A Quakerly Dance Form

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Two years ago, I was sitting in a circle of dancers practicing Contact Improvisation. The session started with all of us breathing together, waiting together, and listening for one of us to talk about something that connected the speaker to dance in a deep way. I was suddenly reminded of Quaker meeting for worship.

In Contact Improvisation, we “listen” with our skins to our dance partners’ wishes for variances in pressure, speed, consistency, support, and whimsy. We endeavor to stay in contact with another person while dancing as long as the dance is mutually satisfying. We often dance in silence, as music can be a distraction from deep listening and can take over one’s natural rhythms.

Improvisational dance session, photo by John BarrettSteve Paxton, the founder of Contact Improvisation, described it as “a mode of movement which is relaxed, constantly aware and prepared, and onflowing. As a basic focus, the dancers remain in physical touch, mutually supportive and innovative, mediating upon the physical laws relating to their masses: gravity, momentum, inertia, and friction. They do not strive to achieve results, but rather, to meet the constantly changing physical reality with appropriate placement and energy.”

As I continued thinking about this, I saw more resonances between Contact Improvisation and Quaker meeting for worship. I wondered whether Friends might turn the basic ideas inherent in Quakerism into physical expression through Contact Improvisation.

I decided to develop a class for Intermountain Yearly Meeting 2018 at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiú, NM, which would connect Contact Improvisation with Quaker practice. With curiosity leading, I began to explore a practice of kinesthetic worship.

My first experiment was to line up the fundamental values of Contact Improvisation with the Quaker acronym “S.P.I.C.E.” Here are a few examples:

Simplicity: We move without music, to our own rhythms, impacted by our partners’ rhythms. The dance is primarily about connection, not about virtuosity or impressing others with our performances.

Peace: We strive to be present in the moment with the touch that is between ourselves and our partners. Negotiating and quickly agreeing about the next move is what leads the dancers.

Integrity: The dance form is somatic – experienced from the inside – and is not motivated by how it would look to an observer. We continually check in with ourselves to see if this dance is the dance we want to continue, or if we want to change or halt the dance.

Community: All dancers support others, are responsive and curious within the dance, and respect each others’ boundaries. We physically collaborate on a dance simultaneously.

List 1 of Quaker "SPICEs" - photo by Sue LautherEquality: Each dancer is equal in status. It does not matter if you are tall, short, heavy, tiny, young, old, disabled or athletic; nor do your race, gender, religion, or political affiliation matter. There is no hierarchy, certification, or codified way to perform Contact Improvisation. The form, like parts of Quakerism, has been left free to evolve organically.

List 2 of Quaker "SPICEs" - photo by Sue LautherNext, I crafted a proposal for my class, which highlighted the Quakerly aspects of Contact Improvisation. Some of those highlights were:

  • “Listening” through the skin, fascia, muscle, bones and modulating muscular tone and pressure while dancing.
  • Learning to appreciate each person for the unique dance s/he offers each time you dance together.
  • Learning to establish trust and honest physical dialogue. Practice asserting boundaries. Learning to express desire and rejection without judgment.
  • Calming the internal chatter. Wrestling with self-doubt, expectations, pleasing others.
  • Feeling the moment of waiting as a rich experience. Relaxing rather than tensing in an unknown situation. Learning to be fluid and discovering many more options in the process.

At Intermountain Yearly Meeting, when I set up the room for this class, I posted some large sheets of paper, labeled with the Quaker “S.P.I.C.E.” Each letter was set at the top of a column where participants could write about what they learned while dancing. One person added “Stewardship” to finish the acronym – “S.P.I.C.E.S.”

During that class, we explored ways to connect and move through the language of touch, how to vary pressure to create stability or momentum, how to touch reassuringly to communicate trustworthiness. We explored ways of giving and taking weight, and generating three-dimensional aspects to dancing. People rolled onto the floor and onto each other’s bodies. All this was done through deep listening, responsiveness to others’ physical invitations, and checking in with one’s own essential self for boundary making.

Quakers practice similar skills of deep listening and responsiveness all the time – through clearness committees, testing of leadings, and other expressions of their spiritual selves. For Friends who naturally express themselves kinesthetically, Contact Improvisation may be a good way to expand their modes of worship and to bring their faith into practice in a new way.

We danced, rolled on the floor, felt our own weight pour, flip, slide, and compress as we softly tumbled. As we began dancing with each other, rolling on each other, navigating our pressure and body weight three-dimensionally together, I discovered that Contact Improvisation and Quaker meeting for worship resonate together beautifully. ~~~

Sue Lauther teaches performance at Colorado College and at the Ormao Dance Company Studio. With an MFA from the University of Illinois, she has performed in, produced, and choreographed projects in many parts of the U.S. and throughout the world. She attends Colorado Springs Meeting (IMYM).