Nancy Stark Smith, a founder of contact improvisation

NEW YORK — Nancy Stark Smith didn’t care much for dance as a child and teenager. In a talk she gave in 2005 about contact improvisation — the vigorous movement form of which she was a founding member — she said: “I’d see the dancers standing in front of a wall of mirrors looking at themselves and making little movements. I didn’t understand what was exciting about that.”

It wasn’t as if she didn’t relish movement. While growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., and later attending Oberlin College, she was involved in sports and gymnastics and even as an adult played in a volleyball league.


But dance held little interest for her — until the choreographer Twyla Tharp, whose company was in residence at Oberlin, changed her mind in 1971.

“There was a January term project in dance, and someone suggested I try it,” Ms. Stark Smith said.

While in residence at Oberlin, Tharp created her work “The History of Up and Down, I & II.” Ms. Stark Smith recalled: “She used a wide variety of movement, and the training was physically and mentally rigorous. I got excited by what dance could be from working with her.”

The director of Oberlin’s modern dance company, Brenda Way, saw her performing and asked her to join the group.

The next year, Grand Union, the New York improvisational collective made up of postmodern dance artists, was in residency at Oberlin. The dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton, who was part of the group, taught what he called an early morning “soft class,” which, he said in a phone interview, was a mix of “meditations and mild exercising.”

It was in that class at Oberlin that Ms. Stark Smith began studying with Paxton.

His experiments led to his creation of contact improvisation. Both an artful and athletic endeavor, contact is an exploration of touch, gravity and weight sharing; it can be still and sensorial or physically robust. Ms. Stark Smith was one of 17 dancers in the first group that Paxton worked with, and “she carried on throughout her life with it,” he said.


Ms. Stark Smith died May 1 at her home in Florence, Mass. She was 68. The cause was ovarian cancer, said the dance artist Lisa Nelson, with whom Ms. Stark Smith created Contact Quarterly, a dance and improvisation journal, in 1975.

The women had met in 1972, when Nelson and Paxton were both teaching at Bennington College in Vermont; Ms. Stark Smith had gone there to visit Paxton.

“We started talking and never stopped,” Nelson said.

Stark Smith, whose signature braid became longer and grayer over time, was also a prolific writer and respected teacher who, beginning in 1990, developed what she called “Underscore,” a structure or framework for practicing long-form dance and improvisation.

Nancy Stark Smith was born on Feb. 11, 1952, in Brooklyn to Lucille (Stark) Smith and Dr. Joseph J. Smith, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Her family moved to Great Neck in 1954. Her mother died when Nancy was 5.

She took part in the first performances of contact improvisation at the John Weber Gallery in New York City in 1972. From there the form grew even as the original group of dancers scattered across the country.


“The nature of this form is that you need a partner to do it, and I think this is one of the most important reasons it has spread,” Ms. Stark Smith said.

After graduating from Oberlin in 1974 with a degree in dance and writing, she studied meditation and Buddhism at what is now the Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. There she met the feminist beat poet Diane di Prima. When di Prima made it known that she was looking for someone to transcribe her journals back home in California, Ms. Stark Smith spoke up.

“A fast typist, already in this swirling world of art and spirituality, I offered my services,” she recalled in “Caught Falling: The Confluence of Contact Improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith, and Other Moving Ideas,” a book she wrote with David Koteen.

Moving to California to work for de Prima, she lived in Stinson Beach for several years while continuing to teach and tour with Paxton. (They later taught together as well.)

“She was athletic, she was responsive, she would take initiative,” Paxton said of Stark Smith. “She was very daring.”

Contact Quarterly, the journal that Ms. Stark Smith created with Nelson, ceased publication in January. But Nelson said she planned to create a resource site with its archives.

Ms. Stark Smith leaves her partner of 22 years, the composer and musician Mike Vargas; her sister, Susan Smith Berenzweig; her half-brother, David Chaim Smith; her stepmother, Carol Smith; a stepbrother, James Rand; a stepsister, Laura Haleman; and a niece and nephew.