Respecting Boundaries

In order for each of us to have genuine choice about how we participate, everyone must accept that some invitations you offer won't be accepted, whether the invitation is a change in a dance that's happening or continuing such a dance or engaging in the first place. The health of our open CI gatherings depends on this understanding, which we try to convey in this document, Respecting Boundaries in Contact Improvisation.

Exploring Cooperation

Contact Improvisation is an extraordinary opportunity to explore coordination, with others and with yourself. In the spirit of the form, contact improv jams are improvisational, with little official regulation.  This generally works well, because the practice explores cooperation rather than control.

Communication is never perfect, and sometimes people miss recognizing or honoring the boundaries of others.  In improvisation, you can't entirely regulate communication without sacrificing key opportunities for individual discovery and growth. However, clear guidelines can help everyone understand what to do to keep 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 - 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 - we all have to be attentive for and respect the limits expressed by our partners, non-verbally and verbally. Safety as well as good connection depends on that sensitivity.
People can offer opportunities for others to explore – a dance, a pace, a quality – but they must not try to control the other's choice to accept or refuse those offers. Each one 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, strive to be clear with yourself and with others when you reach your limits - physical, emotional, interpersonal, whatever.
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 refining 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.
As with any shared freedom, the freedom to enjoy CI depends on each of us being able to recognize and respect our own boundaries and the boundaries of others, even while - particularly while - we're reevaluating and adjusting them.

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, 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, seek 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.


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

For more:

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

Early Comments

peace making --anonymous, 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 --Ken Manheimer, Sun, 31 Oct 2009

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 text is also available as a Google Document.