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Karen Schaffman, Ph.D.

Dance, VPA Department

karen dancing

Karen Schaffman is a life-long dancer.  Her research explores sensorial perception, memory, and the politics of transgression. Karen is interested in witnessing bodies, both everyday and spectacular, in curious states of investigation. She pursues paradox and the agency of vulnerability as means to disrupt cultural norms of performativity.

Research and Performance
Karen earned her Ph.D. in Dance History and Theory from the University of California, Riverside, under the mentorship of Susan Leigh Foster.   Her dissertation, From the Margins to the Mainstream:  Contact Improvisation and the Commodification of Touch, focused on contact improvisation in the 1990s with an emphasis on the politics of identity and movement analysis. Her writing has appeared in Taken by Surprise: An Improvisation Reader (Wesleyan Press), Encounters with Contact Improvisation (Oberlin College), and Contact Quarterly.  Since 1998, she has presented papers at numerous academic conferences/symposiums and served as an elected board member for the Congress on Research in Dance (2008-2010).  Karen is also a graduate of the European Dance Development Center in Arnhem, Holland (1991), where she transformed her movement thinking through somatic research and improvisation.

Karen has been fortunate to study with a host of remarkable dance artists and scholars.  She acknowledges her teachers with gratitude:  Susan Foster, Deborah Hay, Eva Karczag, Nina Martin, Lisa Nelson, Mary Reich, Marta Savigliano, and Nancy Stark Smith.  Her research has also been influenced by her experience in intensives with Ann Bogart, Irene Dowd, Karin Finley, Simone Forti, K.J. Holmes, Benoit LeChambre, Daniel Lepkoff, Karen Nelson, Mary O’Donnell, Mary Overlie, and Steve Paxton.  In 2012, she embarked on a 4-year Feldenkrais® professional training program under the leadership of Elizabeth Beringer. 

A devoted collaborator, Karen has co-created and performed in works by Veronika Blumstein, BodyCartography Project, Downstream Media, LIVE improvisational dance theatre, Lower Left, Sara Shelton Mann, and Nina Martin.  In 2008, she created a media art installation, United & Severed:  That Window of Time, with video artist Kristine Diekman and visual artists Richard Keely and Anna O’Cain, which investigated the experiences of women living with traumatic injury.  This installation was featured at the California Center for the Arts Escondido Museum and ArtProduce Gallery in San Diego. Over the last few years she focused on the following projects: FIRE, is a solo adaptation of choreography by Deborah Hay for the Solo Performance Commissioning Project (1999) that she practices alongside with Eric Geiger who performs Art & Life (2010).  BARK, is a collaboration, which she conceived and that was selected for The A.W.A.R.D. Show! at the REDCAT in Los Angeles (2011).  BARK has been performed at AgitProp Gallery (San Diego), Counterpulse (San Francisco), and during SFDI Festival (Seattle).  The Fantasy Project, a collaborative work with Anya Cloud, Mary Reich, and a team of Master of Fine Arts students from University of California (UC) San Diego.  

Karen is Professor of Dance at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) where she teaches in the Visual and Performing Arts Department.  She teaches courses in choreography, improvisation, women’s studies, screening dance, movement awareness, as well as interdisciplinary arts classes.  From 1992-1994, she was faculty for a full-time education program at TuT, School for New Dance and Theatre (Hannover, Germany). She has taught courses in contact improvisation and choreography at UC Davis (1999-2000) and general education courses at UC Riverside (1996-1999).   She has also offered lectures and taught workshops at festivals and institutional programs in Germany (SODA), Holland (ArtEZ), Hungary (Kontakt Budapest), Mexico (Instituto de Bellas Artes), Russia (Festival on the Volga), U.S (Seattle Festival of Improvisation), among others.  


With Eric Geiger, Karen is co-Artistic Director of PADL (Performance Art Dance Lab) West, a non-profit organization based in San Diego.  PADL West was founded in 2011 and has presented performances and workshops by BodyCartography Project, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Miguel Gutierrez, Nina Martin, and Pavel Zustiak/Palisimmo, Inc. 

From 2008-2013, Karen was Chair of the Arts & Lectures Advisory Committee at CSUSM, presenting over 150 events for the North County community.  She has also been course coordinator for CSU Summer Arts, hosting intensive trainings with Mary Overlie (founder of Viewpoints), Ann Bogart (Artistic Director, SITI), and Deborah Hay (Artistic Director, Deborah Hay Dance Company).  

As co-founder and collective member of Lower Left (1994-2006), Karen was vital in the creation of innovative programming that brought postmodern dance and performance to the San Diego community in collaboration with Sushi Performance & Visual Art.  Programs included Process Works (a tri-annual interactive works-in-progress showing), Available Space (an improvisational performance series), Zero-to-One (a choreography mentorship program), monthly workshops by nationally known teachers in the field, and annual summer workshops.  In 2006, Karen instigated and directed The Satellite Project, which commissioned BodyCartography Project, Keith Hennessy, Lionel Popkin, and Nina Martin to create new works for San Diego based dancers and co-produced with the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla.  

Currently, Karen is immersed in The Live Legacy Project: Correspondences between Contemporary German Dance and the Judson Dance Theater Movement, a collaboration with Hamburg based curator/choreographer Angela Guerreiro. This project is generously funded by TanzFonds Erbe, a dance heritage initiated supported by the German National Government.  The Live Legacy Project will bring together nearly 50 guest choreographers, dance artists, scholars, and educators, to converge in a six-day symposium in Duesseldorf open to the public.  The project continues with a book (published by transcript Verlag) and a film (produced by TanzInstitute Bremen). 



United & Severed

Office: ARTS 307
(760) 750-8009