Dance and Democracy: Movement Improvisation and Liberation Pedagogies


“This class has rewritten the textbook

on what learning can be.”

–anonymous student evaluation


Hallie Aldrich and Eryn Rosenthal, by David Papas


Dance and Democracy:

Movement Improvisation and

Liberation Pedagogies

Yale University, spring 2022
Fridays, 12-3pm
Visiting Professor Eryn Rosenthal


Course Description:

Called “transformative,” “supportive and rigorous,” “a breath of fresh air,” and “truly one of a kind” in anonymous student evaluations. In this experiential, laboratory-style class, we investigate the fundamentals of Contact Improvisation (CI), a dance form that evolved in the early 70’s, in part, as an experiment in democracy. CI involves a heightened sense of listening, sensory perception, and attuning of physical reflexes, as well as a careful attention to weight, momentum, orientation to gravity and physical connection or contact with one’s partner. Informed by developments in modern dance, improvisation, the martial arts, as well as political currents of the time, it can become highly acrobatic once an understanding of basic concepts has been achieved. In this interdisciplinary seminar, we’ll be examining connections and discrepancies between CI and democratic process, with special focus on activism in South Africa, Chile, Spain and the US.


Eryn Rosenthal and Jennifer Harge in Freedom Suite: Transaction Being Processed. Photo by Andrea Rivera.


This course uses the structure of a physical practice-based Contact Improvisation laboratory as a springboard for examination, discussion, and reflection on issues of democratic process, activism and transition, both on a larger structural level as well as on a personal level. We will also investigate liberation pedagogies from the Global South, along with theories of cognition, behavior, and freedom, through both traditional seminar word-based dialogue and body-based conversation, as well as creative assignments and reflection activities. 


Bradley Teal Ellis and Eryn Rosenthal in 60% OFF ALL CUSTOM FRAMING. Photo by Natalia López Muñoz.


Through an embodied investigation of roles and habits in self-other relationships, the course carries strong thematic connections for students in gender, critical race and cultural studies; psychology, politics and anthropology; architecture and visual arts; physics, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and journalism. Work in this class will also foster a grounded sense of weight and presence in solo, duet and group composition, useful for performers in theater, dance and other forms. No previous experience in movement or socio-political action necessary, and all bodies, abilities, and backgrounds are actively welcome.


Participants in Buoyant Wait workshop with Eryn Rosenthal, Freiburg International Contact Festival. Photo by Patrick Beelaert.


More about Contact Improvisation

The main questions behind the creation of Contact Improvisation for US choreographer Steve Paxton were, “Have I ever lived in a democracy?” and “How can I implicate my dancers so they take ownership of the dance, so it becomes theirs?”  Paxton eventually arrived at the Contact Improvisation duet as the most “democratic” of forms: “In a duet, I cast my vote with every millisecond, with every decision I make” (Founders’ Talk, CI-36 Conference and Jam, Juniata College, Huntingdon, PA; June 2008).  Before I had ever heard Paxton speak these words about the evolution of Contact Improvisation, I found myself intuitively drawn to the form for the same compelling reasons.  

The “art sport” Contact Improvisation evolved in the US through the research of US choreographers and dancers Steve Paxton, Nancy Stark Smith, Nita Little, and many others; since that time, it’s become a focus of investigation for dancers and others throughout the world, with especially active hubs in Latin America, Europe, Australia and parts of the US. In performance, I often find the use of CI can provoke a heightened sense of listening and empathetic physical engagement on the part of our audience. In the classroom, CI can be a powerful tool for building physical listening and dialogue skills that later apply in political, cultural, and social justice contexts. 

CI is like a jungle gym but with humans instead of plastic or metal equipment; through its focus on the center of gravity, experiential anatomy, and principles of physics such as counterbalance, plumb lines, trajectories and friction, participants will build an organic sense of balance, core, and an embodied relationship between center and limbs. Over the course of the semester, students will also gain agility in movement invention and creative, game-based spatial problem solving. 


Students in Dance and Democracy at Yale, February 2022


Experiential learning and socio-political applications

Consideration of the wider socio-political implications of our body-based study of democracy includes an examination of the complexities of social transition and democratic practice in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-dictatorship Spain, as well as the modern Civil Rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other activism in the US. The pedagogical practice of Dance and Democracy also pays tribute to the popular political education classes that formed part of the different liberation movements in South Africa during the anti-Apartheid Struggle, as well as the Freedom Schools first organized in Mississippi by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the US Civil Rights movement.


How can dancing help us understand democracy better? 

