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Respecting Boundaries

Contact Improvisation is based around mutual cooperation rather than control. To work well it depends on respect for one another's boundaries, which we describe here. Please read, to help foster a good and safe jam!

Exploring Cooperation

Contact Improvisation is a terrific opportunity to explore and deepen your ability to coordinate with others, and with yourself, in an exceptionally open structure. In the spirit of the form, contact improv jams are, as a whole, also improvisational, with little official regulation.  This generally works well because the practice, itself, is a pursuit of cooperation rather than control.

Communication is never perfect, however, and sometimes people miss recognizing or honoring the boundaries of others.  In improvisation, you can't regulate communication without sacrificing key opportunities for individual discovery and growth. However, clear guidelines can help everyone understand what they can do to keep such mistakes from spoiling a good situation.

Clear Communication and Connection

As with any shared freedom, CI cooperation depends on each of us being able to recognize and respect our own limits and the limits of others - the personal boundaries.

Cooperation depends on respecting one another's boundaries.
In order for everyone to seek what suits them - pace, depth of connection, daring maneuvers, etc - everyone must be alert for and respect the limits expressed by their partners, verbally and non-verbally. Safety as well as good connection depends on that sensitivity.
People can offer material for others to explore, but they must not try to control the other's choice to accept or refuse those offers. Each of us is in the best position to steer our own explorations.
People cannot abide by boundaries that they do not see.
While exploring and expanding your frontiers, you must strive to be clear with yourself and with others when you reach your limits.
Safety as well as success depends on everyone recognizing and clearly expressing their limits. This is especially so in a practice that frequently involves reevaluating and adjusting those limits.
Genuine opportunities to connect include the option to not connect.
In order for everyone to have the opportunity to choose which dances they accept, everyone must be ready to accept being refused a dance. Even followup to discuss a refusal must be an option which may also be refused.

Sometimes Clarity Doesn't Come Easily

Sometimes you find effortless understanding with someone, and sometimes it doesn't come as easily. If a gesture does not successfully convey your message, you may have to explicitly speak it. Sometimes communication legitimately needs to be repeated. People may forget what you said, or understand incompletely, so you may have to repeat yourself, at the risk of seeming harsh. Sometimes, you will be unable to get your message across and will have to remove yourself from a dance (or similarly, conversation, outing, etc.)

What To Do When One-on-one Communication and Exiting Doesn't Work.

Occasionally even the best communication is not enough. If you feel that you have been clear about your limits but they are not being honored, and you are being pursued even after removing yourself and asking to be left alone, you can ask for mediation. Request consultation from jam organizers, workshop teachers, or anyone you trust, asking them to help convey to the other person to leave you alone. Everyone should do their best to communicate clearly and reasonably, and avoid unnecessary condemnation.

Though they should know better, it's possible that a teacher or facilitator is the one refusing to disengage. If there is no one that you trust available for consultation and mediation, it's your responsibility to leave an unsafe situation. Once you have left, you can find another facilitator to help you address the issue.

Each East Coast Jam has three designated organizers who make the arrangements for the jam, conduct town meetings, etc. The organizers are dedicated to supporting everyone in maintaining healthy boundaries, and are willing to do the best they can to constructively mediate, when asked. Please do ask for help if you need it!


Contact improv, at its core, is about cooperation, not control. To work well it fundamentally depends on participants respecting each other's boundaries. Much like a lot of life.

For more on this topic

Consent is the fundamental material, the substance of mutual cooperation. Many groups in many places are striving to cultivate this kind of cooperation. In CI, many jams have developed and shared guidelines aimed at fostering healthy engagement in their group. You can find a substantial compendium of these guidelines here:

Brooks Yardley unequivocally surfaces and addresses questions of inappropriate sexuality in the public improv space, in Respecting Sexual Boundaries in Contact Improvisation and a zine PDF linked in that article, Respecting Boundaries/Coexisting Genders: Women’s Experiences of Feeling Unsafe in Contact Improv. Awareness is necessary in order to preserve the opportunity to practice contact improv for the sake of contact improv - precious opportunities in adult life for play for the sake of play, not thwarted by other agendas.


peace making --Fri, 30 Oct 2009 22:29:56 -0500

I would suggest that 'jam organizers, workshop teachers, or anyone you trust' reasonably attempt to mediate clear and safe communication between the concerned parties, that they may come to understanding, and foster the equanimity of the jam.

Re: peace making --Sun, 07 Feb 2010 14:38:24 -0600

while often desirable, it is not always practical for "coming to understanding" to be a goal here, and in some cases it's not appropriate or constructive.  sometimes the person feeling imposed upon has already been pressed beyond their limits, because the other person is seeking to process about the incident beyond what is welcome. the person feeling imposed upon often deserves the option to just disengage.

in some moments, the best that can happen is separate coexistence.

"Genuine opportunities to connect include the option to not connect."

-- ken (

this document is freely available for copying under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, which includes retaining attribution and the open availability that the license prescribes. the original author, ken manheimer, would appreciate feedback and suggestions so he can continue to improve it.

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