Martial Dance

The development of a form

Contact Quarterly 1992English
Contact Quarterly Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer/Fall, 1993): 21-31.

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This interview took place in August 1992, after a ten year period of development of a form I have called Martial Dance. Martial Dance is a study of the self and an exploration of relationship through a movement interaction. As the form continues to evolve it reveals itself more and more to be about the language of movement and the ability to communicate clearly, articulately, and effectively in a movement interaction. [H.K.]



Lisa Nelson: Hillel, what were the beginnings of Martial Dance?

Hillel Krauss: Early on, when I was developing the Martial Dance (MD), I was intrigued by two questions-how to begin, and what is the nature of the interaction? I struggled for years with what seemed to be something that should have been right in front of me. What I came to understand was that rather than "how do you begin?" or "what is the meeting?," what I was struggling to articulate was the act itself-the coming together. I came to this by trying all sorts of things.

Lisa: What were some of those things?

Hillel: One exercise was two people running towards each other, head on, from one side of the room to the other, and then seeing what they would do when they met. But one of the main ways we began was standing at arms-length, facing each other. We'd come to a stillness and then listen for the moment to begin and then we'd begin. We'd usually begin by moving towards each other.

Lisa: What led you to take this approach?

Hillel: I took this from my studies in the martial arts and the application of martial principles and techniques to my practice of Contact Improvisation.

Part of the essence of all the martial arts is that you bring yourself to a stillness. From there, one way to work is to wait for the other person to make a move, to initiate a motion or an action. You are watching for the moment the thought appears and is followed through.

There is a saying in the martial arts that the moment one person moves it's over. It's pretty much finished because you can either go right in on that person because you know what they're going to do, or you can let the energy come towards you, draw it in and then redirect it. My understanding now is that it comes down to how you hone your will and the level of your concentration. I developed this ability to concentrate, have a single focus, and to be still, from my practice of both martial arts and Contact Improvisation.

Lisa: In an interaction of waiting for someone to make a move what initiates the movement?

Hillel: Your action arises spontaneously from listening to what's taking place on an energetic level. In Martial Dance we began by moving with parts of our partner's body that we felt drawn to. What I kept from this early work were these fundamentals of being still, listening, and being able to act spontaneously. Another major part we kept was the coming together and how you know where to go.

Lisa: How to continue?

Hillel: Yes. What is the first move? I was interested in this with Contact also. When people go to do Contact that first moment is always very interesting. People kind of saunter into the room and begin to find a place to touch, and it's always different and people do it in all sorts of ways, yet I always felt that there was a certain similarity in the coming together. The focus and attention to it was not very honed.

In the MD, that initial focus is very important, as is the coming together in a martial interaction. The way I do it is I listen for where the energy is-I listen to what the physical motion is on the surface of the person and also to where the person is located internally-where the energy within them is in motion and where it is not in motion. When it's not in motion, if it's not a cultivated stillness, (a conscious stillness centered in a particular place in the body), it's going to be a blockage, a holding of energy 

Lisa: Do you make a distinction between a holding that you call a block and a holding that's functioning to support the part that's moving?

Hillel: Yes, of course, and much of the dance is to free these holding patterns so that they become supportive of, rather than blocking, the movement. In MD, motion is supported by the place where the energy is still. But to say that the energy is still is not really what is happening. The energy is never still. It's actually in motion. It's just more collected. A collected and coming-back-on-itself motion,

circular regeneration. In Tai Chi, the center is described as a sphere, a ball that is constantly turning, and that turning is generating Chi. That is the stillness I'm talking about. A very alive stillness. One of the main focuses of Martial Dance is the cultivation of the lower center as used in the martial arts and how to direct our internal energies from this center.

I've danced with people who don't work with their lower center primarily. Instead they work with a constantly shifting center in their bodies. I do this myself, especially in Contact, but also in MD. This is a very different idea than in the martial arts where you're always moving and projecting from a specified center 

Lisa: I would say that Contact Improvisation, as a proposal from the beginning, seemed to be set up to explore a moving center. Rather than locating your center in a certain part of your body, it gave you a practice of watching the constant shifts of balance taking place within you. And it never included "power" as an image to cultivate. That seems a fundamental difference between a martial art and Contact Improvisation.

Hillel: I think Contact was not concerned with generating a force or a power to travel along a defined line into another body. To do that effectively you need to be organized in relation to the lower center in the body.

Martial Dance incorporates the use of a constantly shifting center and also cultivates the lower constant center as a source of movement. My initial desire in doing MD was to understand how to interact with any type of movement energy, and this synthesis gave me that ability.

