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Boundaries, SelfCare and JamCulture (to be differentiated between the practice of CI in general)

As the discussion rises up again in the Vienna CI Community about boundaries, responsibilities and predatorial behavior at contact jams, I am touched and amazed by the intensity of the discussion. I have been an active member of an international Contact Improvisation community for more than 25 years and I am amazed that we still have such a blind spot on this topic. I have also come to have a lot of compassion for us as a community though, because the trauma runs so deep. From my perspective I think this is a great opportunity to look at personal and collective shadow* aspects within the form of contact improvisation.


I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. It took me until I was 45 to even figure out that that had happened to me (although I had suspected something was up for many years) and how it affected my life. I experienced something that is called energetic sexual abuse, which means being objectivied in a sexualized atmosphere by a person of power. As a child, teenager and later as an adult it deeply affected my sense of safety in the world, my sense of ease, comfort and trust in intimate, personal relationships and my feeling of having an "oversexualized body". Energetic abuse is considered real sexual abuse, even though it is very hard to measure and proof, like a lot of emotional abuse.


How has this shaped my behavior as a dancer? Well like many of us, I had many dance floor lovers, off dance floor lovers within the dance community, I had sexual relationships with my teachers as a student (never as a teacher though...) and often times just really confused the line between an intense, intimate dance and a personal relationship. Through many years of personal reflection, Authentic Movement practice, body- and psychotherapy and healing tantra practices, I have been able to move through some of that confusion and heal many of those wounds. Although it is still my matrix and I still have lots to learn.


Why am I sharing this here in the context of my work and the discussion of the CI jams? I think for many of us, this energetic abuse is still in the shadow. So in our whole discussion about what really happened at that jam and who saw what he or she really did and is he/she a victim or was that really true etc., please don't forget that when we are at a jam we dance in a collective pool of energy . We cocreate the space together. We share the responsibility.


Crossing a boundary can be a highly subjective experience. Subtle energies can be felt and sensed in the psychosomatic energybody of a person. It lands, if the sender or the receiver is aware of it or not (that's why so often it is only later we recognize what has happened) . Regardless of conscious or unconsconsious intentions, predatorial, overly sexualized energy can feel threatening, objectiving, stifling and simply very uncomfortable.


This subjective experience is colored by my previous life experiences. It is shaped by my sensory, kinestetic awareness, by my psychological schooling, my personal, family and cultural attitudes around sex, boundaries and shame related topics, by may ability to notice discomfort and my sense of self worth. It is shaped and filtered through through my own personal ability to hold and communicate my boundaries. Hugely complex issue at hand.


Yes, I myself am responsible on how I react to a predatorial, over- sexualized contact (subtle or not), but we as a community also carry responsibility to make dance spaces safe. Period. Even the fact that I have to actively engage my boundaries, to have my "radar" on, scan the room of who feels safe or not to dance with, is a sign that the collective space is not clear. Even having to think about wether I have the energy to potentially fend off a boundary crossing attempt can be a turn off to going to a jam. I have many participants who love to dance CI in workshops, just as there are many professional dancers and dance and body therapists who love CI but don't go to jams for that very reason.


In the Kontaktland Festival in 2020 Grégory Chevalier and the other organizers created a sharing session around the topic of safety and the women and the men split up in two groups. In the women's group we asked each other how safe we feel at jams (not just the festival Jam but in general) and the feedback was mostly somewhere between "85 and 95%". In the beginning I was like, okay that's pretty good, but after I left the festival I recognized that this is so reflective of what's going on in our jam culture (and in life). We (in this case the women of the group, but I am not saying that is is only concerning women!) are obviously used to the fact that we are not totally safe. We are used to the fact that there might be boundary crossing, a sexualized advance or a nonconsensual situation. Now in an ideal world we should all feel 100% safe in our dance spaces. This should not even be a discussion.


So how do we create change?


First it takes an awareness of the issue at hand. When we dance, it is not just a physical practice, but an energetic, body-mind-spirit practice. To say Contact Improvisation is physicality only, is from my perspective, a one dimensional, oversimplified point of view and therefore invites all kinds of shadow aspects into the practice. So If I view myself and hold and witness and dance from a place of a holistic body I have a much better chance of both noticing when I am overstepping somebody else's boundaries and where to stand up for my own. I am a much better listener if I include my inner body, my emotional and energetic body as well as my physical body.


Secondly, a jam is only as safe as the person who initiates it. In the systemic, phenomenological constellation work, we clearly see that we shape and influence the field that we are (co)creating. So if jam or festival organizers have unclear boundaries towards sexual behaviors, it's in the field of that particular jam or festival. You can see it in the dancing. We have better dances, when we feel safe.


One of the biggest gifts for me in learning how to create and hold safe spaces is the practice of Authentic Movement. We learn to sit and witness ourselves, to recognize deep, sometimes uncomfortable feelings and we learn to own and reflect on them internally and verbally. This is only one way of learning to hold space, but I think it is necessary to learn to have an awareness of that big animal, the group body, the group potential and the group shadow a jam invites.


I think this is one of the biggest mistake we have been making in the contact community to assume that jams are the easy way into the practice. The easy way for new comers to join, the easy way for someone to offer and organize something in the community. I think of all the forms we share our beloved dance with, jams actually need the most care. I think it is so important to teach dancers, beginners as well as more experienced dancers, a sense of safety within a clear container of a qualitative dance class and training settings, so that they can recognize the difference in quality when they go to a lesser safe space. I feel that to be my responsibility as a teacher and I think we should make clear guidelines within our communities to communicate the complexity of this dance form.


I feel that we have a wonderful opportunity to dive deeper into the awareness of this beloved dance form. I teach a lot and I teach CI in a way that I now call Integrative Contact Improvisation imbedded in my Holistic Dance point of view. To me it is so important to have all parts of myself present, my emotional, energetic, compositional, artistic, kinesthetic and spiritual self. Not all of them are in the foreground at the same time. They shift and they dance, but I have access to myself because I have been there before. With this approach I access my sensuality as well as my integrity, I differentiate between full on energetic dancing and sexual arousal, I learn to experience myself as separate and connected at the same time.


I could write a lot more on the subject, about the need for protective energies, about positive aggression and power, about the danger of identification and attachment to narratives. But it's good this way, because we also heal best when do what are talking about, by dancing. After sharing some of my personal story here, I feel vulnerable and upright at the same time. I don't want to define myself by my abuse, and yet it's good to name it. The practice of Contact Improvisation and dance in general helps me to keep redefining myself, let's keep learning and let's create safe spaces for ourselves. I think we all need that.


*The Shadow as viewed in the Jungian psychoanalyses is an archetype that is present in all of us. It represents the counterpart to the Persona archetype (our personality or conscious self) and is shoved off into the unconscious because of its anti-social tendencies. It is the stuff we don't like about ourselves. As part of the individuation process we mature and integrate parts of the shadow into the whole personality.


**So to be specific many of these aspects I am talking about here apply to sexual abuse in general, but I am specifically pointing out the unclarity and need for healing in energetic abusive behavior.



(c) Cristi Serban

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