The Newcomer Experience in Contact Dance Improvisation

It is Frank’s first-time dancing with Rose. Rose is a newcomer to contact dance improvisation, while Frank is an experienced dancer and has been attending jams for many years. He easily takes Rose into aerial lifts, and the dance is proceeding in a sensual direction.  Frank is thinking, “Oh, yeah!”. He finds Rose beautiful and wonders if she might like to hang out after the jam. What do you think Frank should do?

As a contact dance improvisation facilitator, I am pro consensual high-flying lifts and pro consensual contact dances that explore different themes, such as intimacy and sensuality. In life outside dance, I am pro-consensual sex. These are all great and wonderful things. If Frank agrees with me, and his goal is to do these things with enthusiastic consent, then it is essential that he educate himself about situations where consent can be confusing. If you are unfamiliar with the term “enthusiastic consent”, watch this excerpt from a Pop Culture Detective video that shows an instance in which Disney got it right. Although they still have lots to work on opening up gender roles, this is a clear example of enthusiastic consent.

There are many ways newcomers (of all different genders) might have an impaired ability to assert their boundaries and might be confused about what jamming is both on and off the dance floor. This can confuse the process of consent. They might be:

  • Lacking of knowledge of what contact dance improvisation is. Newcomers often enter a jam not knowing what the form involves. If they or their partner stretch the bounds of the form, they are not even aware this is occurring because they have yet to understand the form completely. For example, a newcomer attending their first classical contact dance jam might look at people rolling on the floor together, assume it’s all about sex, and then have their first couple of dances with this misconception leading the way. Thus, newcomers may lead or be easily lead into dances that stretch the bounds of the form or of the boundaries of the specific jam they are attending.
  • Not able to say “No” to a request to dance. Newcomers may not know they can easily say “no”. They may lack the language (both verbal and non-verbal) with which to do so. They may lack practice doing in doing so.
  • Not yet able to redirect a dance or say “No” to something occurring in a dance. Newcomers may lack knowledge that they can have a say in the direction of the dance. They may lack the language (both verbal and non-verbal) with which to do so. They may lack practice doing in doing so.
  • Not yet able to end a dance. Newcomers may lack knowledge on when or how to end a dance. They may lack the language (both verbal and non-verbal) with which to do so. They may lack practice doing in doing so.
  • Do not yet understand the CI principle of not taking meaning from a dance into everyday life. 
  • in an altered state:
    a) from being not being used to the oxytocin and endorphin high that can occur with the level of touch involved in the form.
    b) due to touch in the form triggering strong emotions that they do not yet know how to process.
    c) because they are not used to the high level of vestibular input. This can cause disorientation and even nausea.
    d) because they are not yet able to organise experience (i.e. there is not yet a psychological box in their psyche to place experience in, and this can be disorientating).
  • Associating touch with sex. If the only touch in their adult lives has been romantic touch, they may associate touch with sex. They have yet to acclimatise themselves to the range of sensual-to-platonic touch that occurs at a jam. In their first weeks of jamming they might be easily lead, or even lead their partners, into dances that have sexualised front energy without understanding why this is occurring and without knowing how to redirect or end such dances if they feel uncomfortable.
  • due to the startle reflex, easy to lift and even might seem like they are saying “yes” to a lift when they are not. We all have a startle reflex that involves a quick arching and stiffening of the back combined with throwing the head backwards. This is seen in how a person’s back “jumps” if you pop a balloon unannounced behind their back. A newcomer’s nervous system might be on high alert due to all the new sensations and experiences they are having. When someone moves to take them into an over-the-shoulder lift, they may startle. The jerk back of their head and that fact that their body stiffens can make them very easy to lift. The confusing thing about this is that the startle reflex is very similar to the non-verbal cueing one would do in saying “yes” to a shoulder lift. If someone moves to scoop me into a lift, I can consent to this lift non-verbally by arching back, adding tone to my body and tossing my leg into the air. Both reactions look similar on the outside but are very different on the inside. One is a “yes” to being lifted. The other is a nervous system alarm bell going off. Gaining experience over time can reduce this reflexive nervous system response. As well, through practice, someone can learn to “wet noodle” or move down to the floor as a way to non-verbally say “no” to a proposed lift. A person skilled in picking up nonverbal cues can tell the difference between a startle reflex and “yes-lift-me” body language. A startle happens with an involuntary jerk accompanied by a look of fright and  “yes-lift-me” using involves a smooth and strong engagement into being lifted.
  • Experiencing a power imbalance that can occur between the newcomer and more senior dancer. It is a well-understood phenomenon that when romantic relationships occur within a power imbalance, there is a risk that the person with less power may feel a reduced ability to enforce boundaries. The lines that separate what is okay from what is not okay can become blurry. For these reasons, relationships with power imbalances have a higher risk of leading to hurt and even abuse. In the contact dance improvisation communities, I have seen this phenomenon not just occur within romantic relationships but occur within dances. All of the above scenarios, or a mixture of them, can create a power imbalance between the newcomer and a more experienced dancer that can blur the process of putting up boundaries and building consent on and off the dance floor. If the experienced dancer has afforded societal privileges due to income bracket, race, gender, leadership role in community etc the newcomer/ senior dancer power imbalance can be even more acute.