Contact Improvisation represented a leap forward in the evolution of contemporary dance in that dancers were no longer puppets of the choreographer but implicated authors of their own movement.  The actual experience of dancing contact can be a highly embodied sense of choice-making, both on a conscious and unconscious level. It can also be a fun and empowering laboratory to examine roles and habits within larger power structures and personal relationships, and can serve as a laboratory to notice, study and expand one’s repertoire of behavior in difficult situations. As part of our process, we will examine historical contradictions and challenges inherent in this new form as it has evolved thus far (for example: although a study of democracy involves attention to participation with awareness of who is/is not in the room, historically, CI circles in the US have often been disproportionately White-presenting). As part of the course, we will also develop our own personal applications, connections and integrations of CI with other fields of study, with the goal of contributing to current understandings of Contact Improvisation, Liberation Pedagogies, and your own field of study. We will begin from the premise that You Already Know A Lot. What perspectives, experiences, knowledge, and constituencies do you bring to our laboratory? What connections or disjunctures are you curious about?


This class is dedicated in loving memory to Tando Nyati (1967-2020) and Nancy Stark Smith (1952-2020).




Choreographer and social practice artist Eryn Rosenthal investigates questions of democracy and social fabric, dreams and meaning-making based on ongoing oral history research and collaboration with artists and activists in South Africa, Chile, Spain and the US. She is also an active member of international Contact Improvisation (CI) research and teacher exchange networks, teaching and facilitating at the Freiburg Festival, ECITE, UC-Boulder, the Market Theatre Lab and elsewhere since 2003. Her ongoing series, The Doors Project, investigates transitions–political, social, intimate–through site-based performance in different doorways around the world. Eryn has worked with dance artists Sello Pesa, Thomas F. DeFrantz, and Rocío Rivera Marchevsky; poet Elizabeth Alexander; and documentary theatre pioneer Anna Deavere Smith, and has performed and taught throughout the US, Chile, South Africa and Europe. Her research and performance have been recognized with awards from the Center for Artistic Activism, a Fulbright Fellowship to Spain and an Open Society Institute President’s Grant to South Africa, among elsewhere.

Eryn also teaches Making Performance on Socio-Political Questions at Yale University, and was previously a King-Chávez-Parks Visiting Professor and the inaugural Artist in Residence for Dialogue-Building, Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at the University of Michigan. She is delighted to be back again at her alma mater.


Eryn Rosenthal and Ashley Macqueen, by Ned Myerberg


Student responses (anonymous) :

“Truly one of the most special and groundbreaking classes I have taken in my four years at Yale.”

“The class was amazing every day and I will miss it dearly.”

“In this course I learned how to be a practitioner of creating change. While many Yale courses provide multitudes of opportunities to learn about concepts such as democracy or liberation through text, they rarely provide the opportunity to put these principles into practice. In Dance and Democracy, students were provided the rare opportunity to explore intellectual concepts through various mediums, such as dance and activism.”

“Always an engaging, honest, and insightful instructor; supportive of every student and their unique needs; gave incredibly detailed and thoughtful feedback on every assignment (more so than any professor I have had at Yale), had a very well-prepared and actually helpful syllabus and class structure.”

“Throughout this course, Eryn facilitated a learning process and community that were truly unique! I looked forward each week to learning through dialogue with everyone in the classroom (including Eryn) rather than simply receiving information or answers about how to think. I also deeply appreciated being invited to reflect and respond through movement and play and the consistent emphasis on maintaining our curiosity and open-ended inquiry rather than seeking simple conclusions.”

“This course offers students a rare opportunity to engage our entire bodies (including our hearts) in intellectual and social-justice oriented engagement with deeply important issues. I really cherished the chance to move and dance each week, and to consider the role of movement in social transformation. This course draws on a wonderfully broad range of readings/sources, and is both interdisciplinary and transnational.”

“The course, in its content and in the class dynamic, pushes you in the ways you think about democracy, activism, and liberation. It was a breath of fresh air to be creative in approaching the pressing political and social issues of today, and being able to connect them directly with movement.”


“This class has rewritten the textbook on what learning can be. It has forged new paths and new connections between topics, issues, body, and soul. It is intersectional, not only in our readings, but also in our methods. While learning about social movements, we practice in our bodies what it means to be an ally. This is a new form of learning I have never experienced. I’ve heard about teaching through visual means, auditory means, even through doing, but never have I experienced learning through dance and embodiment.”

“Eryn is one of the most caring and inspiring instructors I’ve had. She facilitated such a supportive and rigorous learning environment!”

“This course developed invaluable skills in communication forms I hadn’t previously worked on, especially in movement/body dialogue and reflective writing.” 

