Remembering Nancy

Photograph + Illustrations by Stephanie Turner
UNDERSCORE PRACTICE 2017

written by Paula Sager

I want to remember Nancy Stark Smith as I first knew her.

Spring, 1981—I’ve landed in Northampton, Massachusetts, just as Nancy and Lisa Nelson are looking for clerical help with Contact Quarterly. A dream job for a young writer/dancer. Up the stairs to the second floor of 31 Elizabeth Street goes my memory, into the “office,” a small room off the kitchen of Nancy’s house, the hub of operations in those early years.

The memories keep coming, a dream-like stream—a desk drawer opening, Nancy handing me an unruly pile of postcards, return addresses torn off corners of envelopes, napkins, scraps of paper, each bearing a name and address. My first task, organize the mailing list.

I see Nancy turning, tilting, with a kind of momentum I’m glad to be swept along in. Everything in reach, not on a desktop but in town—the stationary store, the copy center, and down the country road we go to a barn where the issues get printed. The local circumference I see Nancy moving within extends in all directions, wide as the globe.

We’re back in the day when hands touching paper did the work of keyboard and mouse—the accessories are scissors, x-acto blades, gluesticks, and ruler. Cut and paste, text and image in motion. The tumultuous thrill of being in the middle of a Nancy and Lisa production session, feeling welcomed and part of it. I learn that editing is trusting the feeling sense for language and lay-out is all about the sense of space. Dancer-mind guiding everything.

Now we’re at the post office and Nancy gives me the gold key to open a silver door. We’re pausing in the pleasure of anticipation—who will be sending what from where? This tiny room, P.O. Box 603, filling and emptying again and again over the decades, embodies perhaps the most mysterious part of the whole enterprise. The improbable existence of each issue, entirely dependent on what shows up, on who shows up. CQ, such a fitting shorthand name, capturing the transmutable, self-renewing nature of an alchemical compound.

I’ve recently been reading Nancy’s rich oeuvre of CQ editor letters. In one letter, she writes of “learning to fall by choice” and offers a question to keep us busy for a lifetime: “How can we stay awake in the fall?” 

I’m glad her voice is still here speaking so directly to me, to you, to dear future readers who, in Volume 22 #1, 1997, will learn how transmission works. She recalls the first time she experienced Steve Paxton speaking the small dance as she follows “a nearly subliminal story told directly to my body”. Since then every time she taught the small dance she would quote Steve’s words and cadence verbatim, “hoping to transmit as directly as possible what I received in the expectant calm of a predawn winter day in 1972 and many times thereafter.” Her question, “How could something so little last so long?” is her hand-off to us.

Nancy’s mastery of the space-time continuum feels intimate, boundless, and completely grounded in Now. Here she is describing the period at the end of a sentence as a place, “a tiny planet on the page—mysterious and possibly inhabitable.” Rediscovering her editor letter in the Fall ’82 “Non-verbal Issue”, I stare into the blank page, soaking in her absence, a vibrating, bright presence.

Contact Improvisor and teacher, Steph Turner, texted me a treasured artifact from her Underscore work with Nancy. I see a big piece of canvas filled with an orderly arrangement of gestural symbols and words, glyphs and indications, prompts and gateways. It’s not a map but the key to the map, instructions just cryptic enough to get you oriented. A way of opening things up so a path appears and you begin to see what’s already moving and oh, here we go…

Our very best teachers always leave their work unfinished.  For me, Nancy and Lisa’s approach to CQ reverberated, inspiring me as a co-editor of A Moving Journal.  And now, I experience Nancy through my collaborations with Steph Turner as we document and continue our own work born within the rich lineage of embodied practice.

Nancy shared the key with so many of us around the world. What else can we do now, with love and abundant gratitude, but carry on?


Nancy Stark Smith was a founding practitioner and teacher of Contact Improvisation, a duet form initiated in 1972 with dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton that is now practiced world-wide.  Contact Improvisation is an evolving system of movement that explores the relationship between two or more bodies and the physics that governs their motion.  The improvisational and evolving nature of the form, in many ways resists a fixed shape and it was early in its inception that the founding participants decided not to codify the form as they were discovering what it was through continuing practice. Instead, Nancy envisioned, with fellow collaborators, Contact Quarterly, a forum a for dialogue connecting practitioners around the world through personal writing, photos and illustrations.  She also developed the Underscore, an improvisational structure also practiced globally. 


We continue to celebrate her life through her work. If you are interested in learning more about Nancy and her work, please enjoy the following resources.

Honoring Nancy Stark Smith
Writings from her early collaborators.

Remembering Contact Improv Co-Creator Nancy Stark Smith, 1952-2020
by Wendy Perron

Poetics of Touch
Nancy Stark Smith teaching in Casina Settarte (Italy).
a short film by Sara Pozzoli and Germana Siciliani

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