Author: Sensei Lincoln

In years past, the general community has thought the word "dance" to mean a limited number of things. For example, history will show that dance has primarily been associated with ballroom dancing, ballet and to a lesser extent, disco dancing. However, a number of ground breaking artists have developed new, eclectic styles of post modern dance which are not only strikingly different, but allow participation by people from a variety of backgrounds. One of these styles is "contact improvisation". Further, other activities have recently been likened to dance in many ways - such as traditional martial arts, namely karate and tai chi. Essentially, the aim of this paper is to look at the association between contact improvisation, karate and tai chi in terms of providing an insight into the relationship between the self and other.

Contact improvisation can be defined as "an improvisational form of movement (dance) in which the movement and structures of a work are generated by the responses of two or more performers to moments of physical contact between them". Contact improvisation was developed by Steve Paxton in the mid 1970’s as "...the ideal of active, reflexive, harmonic, spontaneous, mutual forms". Interestingly, these such definitions are not purely limited to the art of contact improvisation. Karate is very difficult to define in one or two sentences, however, it is essentially a fighting art using only the bare hands developed over the centuries. Karate does involve two people and it does involve reflexive and harmonic forms. Such comparisons can also be made with Tai Chi, another ancient Chinese martial art which consists of slow, connected series of movements, which can be used as either an activity to produce long term health benefits, or develop fighting skill which is the case with "push hands" training. These three legitimate art forms all relate to each other at some point. For this study, it will be assumed that they all involve:-a.

a. movement with a partner,
b. the production of new possibilities of movement,
c. use an un-written language to achieve these movement goals.
Importantly, karate and tai chi does not always require a real partner to be enable practice to take place. However, the strict fighting form of these practices does require the interaction or "combat" between two or more adversaries.

Contact improvisation is traditionally a dance form which involves the interaction of two or more people. When involving two people, both performers are moving together in unison - that is, they are not separate entities. Successful contact improvisation relies on the melding of two people, they become one in a bid to create a continuous moving situation that is reacted to. Like many art and dance forms, contact improvisation can be practiced alone, without interaction with another. However, attributes such as the "action-reaction" idealism and distinctions like having no fixed or set required movements, set contact improvisation apart from other forms of dance. Such attributes and distinctions can only be understood and experienced whilst practicing with another person.

The notion of gaining benefit from practicing and interacting with another is also prominent within the martial arts. Like dance, traditional karate and tai chi do contain elements which are primarily designed to be practiced individually. Such elements are called "kata" or "imaginary combats against possible opponents" involving the use of basic, intermediate or advanced fighting techniques. Both karate and tai chi contain "katas" within their system, but being fighting arts, karate and tai chi are best practiced in partnership with another person. This notion can be upheld if the practitioner is practicing these arts with the intent to learning how to fight. However, many practitioners of these activities participate for other intrinsic values like discipline, health, coordination, meditation and enjoyment. These intrinsic values of tai chi and karate are also present during the practice of contact improvisation.

During the traditional combat forms of tai chi and karate, the other person may be seen as the aggressor or attacker with whom the karate or tai chi practitioner can practice movements and techniques designed to defeat and even kill this opponent. Being art forms which can be practiced with a fighting mentality, tai chi and karate are designed to be used against other people, it is only correct that such techniques be practiced against "real" attackers within the relatively "safe" confines of the karate training hall, instead of practicing techniques against imaginary opponents. It has been stated that it is very difficult to practice defeating your opponent by "punching and kicking the air", conversely, it is very difficult to gain a true understanding of contact improvisation without using a partner to practice with. With contact improvisation, karate and tai chi, the true notion of "self" can only be fully realised when explored in coordination with another colleague, partner, friend or foe. As has been mentioned previously, tai chi, karate and contact improvisation can be practiced without the interaction with a physical partner. Karate and tai chi practitioners are able to practice individually through the use of the "katas", and a contact improvisation performer may practice "contact" by moving along a wall, floor or other static equipment.

A major attraction of contact improvisation is its ability to enable the production of new types and possibilities of movement. Unlike the martial arts, contact improvisation does not contain lengthy and detailed movement patterns (like the katas), but involves more of an eclectic style which has evolved from an observation of many different situations and intrinsic perceptions. Steve Paxton sums this up well when he states:

"The movement material used in contact improvisation is not exactly commonplace, though specific moments often look familiar. It is a movement that originates in a variety of duet situations, ranging from handshakes to making love, to brawling to martial arts to social dancing to meditation. There are lifts and falls, evolving organically out of a continuous process of finding and losing balance. There is a give and take of weight..."

Here, Steve Paxton acknowledges the importance of duet situations and that they are vital when practicing contact improvisation. Further, contact improvisation can lead to a variety of different movement possibilities. When performing contact improvisation, one person may find themselves being lifted or thrown through the air at an alarming speed because of the certain way their partner stood up or knelt down at a particular moment. This often leads to the more acrobatic of the two performers announcing "wow, how did I get here!!". This is one of the unique aspects of contact improvisation. You never necessarily know where you will come to rest or how you will get there. The interaction between yourself and your partner is the determining factor as to what movement will take place.

