Hands that don’t want anything

A copy of a presentation for TaPRA at Plymouth University on 8 September 2009

Hands that don’t want anything.

I see her there. I remember her there. I feel her here: boisterous, giving, warm, inevitably smiling; going … going … going. This woman I am dancing with is Kirstie Simson. We are finding our way together: noticing, listening, consenting, resisting, and offering each other moments in a dialogue that is at once overlapping and discrete. We mostly drift from dancing to talking to dancing, the discussion is constant, its form migrating from recognisably dance’ to pedestrian actions, to simply talking and back again.

She has been doing this a long time, but what I find remarkable is that after 30 years of working, performing and teaching, Kirstie still walks into the studio or the space, focusing on not knowing what it is that she is going to do.

The differences in our practices are significant. Mine is predominantly dancing solo, working on finding and refining alternate movement patterns, and improvising through exercises in consciousness, mobility, and neuromuscular and kinaesthetic provocations.

Kirstie’s practice is steeped in the world of contact improvisation (CI). She is second generation CI, influenced by—and having danced with—Steve Paxton, Nancy Stark-Smith and Lisa Nelson. But she also chooses to distinguish herself from CI as a singular approach.

Whilst maintaining the value of the presence of an other to facilitate what Kirstie calls deep listening”, her work is not predicated on maintaining or working towards or around a point of contact. Instead, her systems afford multiple exchanges between outer and inner worlds — small dances between and within individuals.

It is as if for Kirstie that in the simple (and often fleeting) act of physical contact we might register some of the possibilities of the moving self, or perhaps even the tremendous intelligence” (Simson 2008) of presence.


To be present implies (whether we mean it or not) knowing where one is located. But, at the same time, dancers tend to refer to the temporal—of being in the now for example—as being a critical aspect of presence. It seems to have considerable overlap with Csikszentmhalyi’s (cheek-sent-me-high!) concept of flow (1990), in which detailed attention” and the non-verbal particular” (Clarke 2007) are foregrounded. It is when the wandering, roving mind grows still, when fragmented craving grows still” (Laird 2006 p.23). The state of presence strips away the extraneous, integrating a heightened level of awareness …

deep listening.

But what is heard?

I suspect being present is actually a mystical experience in the sense that it is transcendent of everyday consciousness (whilst being inclusive of it), as well as being esoteric and enigmatic. This creates a problem. Steve Paxton — who was responsible for beginning contact improvisation practices — writes that mystical positions are not subject to analysis” (Paxton and Lepkoff 2004 p.45).

What are these hands that don’t want anything?

Two years ago Kirstie shared a very simple exercise with me. In it, she asked me to roll or move slowly and gently down the studio space. She placed her hands on me without wanting anything.

That’s it.

The exercise is designed to open the senses and the awareness of the person receiving the touch; to build and then sustain a unique quality of support for the dancer. It reveals to them possibilities, engenders quiet attention and reduces anxiety.

Unneeded judgment recedes into the background, and — implausibly — I felt as if I were granted a sense of the edges and substance of my being.

For a limited time my body is that flimsy coating which serves as a boundary between the outer and the inner universe. Like the surface of water in which the sky is mirrored against the depths. Beyond question. Faced with the vastness of nature I am filled with humility (Lilja 2003 p.10).


Hands that don’t want anything is a simple activity, yet embedded in this simplicity is a radical resistance to the political, psychological, sociological and economic foundations of our culture.

When do we ever touch someone and not want something? When do we ever not want anything? How might such an exchange—free from expectation and desire, filled with waiting, patience and care—affect our corporeality … our sense of self?

Commercial break.

Hands that don’t want anything sits at the nexus of uncertainty and certainty, where unknowing is touched by the substantial. In the smallness of the unwanting contact, the courage to enter the unknown is gifted, and the vital uncertainty fundamental to all improvisation (and perhaps understanding) is welcomed.

For Simson, this is the power of the touch in her work. It acknowledges our subjectivity whilst relying on — and celebrating — the other; union differentiates” (Johnston 1973 p.13). This work launches the dancer into a forgiving unknowing. It is silent, free of doubt and aware. Yet for all its strength, it is based on a delicate exchange.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle puts limits on how much an observer can ever know about the position and velocity of a particle. The more you know of one, the less you can know of another.

The uncertainty of improvisation generates a similar problem for both the dancer, and how the experiences are articulated. It is knowing and welcoming the uncertainty that underpins the work, whilst at the same time having the potential to unravel the experience. It is a type of corporeal koan … the unanswerable question.

And this is where, once again, my work and practice as a dancer-performer collide with the conventions of the academy.

Recently, in an effort to talk to and articulate the experience of improvisational presence, I’ve turned to contemplative literature. It has a long history in acknowledging (to borrow from the Buddhists) that, language is only a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself” (Johnston 1973 p.3).

Improvisation is pretty close to mystical thinking, and in its unique revelations it may well be at the mercy of collective impressions in language since, in using language, one assesses the improvisation with afterwords … (Paxton and Lepkoff 2004 pp.48-49).


The trouble for our logocentric systems of thinking and communicating is that experiences that tend towards the mystical, or that approach ekstasis—the ecstatic— are, by definition, imprecise. These moments in which we step outside the prism of ego” (Armstrong 2009 p.5) are analogous to silentium mysticum: a state of consciousness in which there may be no words or images (Johnston 1974). They are apophatic — unsayable.

Some things cannot be defined, or clarified, or explained. No answers can be made out … why must everything be explained, or be possible to translate, why pick it all to bits — as though it were only a camouflage for something else? MADNESS. We hide too easily behind all the words (Lilja 2003 pp.10-11)]

Efva Lilja — the Swedish choreographer and academic — is right, but at the same time, the resolve to articulate is critical, because it is only by attempting it that we might find the edges of our work and understanding, and therefore be able to make the decision to not articulate, or leave the concern alone. This is preferable to simply not writing (or speaking of it) as the default response — a practice that runs the risk of making a virtue out of a phantom necessity.

It is vital — in the exchanges between bodies, between inner and outer worlds — that we enter deeply into experiences that are far more than a camouflage for some (discursive) other. These experiences in the cloud of unknowing” (unknown 14th Century) mark the limits of our discourse and, as such, demand more rather than less of our attention.


I would like to acknowledge Kirstie’s absence, and how she has not spoken for herself in this matter. It is a conceit on my part to begin to even pretend that I know Kirstie and her work well enough (and in particular what it is that she doesn’t know, or is uncertain about) to present this analysis.

When her presence is not corporeal my dancing is altered. It is not necessarily more limited, it is just that how I listen, and what I am listening to is utterly different. The oscillations of her presence in my memory take on a fragility that I think are worth attending to …


The video materials in this presentation were shot by Katrina McPherson and the dancing was by Kirstie Simson and me.

Hands that don’t want anything (dancing with Kirstie Simson).

Thank you very much.


Armstrong, K. (2009). The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. London, The Bodley Head Ltd.

Clarke, G. (2007). Mind Is As In Motion.” Animated Spring.

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, Harper and Row.

Johnston, W. (1973). Introduction. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. W. Johnston. New York, Doubleday.

Johnston, W. (1974). Silent Music. Glasgow, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.

Laird, M. (2006). Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation. London, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.

Lilja, E. (2003). Words on Dance. Stockholm, Katarinatryck.

Paxton, S. and D. Lepkoff (2004). Between the Lines, Re: presenting improvisation.” Contact Quarterly Winter/Spring.

Simson, K. (2008). Interview with Kirstie Simson. S. Ellis. London.

unknown (14th Century). The Cloud of Unknowing.

Bonus video (not included in presentation:

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