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  Heteronormativity in Contact Improvisation - 2007
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  Andreas Hechler, Berlin/Germany
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Eckhard Müller
Daniel Mang

In conversation with Andreas Hechler a cultural anthropologist we debated the predominant middle class base of CI dancers regardless of national origin. This serves as an example of how personal issues and sensitivities define the experience and condition our responses to CI.
Andreas addressed the hetero-normativity of the practise.

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This summer (2007) several women I talked to told me that they had their personal boundaries violated at this year’s Freiburg Contactfestival. Needless to mention that it was men who did it. To me, these cases do not seem to be isolated, but rather follow a certain structure. What structure?

Four examples may serve as an illustration:

1. Two years ago at the very same festival a male friend of mine realized that whenever he wanted to dance with men, they quite quickly went out of contact. This happened to him about ten times at one single jam.

2. At this year’s festival I recounted this experience at the study lab „The shadow of CI – recognizing structures of domination and exploitation in our practice of contact improvisation“. The reaction of some of the participants: they found it problematic that my friend just wanted to dance with one gender – this wouldn’t work, he was not open for an encounter, and so on. Other male participants in that very same study lab later on said that they prefer dancing only with women. They were not challenged with the argument of being not open, too much focused on gender, etc.

3. In classes as well as in jams the dominant way of bonding is man-woman-couples. To a lesser degree it is woman-woman-couples and even less man-man-couples. But it is not only that: (heterosexual) men seem to dance differently according to the gender of their partner – sensual and sensitive with a woman, rather technical with a man.

4. Even at the blind jam – which offers the possibility to get in contact with dancers one might otherwise not get in contact with – many contacters first touched each other’s hair to find out the gender of the counterpart. Men suddenly touching a bald head dropped back …

All these examples are part of what I would call a heteronormative structure. Heteronormativity is a normative social structure tied to the idea that human beings fall into two (and only two) distinct and complementary categories – male and female – naturally linked by mutual desire. Coupled with this notion come ideas about what men and women „are“ or should be like. Heteronormativity relies on the firm belief in gender dichotomies (rational-emotional, activity-passivity, strength-weakness, hard-soft, taking-giving, autonomy-dependency, ...) and on the belief that heterosexual masculinities and femininities always relate to a binary feminine or masculine other. Thus, heterosexuality is set up as „normal“. Heteronormativity in this sense works with a set of expectations, demands, and constraints produced when heterosexuality is taken as normative – it is a social structure built around traditional gender models complete with an underlying justification for the normality and appropriateness of these structures. The consequences: any kind of behavior that does not fit into a hetero-setting is avoided.

I not only enjoy dancing CI because it is simply enjoyable. To me, CI offers the possibility for individual and social change. Women can learn to lift men, men can learn to be lifted by a woman, (heterosexual) men can learn to be sensuous and tender to each other, … Limited choices and possibilities due to rigid gender conceptions are expanded. CI thus has the potential for change in terms of dominant gender relations and homophobia. That is great! I think this potential should be taken very seriously. The process of becoming a „man“ or a „woman“ is not only often quite brutal, it also limits our behavioral options. Understanding this may not only be liberating in the sense of having more options – it would also be an important contribution to ending violence. The simple fact is: the more rigid gender roles are in a society, the more heterosexuality is reinforced as the only way to desire, interact and communicate with other persons, the more violence is exerted by men over women.

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  Eckhard Müller response:
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Hy Andreas, Thanks a lot for your specific topic that you brought into the discussion. I want to respond to your article as a private person, engaged in CI and CI community since 20 years, its my personal perspective. I first will respond to your article in a very short way and I will enter more deep afterwards.
Andreas, you talk about normation inside the CI community. For me contact almost does not have any rules besides this: “Each is responsible for him/herself” more specific for your theme it might mean:

A Everybody is free to propose a dance to who he/she wants!
B Everybody is responsible for him/herself to say “NO” if he/she feels uncomfortable!
C Everybody carries the responsiblility for him/herself to deal with the “NO”

Again: this is my personal perspective, but I feel that there is a kind of “agreement” in our community about this…
This answers are as well an invitation to the community to respond and check in if we have this agreement. I am very thankful to Andreas article, I am not glad about the situation, that some themes are kind of “tabu” … I personally think, we should talk about those topics much more, hoping that we (Andreas and me) can inicitate a more wide discussion and exchange about this. Andreas, you might not be satisfied with this short answers, and I am willing to go deeper to make my personal perspective more articulated and specified. I need to go around a bit, as there are many things to understand:

