The Underscore

The Underscore is a long-form dance improvisation structure developed by Nancy Stark Smith. It has been evolving since 1990 and is practiced all over the globe.

The Underscore is a vehicle for incorporating Contact Improvisation into a broader arena of improvisational dance practice; for developing greater ease dancing in spherical space—alone and with others; and for integrating kinesthetic and compositional concerns while improvising. It allows for a full spectrum of energetic and physical expressions, embodying a range of forms and changing states. Its practice is familiar yet unpredictable.

The practice—usually 3 to 4 hours in length—progresses through a broad range of dynamic states, including long periods of very small, private, and quiet internal activity and other times of higher energy and interactive dancing.

Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith
NSS and dancers in an Underscore
in Cappadocia, Turkey, 2010
photo © Sophie Gillman
Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith
Underscore in Cappadocia, Turkey, 2010
photo © Sophie Gillman

There are 20+ phases of the score—each with a name and a graphic symbol—which create a general map for the dancers. Within that frame, dancers are free to create their own movements, dynamics, and relationships—with themselves, each other, the group, the music, and the environment.

The phase called Assembly (previously named “Pow-Wow” in Nancy’s book, Caught Falling) is a focused gathering of the Underscore players—a coming together to meet, check in, sow seeds for practice in the early part of the score.

To participate in an Underscore, one should have some experience of Contact Improvisation and attend a talk-through of the Underscore, which often takes about an hour. The Underscore is not led with verbal cues; the idea is that people “know” it already and are coming together to share the practice. Participants come on time and stay for the duration of the event.

The GLOBAL UNDERSCORE (GUS) is an annual event in which the Underscore is practiced simultaneously for a 4 hour period by people all over the world near the summer solstice (northern hemisphere). There have been 70+ sites participating in GUS in recent years. Claire Filmon proposed the event to Nancy in 2000 from a desire to connect dancers all around the planet to dance and to compose together in the moment. Global Underscore coordinators:
2000–2010: Claire Filmon, with the help of Laura Blackburn, Aline Leclerc, and Anne-Claire Lafait.
2011–2012: Jesse Johnson, Brandin Steffensen, Rebecca Bone, Mark Messer, Dey Summer.
2013–2016: Brandin Steffensen, Nancy Hughes, with Lucy Mahler in 2013-2014.
2017–2019: Nancy Hughes, Patrick Crowley, with Brandin as advisor.
2020: Nancy Hughes, Patrick Crowley, Sarah Young, Colleen Bartley, with Brandin as advisor.
2021: Patrick Crowley, Sarah Young, Colleen Bartley, with Nancy Hughes and Brandin as advisors.
Nancy Stark Smith was an advisor until her death on May 1, 2020. For the most recent news on the Global Underscore, go to:

For more information, read the Underscore chapter in Nancy’s book: Caught Falling: The Confluence of Contact Improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith, and Other Moving Ideas, available through Contact Quarterly.

Here is the first page of the Underscore chapter, the history of Underscore, and the second page, the beginning phases/glyphs of the Underscore, excerpted from Caught Falling.

Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith
Australian Underscore
photo © Anne Sorenson

Nancy had a vision for an interactive place to post writings, drawings, photos, ideas, projects, and visions about the Underscore as well as Underscore translations. This will be a future project of the Global Underscore. Please send any thoughts or materials here.

Nancy Stark Smith about the Underscore

Interview about the Underscore:
An Emergent Underscore (2013)
produced by Marlon Barrios Solano.

Mini Solo Underscore with Nancy Stark Smith

Nancy Stark Smith teaches
“Mini Solo Underscore”
Embodied Activity #2, Meta-Academy
Bates Dance Festival (2013)
video by Marlon Barrios Solano.

Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith
Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith
Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith
Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith
Underscore - Nancy Stark Smith