Honoring Nancy Stark Smith
Nancy Stark Smith. Berenson studio, Smith College, Northampton, MA, 1985.
Photo © Bill Arnold.
WITH SORROW, we announce the passing of our beloved cofounder, codirector, and coeditor, Nancy Stark Smith, on Friday, May 1st, at home, of ovarian cancer. As it would be impossible to contain the outpouring of remembrances of Nancy here on our site, we invite you to post and read tributes to her radiant life on our dedicated public Facebook page: Nancy Stark Smith Harvest. Our condolences reach out to Nancy's family.
Dance in peace, dear Nancy, with love from all of us at CQ.
Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, with Freelance Dance (L to R behind: Lisa Nelson, Daniel Lepkoff, Christina Svane) in Raft, 1980. Thorne's Market, Northampton, MA. Photo © Stephen Petegorsky.
The writings below are from the remaining artistic members of the group of dancers who cofounded CQ/CE's parent company, Contact Collaborations, in 1978. Along with Nancy, we were Steve Paxton, Daniel Lepkoff, Christina Svane, and myself, Lisa Nelson. At that moment, we were performing together under the name Freelance Dance. We have remained in friendship and collaboration through many forms and mediums to this day. Along with so many, we will miss Nancy, dearly. [L.N.]
Please look at the bottom of this page for links to select materials by and about Nancy.
Lisa Nelson, CQ codirector and coeditor:
There are no last words today. No sentiments, wishes, or gratitudes left unsaid between us. In a body, you were weightless. Seeing you dance was breathtaking. "Unerring abandon in perfect form" comes to mind. And what grace to have lived so fully your love of dancing, transmitting, choreographing the improvisation of Contact; of probing, leading, conversation, community building, volleyball, lilacs, the sunlight; and translating the felt-sense of it all into words.
You, the Mistress of Lists: verbs, adverbs, nouns... In the first decades of CQ, they appeared in parentheses on the multi-paged drafts for editor notes you handed me for comment, with a question mark. Writing, as much as dancing, was a duet form for you then. I play with the thought that with diligent practice, your duet between the natural fluidity of your improvisational body and the meticulous crafting of words birthed your Underscore.
Three years ago, we began imagining a future without making CQ. Your diagnosis barely a year later abruptly changed the conditions for dreaming and chewing. Letting go was hard. Unbraiding the practical from the always more compelling illogic of creative desire that drove our collaboration was hard. Yet true to form, you gathered a committee of minds and hands to help prepare the ground for change, up to the last weeks of your life, and your effort has been fruitful. CQ has a life of its own.
I know you've felt gratitude from all. And rest assured, we've felt your gratitude in turn—boundless, uniquely filled with tears of wonder.
Is it fitting that your departure coincides with this imponderable global tragedy? That a freefall into the unknown of a persistent present has become the new consensus reality? I trust you realized that the grounding gifts of your teaching are in flower, ready for Now and whatever comes next.
Your final flight on May Day, in the midst of an eerie quiet on the planet, with your beloved life partner, Mike, by your side, just as the lilacs are blooming in your little town of Florence, is the gracenote to a singular dance of grace on Earth. love and thanks, as ever, your co-this-and-that, lisa
Steve Paxton, initiator of Contact Improvisation, cofounder Contact Improvisation Newsletter:
Nancy Stark Smith; you have gone. I didn't think it would end like this. But this isn't about you. It's about me. I'm all I have left of you. For 48 years I depended on you for my supply of Nancyness accepting your various Nancy elements perhaps too casually; perhaps I didn't realize how unique, how precious the supply of Nancyness was. Yes, just a personnel flavor in my world, some more Nancyness comes my way, and now, too late I think, but for you where would I get any? The world is large, and statistically there are people more or less like you. Some more, some less. But realistically none of them have the required Nancyness. I'll never feel again the precise me you made me be.
But this isn't about me. It's about we. You know how, at a funeral, there is a realization that everything that remains is in the heads and hearts of that repository we call the mourners? Memories and ashes, on we go, from May 1, 2020, for life. We will meet and speak and feel together of you, residual Nancyness, all those remains. Yes, Nancy you have gone, but obituaries are forever.
Photo © Nancy Stark Smith
Christina Svane, CQ contributing editor:
Nancy – on the long road we shared I could always hear the delicate bells of discovery ringing, your spirit singing its love song to the whole dazzling landscape of life, learning something new from everyone, and giving everyone your open heart, that fearless, flying heart I loved to watch or dance with, meet in the silence of deep listening, or spiral like the birds riding the thermals of our words up from the canyon floor into the sky. And even now, I hear those bells still ringing.
Walking with Nancy
Poop Alley, Nancy called the trail off of Burts Pit Road that wound through fields and wooded hillsides leading down to the birch-shaded pools of the Mill River. Dog walkers and joggers, and walker-talkers like us, all managed to overcome our wishes that we had the place to ourselves, and shared the bucolic pleasures of the trail. There were some winter mornings, though, when we were all alone, the white cloudlets of our sentences floating above the silent whiteness of the snow.
