In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, at the time the free dance was born, improvisation was a special tool for inventing new movements that would look less strained and more natural, especially compared to classic ballet. Isadora Duncan is known to have used it frequently: inspired by the Renaissance paintings and classical sculptures, she was seeking the beauty of simple moves and poses, and explored the impressions from the works of art, nature and music through her dance. In Europe, Rudolf von Laban also used improvisation for exploring the nature of the movements; however, he did that for analytical reasons, rather than aesthetical.
Dance improvisation was brought on stage by a German dancer Gret Palucca in her 1927 solo called “Technical improvisation”. It was not quite what improvisation is today, though. Palucca did not improvise right on the stage, instead, she performed an improvisation she created earlier at the studio.
In 1940s-50s, a special type of dance therapy was born, offering people to express their feelings through movements. But it wasn't until the 60s that improvisation was brought to professional stage by Judson Dance Theatre. The dancers of this theatre performed in front of the audience often having no idea on how the performance would look like. Still, such improvisations had a certain structure and it made them different from "therapy, catharsis or informal communication", according to choreographer Trisha Brown.
The exploration of this movement lead to the formation of its distinctive style in the United States during 1970s, as a branch movement of contact improvisation emerged. Dance experimentalist Steve Paxton is considered to be the principal originator of contact improvisation. He gathered all the modern and postmodern dance experience and incorporated it together with social, sports and esthetic practices of his predecessors. Paxton liked to work with gravity, inertia, falling, body weight etc. However, he also implemented an innovation by letting the dancers be spontaneous and make their own independent decisions, and at the same time feel the flow of the dance and respond to the partner's actions and emotions.
Paxton was ultimately the one to focus on the core and not the presentation. The core of improvisation, the body, is the main topic, the medium and the principal tool simultaneously. During a performance, the dancer makes lots of big and little decisions by following his mind and that's what is captivating about it. The performer focuses on so-called self-research, exploring how gravity affects their body, how their body works at certain angles, with different amounts of impact and flexibility, what their body is like in general and what it’s capable of. It is also a two-way experience between the dancer and the audience, because the performance may change depending on how the performer wants the audience to react and the reaction of the audience creates new motives for the dancer.