The Floating World of Impulstanz

With courses for all ages, bodies and skills, Europe’s largest contemporary dance festival can be very rewarding for novice dancers – if you’re willing to put in the work.

As I lay on the floor, muscles I never knew I had were screaming in agony. My bare feet ached; I could feel the blisters forming. Somehow it didn’t matter, as a satisfied, exhausted grin spread over my face. It was the last day of my third Impulstanz course, and I had just executed moves and actions I never thought I could possibly do. After a month of dancing and sweating, a long, rewarding adventure was coming to an end.

Like most outsiders, I first joined Europe’s largest contemporary dance festival via one of their parties, which are amazing, by the way, and dominate Vienna’s nightlife during the dog days of July and August. Over the years, I enjoyed meeting the many dancers visiting from all over the globe, the way they moved – even lifting a canapé off a tray – were mesmerizing even in their downtime. I watched in awe, often wishing I could be a part of this select few who float so easily over the dance floor completely in the moment and the music, oblivious to their surroundings. My moves were depressingly awkward; a bobbing of the head here, a tapping of the foot there – devoid of rhythm or true grace.

So I resolved to change that; A year earlier, I had spent some time in expressive theater, a fresh challenge.  Also, in all honesty, the chance to meet some of those graceful women in their natural environment was too good to pass up.

And so I dared – but it wasn’t easy. Not only was I a complete novice, but the sheer number of workshops and courses overwhelmed me. Even today, I’m still sometimes unsure of what to expect or even the pre-requisites. So I began, as a novice should, with the “beginner” courses

School of Hard Knocks

When I arrived at Impulstanz headquarters in the massive brick buildings of the Arsenal, I entered a parallel universe: There was a small pool, a DJ, a cafe, bar and, most of all, an amicable atmosphere where all ages would laugh, mingle and hang out all day. This didn’t feel like Vienna at all – at least the part I knew. It was more like a hippy commune, far removed from the everyday. A bubble where smiles and movement reigned. I was home.

I started with the Japanese dance Butoh; this was at least something I had heard of. Entering a huge hall for the first of five days, the variety of student dancers surprised me – yes, there were those nubile bodies I had hoped to meet, but there were so many others. Men and women of all shapes, ages and sizes, some smiling in anticipation, Others, like me, were nervous and well out of their comfort zone.

Butoh is a recent form of dance, created after WWII to process Japanese post-war traumas – learning history through dance. Taught by the late master Ko Murobushi, his techniques and explanations soon had us tensing and relaxing, contorting our body, face and mind, smoothly going past our personal limits. The experience was exhilarating, intense and mind-bending – the whole class seemed to float after every session, embracing one another and grinning ear to ear.

Afterward, we would have coffee by the pool, making friends and exchanging insights, wondering which workshop to attend next. The Impulstanz dynamic started seeping in. Even after the Butoh course was over, most of us spent the weekend hanging around, soaking up the festival’s peaceful atmosphere.

And so my second course started: Contact-Improvisation. Another dance I had heard much about, it explores the body in relationship to your partner, creating an awareness of touch, weight and movements of intermingled bodies, playing with balance and breathing.

The beginner’s course was a good introduction of what it was,its history and what we were going to do,

During the next days, none of my limits were pushed, and there was no satisfying exhaustion after class. It was an interesting experience – but no more. After the 4th time a gigantic guy called Hans had me in a sweaty chokehold, I decided this wasn’t quite my thing. My motivation may have disappeared, but to my surprise, so was my urge to meet girls; I wanted more. I wanted that personal confrontation that Butoh had given me; I wanted to explore my physical and mental boundaries.

In my third week, I took time out to sit and watch different workshops and jotted down names of teachers and techniques. I was on a mission. And I found what I was looking for.

Meaning through Motion

I still don’t know how I would describe the last course I attended that year. Called “Ultima Vez Vocabulary,” it focused on floor work and collaborating with a partner, learning the risks and trust using techniques to protect yourself and others in an elegant manner.

An advanced course, it was pure, powerful movement, with hints of contact improvisation, using the body as a tool. Over the next few days, we lifted one another, jumped, crawled, flew through the air and endured aches and pains, training for the grand finale: A move where you run toward your partner, jump and spin before finally being caught in flight and brought gently back down.

Seeing our instructor demonstrate it on the first day, I was convinced I would never be able to pull off something that powerful. Looking at the faces around me, I clearly wasn’t the only one. But we tried. We worked hard. And within the next five days, we trained our bodies to the limits. We had a goal.

On the final day, I looked at a lovely Spanish dancer called Margarita, racing towards me at full speed. With my last bit of energy, I caught her mid-air and lowered her elegantly, not making a sound. We laughed and hugged afterwards, fell to the floor and released the exhaustion from the past weeks. And there I was, staring at the ceiling, floating in the Impulstanz bubble. Movements I thought were impossible, energies I had no idea I had, were summoned over those weeks.

That night of the last workshop, we all went to the Impulstanz lounge at the Burgtheater together, no longer outsiders. We wanted to celebrate that special, intense bond we had built over our time together. And we danced, performing what we learned on the floor, with and for each other. And I was part of it – in the moment, in the music, oblivious to my surroundings.

The night was ours.

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