist Re-Viewed (New York: Routledge, 2000), 38 and 113.

[6] Lesley Main, Directing the Dance Legacy of Doris Humphrey, (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), 16-17.

[7] Ibid., 17.


Stay tuned for the next installment of my thesis that will focus on the postmodern influences on CI!


My partner and I performing a CI duet for Rice Dance Theatre’s Fall 2012 show.

Thesis Thursday

Thesis Thursdays

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Hey Framers, it’s almost the weekend!

Why not start the end of the week with a good read?

Well… at least I think it’s pretty good, but I’m a little biased. Check out this second installment of my senior honors thesis written for Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality. It explores the topics of Contact Improvisation, Feminism, feminist performance art, and female empowerment through movement. 

Here’s a re-cap of last week’s initial post:

I will argue that CI is a complex feminist practice. The relationship CI has to feminism is complex because it is not inherently feminist, but enables women to have a feminist experience.

If you have time read the full article!


Part II of Points of Contact: Contact Improvisation and Feminism

I will substantiate my argument by focusing on facets of CI that its founders acknowledge as fundamental: gender non-conformity, rejection of sensual repression, rejection of hierarchical and commerce-driven demands on the production of art, and complication of the sexual consummation ideal. This will be accomplished through examination of interviews with founding members of CI, some conducted specifically for this project and some recorded by others, as well as an examination of the periodical Contact Quarterly, founded in 1975 as a forum for the discussion of CI as it was emerging. This evidence will be supplemented by secondary sources from authorities, including Ann Cooper Albright, Cynthia Novack and Cheryl Pallant. These authors highlight the egalitarian and anti-hierarchical nature of the dance form.[1] I link the history of CI to feminist performance art and the recent forms of CI to feminist theories of sexuality, gender equity and embodiment.[2] To accomplish this, I will draw upon accounts from practitioners who testify to the usefulness of CI in solidifying their sexual autonomy, helping them cope with gender-based violence and body image issues, and liberating their experience of gender from the feminine-masculine dichotomy.




I had a blast going through old articles from the Contact Quarterly – dating all the way back to the 70’s! 




My first chapter provides a historical analysis of the proximity of CI to the feminist art movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. The feminist art movement emerged in the late 1960’s precisely at the time that CI was conceptualized. According to dramaturg and English scholar, Jeanie Forte, “Within this movement, women’s performance emerges as a specific strategy that allies postmodernism and feminism, adding the critique of gender/patriarchy to the already damaging critique of modernism inherent in the activity.”[3] The “personal as political” became a mantra for many feminists of the time who sought to politicize their personal experiences of gender in order to draw attention to sexism and criticize patriarchy.[4] Also according to Forte, “Women’s performance art operates to unmask this function of ‘Woman,’ responding to the weight of representation by creating an acute awareness of all that signifies Woman, or femininity.”[5] To accomplish this, feminist artists made use of autobiographical narratives, their physical bodies, and emerging gender politics, which simultaneously opened up the nature of performance art itself. Carolee Schneeman, Yoko Ono and the Guerrilla Girls are recognized as significant feminist performance artists from the past few decades.[6]






I read Rainer’s autobiography, Feelings Are Facts, to give me more background and perspective on her work and relationship to CI. The book was recommended to me by Nancy Stark Smith in one of our conversations.




Chapter One focuses on the collaboration between feminist performance artist Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton during the inception of CI. To analyze feminist thought as it emerged in the feminist performance art movement and alongside the development and practice of CI, I will use writings by art historian, Linda Nochlin, feminist philosopher, Judith Butler and historian Alice Echols. These scholars outline the power of structural conditions, performativity of gender, and importance of representation. All of which are engaged with, in some way, by feminist performance art and CI. I will also look at video recordings of the first CI performances in order to analyze gendered politics of movement and partnering. I will discuss interviews I conducted with Nancy Stark Smith on her stance on feminism and CI. Her remarks reveal the politicizing effects of CI and contribute to my larger claim about the dance form as a complex feminist practice.

[1] Pallant, Contact Improvisation. Novack, Sharing the Dance, Contact Improvisation and American Culture.  Taken By Surprise, ed. Ann Cooper Albright and David Gere (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

[2] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988), 519. Carole S. Vance, “Pleasure and Danger: Toward a Politics of Sexuality,” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole Vance (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984): 1-27. Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967 – 1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

[3] Jeanie Forte, “Women’s Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 2 (May 1988): 218.

[4] Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967 – 1975.

[5] Forte, “Women’s Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism,”218.

[6] Geraldine Harris, Staging Femininities: Performance and Performativity (New York: Manchester University Press, 1999).


INTRODUCING: Thesis Thursday!

