Working in Toronto during the last year, Kathleen Rea, an expressive arts therapist, author, contact dancer and choreographer, and Brad Johnston, an embodied life coach and contact dancer have been developing an approach to working with people in relationships using principles of contact improvisation.
We developed our approach through a process of dancing together and talking about our dances. Coming from a coaching and therapy perspective, we both notice that simple movement dynamics involved in lead and follow and giving and taking weight were metaphors for what was happening in our growing friendship. We both became curious about how contact improvisation could illuminate relationship dynamics and facilitate learning for couples.
Through a workshop called “Relationship in Movement” people in relationships – ranging from life partners to newly formed romantic relationships – are led through contact improvisation exercises. Participants are often asked to take on clear roles such as leader and follower and then asked to switch roles. The simplicity of intention and clarity of roles invites people’s relationship story to quickly come to the forefront. In one workshop, a woman married for twenty years commented on how hard it was for her to follow her husband and how easy it felt to lead him. Her husband started laughing and said that’s because you’re always in charge. As they continued, they had the chance to practice and gain comfort with the lead/follow roles that were less familiar to them.
The couples are invited to dance without talking and with minimal eye contact so the greatest amount of body sensing can occur. The feelings brought up through the movement are then shared verbally through non-violent communication methods that encourage listening and reflecting back what was heard. Conversing about their dance experiences gives people a safe way to discuss what might otherwise be very loaded issues of power and control. For example, rather than having their usual argument about finances, a couple can instead dance together. The power dynamic at the heart of their conflict will likely show up on the dance floor and can be explored through movement and verbal discussion about how the dance affected them without ever having to mention the heated topic of their shared bank account. Instead of rehashing their usual argument, they are working with the relationship dynamics that underlie the argument.
During our co-facilitation of the “Relationship in Movement” workshops, we make sure to demonstrate each exercise. We aim to be present so that our improvisation demonstration is alive with our “real life” relationship issues. This transparency lets participants witness us working on our friendship and co-facilitator relationship in real time on the dance floor.
In our society, touch is often sexualized and all about performance (i.e. pleasing your mate successfully). Through the workshop, participants experience touch and dance simply for the sense of enjoying moving and feeling their partner. Many romantic couples tend not to move together in ways that are intimate but non-sexual and not related to performance. Through the workshop, the role of touch within their relationship can expand. They can then find satisfying ways of being with each other physically that might have been previously unavailable to them.
One of the exercises in the workshop involves one person lying on the floor while their partner practices draping themselves over. We then teach the person lying down how to redirect weight back to their partner and how they could do this at any point in the draping process. We tell them that this technique lets them communicate through movement: no, not now or yes, now is good. As they progress and switch roles, it is beautiful to witness their trust and playfulness in practicing clear physical communication.
Even though this exercise is playful, participants have many “ah-ha!” moments. One participant was surprised to hear that her boyfriend felt more at ease when she gave him clear physical cues as to when and how much weight she wanted him to bear upon her. He explained that when she was clear, he did not have to second guess the amount of weight he was giving her. She then expressed how using clear physical cues made her uncomfortable because she worried about hurting his feelings. When these types of realizations happen through a dance exercise, either of us might step in to offer the question: “How might this experience you just had in your dance feel familiar to something you experience in your everyday life?” When presented with this question, the man said, “Having to second guess what you want when we are dancing kind of feels similar to how you never gave me a clear answer about whether you wanted to go for brunch this morning.”
We believe that practicing new relationship dynamics in a dance has a carryover effect. For a person who has a challenge saying “no”, practicing clear physical signals in a dance and being encouraged to do so by a partner can increase his or her ability to say “no” in everyday life.
We also believe that repetition is an important factor in establishing a new pattern. Participants are encouraged to name the elements of contact improvisation that stretch them emotionally. For someone who has a deep fear of abandonment, this could be the ending of a dance when the couple is called upon to separate and find their own space. Participants are asked to practice these moments with their partner in self-designed contact improvisation exercises that provide a chance for them to repeat and gain familiarity with the triggers that they have identified.
In “Relationship in Movement” workshops we have held thus far, we have worked mostly with people in romantic relationships. As a next step we want to explore how these methods can facilitate learning in different types of relationships. For instance we plan to run a family series for parents and their adult children.
This article was written by Brad Johnston and Kathleen Rea. Please note, details of the personal stories told in this article have been adjusted to protect the confidentially of the workshop participants.
For news on Relationship in Movement Workshop Retreat coming up August 23 and 24, 2014 (Unicamp Retreat Centre, Honeywood, Ontario) see