Ann Cooper Albright, whose research and teachings merge theory and practice, considers that an understanding of our bodies and an awareness of ourselves and others occur in particular through dance, the study of phenomenology as well as art history. In this text, the American scholar and dancer aims at transcending the subject/object dyad that shapes our perception of the world. The skin is no longer a boundary, or a shield, but a porous surface enabling an interconnectedness between bodies and world, so that both the inside and the outside can be felt simultaneously.
Feeling In and Out: Contact Improvisation and the Politics of Empathy
In an extraordinarily profound and poetic short essay on Rembrandt’s paintings, art critic John Berger traces the differences between the artist’s drawings and his paintings—particularly the late portraits. Whereas in his drawings Rembrandt is a master of proportion, in his paintings this realistic perspective is radically altered. Berger asks: “Why in his paintings did he forget—or ignore—what he could do with such mastery in his drawings?”1 Alluding to the historical context of Rembrandt’s time, Berger suggests: “He grew old in a climate of economic fanaticism and indifference—not dissimilar to the climate of the period we are living through. The human could no longer simply be copied… the human was no longer self-evident; it had to be found in the darkness.”2 Berger searches for language to address what is not directly visible in Rembrandt’s painting, and postulates that “Something else—something antithetical to “real” space must have interested him more.”3 Vital yet elusive, palpable yet not immediately visible, this “something else” present in Rembrandt’s work is defined by Berger as a “corporeal space.” By distorting a part or parts of the bodies he was painting, Rembrandt was able to give them what Berger calls a “special power of narration.” Tellingly, this corporeal space is incompatible with architectural, measured space. It is connected to energy, not geometric lines. Berger writes: “corporeal space is continually changing its measures and focal centres, according to circumstances. It measures by waves, not metres. Hence its necessary dislocations of ‘real’ space.”4
In order to give his readers a sense of the different orientations of this corporeal space, Berger charges us to “leave the museum”5 and go the emergency room of a hospital. It is there, Berger insists, that we will find
“[t]he space of each sentient body’s awareness of itself. It is not boundless like subjective space: it is always finally bound by the laws of the body, but its landmarks, its emphasis, its inner proportions are continually changing. Pain sharpens our awareness of such space. It is the space of our first vulnerability and solitude. Also of disease. But is also, potentially, the space of pleasure, well-being and the sensation of being loved.”6
For Berger, this corporeal space can be felt by touch more clearly than it can be seen by sight, which is why it is the space that nurses occupy more often than doctors. “[O]n each mattress, within each patient, it takes a different form.”7 I am intrigued by Berger’s notion of a corporeal space, one that requires another “way of seeing” to register its potency. In the writing that follows, I want to explore how this space prioritizes touch and “feeling” rather than seeing, shifting the traditional subject/object dynamic of these exchanges. Of course, I am writing not only about the social and political relationship between painter and model, or even that of an art critic and the work of art, but also of the relationship between one’s self and an “other.” I will argue that by attending to the practice of feeling rather than its affects, Contact Improvisation can help us revise Western notions of empathy that are based on a psychological conception of the individual subject and an object of sympathy.
In English, feeling is both a noun and a verb form. Its many definitions span the gamut from the strictly material – such as to finger, palpate, or touch something—to the highly cerebral. It can be used to describe a physical sensation (I feel something sticky), an intellectual perception (I have a feeling that…), or an emotive state (feeling blue). Feeling can refer to both the surface of the body and the interior self. Feelings, of course, are closely linked to empathy, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the German term Einfühlung, which can be translated as feeling in or feeling into. As Susan Foster outlines in her recent genealogy of empathy, this term was originally coined in 1873 by German aesthetician Robert Vischer and subsequently translated into English as “empathy.”8 In its late 19th century German context, feeling into (or empathy) was primarily used to describe the experience of contemplating, moving into and merging with a work of art, something that John Berger does very well in his perceptive writing. In an early 21st century context, however, empathy usually refers to the experience of relating to someone else’s circumstances, and constitutes the stuff of daytime talk shows à la Oprah Winfrey. As feeling moves from a verb to a noun, from the physical sensing of touch to a projected image of another’s experience, it can take on the colonial baggage of sympathy and the psychic mantle of emotion.
