The Making of “An Intimate Dance”

An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Sanford Lewis


Sanford Lewis is a Massachusetts based filmmaker whose upcoming film “an intimate dance” will premiere March 26 as part of The EveryBODYmoves Festival in Northampton, going on March 25-27. The film follows three characters – Albert, Eugene and Rythea – in their practice of contact improvisation. I had the opportunity to speak with Sanford about the making of the film, as well as the lessons he learned along the way.


Tell me a little about your background in dance. What led you to making “an intimate dance?

I’ve been a dancer for about 30 years. My first introduction to dance was when I discovered the Boston-area free-style dance community around 1985, which led me to contact improvisation. Throughout the late 80s, I had a tenuous relationship with contact improv; I came and went. But eventually it took hold. Contact improvisation and Authentic Movement, which I found around the same time, have been essential practices in my life, a place to draw ideas from my body-mind rather than from the left brain, where so much of my day job as an environmental lawyer occurs. Dance makes me feel happier and more whole, connected and energetic. These mindfulness-oriented dance forms have become very important to me.

In 2000, I got my first digital video camera and started producing environmental documentaries. I also started to film contact improvisation, taking my camera to jams. Over the course of a couple years, I shot probably 200 hours of footage at jams. Then I set it aside…. it was just a hobby. But that footage and the questions it raised started to nag me. Also, after a whole series of environmental documentaries, I realized that as a filmmaker I was much happier as an artist than as an essayist. The environmental films were okay, but they didn’t let me ask deeper questions or take a deep plunge into the creative and sensual process of filmmaking.

Around 2009, I started to discuss with successful filmmakers how one might make a film about contact improv. They had a couple pieces of advice: if you’re trying to reach beyond the niche audience of dancers who already know what contact improv is, it should follow specific characters. And they told me I needed to get a better camera. Finding characters and buying a broadcast quality camera were two really steep obstacles to making the film. Once I got past those, I was committed to the process.

I understand the film has been over five years in the making. What has the process been like?

I’m fascinated with the journeys we experience in the course of a dance, and in our progression as dancers. So I thought initially, “If I film a group of beginners over time, then I can witness what’s happening and dialogue with them about it, especially the way contact improv challenges their ideas about boundaries.” I found folks who didn’t do contact improv but were interested. Over a series of coffees, I gradually accumulated a group of people who would become the core beginners in the film.

We created and filmed workshops, and then I interviewed the participants. My original idea was to get people in the editing room, slowing down the footage and having the dancers watch and narrate it. But the truth is, it didn’t work that well. It’s hard for people looking at their dance from the outside to reconnect with the choices they were making. And, making a film about these 12 beginners did not feel dynamic enough. Having shot over 100 hours a footage, I realized I was only at the beginning.

Out of the dozen dancers, there was one guy, Albert, who was much more self-revealing, reflective and funny. I honed the editing in on him. I also decided to talk to neuroscientists about what goes on in our nervous system during contact.

Additionally, people kept telling me to go talk to a fellow named Eugene. Eugene’s whole life is about improvisation, experimentation and testing his physical and mental limits, first as an all-star athlete and later as a wheelchair rider and disabilities rights activist. When I met Eugene, I thought, “Oh no! Eugene is going to take over my whole film!” I got to love working with Eugene, and he became my second main character.

The third character, Rythea, I had known through documenting some of her theater and dance pieces. She also has an interesting story, because she came to contact improv out of a traumatic past. The challenges she faces are different from the other characters. She’s smart, funny, insightful, and makes us think over and over again about conscious boundaries.

Once I had committed to making the film, I found out Steve Paxton was going to be in town. [Steve Paxton developed contact improvisation in the 1970s.] So, pretty early in the process we filmed an interview with him. Having Steve in the film meant that to some degree I had a responsibility to tell the early history of contact improvisation. We did quite a remix and remastering of some of the original archival footage, and are ever grateful to Steve, Nancy Stark Smith and Lisa Nelson for licensing it to us.

We went through dozens of rough cuts and test screenings. I got my butt kicked by a lot of really good filmmakers who disciplined me to “show rather than tell” and to edit sparsely to emphasize the core characters. It’s been a long journey, overflowing with all kinds of learning and discovery.

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What have you personally gleaned through the making of the film?

I’m very interested in the healing and transformative power of contact improvisation. I think fundamentally it’s about our ability, as beings, to interweave our nervous systems. People confuse that with sexuality, which is one familiar place where that happens.

There’s a lot of rich controversy and questions in our capacities to connect. Contact improvisation is non-normative, but there’s so much opportunity for play, touch and movement together. As a result, there’s an incredible capacity for empathy, healing and a deep sense of embodied camaraderie.

I also have come to recognize how much we can think with our bodies – or perhaps a better way of saying it is, process and understand our situation. I came around to a method for the film: after sitting hours in the editing room, I would have editorial or philosophical problems I wasn’t sure how to resolve. Then I’d go and dance, and the answers would come from my body.

I hope my film will open people’s eyes, minds and hearts to the possibility that there can be so much more play and touch in their lives, regardless of if they decide to practice contact improvisation.

What’s next for you after the film’s release?

This film has opened me up to thinking about embodiment as a human right, and of mindful movement practices as an excellent vehicle for recovery of that birthright. So emerging from the process of completing the film, I have a new sense of mission – what can I do to advance the recovery of those rights for others?

What I’ve witnessed is that dance can be a way for us to recover our connection to our bodies and others. We were born with this innate capacity, but various oppressions have often taken it away. I’m excited about the film as an educational and community organizing tool to help guide people to reflect on inclusiveness, healing and the transformative power of dance.

I started The EveryBODYmoves Festival – a festival of mindful movement, dance and curiosity – for folks to test some of the ideas from the film, and to provide a weekend-long experience for the premiere. But the festival has taken on a life of its own. It’s become clear that both the film and the festival can expose many more people to embodied, mindful play and to contact improvisation. After the premiere, we’ll begin moving the film, and perhaps the festival model, to the growing audience of people around the world who have already expressed excitement about bringing the film to their communities.


To learn more about the film, festival and opportunities to bring the film to your community, click here.