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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

Intelligence of Touch

There is a unique kind of intimacy that dance allows into our lives that no other form of human expression can achieve.

We begin with hands but focus on translating that delicacy of perception to every part of our bodies. We are not just touching another person’s body surfaces but sensing beneath the surface, into the fascia.

This heightened tactile practice is one aspect, perhaps the cornerstone, of Contact Improvisation co-founder Nita Little’s somatic research. I share the perspective that touch is the fundamental currency for knowing. I make dances with humans and horses. Tactile perception, the ability to sense and modulate touch, is fundamental to creating a relationship with a horse. As in Nita’s work, my tactile perception must also extend into the fascia of my entire body, informing the texture of my presence and how that presence radiates out into the space. Nita Little teaches dancers to co-create richly textured spontaneous dances using touch. I teach humans to take on an inter-species lens to partner an equine or another human. Recently Nita and I spent time in the studio together, exploring how our respective kinetic research overlaps and intersects.

Well, to begin with, there are more nerve endings from your hands to your brain than from any other part of your body. What the hands know is a kind of knowledge that does not translate easily into words. The complex intersection of sensing thinking, feeling is much faster than our thinking brain, viscerally smarter.

​​I think that touch is far more complicated than our verbal intelligence can actually describe.

So, I do not try. I teach humans to investigate their capacity for tactile knowing inside simple tasks, some of these very familiar. A game of Jenga requires the fingers to lightly test the move-ability of each block. We are weight testing, weight sensing, spatially pinpointing our energy in the process of searching for a moveable piece and the removal and placing of each piece. Mastery is not required. Just heightened noticing. This is a solo investigation. I challenge the mover to notice, remember and then recall the precise sense of space and weight and translate it into recalled movement, organize those recollections into a movement phrase. Still a solo investigation. Heightened tactile noticing.

The game of Jenga, translated into a duet movement investigation plays out like this: I ask movers to investigate the repertory of weight sensing, spatial negotiation and delicate touch they personally in a solo exploration. I then ask them to bring that information into a tactile duet, framing the interaction as a kind of tactile knowledge-sharing. Each person will perceive the outcomes differently, but we do not need to agree. This is physical research. We just need to notice, be curious about and attempt to embody. Spoken language is very secondary.


Nita has a sensual fluency with words. She uses her verbal skills to entice and engage movers into deep explorations, guiding a kind of tactile-knowledge-gathering that might begin with solo investigation but significantly plays out in tactile sharing between two movers. Nita is brilliant at verbally guiding movers into transformed states where the tactile interactions becomes a manifestation of shared knowing. She is using language to entice each mover into training their fascial system to attend in new ways.

One of my favorite images Nita uses is "Let your eyes be like a limb.” Nita’s language entices me into allowing the edges of my body - kinetic boundaries - to be far more porous. I find this sensation very important with horses. My equine interactions often become loaded with some form of objective or agenda. I am not good with introverted horses…or introverted humans for that matter! With a creature of flight - especially those horses that are introverts, the loaded agenda is intimidating. Nita's image of letting your eyes be a limb, encourages me to soften my focus.


“Is your sense of touch space the same touch space as mine?”

This is another Nita expression that I find very useful. In both my world of human-equine interaction and Nita’s world of training g human bodies, the notion of touch is not limited to just hand to hand, shoulder to rib cage touching but extends into space. In horsemanship this notion of space surrounding my body is often referred to as a bubble. But bubbles have edges. It creates boundaries that immediately suggest hierarchy. More traditional horsemanship teaches that the human must be in charge. In my world of dancing with equines, I am seeking a discourse between me and my equine partner so the exchange needs to be far more porous. I now use Nita’s notion of touch space in my equine interactions. This image allows my tactile space-knowing to be porous, malleable, open to suggestion.


When do we stop touching to engage with other humans? The separation begins early. From mother’s nipple to bottle, from toes and fingers to toys, then books, perhaps pets and parents, then into a maze of sexual politics that defines acceptable greeting as a cursory handshake and perhaps a short hug accompanied by cheek kissing if you live in France or Switzerland.

It baffles me when I encounter people who seem to back away from meaningful touch. As it is, our culture offers a paltry array of such opportunities – a handshake, a hug. These intimate nanoseconds are our small window of opportunity to express YES, I see you, I acknowledge you. I am listening.

For the past five years The Equus Projects has been teaching Physical Listening in elementary schools. We are warned to use caution or just refrain from touching students. And honestly, teaching touch to 3rd graders, is just a giggle fest. Hence Jenga.

And paper folding in 4th grade. The hands direct the brain. An idea emerges and manifests itself in the paper through the hands. The paper folding exercise that teaches kids to watch someone else fold a shape, then create their own folded shape that is different. Then arrange their pieces in a pleasing design. The folding game teaches watch carefully, wait for your turn, create collaboratively. And at its foundation it is about modulating touch. With 5th graders we ask them to create a duet based on the progressive hand actions they used to create their paper design. There is no right answer.


Nita and I have been trying to figure out how to co-teach. We are very different.

Nita teaches seasoned movers, often inside the known Contact Improvisation context where there is a shared language, a common objective. For Nita the verbal guiding is a dynamic way in. Not only the words themselves but the tone, the images, the questions she asks. She is asking for a profound depth of investigation, curiosity at a granular level.

I am enticing non movers - seniors, businessmen, schoolteachers - into exploring a part of their intelligence they might not have exercised since childhood. This can be daunting and even saddening. So, I steer clear of lots of verbal guiding. I set up learning situations and invite movers to explore and learn from the act of doing. I do not talk, explain, coach or guide. I do not give feedback on what is being experienced. If I have done my job, the physicality of the exercise will give the information.

For both myself and Nita, ideally the physicality of the learning situation does the teaching. We have discovered a way to collaborate each of us leaning into our strengths: I am really good at setting up learning scores, movement situations that have embedded problem solving. Once taught, Nita can use these scores to deepen the movement investigation.

Both Nita and I believe passionately that there is a unique kind of intimacy that dance allows into our lives that no other form of human expression can intimacy that can reveal truths, and sometimes expose our greatest weaknesses. Horses do the same thing for humans. They reflect our truths back to us.

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