But what if we were to refuse this stabilizing of a verb into a noun—of an active experience into a passive object? What if we kept feeling at the surface of the body, rather than letting it sink into what Foster describes as the late 19th century’s “newly constructed interiority whose proclivities for repression, identification, transference, and sublimation were just beginning to be explored and whose defining consciousness could be fathomed only through intensive introspection”?9 What if we approached Einfühlung, or feeling into, as a kinesthetic practice rather than a psychological state? By holding our attention to the physical, I am not trying to suggest that this realm is any more authentic, natural, “real,” or less culturally grounded than the psychological. On the contrary, I am quite interested in foregrounding the socio-political moorings of corporeal training. But it is crucial for us to recognize just how quickly and easily we tend to elide feeling with emotions, setting up a subject position based on possession (I have emotions) rather than one based in sensation (I am feeling).
Contact Improvisation has been around for almost four decades and I have been involved with the form for three of those decades. I have participated in and taught workshops in many different communities all over the world. Although the form has changed and moved as it adapts to different historical circumstances and geographic locations, there are some fundamental elements that comprise the core of the physical training, no matter whether it is conducted in German or English, Mandarin or Tamil. One of these is a focused attention to sensation at the level of the skin.
As we all know, skin is one of the largest and most sensitive of our organs. It covers our entire bodies and it is impossible to exist in the world without one’s skin. Ironically, however, many people go through their everyday lives with little awareness of their skin as a perceptual faculty. This is because our current post-industrial culture reifies the visual almost to the exclusion of our other senses, including those of sound and smell. Most of us use sight to navigate the world—off-line as well as on-line. Generally speaking in the West, seeing is believing, and feeling is suspect. We tend to become aware of our skin only in extreme situations such as fear (the skin crawling up the back of my neck), awe (it gave me goose bumps), or pleasure (the tingling sensation of a lover’s caress). Much of the foundational training in Contact Improvisation attempts to reverse this cultural hierarchy by reducing our dependency on the visual and bringing awareness to the nuances of the tactile. In Contact, one’s skin becomes a primary site of communication.
The first step in this process of retraining our corporeal habitus is to release the tension that is a direct result of what I call a territorial approach to the body’s integrity. We can conceive of our skin as either a boundary or a conduit and this shift in perception leads to a radically different understanding of the relationship between myself and the world. If my skin is seen as a barrier to disease, infection, or any kind of “otherness,” I might well approach life with a certain Cold War mentality, shoring up any breaches in my defense system and using my skin as a wall or a container meant to keep me safe from the outside world. If, on the other hand, I experience my skin as the porous interface between myself and the world, then I will be more apt to engage my skin as a permeable, sensitive layer that facilitates that exchange. As Corey Spiro, one of my students in a recent Contact class, suggests:
“I feel as though we live in a world where the boundary between self and ‘other’ is constantly being defined, labeled, and monitored. This is especially apparent in our perceptions of the ownership of space. MY PROPERTY, MY ROOM, etc. Nowhere is this line more clearly drawn than at our skin […]. It’s all too easy to convince oneself that the skin represents the ultimate energetic boundary between self and other. Of course, this barrier works both ways, just as it stops the world from coming into us, it similarly prevents our conception of self from expanding beyond the limits of our physical bodies.