My understanding of Contact Improvisation was that it was a form for moving with another person working in gravity, which meant you could go anywhere with it. What drew me to develop MD was that I began to see that there were certain movements that people who do Contact didn't know how to interact with 

Lisa: In the sense that they would get injured? Or that they chose not to interact with it?

Hillel: It was outside the context of an unwritten understanding in Contact of "how we're going to move together." In Contact, if a person shifts their weight onto one leg and they lean on me with their center up by their shoulder, they create a 'trim-tab effect', or fulcrum, in the body at their shoulder. You can touch the body at a fulcrum and the whole body moves very easily.

In martial arts, you work with these same principles, except your intention is different. While doing Contact, I would begin to interject more martial-oriented intentions while moving, such as a 'take-down', a throw, a push or a pull. In the beginning I found that to take the action in this direction was unfamiliar to people who were doing Contact. Mostly, I think that people who did Contact didn't have a martial mind or awareness.

Lisa: Or a desire?

Hillel: Yes, or a desire. I had this desire because I was also a martial artist. At the same time I felt that in life there are many experiences where you are being thrown. There are many interactions where a person comes to you and they're not interested in flow, they're not interested in moving harmoniously with you. There are also so many things taking place in an interaction with another person-how do you know how to move with the interaction? I found that the skills that I learned from Contact didn't empower me to interact with all types of people. I was always curious about a head-on interaction, of meeting something squarely and then seeing where you move with that

Lisa: What other studies were valuable in your development of MD?

Hillel: I was always interested in interactive dance. I was very interested in dancing with the projection of my partner's energy and movement in space. Later, when I did Contact Improvisation, it felt very akin to this way I was working. It was like bringing what I was doing from a distance right to the body. One of my teachers who I was very influenced by in regards to interactive movement from a martial perspective was Milford Graves. I studied with him over the course of a few years at his center in NYC. The sessions usually lasted about three hours. He went from teaching African dance to working with principles from Tai Chi 'push hands' and Kung Fu 'sticky hands'. Once I had accomplished that and had gotten strong, we started doing harder styles that involved a lot of kicking and punching and elements of western boxing. We would work out and spar constantly, with gloves.

I learned many things from Milford, one of them being an understanding of the connection between dance and the martial arts. He talked to me about how much of western dance is feminine by nature, and that most of the dance I had trained in was feminine movement, and that I should learn masculine motion. He said that in African dancing the men do dances that are actually preparation for battle. He showed me certain movements and he said, "Now you take this movement and put a spear in the hand and you'll understand the movement," and it was like a flash of lightning. My training with Milford Graves was a very intensive one.

My senior year at Bennington College I taught a class and called it Martial Dance. At that time I incorporated many of the movements I learned from Milford which were African in origin, martial movements which involved a tremendous use of the pelvis and hips.

Lisa: Do you still include some of that material when you're training people in MD?

Hillel: No.

Lisa: What happened to those movements?

Hillel: I integrated them. For me it was more a vehicle to understand certain elements of motion, rhythm, and the power generated from the pelvis. My training and practice from early on was in both dance and martial arts. But I was more interested in Contact Improvisation at this time. I began to see the beauty of Contact and went to master it very consciously-an approach that comes from my martial background 

Lisa: What skills did you find in Contact to be mastered?

Hillel: For me they were really basic. The give and take of weight; moving with a point of contact, or, I like to say the area of contact; the idea of following; and, of course, surrendering to gravity and falling. All of those skills became part of MD 

Lisa: What skills from the martial arts did you blend into those Contact skills?

Hillel: In the earlier years of doing Contact there was less focus on the hands and more on the body. From the martial arts, I began to incorporate the use of the arms and hands to move my partner. I saw that I had arms so why not use them?

Lisa: Is it a volitional use of the arms rather than a supporting use of your arms?

Hillel: It's both. I always felt that there was no separation between information. So I was able to translate all my information and kinesthetic understanding from my martial training into my Contact practice and vice versa.

The skills I remember learning the most from Contact were listening and the ability to follow. Listening and following are also two of the main aspects of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is based on yielding, unlike other martial arts which are more offensive in nature. Tai Chi has offensive elements, but it is based on the understanding of being able to yield, where the weak can overcome the strong, the soft can overcome the hard. In relation to leading, I realized that if I didn't master following, I couldn't lead effectively. Following became a key focus in MD. In Tai Chi, you're always looking for when the other person is off center, or how to bring them off center. Then you can take advantage of that momentum by adding your own energy to move them where you want them to go.

