July 17, 2010
Reflections on Contact Improvisation in the Academy: An essay review of CITE
From June 17-20, 2010 I attended the Contact Improvisation Teachers’ Exchange (CITE): Contact in the Academy at Connecticut College with about 25 other teachers from around the US (most of whom were teaching in the academy). The following are some of the thoughts and questions that have stayed with me since that conference. I am eager to share them because I have found that, in teaching in academia, it is easy to be isolated and that CQ and CITE events are fantastic ways to reconnect to the truth of the form we love. What I explore in this essay is how the academy is changing my views of dance and teaching. Specifically, post-conference, I am left with these questions:
1. What is important about CI? What is the essential nature of CI that I am trying to teach?
2. How are the values of CI and the academy different yet, on the surface, similar?
3. How does this conflict in values affect me as a teacher? What is the most efficient way to navigate this conflict?
4. How does the form of CI change because the human experience of the teacher has changed?
5. How can the academy better support subjective subjects (such as dance and somatics)?
One of the most important reminders that came out of the CITE discussions was how contact improvisation prioritizes teaching people to be themselves. As those who are familiar with CI know, this idea of self is expressed through community, physical expression, and verbal/artistic sharing. As I travel away from the conference I wonder (perhaps idealistically): Why can’t these important aspects of contact improvisation be an integral part of how the academy functions?
On the surface the academy and CI have very similar goals. Both want to improve the lives of others through information, understanding, fairness/justice, and connection. But, the values and goals of how dance functions within the academy are often not as concurrent as they might seem from the outside.
One of the themes of the conference was framed by the organizers in the form of a question: Will CI be kept alive by the academy? In my opinion, the short answer is, yes, CI in the academy will survive so long as teachers are willing to fight for it. Because of budget concerns, dance is often encouraged to be a part of a larger department so as to not be cut. Thus, dance within the structure of the academy is often set up as a second class citizen to theater, physical education or, in some cases, kinesiology. With the right leadership these subjects can really work well together but the reality is that dance is a deep and intricate subject with several sub-subjects within itself. Therefore mergers and reorganizations (that often seem to benefit the “corporate” interests of the academy more so than the students) frequently can cause dance faculty to veer away from the inherent goals of the subject.
Many of us in the dance world already know that dance (especially dance improvisation) is not a priority to our culture but we keep doing it because it is essential to our way of being. It is easy for a dance teacher within the academy to find herself caught up in the cultural climate such that the ideals of dance and CI are no longer important. “The academy will kill the CI teacher” was how one member of the group from the conference put it. Although teachers are resilient in many ways, the question is clear: Does the form change because the teacher is no longer able to truly model the philosophical cornerstones of CI when forced to meet the corporate regulations of the academy? Again, from my point of view, the answer is still yes. The emotional skills of intimacy that are (hopefully) taught in CI, in the right environment, can transform the identity of the person teaching and learning the form. If these skills change because of the demands of the corporate academy, then the way the teacher teaches changes and thus the form changes.
Although I teach in a small department in a very large public university – where the corporate model is in full effect – I know this model can also have similar influence in a small liberal arts environment. Although on some level this challenge could be for the better (e.g. provoking creativity in the face of competition), it seems to me that it is frequently for the worse because of the human toll - often translating into oppression in the work place. This oppression, in turn, often creates a contradiction of values. It is important for the teacher to interact with the students in the same way in which she interacts with co-faculty and administrators. All to often, however, the teacher is not able to practice what she preaches in the classroom or in the conference room. To model the CI form, one must model community on all levels in order to make the work the in the classroom and the academy effective. Because the CI philosophy of being one’s self and investigating the unknown is the way I want to be and the way I want the world to be, I find the oppressive nature of teaching in an environment that does not prioritize the human effect of the operation very difficult to traverse and transcend.
I frequently ask myself these questions about the academy: How can we as teachers in the academy stay true to the form and survive such tense relations either with other faculty or administrators who have different values? As it was suggested at the conference, we can invite administrators to our concerts and to our classes but when they don’t show up (and often don’t even know where to begin to engage with dance as art) the cycle of hopelessness is easy to accept. We can educate the academy as well but do they know or actually really care about the value of the education that comes through a subjective form like CI? How do we as a CI community convince them?
For most contact teachers the form is personal and essential. The academy, including classical modern dance teachers, doesn’t always connect to something so subjective. This is why it is difficult to fight for improvisational dance in the academy and all the reason more one must try. The fight can ruin teachers and it can also save teachers.
The main CI personality trait that I see changing in people that go into academia, and a topic discussed at the conference, is generosity. Academics often do not tend to be generous toward each other. The ubiquitous in-fighting and political posturing creates an oppressive environment that can only be changed through proactive leadership. Even then, if one is lucky enough to have a proactive leader for dance, it is rarely a stable situation as administrators are often cut or resign and are tested unfairly through the bureaucratic system that leads most to a depleted spirit. How can a system of depleted spirits teach the true meaning and essence of CI?
The real question for me is how can I remain true to myself in this type of environment that does not prioritize the values that I see so vibrantly in most contact communities? How can I help change this type of environment in academia? Can I be one of the surviving contactors that still models the spirit of CI even if I am surrounded by situations that will take advantage of my generosity, courage, listening, vulnerability, and openness? Or, will these traits slowly change under this pressure forcing me to no longer be able to be the person I want to be?
The reality that a dance teacher (especially a female dance teacher) is replaceable and that arts are often a lower priority is a fact that makes one have to work extra hard to fight for his or her job, and/or live in fear that one’s department will be cut. Since higher education institutions are the leaders of the humanities and are the main cultural support and frequent promoters of subjective inquiry, it is surprising to me that the human (emotional/moral) impact of the academy on the faculty is not a top priority of operation. I have noticed in working at different schools that if teachers feel secure and supported in their roll by the institution then they often pass this way of being to the students. Since CI is about support and connection, CI can model an ideal way of operation for the academy, if they are open and willing to listen.CITE gave me an opportunity to see that there is some hope that the academy is able to listen. The challenges will be ongoing as CI finds its place in the academy.