I would expect then, that opening the pores of my skin wide enough to let the world in would be a frightening experience. Rather than an upsetting intrusion, however, I was surprised to find out that it was actually extremely refreshing. My energy in class was perhaps lagging a little bit today, but I felt that by opening myself up I was able to simultaneously expand outward into the energy of Wild Main Space and also feel more acutely the electromagnetic fields of everyone else standing around me. In short, opening my pores did more than just “let the world in,” it also let me out. The feeling was one of freedom and relief, as I was no longer alone within the prison-like confines of my injured and fatigued frame.”10
In this dialogue between the self and the world, one becomes aware of the intriguing possibilities of interdependence, including a deeper sense of responsibility. I think of responsibility not as an oppressive duty towards others, but rather as an ability to respond, an ability to be present with the world and as a way of being present with oneself. This is the fruit of kinesthetic attention, a physical mindfulness that prepares one for improvisation. It is also a kind of somatic engagement which leads to a profound psychic reorganization as well. If the world is already inside one’s body, then the separation between internal and external—self and other—is much less distinct. The skin is no longer the boundary between the world and myself, but rather the sensing organ, which brings the world into my awareness. Given the anxiety swirling around boundaries and bodies in contemporary society, however, this latter sensibility requires a bit of practice.
One of the earliest exercises that I give in my improvisation classes is referred to as “the small dance” or “the stand.” First developed by Steve Paxton in the early seventies as he explored the physical skills that would lead towards defining the form of Contact Improvisation, the stand allows one to focus on the internal movements created by the shifts of bones, muscles and breath required to stand “still.” After they have been warming up, moving through the space for awhile with big, vigorous movements, I ask the students to chose a spot and stand in a relaxed, but active manner. Engaging one’s peripheral vision is crucial to this process, and I tell the dancers to try and release the fronts of their eyes, allowing images and colors to come into their head instead of straining their eyes in order to go out and grab the visual image. Often, I will call their attention to the sensation of the moisture on their skin, asking them to feel the difference between air and clothing. Next, I ask them to concentrate on opening the pores of their skin so that it becomes like a window screen, allowing air, smells and sounds to come in from the outside. I ask them to try to breathe through the pores of their skin. Only once they sense the responsiveness of their own skin, are my students ready to work with a partner and feel their weight shifting back and forth between two people. I emphasize the homonymic connections between pore (of the skin) and pour (as in pouring water from a pitcher), asking the students to reflect in writing on what it feels like to open the pores of your skin wide enough to let the world pour in. Here is how Isabel Roth, another of my recent Contact students, responds to this physical practice:
“I think the idea of opening pores as being similar to the idea of opening your mind. It’s not as if you can actively think to open pores and actually feel the individual pores opening. But it is a palpable feeling of release, of spreading and opening your skin to the physical space and people around you […]. Just like opening the pores of the skin allows you to be ready to receive, it also makes you ready to give. Skin is such a pliable and ever-flexible organ, constantly shifting and regenerating, depending on movement and contact. By opening the pores you prepare the skin for contact and for the willingness to open up to another’s touch. Now ready to accept that touch, it is easier to reciprocate pouring weight from open pores to a partner.”11
As you may have noticed, each of my students’ responses uses feeling as both noun and verb – an active state of sensing and also a reflection of that experience. These two meanings of the word resonate with one another, vibrating in an ambiguous space between a subject (who feels) and an object (of feeling). Reading the students’ descriptions of their experience, I am reminded of Berger’s sense that corporeal space is measured in “waves, not metres,” and is predicated on touch, not sight. The somatic state of responsiveness that these students articulate is crucial in preparing the body to enter safely into a Contact duet. But before I move into an analysis of the physical dimensions of touch and sharing weight, I want to look at two different ways of thinking about empathy by making a distinction between introspection and interoception.
Etymologically, introspection means to look into one’s self, which is usually specified as one’s own mind or feelings. This interior space is the site of empathy, envisioned as contained within one’s self until it is drawn out by the object of one’s gaze, sympathy, or even pity. As Foster demonstrates in her study cited earlier, introspection is implicated in the scopic economy of the 19th-century self. Interoception, on the other hand, replaces the visual emphasis (spect) with the more tactile sensibility of cept. Used mostly in neuropsychology, the term “interoception” references one’s ability to feel sensations arising from within the body, specifically one’s visceral organs, giving us the term “gut feelings.” Advances in brain imaging over the last decade have helped scientists locate interoception in the right frontal insula, a part of the brain also identified with emotional intelligence. It could be easy to collapse these two terms into an overall feeling of empathy. But as any Zen master will tell you, feeling does not necessarily have to evolve into emotion. In fact, I want to suggest that the physical mind of interoception can produce an entirely different kind of empathetic exchange, one that stays with feeling without getting stuck in the emotional baggage of feelings.
