Thesis Thursday!

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.



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