1.) What is contact improvisation
2.) What is the spirit of the form
3.) CI and normation in society – biological behaviour
4.) CI and the Contact Community
5.) (homo/hetero) sexuality in contact

1.) What is Contact Improvisation?
CI is an open physical dialogue between two (or more) partners, an invitation to put your attention on the physical senstion of touch, weigth (in movement), your own and your partners support systems, observing how you share your weights entering and exiting the common movement flow, how you organize your body to support (the partners) weight, movement and flow. Its an invitation to stay in the present physical moment. This investigation became a tool for the professional artistic work, but also for CI as a social (folk) dance form.

2.) What is the spirit behind?
For me, this open physical dialogue invites all to explore this physicality amoung all. Men with men, women with women, women with men, big with small, heavy with heavy, heavy with light….in any possible relation. It is a personal investigation how my dance changes by changing partners (with the different bodies). The physical communication demands each of the partners to take responsabilty for his/her own part of the communication … if he/she wants to go with, support, resist or exit the dialogue. There is no rule about who should dance with who. I see exactly the oposite: Its an invitation to try out with everybody. The “open spirit” allows us to step over usual normative borders in an open physical investigation, in collaboration with your partner, observing what is there (on a physical level) and testing and respecting your own and your partners limits. This first generation people made an important decission to keep the investigation open and not define what it is, how it should be taught or practised. I see CI still connected to the investigtion of the first generation, their physical/scientific approach, their anarchism, only respecting natural laws of physics and body, ignoring the normation of the society. On a socio cultural level I see CI developing as a folk dance form that connects people beyond all historical, national, cultural, language … borders, finding to an open and respectful physical communication with each other, what is influencing also each partner as a physical/ mental/ social/ emotional human beeing in his society.

3.) CI and normation in society – biological behaviour
In my eyes Andreas is using an old image of normation inside our society, I see that at least our mid European (and North American) societies are much further…allowing men to be sensual with man for example…I see more the problem that some of us still think or behave in those “classical roles” and this behaviour enters also our CI community even though CI itself is free of those normations… But the man – woman bonding I see less as a normation of our society (it was…but this is realy old thinking, at least our generation allows any bonding however we want). But the primarily man-woman bonding in my eyes is just a biological reality. 90 % or more people are heteros, man feels attrackted by woman and opposit and the attraction game is motivation behind many more activities as we might be aware of or believe. Some of Andreas “problems” might just arrise cause the homo man and lesbian woman do not find so much options for sexual bonding and if they try with a hetero one they might only receive rejection. This is a problem that homo have anyway in our society…CI and the CI community is not primarily the medium to solve this problem. BUT CI with its open spirit is helping to develop our societies into less power games, more listening and respect, allowing to interact without any gender roles/rules... For me CI is a catalysator for the development of our society towards (even more) openness an respect.

4.) CI and the Contact Community
People who were interested into this investiation built up small communities for regular practise to support this investigation. Now there are many regular jams, regional and international events, where people are meeting to share, practise and exlore the form. A worldwide community built up around this exploration. For me it is very important to mention, that the community built up around the exploration of this form, to support this investigation and not opposit way like a “community with open, multicultural, crossborder interest was searching for a medium, that keeps them together and help them develop and spread out this ideas worldwide or help them to develop a new society” !!!

5.) (homo/hetero) sexuality and contact
As I tried to describe in the beginning, I see the primary focus of contact improvisation on the exploration of the physicality of touching bodies in stillness and motion, knowing that a body is not an object, there is allways a mind and there are emotions. It can always happen (we are human beeings) that we loose the focus and drift in another world of thoughts….of dreams…of emotions … of sexuality… BUT the basic idea behind, as I understand, is to refocus into the physicality of the exploration. I understand that sexuality is a big issue, as it is a big issue in everybodies life – also in the CI community. I just try to give it not too much focus as CI is not meant to focus on this. (By the way, there is an interesting acticle, an interview of Lory B with Steve Paxton in the CQ Volume 21/1 Winter/Spring part of a serie of articles with the focus on Sexuality & Identity).

Back to Andreas words:
“This summer (2007) several women I talked to told me that they had their personal boundaries violated at this year’s Freiburg Contactfestival. It was men who did it. To me, these cases do not seem to be isolated, but rather follow a certain structure. What structure?”….

I think each person is different and acts and responds in a different way to his/her surrounding. Trying to find normative structures that makes us act or respond like we do is not helpful in my eyes. It is more fixing problems than trying to solve them. I feel that CI itself is quite free of this kind of rules and this is the power of this work…it has the power to change something in our society in us as persons, in our usual habits that we live in our social lifes …as Andreas as well mentioned at the end!
To use CI to focus on the social change might be not working if our intention is too much fixed on reaching the social change instead of practicing the form. I personally believe, that focusing on the form will change our society anyway, we do not need to focus on the change of the society, we just need to do the “change” in us and practise the form:
CI just looks to what is there in the moment and asks both communication partners to have an open and respectful physical dialogue, each taking responsibility for his own. This is a big power…we do need not any other norms or rules….

Going back to Andreas cases
a) “the homo man wishing to dance with man but gets rejected” and the
b) “hetero man that only wants to dance with woman (and sometimes steps over the emotional borders of the woman)
” … for both cases and in general I wish we all are open to explore with all partners the physicality of this form in an open dialogue! Each can propose where he/she wants to go but needs to accept if the partner does not want to follow. If someone only wants to dance with one gender, I ask him why??? What is your intension? If your main focus is to pick up a sexual partner you might be in the wrong address. The CI community is primarily no “partner boerse” but a community that explores the physicality of the dance.

To a) I think that the CI community is much more open to gay man than any other non-gay community. Many man (homo and hetero) are dancing with each other…much more than any where else…..I dance with many men, I am open to dance with YOU on the physical level, Andreas, as long as you have no sexual intension,… as soon as I start daubting about this I might leave the dance! I ask you to respect this as I am not interested at all in any homosexual adventure. You would need to deal with this NO. This NO does not mean that me and the CI world are not open for gay people. In the jams you would just need to deal with similar problems that you as a gay person have as well in other non gay communities. As I said above: the CI community cannot solve your problem.

To b) I am questioning as well the homo man, who only wants to dance with woman! If the main focus of this men is to pick up a woman, I feel very uncomfortable. In my eyes this man has nothing to do in our community. He has a wrong focus!
If someone falls in love with someone as a result of the explorative meeting is something else… is fine… I am very concerned about man trying to consciously ABUSE THE SITUATION to be in intimite touch with a (maybe even unexperienced, young) woman, not respecting boarders of integrity. This man has nothing to search in our community!!! Andreas mentioned this topic, THANKS, I see here a real problem that I want to focus on more!
BUT we all know that this is a wide field.
When exactly is the point where the INTEGRITY OF A PERSON IS HURT?!?
For me honesty is one keyword:
-If you have a dance with a partner and loose the focus, are tired or boored….be honest to yourself and fair to the partner…get out!!!
-Entering another emotional state and not refocussing …I see a need of communication to your partner to not be unfair and hurting his/her integrity…
-If both enter sensual …wild …erotical dance..and both agree/find together in this … go for it…the jam space is open for it….maybe a class where the teacher try to focus on something else is not appropriate!
-If one enters another state where the partner is not willing to enter (acrobatic/ wild/ sensual/ erotically) and the inviter clearly invites for this….the partner needs to clearly respond, communicate the uncomfort and set limits…if the inviter cannot change, the partner has to go before his integrety gets hurt….This is for your own emotional safety!!!!
-Some cannot communicate the uncomfort and set limits…. this is the responsibility of the one who feels uncomfortable!!!! You cannot complain your boundaries got violated if you did not communicated the uncomfort and set limits to the violation!
-If the inviter steps over limits the partner clearly communicates the unomfort but the inviter is not able to stop, …just step out!!!
-If the inviter continues to bother, the partner needs to ask for hep in the group…