Once my students are comfortable with opening the pores of their skin, we begin the infinitely interesting process of learning to pour our weight, like water, into one another’s bodies. Starting with two hands, one partner will firmly, yet openly, touch another person on the back or shoulder, kinesthetically “asking” their partner to pour their weight into the receptacle of their hands. The asking partner can regulate how much weight is given by resisting and pouring back even as they accept the responsibility for the other person’s weight. This mutual pouring creates an energetic dialogue that continuously loops between the partners. Eventually, the partners begin to pour their weight back and forth, using different body parts as their physical contact revolves around the space and across their bodies. As the dancers gain fluidity in the giving and receiving of weight, the dancing tends to speed up. This is the moment when the responsiveness of one’s body is critical. There is no time for the lengthy processing of emotions here; one has to focus entirely on keeping up with the point of contact.
This point of connection is sometimes referred to in Contact parlance as the “third mind.” Allowing their dancing to be led by this “third mind,” the two partners endeavor to follow its spatial and rhythmic journey throughout the studio space. At first it may seem clear which partner is leading and which one is following, but eventually those roles evolve into such a fluid and subtle exchange that the categories of leader and follower lose their oppositional moorings. This does not mean, however, that all difference is collapsed. For me, this ‘third mind” marks an intersubjective space in which one is aware of sensations both internal and external without necessarily categorizing those feelings into socially recognizable roles. The notion of a “third mind” directs attention away from the oppositional poles of self and other, stretching a single line into a more open field of play. Contact trains for a physical interconnectedness that is akin to what Deirdre Sklar calls “empathic kinesthetic perception.”
“Emphatic kinesthetic perception suggests a combination of mimesis and empathy. […] Whereas visual perception implies an ‘object’ to be perceived from a distance with the eyes alone, empathic kinesthetic perception implies a bridging between subjectivities. This kind of ‘connected knowing’ produces a very intimate kind of knowledge, a taste of those ineffable movement experiences that can’t be easily put into words. Paradoxically, as feminist psychologist Judith Jordan points out, the kind of temporary joining that occurs in empathy produces not a blurry merger but an articulated perception of differences.”12
It is this “articulated perception of differences” that I want to focus on in these last few pages. When I am teaching Contact and I use terms such as “interconnected,” “feeling one’s partner’s experience,” or “moving together,” I emphasize that this “going with the flow” does not mean one becomes a neutral container, nor does it suggest a “blurry merger” of energies such that the dancing homogenizes into one long fluid chain of rolls and lifts. Quite the contrary. The sensitivity to another’s experience also creates an awareness of subtle differences, differences that can be celebrated within the improvisation. While I do not have time to fully engage with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about intersubjectivity and touch in this context, I do think it is important to point out that in French the verbs for “touch” and feel” are both transitive and reflexive verb forms. That is to say that one feels an “other” at the same time that one feels oneself feeling. Similarly one can touch something and feel oneself being touched at the same time (such as Merleau-Ponty’s famous example of one hand holding the other). This looping across to another and then back to oneself intrigues me, for it loosens up the psychological patterns of always already relating to an “other” as an object (of empathy, scrutiny, or desire…). This play of difference can be accentuated in another dance score, which I give to my students. Here are my instructions:
“This is a duet, not an exercise. A dance, not an activity. To begin, one person lies down, completely passive, allowing their weight to sink fully into the floor. Their partner begins to move their body with attention to giving the passive person an experience of the weight of their bones and the mobility of their joints. As any one who has ever done any kind of body work or physical therapy knows, a passive body allows one to feel sensations unavailable to a body that is self engaged, even the most released one. Focusing on their breaths, the partners establish a vibration of energetic exchange. Bit by bit, percentage point by percentage point, the passive partner becomes increasingly active, engaging first the core of the body’s structure and working outwards to mobilize the limbs—arms, legs, head and tailbone. Both partners dance together in a fully active state. Eventually, the originally active partner becomes progressively passive until they are lying on the floor, enjoying the sensations of their own body through the manipulations of their partner’s.”
