My spiritual practice is my life (with emphasis on the word “practice”). I try my best to embrace the chaotic, contradictory, random abundance and confusion around me (and inside me) and bring it all into balance. Balance for me means not getting overly attached to any one outcome, laughing at myself regularly and learning to flow. It doesn’t come easily – if ever – and so I practice every day. All day long. Results vary.
Lately I’ve become fascinated by Contact Improvisation, something Estela, a friend from Paris, introduced me to. This somatic dance which grew out of 1970s experimentation among dancers and choreographers in New York is about play, about making contact without words, about moving again like a child. Just for the sheer joy of it.
When we are babies, we all do Contact Improv as we explore the people around us, finding the points of separation and integration that hold us together. But as adults most of us lose that free physical playfulness (except perhaps in the heated exchange of sex) and live in mute isolation from all those people we want to touch and connect.
As in so many things, our challenge as adults is to claw our way back to the way we were as children.
In that quest, I took the bus to the Contact Improv jam at Parque Centenario in Buenos Aires last Sunday. Just as a milonga is a place where people gather to dance tango (another improvised dance), a jam is a gathering where people get together to explore Contact. As in all children’s games, there are a few simple rules: no words, stay in contact, improvise, explore, have fun.
Since Estela had returned to Paris, I invited another tango friend Celia, to join me. This being only my third jam, I was still feeling my way around the community, trying to feel comfortable and knowing that I wouldn’t for a while. Though this was her first jam, Celia was good company for such an infiltration: she is the only person on the planet who was both a rugby player and a cheerleader at school and anyone who can twirl pompoms AND tackle, gets my respect. Add in a shaved head and abundant tattoos and you get a potent combo.
The scene at Parque Centenario on Sunday afternoon made me feel right at home. As a Northern Californian I am in my element among tree huggers, folk guitarists, capoeira dancers, acro-yoga doers, bared abdomens with piercings, pot smokers, dreadlocks, mate drinkers, colorful baggy pants wearers, sitar players, vegan sandwich vendors and everyone pursuing their individual path to ecstasy.
The Contact Improv people had hauled in a massive piece of vinyl, a piece of some abandoned circus tent, to the park. They unrolled it under the flashy mesozoic Araucaria trees. (“Pine trees that want to be Palm trees,” Celia called them.) This would be our dance floor.
Celia and I ventured out to play. Admittedly barging into a Contact Improv Jam where everyone is writhing and contorting could be intimidating – unless of course you’re a rugby playing cheerleader (or a crazy California tango transplant) in which case it isn’t at all. We had fun though we knew it could be much more once we learned to surrender fully to the Contact Improv dynamic.
Eventually, Celia, who had come with a friend, moved on, but I wasn’t ready to let go.
Which left me sitting on the edge of the flattened circus tent, wanting to break in. There was a woman stretching beside me (or rather I had sat down near the woman who was stretching) but I didn’t know how to break the ice. (“So, do you come here often” didn’t seem the right tack and the cabeceo from tango wasn’t going to work here either.)
Finally, I worked up the courage and just said, “Do you want to play?”
There was an excruciating pause, then she said, “That’s not how it’s done. Not verbally.” Her words weren’t directed at me; it was more like she was speaking to herself out loud and I just happened to overhear.
I chose the path of total honesty: “I’m sorry. I’m new. I don’t know how it’s done.”
“Let it happen,” she advised. “Otherwise you’ll seem kind of square.”
We chatted a bit. She was from Russia, an acrobat, passing through. She asked me about life in Buenos Aires, not yet comprehending why I had chosen BA over California. (Give her time to get to know this bounteous city; then she’ll know.) We continued stretching; the conversation petered out and we drifted back into our private, silent spaces.
When I am nervous, I hold to words. I know how to use words for certain ends. I have gotten myself out of many tight spots with words, avoided tickets and fines and jail time, escaped blame, salvaged relationships on the brink, diffused violence. Some people buy revolvers; I carry a bag of words and assume I can out-smart or at least out-talk trouble.
But I didn’t know how to connect with someone to dance in that park without words. I guess I had forgotten how to be a kid. Thinking about this, I sat and watched the other dancers dance together in the park on a January summer afternoon.
In a while I felt the acrobat’s foot pushing firmly against my back, increasing in pressure, and I knew the invitation was on. I accepted by acceding to her pressure. Then, in a change of strategy, I pushed back. In this game, both can play.
“Share your weight,” she coached me softly. “Don’t push.”
Another time she whispered: “Look for the space, for the opportunity. Find the places you fit.”
When she herself found those places and spaces, she would say, “That fits.”
Making use of her acrobatic skills, she would suddenly stand erect on my thigh, leaning out like the prow of a ship, or surprise me by perching on my shoulder, as if it were the best place to sit and watch all the crazy dreamers in that Sunday park. Up there, making like “The Thinker,” she even rested her chin in the palm of her hand.
“That fits, too.”
We went to many places while expending few words.
I find that I am of two minds: Sometimes I want to dance without words; other times I want to let the words out to dance all by themselves.
That afternoon I didn’t need words. Today it is my pleasure to let the words out to play around me and conjure up a fleeting dance.