Nancy Stark Smith

Nancy Stark Smith, in a Contact improvisation duet with Steve Paxton (1980). Photograph by Stephen Petegorsky.

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

Born in Brooklyn, New York and an alumna of Oberlin College, Smith initially trained as an athlete and gymnast.[2] She studied and performed in modern dance and postmodern dance performances in the early 1970s. She danced in the first contact improvisation performances in 1972, and later 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, recently, the musician Mike Vargas.

In 1975, she founded Contact Quarterly, an international journal of dance and improvisation, which she continued to co-edit and produce until her passing.[3] In the early years of contact improvisation, Contact Quarterly expressed Steve Paxton, Stark Smith's, and other core members chose 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.[4]

Stark Smith developed the Underscore, a series of exercises leading to contact improvisation duets and phases providing guidance in the development of contact 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.[5] When introducing the Underscore, facilitators draw 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.[6]

She died from ovarian cancer in Florence, Massachusetts.[7]


  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. ^ "Alumna Nancy Stark Smith Talk". Oberlin College. Archived from the original on 2013-02-09. Retrieved 2011-01-13.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Novack, C. J. (1990). Sharing the dance: Contact improvisation and American culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp 80-81.
  5. ^ Buckwalter, M. (2010). Composing while dancing: An improviser’s companion. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p 67.
  6. ^ Karreman, L. (2015). Worlds of MoCap: Writing dance on a three-dimensional canvas. Performance Research, 20(6), 35-42.
  7. ^ Nancy Stark Smith obituary

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