On one of those special mornings, she told me something she had just learned, with the excitement of discovering the secret to a mystery she'd never been able to solve. We had just crested the top of the hill, where the bench sits between two trees, facing East. The day before, she had been at a Body-Mind Centering workshop exploring the consciousness of cells, and how they allow substances to enter and exit through their walls, and how they deal with change. She had had an aha! moment in the process of embodying that process. As the trail gently descended between the breast-curves of the hill down to the grassy lap of the field, she described the quantum leap the cell goes through as the surrender of one's center into the fall, the shift in attitude from protecting to embracing, and demonstrated as she spoke.
From a distance it could have simply looked like someone breaking into a run. But walking beside her, I could see it starting deep inside, as if she saw a person in the distance that reminded her of someone she once knew, a flicker of it being possibly them, then instantly pulled back by remembering they're long dead, or they've moved to Australia, or some other reason it could not possibly be. The reality, a wall, a membrane, that won't let the impossible in. And in the next step seeing it is unmistakably them, and that the too-good-to-be-true is true, and the cell walls open like the castle gates, letting in the beloved, the prodigal, the impossible. Even under her winter coat, I could see the movement of fluid joy under the skin, lifting her arms like pieces of driftwood buoyed by a wave, not so much reaching out to embrace, but opening the space of the heart to receive, to believe, to trust what was coming to meet her.
"Then it's...go!" she said, her feet carrying her forward like a fast-moving stream rushing over rocks, no corners, no edges, no impediments, just the flow of the Yes moving through her, into the arms of change.
Daniel Lepkoff, CQ/CE webmaster:
Nancy's life was large. Her influence was felt all over the world. Many people who don't know of each other are touched by her passing, now joined by a shared loss.
Nancy and I met in 1972 as dancers for Steve Paxton in a dance performance named "Contact Improvisation." Both Nancy and I and many others who stumbled upon the rising tide of dance actions that looked at functional movement, unbeknownst to us at the time, were handed a mandate, a mission, a possible path.
We were introduced to a remarkable question: What does my body know about what is happening now? The power of Nancy's influence was a result of having an uncontrollable desire to continue living inside of a question that is asked through the body and in communication with other bodies. Feeling this question deeply was empowering. Creating ways of practicing and sharing this questioning was a challenge. Nancy relished and flourished in this challenge.
The best way I can think of to honor Nancy is to practice. Her life revolved around a celebration of the present, with the courageous and renegade spirit to ask questions that have no ready-made answers, and see what happens.
The answers are in the questioning.
Writings for Contact Quarterly:
Throwing the Bouquet. Article Gallery W/S 2020 Vol. 45.1.
Editor Notes. Article Gallery S/F 2019 Vol. 44.2.
Harvest: One History of Contact Improvisation Harvest: One History of Contact Improvisation . CQ Unbound, 2008.
Contact Improvisation Intersections. Article Gallery S/F 2018 Vol 43.2.
The Politics of Mutuality: a conversation with Steve Paxton The Politics of Mutuality: a conversation with Steve Paxton . CQ Unbound 2018.
Keep an eye out for a forthcoming digital collection of Nancy’s Editor Notes.
Tributes to Nancy:
Reading Jam for Nancy Stark Smith. Recording of June 7, 2020 event: readings of Nancy's Editor Notes, and more. 100 international participants. Reflections on Nancy Stark Smith, Collaborating Founder of Contact Improvisation, parts 1 & 2, compiled by Jonathan Stein. thinkingdance.net
Caught Falling: The Confluence of Contact Improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith, and Other Moving Ideas, by David Koteen and Nancy Stark Smith. Contact Editions, 2008.
Other Contact Editions titles containing Nancy's writing, interviews, and dancing:
CQ/Contact Improvisation Sourcebooks I, II, and III
Taken by Surprise
Landscape of the Now
Sharing the Dance
Contact Improvisation at 36 (DVD)
Videoda Contact Improvisation Archive (DVD)
CQ 45th Anniversary 2020 Calendar, curated by Nancy, with photographs of CQ contributing dance artists by Bill Arnold, 1984-1990.
Visit Nancy's website for her writings, photos, and description of her Underscore: https://nancystarksmith.com
Online videos and film:
An emergent Underscore: a conversation with Nancy Stark Smith, London
by Marlon Barrios Solano.
Nancy Stark Smith Teaches "Hieroglyphs"- Embodied Activity #1 for Meta-academy(at)bates 2013.
Nancy Stark Smith Teaches "Mini Solo Underscore"- Embodied Activity #2 Meta-academy(at)bates 2013.
The poetics of touch: NANCY STARK SMITH, a pathway into contact improvisation. Film by Sara Pozzoli and Germana Siciliani, 2007.
www.somatics2019.com Somatics Festival 2019, celebrating the work of Janet Adler, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Nancy Stark Smith.
Second Glances (1979). Video by Lisa Nelson
DONATIONS honoring Nancy's lifelong work with and for Contact Quarterly are graciously accepted here. Thank you.