Boundaries and Consent Guidelines

Contact Improvisation (CI) depends on continuous attention to tune in to what is happening within yourself and with your partner. This attunement is one of the tools that helps us create a safer space for everyone, and is foundational for connected, collaborative, delightful dances. Consent is an agreement. Indeed the word, “consent,” is from the Latin consentire, which literally means “to feel together.” We developed these consent guidelines for the East Coast Jam to help foster that safety and address some of the issues that may arise when practicing CI. 

Consent may look different for different people. Any of us, at various points, may not feel comfortable or able to express a “no”. Consent must be understood in context. In an uneven power dynamic, the person without power may be limited in their ability to consent. Factors that might create an uneven power dynamic include, but are not limited to, gender, age, race, sexual identity/orientation, socioeconomic status, physical ability, and experience level. The same factors that create an uneven power dynamic can also influence our ability to hear a “no”. It is important to practice actively listening for “yes” and “no”, rather than just assuming a “yes” if you don’t hear a “no”.

Consent is a skill that can be learned and practiced, and even if you are an experienced dancer, you might not be skilled in this particular area. It can be helpful to remember the FRIES acronym (Planned Parenthood) for consent:

F = Freely given

R = Reversible

 I  = Informed

E  = Enthusiastic

S  = Specific

Questions to consider: What are your intentions and expectations going into a dance? Are you bringing an unmet need into the dance that could lead you to push more and listen less? Are you looking for signals that might indicate a yes or a no? Conveying your choices and respecting those of your partner is essential to establishing the trust and safety needed to engage in and deepen this dance form.  

Types of consent and examples of what consent might look like in different circumstances:

Being in the dance at all – Consent might look like a potential partner(s) moving towards you, leaning into you if you make light contact, reaching towards you, or making eye contact. Someone not interested in dancing may look away, move away slightly, not engage with you if you make gentle contact, or stiffen up or otherwise seem uncomfortable. On engaging, both of you have the option to continue with the engagement or move away from it at each moment. Verbally inviting, or declining, a dance is also an option, especially when physical clues aren’t clear.

Weight – Start with gentle weight sharing first.  Remember to pour weight rather than give it all at once. Ask verbally if you are unsure if your partner(s) feel comfortable with the amount of weight you are sharing. Someone not wishing to share as much weight may feel like they are moving away, collapsing, or feeling wobbly or strained.

Athleticism, speed – Consent might look like a potential partner(s) matching your energy level and speed.   It’s often helpful to build up to any athletic dance slowly, particularly with an unfamiliar dance partner; and be aware that levels of consent can change at any time. Listen to your partner(s) - notice how they are moving and see if your dance is heading in the same direction before engaging. 

Lifting – Lifting, especially higher lifts, may not be safe or comfortable for all dancers. You can try offering invitations for a lift and see how your partner(s) responds. Lifts are an extension of the dance and rely on momentum and core connection, not actively lifting in a muscular way. Even if you accept an initial invitation to lift, you do not have to “follow through”- you can change the trajectory by making yourself heavy or directing the momentum in a different direction.

Levels of intimacy – 

Our dance floor is a community space. The intentions and actions that we each bring to this space contribute to whether the space feels welcoming, connected, fun and conducive to safely exploring the form. Increasing intimacy levels (which might look like face-to-face/eye contact, sensual touches, caressing, touching with front of hand rather than back of hand or other body parts) carries additional risk of confusing feelings and missing signals about consent. While it may be natural for sexual or romantic feelings to arise, when these types of feelings come up, it is an excellent opportunity to practice noticing them, letting them go, and not dancing from them. Alternately, it may be a good time to take a break from the dance to refocus your energy. It is not appropriate to pursue sexual or romantic intentions on the dance floor because they are not part of our agreement to practice CI, and because this attention may be directed towards a person who has not consented to it.

If you are the recipient of attention or actions that feel uncomfortable or unsafe to you, consider: (1) Changing the quality and “feeling” of the dance by way of changing levels, pace, touch quality, etc., (2) Verbally communicating your concerns or boundaries, (3) Leaving the dance. You can remove yourself from the situation for any reason (even if you have to flag someone for help to do so). If you experience a boundary violation, please consider informing the organizers or designated support individuals.

Consent is an ongoing process and is reversible. For instance, on agreeing to dance with someone, you and your partner(s) will then continue to make choices about how to participate in that dance. Part of improvising is continuing to discover our choices and witness and respond to those of our partner(s). If you find yourself overwhelmed or unsure in the moment of what your own feelings are, it can be helpful to move more slowly or potentially exit the dance. If you feel ambivalent or unclear about whether or how you wish to continue to participate in a dance, it can be helpful to focus on what you are saying “yes” to instead. In saying “no” to one type of dance, are you saying “yes” to a different type of dance, “yes” to a dance with a different partner(s), “yes” to a solo dance or even “yes” to not dancing at all? If you notice your partner(s) slowing down or withdrawing, take time to tune into yourself and give them plenty of time and space. It is natural for everyone to feel overwhelmed at some point, and this is more likely the less experience one has. If your partner chooses to end the dance before you are ready, respect their choice.

It needs to be easy to say no for a yes to be meaningful. If someone communicates a boundary to you, respect it, even if you don’t understand or agree with it. If you notice that you are feeling personally rejected when someone communicates a boundary to you, consider seeking support from a trusted person to talk about your feelings.

Avoid giving unwanted attention. This puts a significant burden on dancers who are having to say no over and over and who, too often, may decide to just stop coming to dances. A yes to a dance does not imply consent for other forms of intimacy or connection (a shoulder massage, to eat every meal with you, etc.). If you find yourself always wanting to spend time with one person and actively seeking them out for dances, meals, etc., and the other person is not seeking you out to the same degree, please consider that you may be giving them unwanted attention.

If you have experienced a boundary violation or feel like your choices are not being heard and respected, we encourage you to speak with one of the organizers (or potentially a few other designated people?) as soon as possible so that we can work to resolve the issue. This can be done confidentially.

This document is an ongoing work in progress. We will solicit feedback through discussions at the East Coast Jam and in our post-jam surveys. We continue to welcome suggestions and seek opportunities to make the ECJ safer and more enjoyable for all.