Thesis Thursdays

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Hey Framers! Lena here, Frame’s Development Assistant. This year I wrote a Senior Honors Thesis for Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality on the topic of Contact Improvisation and Feminism. I’m so excited to share with my research findings and hear your thoughts on my work! This is the FIRST entry and the series will most likely run for most of the summer – so stay tuned!

ok…drumrolllllll…Here is the first excerpt from:

Points of Contact: Contact Improvisation and Feminism


I remember the first Contact Improvisation dance jam I attended. I went as a photographer; paid to record the unrehearsed art that develops from bodies making movement together to the beat of an unpredictable score played by live musicians. According to one of the original Contact Improvisation practitioners, Nancy Stark Smith, a “jam” is more easily defined in the negative: “It’s not a class, it’s not a rehearsal, it’s not a performance…[it’s] where people at different levels of practice are able to interact with one another through a form.”[1] They bumped and jumped and ran and fell and lifted and held. They touched. It’s fascinating all the ways we can touch – it’s not just the hands that are privy to this sensual, human experience. The top of the head, the back of a knee, the ribcage – they connect too. I was excited by what I saw – I was scared. How does one become open to such vulnerability? Most of the dancers were strangers to one another; it was the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival[2] in which undergraduates, graduates and teachers coming from different parts of Texas gathered to practice this niche dance form that requires its practitioners to safely and sensually touch. A slender, blue-eyed man curling on top of a burly, bearded man; a stocky, elderly woman being held and set on the ground by an eighteen year old girl; a short, unyielding woman effortlessly shouldering a tall, nimble man.  The lack of gender conformity was inspiring – all of a sudden, the possibilities are endless.

Images taken by me at my first jam:

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Contact Improvisation (CI) dance began in 1972. Steve Paxton is generally recognized for starting CI, but Paxton and many other practitioners involved during the inception of CI allocate founding credit more diffusely to include dancers such as Nancy Stark Smith, Nita Little, Daniel Lepkoff, among others. Since the 1980’s, Nancy Stark Smith has come to be seen as the leader of the CI community. Over the past four decades, CI has been defined in myriad ways: as an art sport,[3] a physical conversation, a technique of nonviolent protest.[4] For this project, I will define CI as spontaneous movement that relies on information from forces of nature, namely gravity and momentum, in addition to sensual information provided by fellow practitioners, in order to create an improvised dance. Daniel Lepkoff stresses the continuity within CI: “…ultimately, [CI’s] initial stance of empowering individuals to rely on their own physical intelligence, to meet their moment with senses open and perceptions stretching, and to compose their own response remains intact.”[5] Despite tremendous growth of the community to every continent in the world, CI remains the same: thoroughly rooted in a physical premise and yet free to adjust to changing social and individual realities.

Nancy Stark Smith and Steve Paxton


nancystarksmith-65969 Steve-Paxton-1984-©-Peggy-Jarrell-Kaplan3









I am interested in the potential of CI dance to enact feminist ideals on an individual and societal level concerning hierarchy, sexuality and gender. Significant scholarship has been written on CI’s connections to postmodernism and its complication of hierarchy, sexuality and gender.[6] The original contribution of my work is to connect Contact Improvisation dance to feminist performance art and feminist theory. I will argue that CI is a complex feminist practice. The relationship CI has to feminism is complex because it is not inherently feminist, but enables women to have a feminist experience. I will show that it is a dance form that is particularly compatible with feminism by first showing its historical proximity to feminist performance art and subsequently analyzing how CI continues to provide a way of exploring sexual-sensual boundaries while breaking both the gendered dichotomy of movement and traditional hierarchical forms of organization.

[1] Nancy Stark Smith, “Contact Improvisation Today,” Writings on Dance, no. 21 (Summer 2001): 25.

[2] Texas Dance Improvisation Festival (TDIF) began in 2009 and featured three days of classes, jams, and performances. The TDIF mentioned occurred in 2010 at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Jordan Fuchs, “The First Annual Texas Dance Improvisation Festival,” CQ Contact Improvisation Newsletter 35, no. 2 (available only online at http://community. (accessed December 16, 2012).

[3] “The first time Simone Forti saw Contact [Improvisation] she said ‘Mmm, it’s kind of like an art sport’. And we used that term for a long time.” Nancy Stark Smith, “Contact Improvisation Today,” Writings on Dance, no. 21, (2001): 22.

[4] Danielle Goldman, “Bodies on the Line: Contact Improvisation and Techniques of Nonviolent Protest,” Dance Research Journal 39, no. 1 (2007): 60-74.

[5] Daniel Lepkoff, “Contact Improvisation, A Question,” Contact Quarterly 36, no. 1 (2011): 40.

[6] For more discussion see: Cheryl Pallant, Contact Improvisation (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006). or Cynthia Novack, Sharing the Dance, Contact Improvisation and American Culture (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

Excited to share more with you next week! Please comment and let me know if you have any comments/edit suggestions/questions.


(Me presenting my thesis last month)