‘Dancing fearlessly with her long braid swinging in the air’: Remembering local legend Nancy Stark Smith 

  • Nancy Stark Smith, center, dances at the School for Contemporary Dance & Thought in Northampton in 2015. Peter Raper

  • Photo by Ilya Domanov/courtesy of Andrea Olsen

  • Nancy Stark Smith, speaking last fall at the Somatics Festival at Northampton’s Community Arts Trust building. Photo by Mandy Kimm

  • Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith are seen in a Contact Improvisation performance at Thornes Market in Northampton in October 1980. In the background are Lisa Nelson, Daniel Lepkoff and Christie Svane. Stephen Petegorsky

  • Nancy Stark Smith, at far right, in Finland in 2007 during an Underscore dance and movement exercise. Raisa Kyllikki Karjalainen

  • Nancy Stark Smith of Florence, who died May 1, is being remembered as an iconic figure in Contact Improvisation dance, someone whose legacy “lives on through thousands of people around the globe,” as one friend says. Peter Raper

Staff Writer
Published: 5/8/2020 9:29:35 AM

FLORENCE — She was a friend and mentor to many and an inspiration to countless others, a dancer and a teacher who gave currency to a new form of contemporary dance — Contact Improvisation — that embraced elements of touch, improvisation and spirituality.

Friends and colleagues also are recalling Nancy Stark Smith, who died May 1 of ovarian cancer at age 68, as an innovator who opened up new possibilities for women in dance, showing them — often by example — how they could use their strength and agility to take the lead when dancing with men.

As longtime admirer Chris Aiken puts it, when Stark Smith danced, she had the kind of physical presence and grace that would “make people’s eyes just pop open. You would see this small woman dancing fearlessly, with her long braid swinging in the air … She was an amazing dancer, just wonderful to watch.”

Stark Smith, who was born in New York City but had made her home in Northampton since the late 1970s, also co-founded (in 1975) and co-edited Contact Quarterly, an international dance journal for Contact Improvisation that, long before the internet, became a means for dancers involved in the work to connect with one another in classes and more informal social dances known as jams.

“Wherever you were, either in this country or abroad, you could use [Contact Quarterly] to find a local community,” said Aiken, who teaches dance and choreography at Smith College and first began learning Contact Improvisation with Stark Smith in Northampton in the mid-1980s. “We all treasure our collections of the magazine.

“She was my mentor, and then I got to know her as a collaborator,” he said. “She was so gracious to allow me to go from being her student to her peer. She treated me as an equal, and that in turn created in me a real love for Northampton.”

Andrea Olsen, a dance artist and author, remembers Stark Smith as a “vital person, just so alive and so full of energy. She was very well-read, and really could engage on so many topics. We would get together for dinner a couple times a year, and one topic would just roll into another.”

A former professor of dance at Middlebury College in Vermont, Olsen, who lives in Northampton but is currently staying in Maine, also recalled Stark Smith as one of a number of key figures in dance in Northampton in the 1980s — one of whom was Stark Smith’s co-editor of Contact Quarterly, Lisa Nelson — who helped develop somatics, a mind/body movement studies and art form now taught worldwide.

Last fall, Olsen helped put together a festival on somatics at Northampton’s Community Arts Trust building that included presentations by Stark Smith and some of those other Northampton innovators. “It was wonderful to have Nancy here for that, considering how much teaching she’s done all over the world during the past decades,” Olsen said.

Curiosity and connection

Stark Smith, born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1952, first trained as a gymnast and athlete before getting involved with modern and postmodern dance in the early 1970s. She later graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio with a degree in dance and writing.

In 1972, she took part in some of the earliest performances of Contact Improvisation in New York with Steve Paxton, a dancer and choreographer who is considered the founder of the discipline. Paxton, who came from a background in martial arts, wanted dancers to explore new physical relationships. Learning to fall off balance and understanding the mechanics of the body so as to handle someone else’s weight were key parts of the technique.

Another crucial element was dancers being open to discovery and creativity, especially in an unstructured setting. As Stark Smith wrote in an issue of Contact Quarterly in 1987, “Where you are when you don’t know where you are is one of the most precious spots offered by improvisation. It is a place from which more directions are possible than anywhere else.”

Aiken says Stark Smith became one of the biggest disciples of this work and likely did more to spread it around the world than anyone through her performances, her teaching and her work with Contact Quarterly, which became an important forum for dancers to share their experiences. She also developed a practice known as Underscore, an annual, multihour improvisational dance/movement exercise that since 2000 has taken place simultaneously in as many as 70 cities worldwide.

“Today, any serious college dance department includes Contact Improvisation in the curriculum,” Aiken said. “Twenty-five or even 30 years ago, that wasn’t the case.” Stark Smith, he added, was a key driver of that change.

He and Olsen also called Contact Improvisation a very egalitarian form of dance, one that’s open to untrained dancers and people with disabilities. That’s a fitting testament to what they say was Stark Smith’s generous spirit and her enthusiasm for working with dancers of all different levels.

Jen Polins, founding director of the School for Contemporary Dance & Thought in Northampton, says Stark Smith, whom she had known for 25 years, was “probably the most prolifically social person I’ve ever known. She had the ability to connect with anybody.”

She also made mindfulness and spirituality an important part of her dance teaching, Polins said, as a way of helping dancers be aware of their shared humanity and connection on different levels. “One of my favorite quotes from her is ‘Replace ambition with curiosity,’” Polins said. “I think that really summed up her approach to life so well.”

In addition to a brother and sister, a stepmother, and a number of step-siblings, nieces and nephews, Stark Smith is survived by her partner of 22 years, Michael Vargas, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who teaches at Smith College and has worked extensively with dancers. One of his regular collaborators over the years was Stark Smith; the two often traveled together to lead workshops.

The loss of their friend has been even tougher for Aiken, Olsen, Polins and others because the COVID-19 outbreak forced Vargas to become Stark Smith’s sole caregiver in her last several weeks of life. “He handled that with such grace and strength, but it was so difficult for him, and so hard for us not to be able to be with her,” Aiken said.

“I’ve never experienced a loss like this in my life except for when my mother and father died,” he said. “It just seems like there’s a hole in the world right now.”

Arrangements for a memorial for Nancy Stark Smith are still pending. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to Contact Quarterly, which can be made at contactquarterly.com/donate.

A slideshow about Stark Smith also can be seen in the window of the A.P.E. Gallery at 126 Main St. in Northampton.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.
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