The implications of this score are pretty obvious. Over the course of this duet one experiences the entire continuum of possibilities of being active or passive. Normally in our culture, these various positions of active and passive are pathologized into power dynamics, where the passive figure is seen as not having control, as being either infantile or lazy, rendering them an object of pity. But my experience and that of many of my students is that the experience of being totally passive, rather than feeling powerless, actually opens up a great deal of feeling that can create its own pleasures and sense of agency. Experiencing both extreme ends of these positions can be truly revelatory. For instance, Heather Sedlacek writes:
“I also found novelty and enjoyment in being able to dance at a different level than my partner. […] It was clearly stated that we were at different levels, that this was okay, and that the high intensity partner would take care and responsibility for the low intensity partner. Thus, for the first time I didn’t have to resist when my partner resisted or attempt to match her intensity. I didn’t have to be fire when she was fire, or wind when she was wind. I could simply revel in the percentage that our teacher called out every few minutes. […] Reaching 100% intensity and then helping my partner down to 0% provided another new and powerful experience. […] I felt a sense of responsibility that I have not felt before in Contact. Instead of moving with my partner and following the point of contact, as my partner decreased in intensity, I began to control her movements and direction. I had a unique sense of agency in the dance that for me is usually left up to the Third Mind, not to an individual partner.”13
Throughout this paper I have tried to articulate how Contact Improvisation creates a corporeal space in which feeling allows for an interconnectedness with another person without solidifying that relationship into the subject/object dyad implicit in classic conceptions of empathy. I have highlighted how attention to skin as porous and open to the world can facilitate a dancing based on an interchange and multiplicity of subject positions. Moving with the point of contact requires a willingness to stay engaged with feeling (verb) in the present moment, refusing to allow any one kinesthetic exchange to get stuck in a particular feeling (noun). This is not to suggest that relationships in Contact Improvisation are so fluid as to be meaningless. Quite the contrary. But we need to enter something like Berger’s corporeal space with the dancers in order to read the meaning of their connection differently. Watching two people explore the continuum of energies available in Contact, we become aware of the basic generosity at the core of the form. To dance with you, I need to first feel you, recognizing that this feeling can change. The improvisational possibilities of this dancing can teach us that Einfühlung does not have to be only an introspective process, but rather can open us up to feeling both in and out.
This text was first published in Ann Cooper Albright, Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013).
A dancer and a scholar, Ann Cooper Albright is professor and chair of the department of Dance at Oberlin College (Ohio). Combining her interests in dancing and cultural theory, she teaches a variety of courses that seek to engage students in both practices and theories of the body. Her latest book How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World (2018) offers a new look at embodiment that treats gravity as the organizing force for thinking and moving through our twenty-first century world. Her other publications include: Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality (2013), Encounters with Contact Improvisation (2010), Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller (2007), as well as Taken By Surprise: Improvisation in Dance and Mind (2003) coedited with David Gere, and Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (2001), coedited with Ann Dils.
John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106.
John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 105.
John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106-7.
John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 109.
John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 106.
John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 107.
John Berger, “Rembrandt and the Body,” in The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 103–112, 107.
Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), 127.
Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), 154.
Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 40.
See Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 38.
Dreide Sklar, “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance,” in Ann Dils & Ann Cooper Albright (eds.), Moving History/Dancing Cultures. A Dance History Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 30–32, 31. (Emphasis added).
See Corey Spiro, “Journal Entry,” in Ann Cooper Albright (ed.), Encounters with Contact: Dancing Contact Improvisation in College (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin Theater and Dance Program [distributed by Contact Quarterly], 2010), 17.