In Contact Improvisation you interact in a way that a martial artist never would interact. For example, you are making contact with all parts of the body. You're turning your back to each other, where you have no focus on defence. You're allowing yourself to be completely vulnerable. You're moving your center to different parts of the body. You're letting your weight pour into another person and giving yourself away. You're constantly passing through your center line like a pendulum.

To apply martial movement and principles to this expanded set of possibilities allows for a fuller range of motion and interaction than is commonly found in the martial arts. It goes beyond the primary modes of attack and defence to include also support and surrender. This also expands the interactive possibilities of CI to include the use of volitional force to bring someone else to movement. So by blending the two forms, MD trains you how to respond in any given situation. 

Four Modes of Interaction

Hillel: In the beginning, people started to call what I was doing "combat contact." At that time there was very little real blending of the two forms, the Contact and the martial. I later tried to blend things by working with four modes of motion: attack and defend, which is from martial arts, support and surrender, which is from Contact. I also worked with manipulation physically and energetically. I was interested in mixing these pieces so that you could respond to an approach in a way that you wouldn't normally respond. For example, you wouldn't normally respond to an attack with a support. You would most likely defend in some fashion, which includes "neutralizing." But you can respond to an attack with a support. Or vice versa. 

Lisa: That's interesting. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen uses the terms "bonding" and "defending" as two poles of an interaction.

Hillel: Yes, that's beautiful, I think of it as bonding, when I attack I'm bonding with my partner's energy. I'm meeting it, engaging it, and creating a particular effect with that energy. It's a very Aikido understanding-bonding-because in Aikido there is no opponent, you're harmonizing with the Ki of the person you're moving with.

Lisa: Attack and support are easier for me to build a physical image of. Surrender doesn't have as clear a physical image for me 

Hillel: Because surrender as a concept is the most difficult to understand and to do, it is also the most difficult to image physically, as opposed to attack/defend/support. It involves an image of "letting go," no longer controlling, almost a trusting that you will be caught. There is also an image of surrender as in "serving" in a higher sense. Following can also be an image for surrender. In MD, surrender usually comes first in response to a support, but it can also be a response to an attack 

Lisa: And "yielding"? 

Hillel: Yielding, in MD, is under the category of defence. It is a Tai Chi term, you ''yield" to an attack. Yielding is really the same thing as creating space, making room. So when you yield usually what you are doing is withdrawing, drawing a circle around. When you yield and withdraw, it is also a drawing with. First you create space by withdrawing, then there is suddenly an opening and your partner is drawn in and they cross their center line. One of the main focuses in MD is this opening, this space. We dance with an awareness of it. It is mainly from here that we move our partner and are moved. In Tai Chi this awareness is also used.

Lisa: And then surrender may be ... ?

Hillel: Surrender works in a number of ways. It works internally as a state, as an action of the self. One way it translates into movement is when you're allowing your center to be taken and moved. For example, you can surrender to a throw. In the martial arts there is rarely an aspect of surrender in movement, two exceptions being in the practice of Aikido and Tai Chi. The way Ueshiba set up Aikido, you have uke and nage, and uke surrenders and allows himself to be moved. That's the training and it's not an actual combat situation. In MD, as in Aikido, you're actually training to be moved and you practice being in your center when you're moved.

Lisa: The martial aspect of Martial Dance is becoming clear to me and its difference in intention from Contact Improvisation. Can you talk about what the full intention of Martial Dance is? What are your practicing?

Hillel: It has to do with two things that are a progression. The first is a moving towards and the second has to do with consciousness. The dance becomes about where one is conscious and where one is unconscious in relationship and in the action of the body. It's very much a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual experience.

 Awareness of the body/self is practiced through the purely physical/movement-oriented part of the form. When people begin to learn MD, they have a natural element of surrender. Even if it manifests as resisting, they're already surrendering on the level of taking a step towards being moved by coming to meet me.

In MD, the interaction is about coming towards each other, engaging, and what happens in the meeting. Even if the movement interaction is a moving away it's still an inner action towards. The same way as I've said that an attack can be support. In any martial interaction, two people are moving towards each other and are committed to that. The nature of the coming together is somewhat different in MD. In a martial art they're coming to overpower and win. In MD, even though you can overpower another or allow yourself to be overpowered, it is only one part of the dance. The possible directions and dimensions of the interaction are more varied. 