Granted, all newcomers come to their first jam with a wide range of background experiences. If, for example, newcomers enter into contact dance improvisation from a background that involves ecstatic dance, martial arts, BDSM, kink or polyamory communities or some other relational experience it is possible they may arrive with some knowledge, skills and confidence that carries over into contact dance improvisation. If so, they may arrive at their first jam with only a few, of the above scenarios. Or the situations may be present in a milder form. However, many newcomers with or without such previous experience arrive at their fist jam with many or all of the above scenarios in their most acute form. Every-day living in most cultures frequently does not supply people with the skills needed to navigate their first contact dance improvisation experience from an empowered place. The good news is that acute versions of the above scenarios tend to resolve themselves as the newcomer learns about the form and the different way to assert their boundaries. From my experience, this usually takes about three months of a regular attendance, but can take a shorter or longer time depending on the individual. Also, it is important to mention that these scenarios often never fully go away. For instance, I will over my jamming lifetime continue to work on my boundary-setting language.  Thus, even the most senior dancer is likely to be still working on resolving some of these scenarios.  This can be part of the joy and challenge of the form.

So let’s look at how Rose’s story might play out.

As their dance begins, Rose starts touching Frank with the front of her hands. She does this because, in her adult life, touch has only ever been two things: romantic or massage related. In both these activities, the front of the hand is the main form of touch. Rose moves to this because it is the only touch “road” she knows and because she has not yet learned about rolling-point of contact. She is not trying to initiate a sensual dance with Frank but inadvertently does so because of her touch associations. She does not feel conformable with the sensual nature of their dance but does not know how to redirect or end the dance. Rose is also in an altered state due to high levels of oxytocin and disorientated from rolling around on the ground and being turned upside down. She is not able to understand or organise her dance with Frank using her usual psychological strategies. She questions, “What is this that we’re doing? What does it mean?”, and has no clear answers. In this state of overwhelm, her nervous system is on high alert and she startles the first time Frank moves to scoop her up onto his shoulders. Frank reads the jerk of her head back into his arms as a green-light to carry through with the lift. Frank finds her easy to lift because her startle-reflex has added tone to her back. The first lift and the subsequent lifts are frightening for Rose, but she does not know that she can end the dance or say “no” to being lifted. She’s taking her cues from the more experienced person. During one of the lifts, a muscle in her back goes into spasm. Despite the pain, she continues with the dance because she still does not understand that she can end the dance. The dance goes on for another twenty minutes and finally ends when Frank needs a drink of water. Rose is not familiar with the general understanding that dancers do not extend meaning from a dance into life off the dance floor. She is confused because she feels that, by the nature of the dance, Frank might think she wants to have sex with him. Rose has felt disempowered throughout the dance. She felt she did not have a choice about being lifted or the nature of their dance or the length of their dance. From this disempowered place she is nervous that Frank might ask her out. She feels confused about what the expectations might be and about how she should respond if he does ask her out. She goes home that night, and while taking a hot bath to help soothe her back-spasm, she bursts into tears and is not even sure why she is crying.

From hearing Rose’s side of the story, and understanding the different scenarios a newcomer might arrive with, do you think it’s reasonable to expect Rose at her first jam can assert her boundaries, or give enthusiastic consent, to:

  • acrobatic lifts?
  • dances exploring sensuality?
  • invitations to carry the sensuality of the dance into the bedroom?

