Our Monthly Underscore

Our Monthly Underscore

The DC jam practices an ensemble improv recipe, called the Underscore↗︎, on the first Sunday of each month. We started the practice (in December, 2003) as an experiment. The aim was to make the jam more accessible for everyone by providing some Jam-oriented structure. We like how it provides an easier glide-path for newcomer to find their way into jamming while also fostering an engaging jam for all. We feel that the ease and orientation it fosters carrys over to our non-Underscore jam days.

In particular, the Underscore foster engagement by people being on the whole journey together.  The more that we're all on-time and filled-in, the better it works, so please be prompt.

(Since the Sunday jam became part of the Dance Place adult class curriculum in 2022, the first hour of our non-Underscore sessions is devoted to a class that's led by vetted jam members. These classes also support finding your way into the practice.)

What's an Underscore?

What's the main difference between an Underscore and a regular jam?

The Underscore was developed by Nancy Stark Smith. It involves a clear, intuitive progression and many elements similar to those of a jam, but with a more coordinated progression and focus. The Underscore is a living form, continuing to be developed by those of us who practice together. There is a page about it on Nancy's website↗︎. It's a great opportunity to explore contact improv and group improv from the basis of physical sensation.

Being acquainted with the score's description (the "talk through") is part of the score, and helps it work well.  A 25 minute talk-through is conducted between 2:00 and 2:30, especially for anyone who hasn't heard it, but also for anyone interested in discovering more in the description.  No memorization is necessary — it's for orientation, and offers interesting insights into the improvisation process. If you're attending and haven't already heard it, please arrange to be there promptly by 2:00 so you can be filled in.

More About Our Underscore

The Underscore includes a gradual progression from interior focus to interacting with others. It emphasizes a broad perspective on movement connection, to include myriad ways that we're influenced by and influence others. The score fosters connecting while maintaining a clear sense of self, and can lend an ease of involvement and discovery of wider-ranging ways to cooperate. It's a great opportunity for exploring contact improv and ensemble movement improv based in physical sensation and curiosity, whether or not you're experienced with contact improv jams. 

Providing guidance without penalizing experience

The underscore provides a satisfying situation for those new to the form and to those with experience. It specifically addresses a few needs:

How can we make the jam approachable to newcomers?

Openness and approachability is essential for almost any jam's long-term vitality. Yet a jam is not organized for formal instruction. Instead, people are there to explore what works, and learn that way. Even those of us with the best intentions can't do enough, in a sustained way, to fill in the teaching gaps without sacrificing the opportunity for our own exploration. Yet some guidance is needed by those who might enjoy joining in.

How do we share the expertise useful for navigating contact improv's challenges, without sacrificing play and diversity?

Play and expertise need not be mutually exclusive, but they each can be polarizing if not somehow balanced.

Avoiding some pitfalls

At various times over the years the group has drifted from the structure, at the cost of diminishing the richness that can be such a thrill. Our experience has suggested two key elements that require emphasis for the really nice situations to happen:

Give grazing a chance.

"Grazing" is a stage where everyone is allowing their attention to wander from one focus to another freely, not staying with a partner more than briefly. One benefit tends to be finding one's own motivation to move, so that you're not dependent on a partner for vitality. By doing this in the presence of and passing connection with others, you become receptive to both self and others, as opportunity arises.

When even a few people skip grazing, quickly seeking "engagement" — sustained development of a connection with a specific partner — other people wind up jumping to engagement, too, rather than waiting for engagement to find them. Often grazing will quickly fade away in the face of such activity, and the group activity continues as a bunch of tightly held partnerships. The partnerships may change, but the fluidity of inter-connections and a generally prevailing, anything-can-happen vitality that can happen in an underscore is less likely.

In our underscores, when we really explore grazing, the way that people relate to one another — and to themselves — is typically more diverse than when grazing is skipped. Everyone seems more responsive to what's going on in general, and the room as a whole is permeable to interesting changes. Sometimes those changes sweep unexpectedly across the group as a whole, or in little pockets — all suspiciously like an ecosystem in action.

We sometimes suggest, in the score setup, that people hold off on engagement until they have had grazing interactions with half the other people in the room. Even that would be more prescriptive than necessary. It's helped tremendously to just suggest that people not seek engagement, but rather let it find then. To give grazing a real chance, wait for engagement until you find a connection with which you feel compelled to stay.

Stay with this score, don't start others.

While the underscore is extremely open to movement whims, it can be easily disrupted by other activities that take people out of their movement focus. The most common example is spoken conversations.

A spoken conversation diverts the speakers, and those around them, from their movement focus. Everyone's attention is shifted and it's hard to avoid wondering whether the group participation is waning. As with jumping to engagement, once one conversation happens, others follow, and engagement as a group does wane.

Maintaining an improvisation focus which includes both internal and external activity is an extraordinary thing. It is not trivial, and can be quite involving. It's difficult, though, to avoid being diverted by spoken conversations if they're happening around you, and have prospective partners diverted, as well. So we ask that underscore participants refrain from spoken conversations during the course of the score, instead remaining receptive to what's happening as a participant.


There have been several hard-to-miss changes in our jam over the years that we've been doing the Underscore. They're probably not solely due to the underscore practice, but it has helped in substantial ways.

Our regular jams have become more fluid, lively, and pleasantly surprising.

Ensembles spontaneously arise and equally spontaneously disperse. Jammers seem less urgent about finding partnerships, and more easily slip into and out of partnerships. Ease of connecting and shifting of connections — permeability — increasingly emerges.

(Ken Manheimer writes about exploring ways to personally cultivate this fluidity in Solo Contact Improv?↗︎, which has some inspiration in our monthly Underscore practice.)

Newcomers more easily get engaged in any of our jams.

Newcomers are increasingly prone to continue to return and become regulars. It's probably still not as "easy" as it could be, but maybe it can't be completely easy, anyway.

Attendance has increased.

We went from typically around 5 to 10 to more commonly 10 to 15. (At several times in the past we dwindled to sessions of fours and threes. That's ok if the few present are intent on dancing, but it's nice to be part of the vitality and diversity of a larger, enthusiastic group.)

Those of us willing to guide don't feel as much necessity for classes.

The experienced get asked to help, but people seem more satisfied to explore their movement sensations, and less concerned with expertise. Similarly, more people seem comfortable about sharing what they know, helping to guide.

Expertise has come to be better understood as the ability to find common ground in dances, and gradually expand one's frontiers, rather than particular technical skills.

Like in the art of conversation, our jammers increasingly recognize that it's not the ability to dazzle that makes it work, but the ability to connect — to receive, as well as send, and explore, as well as do what you know. The Underscore has been a clear conveyer of this principle.

We like our jam, and it seems that visitors do, too.

The jam still runs out of steam on occasion, and sometimes is inundated with more conversation than dancing, but that's less common than it used to be (and both are probably necessary parts of a vital life cycle). Ken Manheimer, who usually leads our Underscore, likes to consider the jam in terms of the most sincere pumpkin patch that Linus (of the Peanuts comic strip) believes that the "Great Pumpkin" is seeking. It's not spectacular until you look closely, but then it can be amazing.