Thus Began My Love Affair

Editor’s note: This month on Stance on Dance, several dance artists have been asked to share a pivotal dance experience that changed their trajectory or the way they think about dance. 


Karen Nelson and Alito Alessi

Echo Theater, Portland, OR

1984. 36 years old, two children. 24 years into modern dance. Stuck.

Dancing had become my way through all the hubbub of life. I loved dancing. I loved movement invention and choreography. I needed it.

Yet, for some years, I’d found myself dropping in and out of the modern dance world. As much as dancing was a fit, I had become increasingly aware that other aspects of that world were not. I’d drop out to see if dancing in my living room or in bars to bands of choice would suffice. And, I kept tabs on the world of dance. I wanted back in. Out was not enough.

And then along came a choreographer’s showcase at the Echo Theater.

Someone had put together a variety show of dance pieces at the Echo in June of 1984. I went with my eight year-old son. About halfway through, just as he was getting bored and slipping under the seats, Karen Nelson and Alito Alessi began a contact improvisation duet on stage.

My parental responsibilities faded quickly as I was pulled up and forward in my seat, riveted by the duet. Others could deal with my son. I was completely enthralled with how those two dancing people also appeared to be moving as one body. How did they do that? I had to know!

As I watched, the details of their duet became secondary to a loud voice inside me saying, “You will do this for the rest of your life, no matter how frustrating!” Bingo. In. I knew I’d be jumping back into the dance world, with both feet, for good, no matter how frustrating.

The show ended and I reigned in my son and left, both startled and comforted by feeling such knowing about something of which I knew so little. Thus began my love affair with contact improvisation.

Thirty years and many wringers later, much has been revealed. Contact improvisation turned out to be the loving and strict teacher I needed to learn about fitting, on and off the dance floor. But that’s a much longer story.

For now, I am grateful for this echo from years ago reminding me that to ‘show up, notice the yes and follow it, no matter how frustrating’ is enough to take me where I need to go.

Carolyn and Patrick - dance memory

For more info on Carolyn Stuart’s work, visit