Leaderless groups and letting go of approval, part 1.

A few weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity of traveling to Germany to study, share and dance Contact Improvisation (CI) at the European Contact Improvisation Teacher Exchange (ECITE) with 60 other teachers from all over Europe, a few of the states and the Middle East. CI as a form embeds a radical approach to listening, presence and connection, based in touch that doesn't ask for anything yet makes everything - even flight - possible.

When I arrived I was disoriented, jetlagged, bagless (still lost somewhere in Frankfurt) and longing for friendship, grounding and a clean set of clothes. A first timer at the event, I was waiting for something to become clear - to be welcomed, told what to do, given structure within which to make sense of my role and succeed at it. I'm good at being good - a great student, a good employee - I follow directions well and like it when I can figure out the "right" and "wrong" of a situation and then go full on for the "right." I am good at getting the approval of others - it's been a defining feature of my life.

Upon arriving at ECITE, I was given no comfort! True to the form of CI, the structure of our seven day exploration together was extremely open. Without hierarchy or limitation, choice and freedom seemed a constant assumption. There was no right way to be at the festival, no best way to dance, no supreme way to teach. People danced, talked, shared insights, did their own thing, and came together when and how they wanted without making any commitments beyond that moment. Without any verbal agreement I had witnessed, everyone was engaged in a relentless practice of following their own impulses, remarkably true to themselves and unpredictable. Despite my long training in CI, I was not prepared for this leaderless group phenomenon. Since the crew was fundamentally unable to satisfy my approval-seeking designs, my thwarted patterns quickly became outdated and I found myself popped into a new paradigm, re-orienting to the radical freedom of paying attention mostly to my own desires, unattached even to my own choices, moment by moment.

Still longing for relationship and structure, I joined an ongoing group that met every morning. I spent four days with the same group of 18 dancers - we wanted to study pedagogy together and we had three hours every day for four days to do it. We spent the first day debating how much structure not to have, hearing from everyone, hearing from the loudest folks, not dancing enough, getting frustrated, finally concluding only these additional points:

  • we'd focus on "why?" for one whole session. then "how?" and finally "what?" Three days; nine hours; three words to give focus, coherence and structure to our time. I think we generally shared the idea that we were addressing these questions in the context of CI, or teaching CI - but that was about it. 
  • we wouldn't decide anything else and we'd trust the folks who assured us that it would work out really well.

NB: In my experience of working and collaborating in groups, when someone doesn't "take point" and organize the time and interactions, it ends up being a waste of time where all too often one or two voices dominate the conversation and no matter how lovely the ideas, nothing is accomplished. I was skeptical and curious - trusting that I would learn something, hoping to be surprised.

The next morning we all danced our way into arriving, finding partners and warming up together without any words or direction. We organically found our way into a talking circle in the first hour, moving easefully in and out of dancing for the rest of the morning without deciding anything, exploring our first question through language and movement. It felt meaningful, interesting, fulfilling and entirely ours - not planned but conceived, not organized but complete, not consensus but collaboration, cocreation. It literally blew my mind that no one had taken dominion, no leader had emerged on top, no approval ratings had been handed down. My paradigm was razed.

That's part 1.

Comments, questions? Let's go!