The Will and the Center

Lisa: Can you talk about the use of the will in Martial Dance?

Hillel: The use of the will in MD is almost identical to its use in the martial arts in terms of understanding what an action is and the purpose of an action. The will is simply how you bring yourself to the interaction, how you focus the power of the self.

I experience MD as an exercise of my will. By will, here, I mean that which is faster and higher than thought, it precedes thought.

Lisa: I might call that "desire."

Hillel: The reason I don't call it desire is because I attach desire to the senses and I attach will to something previous and above the senses, to the life force that animates us. Although they both act through the senses because we're in form.

Lisa: How does that relate to moving 

Hillel: The action of the will is what moves a person. When you engage your will fully it's the most direct action you can have with another person or with life. Much of the training in MD is actually to cultivate the ability to arouse and use your will. What that action gives you is a taste of being yourself with another person.

Lisa: What a luxury.

Hillel: It is not a luxury, it is a choice. I have a good friend and teacher, Meir Abehsera, who speaks about making a demonstration of life for a person who is depressed or really stuck. When you engage a person in the way I've been describing, they feel it. It awakens their memory. The person begins to remember many things, they remember their selves, they remember where they come from. I don't mean memory like what you did yesterday or the day before, I mean the memory of the self. It can be related to the memory of your life, the path your life has taken, where you started and where you're at now, where you're going, or beyond that to the memory of where your soul is sourced from. This relates in movement to the past of the action, the present of the action, and the future of the action. Or more simply put, where the movement is coming from, where it is now, and the trajectory of where it is going to.

When a person experiences memory it is one of the deepest, most beautiful experiences, because in that moment there is knowing. I use the words "memory" and "home" interchangeably. Many people forget what home is, and if you remind them on a basic level they return with a homing instinct like a bird that flies back to its nest.

Lisa: If you're committed to working on becoming aware, any kind of meditation practice might bring you to those places 

Hillel: Yes, in a way you could say this about every higher discipline. But at the same time, MD, as a practice and discipline, is focused on relationship. It's the experience of these things in relationship with another person while in movement.

Another major component of MD, the same as in Aikido and Tai Chi, is understanding your center and your balance. One way to break a person's masks, or defences, is by taking their center and balance away.

There is a place within an inch or two off the central equilibrium line, working within a cone structure with its base by the feet and its opening by the head, that I describe as the point of weightlessness. In MD we cultivate the awareness of this balance/off-balance point, and we move and are moved to this place and beyond. In the beginning, this experience leaves a person in unfamiliar territory and they have an immediate response. Either they'll let go or they'll resist. MD is done in the context of constant and continuous support so that when the person experiences something being broken, or "shattering," as I like to describe it, it happens in a context of support.

Lisa: What follows the experience of shattering?

Hillel: What happens next is that they feel the support. Usually what they feel is two things, first they feel themselves moving freely, free of that which they were holding. The next thing they experience is being loved. This allows a person to be more present. Maintaining a constant presence and awareness is a fundamental part of one's practice and development in MD.

The Physical Practice

Lisa: Can you give an example of how you develop the physical work?

Hillel: I work in different ways. Taking from the martial arts, I work with the tan-tien, a Chinese term for the lower center in the body. It is a center that is cultivated to build energy. There is the understanding that you can collect energy, build it, and apply it. In more traditional dance, like ballet and most forms of modem, they usually move from a center that is higher up in the body. The problem with that, in a MD application, is that you can't generate the same kind of power if the center is higher in the body.

If a person isn't moving from their lower center, I dance with them wherever they are. I organize my whole body from that point of contact, to make the most direct line through their body into their lower center.

Often in working with people in that way other parts of their bodies will collapse. One of the techniques I then began to work with was applying pressure on both ends of the bone, so that a person would get the idea, "hey, there's a line from one side to the other and that line is very strong." Then I would line up and apply pressure from their hand through their wrist through the elbow through the shoulder. Eventually, when that was organized, I would line it up through the shoulder down through the spine to the center. Then, when I moved with them along those lines, they would start to feel themselves in their center. I would be talking to that place through the movement. I began to call this technique shaping.

Lisa: It sounds like you're practicing a kind of hands-on repatterning work in the dance. Do you teach students to do that for each other?

Hillel: Yes. As students investigate the effect of their actions on each other, it is an immediate feedback situation of what works and what doesn't and how it feels. I guide this investigation with movement from Tai Chi Chuan and from what has arisen from the practice of MD itself.