“I hope that the professor, Eryn, is able to teach this course or something similar again, as it is both a unique opportunity for this type of blended movement-lab course, and because I think there are so many students whose interests align with the material and could stand to learn so much from a syllabus like this. I also learned a lot from the incredible group of peers who were taking it, because I think it’s a class format that really fosters community and meaningful creative & intellectual contribution. Other classes wish they could create what this one did.”

“[Eryn’s] teaching was very effective. We were able to deeply understand the readings about contact improvisations by engaging in experiential learning and engaging in the acts and theories described in the readings. She was very successful in creating a safe space and stimulating community for engaging discussions.”

Discussing final projects, May 2022


“Very clear on how to teach and guide students.” 

“…The most supportive instructor I’ve had at Yale.”

“You must definitely take this course if you’re trying to step out of your comfort zone! This class revolutionized the way I think about the world, my communities, and my relationship with myself. Dance studies as a framework was taught so well in this course as an introduction but also provides a deep dive into these studies.”

“This course has already shaped the sort of intellectual engagements I feel confident making, orienting me towards asking more critical questions about the links between art, the body, relationality, community, and social transformation. For example, this semester, I built on a lot of this course’s frameworks to write a paper for my human rights class about the role of dance in truth and justice processes in the aftermath of mass violations of human rights. Furthermore, this class inspires me to incorporate awareness of the body and embodied/somatic transformation in my ongoing involvement in movements for social change.”

“Eryn does everything in her power to create a growth-centered and collaborative learning environment. She supports and values the individual needs of her students deeply, on a level that is rare even at such a supportive institution like Yale. Consequently, this allows for class discussion to be very open and adaptable to the interests of the students in the class.”

“There is not a single course I’ve ever taken that I can compare to this. This is the type of course that has so radically shifted who I am that I don’t even notice. I didn’t dance dance before this course or even perceive that I could dance let alone with others. I never really considered how political dancing could be.” 

“Eryn is an incredibly generous instructor who consistently goes above and beyond to make herself available to students and to support them in their learning journeys. Eryn listens deeply and respects the individual experiences, backgrounds, and unique knowledge of each student. She encourages us to find creative, nontraditional means of sharing our ideas.”

“I would definitely recommend this course to another student. I learned a lot from class discussions and exercises and the thoughtfully curated readings. I appreciated that we got an opportunity to apply our learnings every class and take them to another level in projects. I absolutely loved the community I found in this class. It was stimulating, supportive, and conducive to healing. Even if the student is not interested in dance, democracy, or activism, I would still suggest they take this class because it is very easy to intertwine their diverse interests to the class’s material. I liked that this class went beyond theory and allowed for action and implementation.” 

Dance and Democracy students and teachers, May 2022


“Eryn is an amazing person who has an incredible vision for what this class should be. She is obviously very in-tune with the movement arts and I enjoyed every minute of learning contact improvisation from her. While any type of movement activity (especially one that requires participants to be as intimate as CI does) requires taking an enormous risk, Eryn facilitates our learning so that all students feel comfortable at all times. She opened my eyes to a new way to view life.”

“[This class] has encouraged me to think independently and find meaning in readings outside of what I was told, which i think was a great development in terms of my future trajectory.” 

“This class has stretched me in new ways I didn’t know were possible, and I am forever grateful for that. Eryn is also an amazing person who is perfect for teaching this course. She is knowledgeable but creates space for students to lead as well. She gives us great feedback and provides us the opportunity to give her feedback. She is humble and open yet pushes you to be your best self.”

“[I would recommend this course] 1000%. This class will teach you about yourself, your friends, and society in a completely new way. This class will help you become a more grounded person. This class will teach about trust and support. This class will challenge you, pushing you to stretch your brain in new ways. This class will engage your body, both in dance and in a practical manifestation of readings and coursework. This class is an opportunity to engage in social justice and art.” 

“Honestly, I appreciated you, Eryn. Throughout our entire time together, I constantly felt a genuine intention to be our teacher. Not a teacher in the traditional sense, but in the sense that one of our first readings described. To be someone who follows leading in doing so. Someone who creates space for students to explore and learn on their own. Someone who is willing to change and adapt to unforeseen challenges. You have brought so much joy and enlightenment into my life, and I am eternally grateful.”

“This course, like its instructor, is truly one of a kind. It creates a space for students to move and explore the pressing challenges of our society on an individual and collective level. Reflecting on movement practices we had in class, I have tackled many personal challenges and goals that I set for myself. Some of my questions, for instance, about how to find the confidence to take on large political activism protests, I was able to answer through this class. By the end, through the power of collective efforts that we explored in every dance move and conversation, I was able to put this theory into practice.”

Final project celebration at Beineke Plaza, May 2022


© Eryn Rosenthal, 2008-2022. Please cite with link to this page, and feel free to contact me with any questions.