Nancy Stark Smith

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Nancy Stark Smith (February 11, 1952 – May 1, 2020) was an American dancer and founding participant in contact improvisation.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 11, 1952, Stark Smith was the child of Dr. Joseph J. Smith, a professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and his wife Lucille (Stark) Smith.[2] In 1954, her family moved to Great Neck, New York, and her mother died when she was five.[2]

Initially she trained as an athlete and gymnast[3] and had little interest in dance, “I’d see the dancers standing in front of a wall of mirrors looking at themselves and making little movements. I didn’t understand what was exciting about that.”[4] Stark Smith’s interest in dance was sparked in her first year at Oberlin College, where she participated in a residence with the Twyla Tharp company. She was intrigued by Tharp’s movement practices and inspired to continue studying modern and post-modern dance.[4] While in college she took a class with Steve Paxton, an American dancer and creator of contact improvisation (which was then a nascent dance form). Stark Smith was moved by this technique and expressed her desire to continue working with Paxton. However, at that time, Paxton only worked with male dancers.[4]

She attended Oberlin College.[2] It was at Oberlin in 1971 that she was discovered by the internationally famous dance choreographer, Twyla Tharp.[2]

In 1972, she participated in a performance project led by Paxton in which they practiced various improvisation techniques, including rolling and falling, throwing and catching one another, identifying flows of energy in the body, and generally exploring contact in duets.[4] The performances they showed at the John Weber Gallery in New York City were the first performances of contact improvisation.[2] Paxton later praised Stark Smith's dance abilities: “She was athletic, she was responsive, she would take initiative… she was very daring.”[2]

After graduating from Oberlin College with a degree in dance and writing, Stark Smith participated in a Reunion Tour with Paxton and other dancers, and showed work at a venue known as the “Kitchen”[2] in downtown Manhattan, which helped to grow the popularity of contact improvisation.

Contact improvisation[edit]

According to the International Encyclopedia of Dance, contact improvisation is “primarily a duet form (the most basic unit of social interaction) that emphasizes the qualities of mutual trust and interdependence by requiring ongoing contact between the two participants.”[5] Stark Smith herself stated that having a partner is the key to contact improv, both to the form itself and to its growth through sharing the technique with others: we “create partners so we could continue to dance.”[4] The form was largely popularized by Paxton, Stark Smith, and other early innovators, who disseminated it through teaching across the country. In reflecting early performances of contact improvisation, Stark Smith recalls people were excited and surprised by its disregard for traditional gender roles employed in dance: women lifting men was radical in the early 1970s.[4]

As contact improvisation gained sectaries, Paxton and others expressed concern for the safety of dancers learning the form without proper training. In 1975, Stark Smith founded Contact Newsletter (later Contact Quarterly), an international journal of dance and improvisation, which she continued to co-edit and produce with Lisa Nelson until her death.[6] In the early years of contact improvisation, Contact Quarterly expressed Steve Paxton, Stark Smith's, and other core members choice to make informal leadership and community groups the culture of contact improvisation. Eschewing a trademark and policing teachers, they used Contact Quarterly to influence and create open communication among leaders, teachers, and contact dancers.[7] Stark Smith maintained that there was no precise pedagogy for teaching the form, and this gave dancers the freedom to innovate. About learning improvisation, she stated, “Once you get a clear feel for the basic premise, develop a few safety skills, and get your reflexes primed and ready, then you're off. You learn by doing.”[4]

Throughout her life Stark Smith worked as a dancer, performer, instructor, author, and organizer. She travelled the world to teach and present performances of contact and improvised dance. She collaborated with numerous partners including Steve Paxton, Julyen Hamilton, Karen Nelson, and the musician and composer Mike Vargas, who later became her partner.[2]

Beginning in 1990, Stark Smith developed the Underscore,[8] a series of exercises leading to long-form contact improvisation jams, providing guidance in the development of the dance. It is an arc that enables dancers to establish the mind/body connection that most supports improvisation, explores various forms of connection, and concludes with harvesting through reflection.[9] When introducing the Underscore, facilitators draw Stark Smith's hieroglyphic symbols representing each element. Because they open interpretation to dancers, these translations from experience of dance to the telling of it, illustrate her attempt to convey and include the subjectivities and fluidity in dance as creative practice. They trigger an aesthetic response in others by inviting participants to embody them.[10]


She died from ovarian cancer in Florence, Massachusetts at the age of 68, on May 1, 2020.[2][11]


  1. ^ Paxton, Steve (1993-01-01). "Review of Sharing the Dance. Contact Improvisation and American Culture". Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research. 11 (1): 84–87. doi:10.2307/1290606. JSTOR 1290606.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Kourlas, Gia (2020-05-28). "Nancy Stark Smith, a Founder of Contact Improvisation, Dies at 68". The New York Times. p. B12 (print edition, May 29, 2020). ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-10-19.
  3. ^ "Alumna Nancy Stark Smith Talk". Oberlin College. Archived from the original on 2013-02-09. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Smith, Nancy Stark (Summer–Fall 2006). "Harvest: One Story of Contact Improvisation: A Talk Given by Nancy Stark Smith at the International Contact Festival Freiburg". Contact Quarterly; Northampton, Mass. No. 2: 46–52 – via EBSCOhost.
  5. ^ Matheson, Katy (1998), "Improvisation", in Cohen, Selma Jeanne (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Dance, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780195173697.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-517369-7, retrieved 2020-10-19
  6. ^ Cheryl Pallant (July 2006). Contact improvisation: an introduction to a vitalizing dance form. McFarland. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-7864-2647-8. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  7. ^ Novack, C. J. (1990). Sharing the dance: Contact improvisation and American culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp 80-81.
  8. ^ Kourlas, Gia (27 May 2020). "Nancy Stark Smith, a Founder of Contact Improvisation, Dies at 68". New York Times. New York, United States. Retrieved 9 July 2020.
  9. ^ Buckwalter, M. (2010). Composing while dancing: An improviser’s companion. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p 67.
  10. ^ Karreman, L. (2015). Worlds of MoCap: Writing dance on a three-dimensional canvas. Performance Research, 20(6), 35-42.
  11. ^ Nancy Stark Smith obituary

See also[edit]


External links[edit]