I think the answer is no. I believe she will not be able to offer clear consent to these things until she has acclimatised herself to jam culture and picked up some contact dance improvisation boundary-setting skills. The idea that there are vulnerable individuals goes against the well-known tenet of contact dance improvisation that:  we are responsible for our own safety. This tenant gives people the freedom to be, knowing that we each take responsibility to protect ourselves both physically and emotionally. For a large segment of the experienced contact dance improvisation population, this approach works out well.  But how does this tenant work out for the average newbie in the room who may not yet have the skill, knowledge, practice, vocabulary (verbal and non-verbal) or state of mind with which to be in charge of their own safety? I believe it is like throwing children into the water to teach them to swim. It works great for some, but many people drown. This attitude often acts like some sort of unspoken initiation ritual. We can convince ourselves that this works out okay, since the ones that are traumatised physically or emotionally at their first jam usually never come back and we don’t ever hear from them. So we don’t have to think about them. They are invisible to us, and so it can be easy to underestimate the magnitude newcomer’s issues. We reassure ourselves that these people just “didn’t have what it takes” to be part of our jam community.

I was shocked after I wrote my #metoo post on Facebook, which told the story of some boundary challenges I face in the contact improvisation world. Out of over 150 responses to the post, almost thirty of them were people who told me that they came to a jam once and were so traumatised (physically or emotionally) that they never came back. The Me Too movement had given this group of people a voice that I could hear and made me realise the magnitude of the newcomer issue. For some people, the art of contact dance itself is traumatising, similar to the way even the most well-administered style of psychotherapy can traumatise a client because it is not the right fit for them.  For some people, the amount of touch they receive from a stranger or the fact that they are rolling on the floor may not suit them and can leave them traumatised. I do however believe there is a large segment of newcomers for whom contact dance improvisation would suit them, but they have such a traumatising entrance into our community that we lose them. Or else they stick around but have painful stories to tell.

Now in our story, Frank is not some insensitive asshole who is out to abuse Rose.  He is probably a well-meaning guy who just does not understand the different scenarios facing a beginner arriving at a jam. In fact, he might even have been using a motto of “safety can be found in following where my partner wants to go” as a way to try and keep his dance with Rose consensual. While this motto can work well with an experienced dancer, it falls short with newcomers. As we’ve seen, a newcomer might not know enough about the form to lead or redirect people where they want.

On the darker side, I want to tell the story of someone attending the jam with the intention to find a sex partner and who is well practised in using persuasive methods to do so. This is often referred to as “cruising”, and is more consistent with nightclub culture. It is something that many jams do not tolerate. Let’s say this Looking-For-Sex-Person arrives and scopes out the room to see who is the most likely person to give them what they want. They see Rose at the end of the studio, and from her body language and look in her eyes they think, “Yes, there is my target”. This person tends to target young newcomers because their lack of know-how about the form often makes the newcomer more pliable to their will. They ask Rose to dance and easily lead her into a very sensual dance because of the touch associations she has arrived with. Throughout the dance, they work to establish their power over Rose by being in charge of the dance and moving her body around at will. Rose feels very uncomfortable but does know how to redirect or end the dance. Looking-For-Sex-Person dances with Rose for 45 minutes until the jam ends. Rose is now in an altered state caused by more touch then she is used to. She also has a feeling that her boundaries were crossed but she can’t quite figure out why she feels this way. Looking-For-Sex-Person then asks Rose to come over to their place after the jam. They see she is uncertain about how to respond. Eager to have sex with her, they move to persuasive techniques to help ensure she will say yes. They undermine her confidence by telling her that her hesitation represents a flaw in her ability to connect with people. They explain how they could sense her inability to trust from the hesitation she had when they lifted her. They explain that, as someone very experienced in contact improvisation, they can easily help her get over her fear of trusting people. They offer her lessons at their private home studio.

The predator techniques used in this example combines with Rose’s newcomer status can make it very challenging for Rose to assert her boundaries effectively or even figure out what she wants. Please note that if this situation, or something similar, ever happens to you at a jam, tell the jam facilitator immediately. In most jams predatory behaviour is not tolerated.

