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From seaweed to bananas – Contact Improv in Dublin

The dancers were sitting in a circle when I arrived. A stranger, I was greeted with words of welcome and invited to join the end of a class by Yaeli. We danced as seaweed buffeted by waves, brushed by fish... first anchored on rocks, then taking flight into the water. This seaweed dance was one of my best trio experiences, taking turns with David and Fergus in the roles of weed or wave or fish. A friendly jam followed, including dances with Isabel and Jacob. 

When the jam was over, we said goodbye with hugs. I felt great... welcomed to the community, emotionally and physically invigorated. I walked to my bus stop with a smile on my face. Though bus rides are usually tedious and smelly in the damp Dublin winter, I smiled the whole way. I got off and walked the few hundred metres home in the freezing rain. Soon I was home with hot tea, a hot bath, and downy bed – a happy body, drifting into dreams.

Going bananas at the Lab

The offer to share dance skills came at a dance community meeting in a tea-house on the quays, the week after my first Dublin contact jam at the Lab. Over steaming bowls of tea, the Contact group discussed how to manage workshops and jams, how to welcome new dancers. I contributed ideas from Australia and beyond. Later on in the discussion, Yaeli offered open invitation for anyone in the room to lead a warm up. She did not name me, but with her gaze, she invited me to step forward. Her confidence in me gave me the guts to volunteer. I realised had I something to share.

So, on January 22, a French dancer named Julien welcomed about eight or nine people into the studio and introduced me to lead a Contact Improv warm up at the Lab on Foley Street. The Lab is a fine dance studio, with smooth timber floors, high ceilings and a glass wall on one side. Outside the frosted glass, the fluorescent office lighting of Independent Newspapers glowed from across the road. I put on music – a playlist of chilled hip hop and reggae beats for a structured warm up, with a progression to ambient African-influenced music, conducive to free improvisation.

My goal was to physically warm up the group and lead into the jam in a way that's engaging for all, yet accessible for beginners. I started by leading body isolations: drawing squares and circles with a specific body part while keeping the rest still. Neck, chest, hip, knee, ankle then back up to the shoulders. Then, combining shoulder movements with small steps, we marched on the spot and then travelled around the room. My plan unfolded as ideas flowed, so it was easy to progress to different ways of moving and using the space. To connect the dancers to the floor and each other, I introduced a contact technique: banana rolls. You bend your body like a banana and roll. We did banana pointing forward traveling rolls, and rolls forward where the banana reaches backwards. Then I showed the group how to banana roll along the wall, explaining how this could be used in dances with partner. To transition from leading the group to the improvised jam, I gathered the group into a ‘proximity dance.’ I invited dancers to explore negative space and use the movements that we had been practising as the group got tighter and closer. It was great to see people spontaneously form jamming partnerships, as I guided them to lean into each other. The music selection seemed to work well as the jam unfolded... not intruding too much on the dance conversations. Contact is the one dance style I know that works just as well in silence.

A new friend called Deet, also new to the dance, was a supportive presence in the room – so I enjoyed a jam with him first. With more experienced dancers, I also had memorable dances: with Julien, Fergus and a strong, flexible woman with short, dark hair. She had a technique for rolling me between her thighs, or twisting so that she landed between mine. The rolling exchange of weight from thigh to thigh was gentle, intimate. She rested a moment, leaning on my belly. "It’s so comfortable here," she said, "I'm reluctant to move." There was a pool of reflection in our river of dance. Soon, our entwined bodies resumed their flow across the floor.

I found more inspiration at the end of the night, when I linked hips with Fergus and Julien. Standing side-by-side I lead a Mess Around (big hip circles), and tried to figure out how we could walk it. Perhaps it would work as a semicircle step or a travelling Four Corners, if we all knew that step. Instead we simply co-ordinated wide sweeping steps forward. We improvised trio moves for a few minutes, sometimes with comic effect: for example I sat on Fergus knee, and he sat on Julien's. It seemed like fertile ground for physical comedy or developing characters.

Go raibh mile maith agat!

I’ve had great support from old and new friends throughout this year's journey. I wish to express my gratitude to a few folks who generously welcome me to the Emerald Isle despite my wandering ways. With Peter Crann and Lex Woo it’s good music and good times, every time. Daring Deet joined me for his first steps of Blues and Contact Improv – and my first time leading a jam. There were wonderful coffees and dinners with old Dublin friends – the sculptor Helen O’Connell, artist Paul Timoney and filmmaker, Tom Hall. Change management guru Ian lent me an ear and a camera. I enjoyed a private blues lesson with Olga, and social dances in the new Downtown Blues venue near Trinity College. And last but not least – my first Irish Christmas in a decade included cherished moments with Irish uncles, aunts, cousins and family friends from Nigeria. Thanks for the warm welcome, hometown of Dublin.

Art credits:
Ink drawing by Ana Hatherly, from an exhibition at Gulbenkian Park, Lisbon
Paper scultpure by Alex Pentek, from an exhibition at the RHA, Dublin.
All photographs by Deirdre Molloy, 2017-18.


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