I want to name one example that I just experienced in Santiago de Chile in a dance ability workshop with Alito Alessi. There was a guy, older than 50 as a participant of this workshop who was obviously looking for intimacy with young women more than for the content of the work. It was for me from outside unclear if the women feel comfortable with this. In talks with those women we found out that they do not feel comfortabel with his touch, but they were not able to name it to him. There were some women who felt unconfortable with him, we invited them to have a talk with this guy and offerd us as facilitators for this talk.They did not want. One woman told me even : “well if he smiles to me, I smile back…” We mentioned that they need to set limits, if they feel uncomfortable with him and maybe stop the dance or the exercise for a talk or step out of the uncomfortable situation. Alito did his part to mention almost every day the way of using the touch, the ubuse, setting limits as a teacher in case he would see or here about abuse…(talking directly to that guy in front of the others)…finally Alito had a direct one on one talk with him after which he finally could let go of following the young women, opening up more to the whole group, dancing also with man and finally opening a little more for the work.
What in my eyes is very important is, that the one partner in the dialogue, who feels uncomfortable, becomes active : communicates his/her uncomfort to the partner or give physical signs for change, or invite the partner into another focus, or steps out of the dance.
This answers are on one side meant as a base for discussion, but also as support for the ones, whos emotional borders got mistreated, to stay in the community and start communication and/or asking for support…I feel uncomfortable if those whose integrity got hurt are leaving the community and those, who actively and consciously step over emotional borders, stay!!!!
I personally am very curious (as a co organizor of the contactfestival I feel also responsible) if these answers were enough support for those who need in questions like: “how to deal with a partner that is touching in an uncomfortable way”...”how to communicate uncomfort”. If talking here in this discussion round can help.
Would it be helpful to have a team of “emotional facilitators” in a huge festival like ours that can support in questions like this.???
For those who would like to give comments about this topic, but not in the place of this forum, feel free to contact us, the team at the festial email our our private ones.

Lets not allow tabus like this, lets talk Eckhard (26.3.09)

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Daniel Mang response:
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Hello - For those who do not know me: my name is Daniel Mang, I live in Toulouse, before, I was in Berlin, and I also spent some time in the US. I have been doing contact since the mid-eighties and have been teaching and organizing contact improv related events since 1990. I have also always been politically active, sometimes more, sometimes less, in profeminist and antiracist projects of the undogmatic, antiauthoritarian Left in the US, Germany and France. One of my major personal projects is making contact improvisation available as a tool for communication, personal change, etc, to radical activists, that is, making ci a part of radical countercultures.
I am broadly in agreement with Andreas' text, I know Andy and have shared a lot of discussion with him, and, with a friend, I have translated the text into French. Therefore I feel qualified to offer some remarks on Ecki's comments.

First of all I find it very positive that one of the organizers of the festival publicly states that the issue of the violation of women's personal boundaries is an issue to be taken seriously. After all, even though contact embodies certain counter-cultural values, we the contact community are nonetheless embedded in a patriarchal society that, despite some social changes in the last few decades, tends to make violence against women systematically invisible.

Concerning the issue of heteronormativity, there are some misunderstanding in Ecki's reply that warrant a response, and some ideological differences.

The central misunderstanding is that Ecki believes that the text is about the exclusion of gays (and lesbians). Not so. Radical social critique, in this case queer and materialist feminist thinking, which the text is based on, says that a lot of stuff mainstream thought declares natural, biological, unchangeable and therefore politically neutral, is in fact socially constructed and thus a legitimate field of political struggle and debate. For example, sexual "orientation". No, sexual orientation is not simply biological, it is a problematic social construction. For radicals, the problem is not that someone is not being nice to gays, lesbians, or women. The problem is the social power and privilege of (white, middle and upper class) heterosexual men. And the solution is the abolition of social classes, the concept of race, fixed gender identities and fixed sexual identities.

Neither Andy nor the friend he talks about in his text are gay. They are both heterosexual men. The issue the text adresses is heteronormativity, a set of norms that make heterosexuality appear natural and suppresses all shades, variations, contradictions and alternatives in sexuality and sensuality that do not conform to heterosexist norms. The text links male domination to heteronormativity.

I do personally find it a bit shocking that all this does not register at all on Ecki's radar screen and that he so completely misreads a radical critique of a structure of power as a sort of liberal complaint about the exclusion of a minority. And that he assumes that if you criticize a structure of domination, you must belong to some group that is "concerned".

I like Ecki, I appreciate the work he does and I like dancing with him. Yet for me his reaction is an example of the limit I have encountered a lot over the last twenty years, with a lot of people in the contact community. They practice a form that has a lot of subversive potential, but they do not realize that potential because they lack a radical critique of society. Such a waste...

Still, like I said in the beginning, I am very happy that part of the message of the text was heard and understood and taken up in a positive way, and I am looking forward to emancipatory processes – verbal and nonverbal, harmonious and conflictual – around the issues of personal boundaries, sexual self-determination, gender and sexual identities... at the festival and elsewhere in the contact world.

Ciao Daniel (27.3.09)
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