Disciplines/fields: Neurobiology, Sports Science, Cognitive Sciences, Martial Arts, Dance, Contact Improvisation, Embodied Cognition

Duration: 4 sessions (+ opt. 2)

Course Content

"It's a lot like dancing ..."  titles one of the many books about Aikido and argues that Aikido is a unique martial art because the major principle is to unify the physical forces of attacker and defender so that one needs only a fraction of power to make an attack harmless. There is no blocking or typical entanglement like in wrestling or judo but a mostly circular flowing dance-like movement of two persons. Of course, it is not a dance, as the end of an Aikido movement is either a projection of the attacker to the ground or a throw.

In this course we are interested in demonstrating how an ancient fighting system is transformed into an art due to socio-cultural changes and also heavily influences a contemporary form of dance, namely Contact Improvisation. There are other movement or dance forms that have a link to fighting, e.g. Capoeira, where dancing serves to cover-up the teaching of fighting techniques. The major difference to Aikido is that Aikido came out as a clan-based secret bare-handed fighting system to something taught to experts of many different Japanese martial arts. It also makes a philosophical or spiritual statement as in Aikido the practitioner has to care about his or her opponent or attacker as much as about him- or herself. The conflict should be resolved in a manner that nobody is harmed and both can start to resolve their conflict without recurring to physical fighting. 
In the 1970s the principles of Aikido influenced the development of Contact Improvisation, a dance form based on attending to and using physical forces, momentum and gravity, and at the same time making a strong political and socio-cultural statement by relying on egalitarian principles (typical gender roles in the dance are abolished, the audience is usually more involved than in traditional dance performances, also “laypersons” can easily join the dance, etc.).

The major part of the course will concentrate on the transition from Aikido as a modern Japanese martial art designated by its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, to bring peace for humanity to the dance form of Contact Improvisation. We will shortly cover the historic evolution process pointing to the most important turning points, their socio-cultural circumstances and the leading characters involved. At the same time we will give an opportunity for bodily-emotional experiences for this development. We will discuss and experience aspects, which are in common or different in Aikido and Contact Improvisation and are also related to phenomena relevant in cognitive science (e.g. the physical dialogue/non-verbal communication between two interacting persons, the role of acting and reacting, balance, questions of responsiveness and responsibility, awareness and attention). Where possible we point to scientific findings (neurobiology, cognitive sciences, etc), which may explain the principles underlying Aikido and Contact Improvisation (e.g. touching is more efficient than pain, joint attention steers perception, relaxation is a special form of strength).


Experiences of sensorimotor processes between humans, emotional expression due to body movements, empathetic alternatives in concurrent or combat situations.


Dobson, Terry (1994). It's a lot like dancing: An Aikido Journey. Blue Snake Books. 
Kaltenbrunner, Thomas (1998). Contact Improvisation: Moving, Dancing, Interaction. Aachen (Germany): Meyer & Meyer.
Novack, Cynthia J. (1990) Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture (New Directions in Anthropological Writing). University of Wisconsin Press.


Thomas Christaller (* 6. Mai 1949 in Bonn) is a Professor emeritus for Artificial Intelligence at the University of Bielefeld and a former Head of Institute of the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems–IAIS. He studied mathematics, computer science, and physics at the Philipps-University, Marburg, and the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University, Bonn. 1986 he finished is PhD under the guidance of Professor Wilfried Brauer at the University of Hamburg with a thesis about "Generic control structures demonstrated by Cascaded ATNs" (in German). He supported the research on Artificial Intelligence in Germany and did research himself on computer linguistics, knowledge-based systems, and cognitive robotics. He was co-editor of the German journal "Künstliche Intelligenz" from 1985 to 1992. Since 1991 he became a full professor at the University of Bielefeld and at the same time director at the former GMD–German Center for Information Technology.

In 1998 the robotics activities at GMD were concentrated in the new founded Institute on Autonomous intelligent Systems under the leadership of him. Besides building robots for playing soccer at the International Conferences of the RoboCup Society and inspecting municipal waste water systems he worked also on how to use information systems for sustainable problems. Under his guidance several systems were developed for citizen participation, biodiversity, urban planning, and logistics. After the merger of GMD and Fraunhofer Society the institute changed its focus and name into Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems, becoming the Google for special cases.

In 2010 he retired from university and Fraunhofer Society. Since then he is concentrating his activities on teaching the Japanese martial art of Aikido which he is practicing for over 40 years. To this end he cofounded the enterprise "Bewegung & Lebenskunst" (engl. Moving & Art of Life) where body-based systems are teached, like different martial arts, Yoga, or Feldenkrais, which all are targeting to strengthen the autonomy of an individual including his or her health

Thomas Christaller was and still is a member of diverse organisations and advisory boards in science & technology, the arts, and politics. He was a member of the German Wissenschaftsrat, 1998-2004, which is one of the highest advisory board for Germany. Actually he is a member of the Green Academy, part of the think-tank of the German Green Party, the science center "odysseum" in Cologne, the science museum "Deutsches Museum" in Munich, as well as "pact-zollverein Performance Arts" in Essen

Elisabeth Zimmermann studied human biology and cognitive science for her diploma and is currently doing her PhD in philosophy of cognitive science at the University of Vienna. In her research she investigates the role the body plays in perceiving the environment and how changes in bodily posture and movement patterns might enable shifts in making sense of the world in order to create new knowledge.

Since 2006 she is study programme coordinator for the MEi:CogSci - Middle European interdisciplinary master programme in Cognitive Science, administrating the programme on a local and international level, and also teaches interdisciplinary cognitive science courses within this curriculum.

She has been dancing since her childhood (ballet, jazz-dance, modern dance, expressive dance) and practices contact improvisation since more than 15 years. She has been investigating the relation of body and mind on a theoretical level, but also on a practical level, attending courses in qui gong and tai chi, yoga, body-mind centering, Feldenkrais, continuum movement, classical massage, etc. She is dance- and movement pedagogue in training and has started teaching workshops in dance/contact improvisation in the last years.


Thomas Christaller: