At a recent Underscore, I started thinking about the notion of arriving. Nancy Stark Smith described the phase of Arriving Energetically as, “Bringing your attention, your presence, your will, into the room. Bringing your focus into the present situation” and Arriving Physically as “Arriving into sensation. Focusing your attention on your physical sensations, the textures and locations of sensation throughout the body. […] Becoming present in your body” (Koteen, Smith, Paxton, 2008). I’ve certainly glossed over these two phases when I’ve facilitated the talk-throughs, mainly mentioning that they encompass what happens before and as one arrives into the space.
However, upon further reflection, in between this energetic and physical arrival is an overlapping and intersecting space in which my identity as a person of color resides.
For me, the act of arriving into a Contact Improvisation (CI) or Underscore space frequently feels like wading through invisible, viscous liquid. Entering into a room that is usually dominated by white bodies usually requires me to gird myself internally. My mentor Carla Sherrell describes how she sometimes goes through envisioning putting on energetic armor as she dresses in the morning so as to keep white supremacy from affecting her Black body (Sherrell, 2018). Nancy often talks about how the Arriving Energetically phase may begin for a person when they first anticipate heading to the Underscore practice—gathering their kneepads, double-checking the time it starts, making sure they have directions to the space, and so on. However, when I head to CI jams or Underscore practices, I have begun to notice that include such preparations as imagining walking into a primarily white space so as to prime my nervous system; making sure I have access to transportation to get home should I wish to leave by myself; and, sensing into my connections with like-minded allies and like-bodied BIPOC whom I believe/hope will be in the space.
My physical arrival usually instigates a process of reflecting upon my own somatic being. It is often typical that I am the only body of color at an Underscore and other CI events. Already, I feel hypervisible, as though I am disrupting and interrupting usual and normalized circumstances, simply because of my racialized embodiment. Already, I feel like I am an abrasive agent as I enter with my mindset and bodyset of working towards helping wipe out small patches of white supremacy. Already, I feel like an “other” within this practice of group ensemble-ness that is central to the practice—will I experience any fleeting moments of connection, understanding, relationship, acceptance? Already, the internalized messages of oppression arise within my body as an effort to erase myself: shallowed breath, tightened abdomen, clenched jaws, and downcast eyes.
In my experience, although I wish it weren’t so, investigating the embodiment of sociocultural considerations with CI cultures seems fraught with difficulties. At times, it feels almost Sisyphean as though I were pushing the boulder of oppression up the mountain of Contact Improvisation. The weight of historical, systemic, and interpersonal injustices within CI feels tangible within my body, even as deceptively “progressive” rhetoric and philosophies rampant within its culture try their best to convince me to bypass such work—and, instead, simply rest myself on the side of the mountain under such tranquil and simplistic proclamations of love, of oneness, and of interconnectedness. All the while, my breath shallows, my abdomen tightens, my jaws clench, and my eyes turn downward as I strain to keep myself whole and to not let the boulder roll back over me or down the mountain to crush others with less power than I…
Sometimes, I wish I could just attend an Underscore without these sensations, that I could just simply “go dance” at a CI event. Until then, I’ll just keep packing these 50 pound kneepads into my bag before heading out the door.
Koteen, D., Smith, N. S., & Paxton, S. (2008). Caught falling: the confluence of contact improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith, and other moving ideas. Contact Editions.
Sherrell, C. (2018). The oppression of Black bodies: The demand to simulate White bodies and White embodiment. Oppression and the Body: Roots, Resistance, and Resolutions. 141-156.