Fluid and Flexible

An Interview with Donald Andrew


Donald Andrew serves as a fellowships advisor at a college in New England. I learned of him through one of his former students, who told me incredulously how her college advisor does contact improvisation a few days a week. When I heard he had a background in flying trapeze, I was keen to learn more about his dance perspective.


Earlier in your life, what was you experience with dance and movement?

I was a competition gymnast and track-and-field athlete in high school in South Africa. Later, some of us put together a flying trapeze act, and then worked in Europe. I was a journalist by profession, but did flying trapeze on and off. I was a catcher; I used to hang upside down by my legs. Flying trapeze is extremely strenuous; you have to be at a level of fitness similar to that of an Olympic athlete.

When I had kids after moving to the States in 1979, I tried many forms of exercise, but found most boring or requiring too much equipment and didn’t keep them up. Then I remembered what I really loved doing was dance. When I was younger, I was famous for throwing the ladies around in the air on the dance floor. I studied movement at drama school, as well as many dance forms like ballroom, Spanish and ballet. I continued studying dance until I got married and had kids, and then it all went downhill in terms of my fitness.

How did you find your way back to dance later in life?

I live in an area where contact improvisation jams are offered just about every day of the week. A number of years ago, I went to a community jam. I watched some younger people doing contact improv, and was totally blown away. I thought it was the most fantastic dance form I’d ever seen. But I felt unfit, and couldn’t imagine I could ever do it. I thought I was over-the-hill and had missed out. I got frightened off, and went away for several years. Then my kids left home, went to college, and I went and had another look at a jam.

I had meanwhile tried other dance forms like Zumba and tango, but nothing besides barefoot freestyle worked for me. I found these other forms unimaginative and repetitious. I started attending contact improv jams, and spent the first few months walking around the perimeter of the room feeling self-conscious and inhibited.

One day, I just decided I didn’t care what I looked like or what anybody thought I looked like. That freed me. I slowly started getting into barefoot freestyle dance, dancing alone without feeling inhibited, until a woman invited me to dance with her. Then I took some contact improv classes to learn basic techniques.


What does your current dance practice look like?

I usually dance three to five times a week at jams, in classes, or rehearsing for a show. I enjoy performing, making a dance that others enjoy watching. It enriches, adds a layer to dancing only for fun, by extending the community. Observing dance is passive dancing.

How did your previous experience pursuing flying trapeze inform your approach to contact improv?

I have a good sense of balance and rhythm, and am agile; I still do handstands and cartwheels. The key to contact for me is flow and momentum. It means yielding as much as initiating. Yielding requires enhanced sensitivity toward your dance partner. Attention to the present moment facilitates the flow. With contact, you don’t grip, whereas with other partnered dance forms you do. Contact, in contrast, is about the body-weight pressure two people apply against one another. However, I combine both, switching from grip to pressure depending on the kind of jam session.

What are some challenges you find in contact improvisation?

The most difficult thing about contact improv is the social aspect when it comes to jams—negotiating who to dance with, who not to dance with, who wants to dance with you, who doesn’t want to dance with you, and trying to be sensitive but not too scared to approach somebody. It’s important not to take anything personally. People have a million reasons why they may or may not want to dance with you or anyone else, and that may change over time. For a new person who doesn’t have a lot of confidence, it can be difficult to navigate. For me as an older person, a lot of people are open to intergenerational contact improv, but others aren’t. Then there’s the whole gender thing that goes on that affects male-female partnerships as well as male-male partnerships on the dance floor.


What has been your experience navigating the form as an older dancer?

It’s kind of funny because I prefer dancing with younger people. Old people can’t keep up with me. I’m pretty energetic and athletic still. I’m also strong. While I like the slow, soft stuff, I also like the hard, fast stuff. Sometimes contact can be meditative and floor-based.

As the originators of contact have gotten older and less mobile, they have changed the accent of what the form is. If you look at old clips of how they used to dance, it was pretty vigorous and energetic. As they’ve gotten older, they move less and sense more. While I can appreciate that, I’ve had my own meditation practice for 50 years, so I don’t need to do contact in order to meditate. I do it to move and practice acrobatics. But I am still a babe in contact improv, so much more learning awaits me, including what happens in every moment that I dance.

What advice would you give to someone new to contact improv?

You have to free yourself to spontaneity, and the only way to do that is by being uninhibited. Improvisation itself is a spontaneous act. You can’t really practice contact improv successfully unless you are spontaneous, and you can’t be spontaneous if you’re inhibited.

You also have to apply attention. You have to be awake in the moment. It’s almost a contradiction… on the one hand you have to let go completely and, on the other, you have to be totally focused. Attention combined with spontaneity invites imagination to invent on the fly.


Then you have to take care of your own safety and your partner, plus others around you on the floor, at the same time as letting go. Within this fusion of opposites – attentive and focused but simultaneously open to the unknown, being fully present in the moment but without an agenda — is where the artistry of improv arises.

I totally believe that dancing increases intelligence. Dancing forges new pathways in the brain. For intellectual and emotional development, contact improv is an excellent practice. I find it evolutionary.

Is there any circumstance that would cause you to stop dancing?

The only thing that stops me is injury. I’m 70 now. Dancing is ecstasy for me, the paradox of suspending the moment while moving through it. So no, I never want to stop. I’m going to keep dancing as long as my body keeps up with my young heart.

Any other thoughts?

I don’t consider myself a purist. There are certain dancers who are purists to the point they don’t even like to do contact improv to music. Personally, I prefer music. When the music plays, it brings up other dance forms in me. I don’t like to restrict myself. I’d rather move how I feel inspired, and that can be any form. I don’t like rigidity and preciousness. Instead of pigeon-holing myself, I believe in being fluid and flexible. The break-away freedom Isadora Duncan embodied and exhibited is my inspiration and ideal.


4 Responses to “Fluid and Flexible”

  1. stanceondance

    Indeed on all counts Miss Lucy:)

  2. stanceondance

    Yes, Don is indeed an inspiration! Thanks for reading!

  3. Bilva

    This is really terrific to read and get into. I did contact improv in S.F. in 1978 with a dance company who performed this called Mangrove and loved it. I am now 74 and really not dancing much except at home. To read about what Donald Andrew is doing now in contact is fabulous! The whole image of him doing what he does with what he brings to the art is fun to consisder and dream about.

  4. Lucy

    This is beautiful, it gives me an inviting glimpse into contact improv. I’ve always been curious but intimidated. It’s also a wonderful reminder that we can return to things that we have loved, even if we think we’re no longer capable of doing them.

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