What People Do At Jams

CI jams are gatherings for practicing contact improv. They're loosely structured because improvisation informs so many aspects of what we do. That's different than typical activity-oriented gatherings, so It can be hard to imagine how it might go if you're not yet acquainted with them. Here's some observations that might help inform you.

The following discusses what we do for the open-jam portion of our DC-CI sessions, from 3:00 to 5:00. Our CI class from 2:00 to 3:00 provides additional guidance and often leads into jamming. On the first Sunday of each month the entire session is devoted to an Underscore, about which you can read more, see Our Monthly Underscore page 

Contact Improvisation jams are loosely structured events for people to gather and practice together. Like CI in general, it can be difficult to describe exactly what to do. That leaves room for uncertainty about how to start, whether you're doing the right thing, and so on. Uncertainty is ok. It can lead to questioning and exploration, which are essential and often fun aspects of this practice. But uncertainty can be daunting. We can't prevent that – it's an intrinsic to improvisation – but we can offer some perspective on the jam process, to try to reduce unnecessary uncertainty and support finding your way in.


For our 2:00 to 5:00 pm Sunday jam, people typically arrive between 2:00 and 3:00.  It varies a lot — some days a lot of people (10 to 15) are there by 2:30, some days people are still trickling in after 4:00.  Like many aspects of the jam, it's hard to predict exactly how it will go each day, but it helps the jam work well for people to make the effort to be there near the start.

  • (Now that we have a class during the first hour of the jam it's useful to arrive before 2:00 if you want to participate in the class.)

When people arrive they may chat a bit or they may go straight into their personal warm-ups, transitioning at their own pace from the busy-ness of daily life to activating their bodies and attention to moving. It's valuable to give yourself whatever time you need to notice how you are in the moment, and what it takes for you to arrive and be ready to dance.

  • For me arriving often takes time and attention, especially relaxing attention on verbal presence with a focus on what's going on in my body and general sensation. Grazing and "Solo Contact Improv" describes some warm-up scores I have found to foster arriving with others.

It's important that everyone chooses for themselves how and when they share their personal space. To support that we all agree the edges of the space are for solo moving while people in the interior of the space are available for partnering. See Organizing the jam space for the details of this score.

If you're inclined to chat, realize that some of the people around you might need quiet space for themselves. Please don't get carried away with it — we're there to dance! (-:

On days when our host studio, Dance Place, is closed our insurance requires that everyone sign a DC Jam Liability Waiver - we'll have some there, but bringing a signed one helps. Just on the holidays and between Dance Place class sessions, however.

Finding Dances

The process of finding dances is, itself, an improvisation.  There's a lot of opportunity to wonder what you're supposed to be doing about connecting with others, and no cut-and-dried guidelines. It's good to know that there's not a lot that you must do.  If you can tune into how you're influenced by stuff within and around you, you can have plenty to do just moving on your own and in response to what's happening around you. The ability to be receptive to what's happening within you and also what's happening around you is really key. As you and others get into this mode, connections start to happen...

It can be doubly challenging to notice both what's happening within your self and also what's happening around you, and not have one focus preclude the other. Balancing these two is an art, and can ultimately be very engaging, if you're willing to give it a try.

The way I generally like to start is by seeking the dance I have with myself, at that moment. That could involve exploring the edges between balance and imbalance, momentum and (dis)coordination, sluggishness and levity. It may be different for you — the idea is to try things that lead to tuning in to yourself, and your sense of being present at the physical place, the jam space. Start with what you find in and around yourself at the moment, looking for inspiration rather than what you expect you should be doing. The material you find will be what is personally engaging for you, and will be something that works for you in sharing with others - it will be most within reach of where you are.

Connecting with others can happen incidentally, when your sphere of attention overlaps with someone else, or it can happen by choice — seeking out someone doing something that interests you, or vice versa, or practicing a familiar warm-up with a friend.  It can be nice to sample connections, dabbling with various interactions before sticking with any one, or just dive in to an exploration with someone.

This sampling approach got a name, early in CI practice: "Grazing". Nancy Stark Smith included it as an essential element of her CI-based ensemble improvisation recipe, the Underscore↗︎. See Grazing and "Solo Contact Improv" for more.

When Really Asking, "No" Is Always An Option — Respecting Boundaries

Good connections are based on the free choice of all participants. The possibility of a full hearted "yes" is only present when "no" is properly and fully respected. Extending that, it's essential to understand that there's no obligation to explore or stay with a particular connection.  In order for everyone to have their choice about what they accept, how they continue, and when they're ready to be done, they must be able to turn down offers as well as to accept them.

You might find yourself ready to join a dance but your prospective partner isn't, so that dance doesn't happen. Or vice-versa, you might be invited but not ready to accept, and it's fine to refuse the dance, or part as soon as you are ready to do so. It's crucial that an invitation is an offer, not an insistence. While you get to choose what you do and don't accept, you don't get to choose what others do and don't accept, just as nobody else gets to choose for you.

This principle is the basis of genuine mutual cooperation. We can't stress this enough: Contact Improvisation is based on mutual cooperation rather than externally imposed control. Good dances as well as general jam safety and vitality depend on Respecting Boundaries - please read.

Connection with The Underscore

These suggestions are all similar to those embodied in an ensemble movement improv recipe called The Underscore↗︎. The Underscore was developed by Nancy Stark Smith, and many groups around the world continue the exploration and development, including the DC Sunday jam. The Sunday jam Underscore happens on the first Sunday of each month.  The added structure of the Underscore can help express what goes on at the less explicitly structured open jams.

See a video of Nancy delivering a full Underscore talk-through at the Somatics 2019 conference! (In case the conference takes down that page, you find just the video on Vimeo as long as it, itself, is around.)

In the underscore, participants agree to follow a shared progression, making it easy to identify activities that are separate from the score, including chatting. In a regular CI jam the boundaries and agreement are less clearly set. It's a friendly situation, with room for some chatting. Still, the more that each of us focuses on being present for contact improvisation, the more we support and strengthen one another's pursuit of it.

Closing Circle

We often conclude the Sunday jam as a group in the last half hour, gathering in a circle to with time to hear from those who have something to share about their experience. It is an opportunity to share perspectives and part of sharing the transition to wherever we're each heading next.