This notion is one which is also principal with tai chi and karate. The art of "push hands" is one which is very similar to the concepts of contact improvisation. The basic principle of push hands is yielding. Yielding is a response to a partner or opponent in tai chi in an attack and defence exchange in which the yield follows the others movement, not in weakness but by mirroring his direction rather than countering it. An example of push hands is as one person lunges forward with their right hand, the other yields as the attackers lunging energy is absorbed. Once the force from the lunge has dissipated, the defender becomes attacker and lunges forward with his right hand, and the opponent then yields. This continues on indefinitely.

Push hands can also be used as a more aggressive fighting system. For example, as one person lunges forward to strike with their right hand, a defensive, yielding technique is employed by the defender with his right hand. Excessive yielding can cause the attacker to over reach and lose balance (and be defeated) - much in the same manner as Steve Paxton explained earlier with contact improvisation. Within tai chi and its concept of "push hands" is the abstraction of "dynamic interaction". Dynamic interaction suggests the change between the gathering (yielding) movement and the pushing movement are not opposites but become each other. During push hands, two practitioners are not seen independent of each other, they are simply one entity working together, just like in contact improvisation.

By practicing push hands with a fighting intent, many similarities can be observed with contact improvisation. With push hands, the yield does not necessarily need to be at an angle directly in line with the push. For instance, a push towards the defenders chest region may be yielded in a downward direction toward the floor. If the yield is successful, the attacker will lunge too far, over balance and fall toward the direction of the yield. Just like the contact improvisation practitioner who has been taken for a "ride" and ended up on the floor, the attacker during push hands may also ask "how did I get here!!".

The art of contact improvisation is one of exploring new possibilities. Contact improvisation is concerned with taking its practitioners somewhere - this may be to the floor, around in circles or high on somebodies back. Essentially, these new possibilities are to the benefit of the practitioner. Tai chi is also concerned with taking your partner somewhere, but it is done with a different mentality. In tai chi, you will not be guided or yielded for your benefit, but rather for your detriment. Although it has been highlighted that contact improvisation and tai chi have striking similarities, their differences stem from the fact that tai chi is a fighting system designed to be used as a form of self defence, and contact improvisation is a form of dance.

Contact improvisation, tai chi and karate all involve communication which is unwritten and unspoken. Their language is physical, not verbal. Contact improvisation involves a coherent physical language for all its participants. The experienced contact improvisation practitioner is able to "sense" or "read" what his partner is doing or about to do. Further, a kinaesthetic sense has to do with sensing movement in your own body. This kinaesthetic sense comes through many hours of practice and is one of the aims of dance like contact improvisation. When teaching and practicing traditional forms of movement, the student is "directed, lulled, cajoled, enveloped and held by the teachers voice. In contact improvisation, the same occurs, but "skin teaches skin". This is very similar to tai chi and the push hands concept in that from a position of wrist on wrist, it is possible to feel and sense when an opponent will strike, merely through bodily tension, slight movements etc. Just as the push hands exponents are able to sense an immanent attack, the contact improvisation practitioner is able to sense his partners shifting centre of gravity even the most minute weight transference. Only a continued training of attributes such as relaxation, centering, balance, focus, coordination, breath etc is one able to identify and comprehend this internal dialogue. These attributes and its resultant ability only comes from years of study of either contact improvisation or the martial arts.

Traditional karate in its purist form has a definite start and end point. In between there is an attack and a defence - the two practitioners are working against each other to achieve a winner and a loser. With tai chi, there is continual attack-defence, attack-defence with no definite start or end. Contact improvisation also has no regimented beginning or end point, but it also has no attack and defence aspects. Instead, the practitioners are working together to achieve a common goal, not to win or lose, but to experience movement as they have never experienced before.

Although appearing quite dissimilar from the outside, an in depth analysis identifies that there is quite a number of similarities between contact improvisation, tai chi and karate. They all involve the use of partners (or opponents). They also all involve taking your partner to new places - be it on the floor, upside down or high in the air. Finally, all three arts involve an internal, kinaesthetic language which is significant and can only be understood by those completing the practice. Contact improvisation is a relatively new, and most definitely exciting form of post modern dance, with its eclectic content stemming not only from traditional dance, but from other forms of art and movement such as tai chi and karate...

Reference List.


1. Crompton, P. "Tai Chi for Two - The Practice of Push Hands". Shambhala Publications Inc., USA. 1989.

2. Frederic, L. "A Dictionary of the Martial Arts". Allen and Unwin, North Sydney. 1988.

3. Preston-Dunlop, V. "Dance Words". Hardwood Academic Publishers, Singapore. 1995.


1. Conversation with G. McConnell-Brown, 7-10-96

2. Conversation with J. Sinatra, 23-9-96.


1. Dempster, E. "Post Modern Dance Between Mastery and Pleasure". Writings on Dance. Summer 1994/1995. Pp44-51)

2. Paxton, S. "Physical Things". in Terpsichore in Sneakers. Edited by Banes, S. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston. 1980

3. Ptashek, A. "The Moving Body - an integrated movement course". Contact Quarterly. Winter 1992