I am also utilitizing work from Moshe Feldenkrais, especially from his early period which was more martial-oriented. This hands-on manipulation became part of MD, going hand in hand with the non-manipulative aspects of Contact Improvisation.

Using this shaping technique organizes one to understand the lines of motion in the body related to the center. This organization enables one to generate a force that can move through the body most effectively. I talk about this as creating a unified focus. Once this skill is learned you begin to understand where you can go with it, the lines you can move on. These are trajectories that extend beyond the body that are based on lines that we work with within the body. These lines are structurally and energetically oriented.

When I'm teaching I'll take a student off center. From there they can experience the shape of their body and the lines of motion along which they can be moved They can anticipate all of the possible directions it might go and be able to go there safely. This is a similar way that they work in Aikido.

Lisa: Can you talk more about your work with Moshe Feldenkrais? 

Hillel: Moshe Feldenkrais pointed out that one movement in the human that is superior to the movements that animals have is our ability to turn around ourselves, to swivel and pivot at great speeds with almost no effort. In MD and the martial arts, the power generated from the pelvis and hips and this turning Moshe talks about is used constantly.

What I gleaned from Moshe's work was a way to organize the body to move effortlessly. This effortlessness comes from the ability to organize yourself in a way that you can generate a force through the skeleton. It's not a matter of muscular strength, it's the organization of one's entire system- nervous, skeletal, and muscular-for one clear act.

I then incorporated this understanding into moving with a partner, where they could feel and become aware of inefficiency and efforting in the dance, and move with me or another to improve their ability to organize efficiently.

Once you have these experiences from the Feldenkrais method you never lose them. They stick with you as a constant reminder. I learned this by doing many Awareness through Movement lessons which are structured to open up new movement configurations. I have found no other method that offers this the way Moshe's work does.

When you begin to organize your body in a more efficient way and move with a partner in this way, you are only expending energy when you need to. Of course you have different ways of moving with different gradations of energy that can change at any moment. From something slow to something fast. From something soft or hard to a tremendous wave of energy that moves through the body into another person.

Most often when people learn new movement they hold their breath. When you move in the way I'm describing, you never hold your breath. The breath can be very conscious, as it is in Tai Chi, where it's slow, even, and deep.

Lisa: Is there any more to say about Moshe's work and how it influenced you?

Hillel: Many times when dancing with someone, I feel that they have very few options in their response. I move with them in a way that shows them that they have more than one option of how to move and organize themselves in any given situation. Moshe spoke about how you should be able to move at any point in time in any direction without preliminary preparation. This is a very martial awareness.

Lisa: Is there any aspect of MD that you think of as performance-oriented, or is it purely a practice like a martial art or social dance form?

Hillel: I see it as a practice and also as a performance art. I can describe some of my images of performance. One image I have, and am attempting to do in Israel now, is to have twenty or more people doing MD in a large space or gymnasium. It reminds me very much of what was done in the past in different martial schools in Europe with fencing and in the East where many people would be practicing simultaneously in a martial hall. The type of focus that people have begins to resonate, and you can begin to see the energies moving.

I also see performing MD where people can have an experience watching the inner workings of an interaction. Two possible ways this can be demonstrated are: One, where you have two people who are both adept at the form and can really move with it. The other is where one person is adept and the other a beginner. There's a tremendous beauty that comes from this interaction. The beginner is discovering, learning, and doing in unpredictable ways. Also the emerging of the self is more tangibly visible. You can see the meeting and the disappearing.

My feeling is to continue to perform with dancers who have the ability to be vulnerable in front of people, where they're actually learning and patterns are being broken and new ones created right in front of your eyes and all the emotions are in motion. The depth of what it means to have a commitment to moving towards each other can be seen and witnessed. I first performed MD in this kind of lesson-form in New York City in 1983 with Simone Forti.

For me, performance was sitting and watching a lesson given by Moshe Feldenkrais. It changes the idea of what performance is.

Hillel Krauss is an improvisor, choreographer, martial artist and the originator of Martial Dance, a form he began in 1982 that synthesizes Contact Improvisation and martial arts. Hillel learned to play European style soccer and began practicing Tai Kwon Do Karate, both at an early age. He was first introduced to Contact Improvisation at Bennington College where he received a BA. in dance. In 1981 he co-founded "Waves," the first Contact Improvisation company in Israel. Hillel has been practicing Tai Chi Chuan for 17 years which he teaches in Toronto, Canada. He is currently teaching workshops and classes in Martial Dance in the U.S., Canada, Israel and Europe.