The Oberlin Stories Project

On making connections while dancing in Warner Main

Natalia Shevin ’17

“Contact improvisation about learning to work with anything. Through listening and through movement, we learn to be responsive. ”

In an empty dance studio, Natalia lays on her back with feet raised toward the ceiling.

I love Warner Main space. Warner Main is the primary performance and studio space for dance on campus, and it feels more like a home than a place of work. It was formerly the college gymnasium, so the curved edges of the room from the running track foster relationships between people. That’s what dance at Oberlin has been for me: a place that invites corporeal communication and connection as opposed to isolated practice.

The only class I’ve taken in Warner Main was Contact Improvisation, which I took in the fall of my second year. I had been introduced to contact dancing in high school, and I knew I had to take it while at Oberlin because the form began in this space in 1972.

I spent a lot of time thinking contact would just happen to me. I would be laying on the floor while others moved around me, waiting for the spark that would bring me to my feet. But as I learned, moving would make me want to move more, and suddenly, I’d be dancing. That usually happened by the last 30 minutes of the two-hour class. I’d leave class laughing because it was one of the only places I could be totally silly with my classmates. Or I’d be reminiscing already with a classmate about a moment and movement we shared in the past hour. And we would all be thanking each other: for the effort, for the energy, for the warmth.

It was only until the following semester when I didn’t have contact mandated into my schedule for six to eight hours each week that I fully realized how contact saved me. Our class decided that we would continue organizing jams on our own, so we all continued to explore the form. I would look forward to the jam each weekend to bring back the moments I felt alive first semester. (The dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham once said, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” Contact makes me know this quote).

I spent a lot of my life finding solace in prayer, which changed as college started. I was without a cultivated practice, a set of principles, a routine. Contact has become that for me here. It’s about stability. Not stability in the way that contact is predictable or without risks—it’s exactly the opposite. Contact improvisation about learning to work with anything. Through listening and through movement, we learn to be responsive.

After leaving Warner Main, my body always feels more lived in. It’s a pretty holy feeling to be full in such a way: the sweat, the questions, the lingering feeling of other bodies’ imprints on our backs and hands, and the connection to someone without having to say a word.