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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. As a dance activist, she serves her community by presenting artists and supporting dance as an agent of personal transformation and social change.

Training and Scholarship

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 intensively with a host of remarkable dance artists and scholars including: 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 studying over the years in workshops (minimum week-long and several more than month-long) by Ann Bogart, Irene Dowd, Simone Forti, K.J. Holmes, Lisa Kraus Benoit LeChambre, Daniel Lepkoff, Karen Nelson, Mary O’Donnell, Mary Overlie, Steve Paxton, and last but not least, Sara Shelton Mann. In 205, Karen became certified in the The Feldenkrais Method® in program directed by Elizabeth Beringer. Karen has also been inspired by her work and study with Visual/media artists and scholars: Kristine Diekman, Karen Finley, Amelia Jones, Andrea Liss, and Pamela Underwood.

Collaborative Work

Over the 25 years, Karen has worked with several collective containers as performer, choreographer, and presenter: Lower Left (co-founder, 1994-2006). Lower Left was collective-in-residence and collaborated extensively with Sushi Performance & Visual Art. Veronika Blumstein (2006-2007) was a European collective of dance artists and writers working under the demise of a fictional choreographer. LIVE (2007-2015) was a weekly improvisation –based performance practice based in San Diego. Downstream Media (2006-2009, 2017) creates mediated performance with faculty and students at CSUSM. Also with CSUSM students, Karen has choreographed numerous works, and she (co)directs two annual dance concerts.

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.

FIRE, is a solo adaptation of choreography by Deborah Hay for the Solo Performance Commissioning Project (1999) that she practiced alongside with Eric Geiger who performs Art & Life (2010). During 2011-2012, performances were featured in San Diego and Philadelphia. Karen conceived BARK, a collaborative Pojrect that that was selected as a finalist 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 the SFDI Festival (Seattle). The Fantasy Project, was collaborative trio, directed Anya Cloud, with Mary Reich and a team of Master of Fine Arts students from University of California (UC) San Diego.  Karen has also performed under the direction of the BodyCartography Project (2005, 2014), Sara Shelton Mann (2008, 2015), and Nancy Stark Smith (2017).


Since 2001, Karen has been forging Dance Studies at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM). She teaches courses in choreography, improvisation, Women’s Studies, screening dance, movement awareness, as well as interdisciplinary arts classes. In 2015, she developed a pedagogy course and new initiative, Teaching Dancing in the Community, to bring students into classrooms. Already, with the support of the campus’ Community Engaged Scholarship Program, students are engaged with A Step Beyond, an after-school youth empowerment program for underserved children.

Prior to CSUSM: From 1992-1994, Karen was faculty for a full-time education program at TuT, School for New Dance and Theatre (Hannover, Germany). She taught courses in contact improvisation and choreography at UC Davis (1999-2000) and general education courses at UC Riverside (1996-1999).   She has offered lectures and taught workshops at festivals and institutional programs in Germany (Master of Arts/Solo/Dance Authorship – HZT Berlin and Ponderosa), Holland (ArtEZ), Hungary (Kontakt Budapest), Mexico (Instituto de Bellas Artes), Russia (Festival on the Volga), U.S (Seattle Festival of Improvisation), among others.


Karen began presenting artists extensively in 1994 as co-founder of Lower Left. She 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, with Anya Cloud and Eric Geiger, Karen is co-Artistic Director of PADL (Performance Art Dance Lab) West. Based in San Diego County, Karen founded PADL West in 2011 by adopting the Lower Left non-profit organization. PADL West has presented performances and workshops by BodyCartography Project, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Miguel Gutierrez, Keith Hennessy/Cirque Zero, Kathleen Hermesdorf/ /la alternativa, Darrel Jones, Ishmael Houston Jones, Nina Martin, Pavel Zustiak/Palisimmo, Inc., Mary Pearson, Sara Shelton Mann, among others.

From 2012-2014 she was 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. With major funding by TanzFonds Erbe, a dance heritage initiated supported by the German National Government, the Live Legacy Project brought together more than 150 guest choreographers, dance artists, scholars, and educators, to converge in a six-day symposium at tanzhaus NRV, Duesseldorf, Germany. The project culminated in a film directed by Angela Guerreiro, project director.

At CSUSM, Karen was Chair of the Arts & Lectures Advisory Committee (2008-2013), 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 (2006); Ann Bogart, Artistic Director, SITI (2006); Deborah Hay, Artistic Director, Deborah Hay Dance Company (2009); and Eva Karczag and Lisa Kraus, Trisha Brown Dance Company (2016).  She created the Locally Grown Dance Series to support local dance scene on the campus, as well as the CSUSM Performance with Dr. Judy Bauerlein (Theatre Arts) to champion embodied devised works. Most recently, Karen launched The Experimental Dance Project, to create a series of politically driven dance residencies by dance artists concerned with social justice and politically relevancy on campus.


Office: ARTS 307
(760) 750-8009