The basis of a healthy and communicative relationship, Ben Kassoy writes, is touch.
On any given Monday, I may clumsily wrestle with a hairy, heavily tattooed Australian tourist. I may sit in the arms of an elderly woman and close my eyes as she strokes my hair. I may squat on all fours while a mentally retarded girl stands on my back.
Mondays are my night for contact improvisation, a dance form based, most simply, on touch. Completely non-choreographed, partners in twos, threes, or larger groups explore shared weight, momentum, and balance while maintaining a point of contact. Each dance is a different experience: I’ve been twirled upside-down by a professional ballet dancer. I’ve been tickled nearly to death by a grad student. I’ve been tackled by a neurologist.
Contact improv “jams,” as they’re called, appear chaotic and disorganized, mostly because they are. Unlike most dance forms, contact (for short) is often practiced but rarely performed. It’s less about look and more about feel, less about the dance’s aesthetic and more about the dancers’ experience.
Though a lifelong dancer, I’m a beginner at contact. Physically, it’s been a challenge exploring new and often uncomfortable sensibilities of movement, balance, and awareness. More significantly, though, I’ve begun considering—and reconsidering—the social significance of touch not only for me as a dancer but, in a broader sense, for me as a man.
At birth, from a doctor’s hands into our mother’s, all people are welcomed into a world of touch. But despite its universality, touch carries varying implications depending on culture, geography, and circumstance. Studies have shown the French touching each other 110 times in on hour. Meanwhile, in the same period of time, their British counterparts managed zero physical contact. Parents and chaperones practically encouraged cross-gender canoodling at my Jewish youth group conventions. Strictly observant Jews, on the other hand, won’t lay a pinky on the opposite gender until marriage.
Touch also serves a wide array of purposes for each of us every day, whether functional, friendly, or romantic. And yet, for men, much of our touch—or lack thereof—is often misinterpreted or misunderstood, resulting from and reinforcing stereotypes towards our gender.
Thanks to sexual deviants in the public spotlight (Herman Cain and Jerry Sandusky, for recent examples), men are labeled “pigs,” dehumanized as voracious predators with an insatiable sexual appetite. Minds in gutters, hands in pants, supposedly craving sex on a second-to-second basis, male touch—even in its most benign forms—is often imbued with sexual intention.
On the other extreme, physical expression somehow makes men less “masculine.” Ever seen two guys hug? Take note of the tentative embrace and aggressive back-slapping marinated with general awkwardness. For whatever reason, guys aren’t supposed to be tender or intimate or communicative, so we eschew physical expression, even with those closest to us.
These polarized views of male touch correlate with and reinforce prevailing ideas about our gender: that men are hypersexual and/or emotionally distant. The conflicting implications yet undeniably negative connotations of male touch—or lack thereof—make it difficult for men to navigate the physical world. We’re constrained by vague yet stringent social boundaries and often struggle to achieve the delicate balance of what is appropriate and what is “manly.”
That said, it’s up to us—loving fathers, husbands, sons, brothers; caring friends; responsible citizens—to redefine expectations of male touch that both foster healthier relationships and combat assumptions about males in general.
My experience in contact improv has provided a forum in which to explore touch outside our rigid cultural confinements. Contact grants permission to experience touch in a different register, to re-imagine touch as a means of connecting with those around us.
Whether with a man or woman, a close friend or complete stranger, playful or aggressive, dynamic or subtle, each contact dance is a unique, organic exchange between partners. While most of our daily physical interactions chiefly emphasize adhering to social guidelines, a contact dance instead focuses on mutual communication, empathy, and trust.
We may drag one another by the ankles or sit back-to-back in silence or end up in a heap, laughing on the floor. Without words, we engage in a nonverbal dialogue, silently internalizing the feelings and responding to the needs of the other. We react accordingly. We listen and express, provide and receive. It’s no surprise I leave a jam feeling satisfied, fulfilled, and appreciated.
While the apparent anarchy in contact improvisation is unrealistic and unsustainable outside of a jam, men can apply the principles of the dance to our relationships and our lives. Beyond serving as a boon to us as individuals, establishing an example of expressive, effective touch serves to counteract pervading generalizations about all males.
Actions, as we know, speak louder than words—which is great, especially if words aren’t your thing. You’re not a great orator or eloquent poet, but you’d probably rate yourself an above-average hugger. (Others will agree.)
Our world of germophobia, hypersensitivity, and dependence on cyber socialization makes it more difficult to engage with others on the most basic level (as a means of communication, touch, after all, predated language). And while the Internet keeps us constantly “connected,” our physical selves are the only means by which we remain literally in touch.
For better or for worse, males still carry the dual power and burden of dictating most social interactions, especially on a physical level. Differences in culture, values, and circumstance will determine how and when each individual uses touch, but all men have a responsibility: an important step to fostering communicative and healthy relationships truly is in our hands.