Now at this moment, you might think this doesn’t happen in your CI community. I sincerely hope that you are right. I also want you to consider for a moment that unearthing this type of behaviour in your community might be too painful to acknowledge. Possibly, you need to believe that the contact improvisation world is a just and fair place that is able to stand above rape culture might outweigh your ability to see the truth. One way to figure out if this is happening in your community is to start talking with people. Have them read this article and ask if any part speaks to what their newcomer experience was like. If so, maybe ask them in what ways these scenarios played out. Also, keep in mind that these are the people who stuck it out. The voices that will be missing are the ones who left after their first few jams and never came back. From the stories you hear, you can start to imagine what these lost voices might say.

So what do we do to give newcomers a better chance at making it through their newcomer status without trauma (or at least less trauma) and with a sense that they want to stay engaged with our community if they so choose? We can never make the experience perfectly safe, but could we do better?

There are several avenues through which this issue can be addressed:

1) education the community – educate the community about possible newcomer scenarios and give guidance as to how to dance with a newcomer.

3) educate newcomers – newcomers receive information that gives them some know-how and skills in taking care of their own emotional and physical safety at a jam:
a) hand-out
b) video
c) tutorial

4) designate dance ambassadors – dancers trained in dancing with newcomers are at each jam

5) jam facilitator – keeps an eye out for troubling newcomer issues, and offers support to newcomers

5) other ideas? – I would love to hear from you about other possibilities. Please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments or send me resources for the list at the bottom of the article.

It’s common that jams worldwide are run by volunteers or low-wage administrators and there is little extra money for resources. The cheapest thing, time-wise and money-wise is to do nothing about the newcomer issue. All of the above takes time and thought. For example, to train, hire and schedule dance ambassadors to be at every jam is a big job. A person taking on such a job, with limited resources, risks experiencing burnout. So the big question is, what can be done that is both sustainable and effective?

As the facilitator of the Toronto Wednesday Dance Jam I have chosen at the moment to educate and guide my jam population about the newcomer experience and to give information to newcomers through a hand-out that they read before their first jam. Please see below for these resources. This approach is an experiment in progress. I’m not saying it’s the right way, it’s just the way I am trying at this moment. I will let you know how it turns out or what changes I make along the way.

Okay, so now for my final story. Let’s pretend that after reading this article, Frank uses a time machine to go back in time to redo his first dance with Rose. In this redo, let’s also say that Rose watched a video giving her pointers on how to assert her boundaries in a dance and outlining some general community practices. This time, right from the start of the dance Frank acknowledges Rose’s newcomer status and shows her how to end a dance, letting her know she can end their dance whenever she wants.  Frank holds back from taking her into aerial lifts and directs their dance away from the exploration of themes such as sensuality that might be intense and confusing for a beginner. Rose ends the dance after ten minutes and takes time on the side of the studio to watch the jam. While doing so, she starts to sort through her experience and figure what exactly this jamming thing is. Frank is attracted to Rose but understanding the vulnerability of the newcomer experience, he decides to give things time. Rose gradually acclimatises herself to jam culture and learns language with which to assert her boundaries. Frank and her start to have dances that explore the theme of sensuality and aerial lifts with enthusiastic consent on both sides. They get to know each other as they hang out in the social scene that occurs after the jam. Eventually Rose invites Frank over to her place and they start dating. When Rose talks about her newcomer experience she says it was scary and at times confusing (that is, not perfectly safe) but she felt that she received the necessary tools and support needed to make it through. She arrived at a sense of empowerment and became an enthusiastic member of the contact improvisation community.

Okay, let’s all take a collective sigh of relief that Rose made it through okay in this final story. Let us also begin the discussion about ways to support newcomers so this outcome is more common.

Toronto Wednesday Dance Jam Boundary Guidelines’s%20Wed%20Dance%20Jam%20Safe%20Boundaries.pdf

Toronto Wednesday Dance Jam Newcomer’s Tip Sheet


Kathleen ReaAuthor

Kathleen Rea danced with Canada’s Ballet Jörgen Canada, National Ballet of Canada & Tiroler Landestheater (Austria). Kathleen has taught at School of Toronto Dance Theatre, York University and Niagara College. She is a faculty member of in the dance department at George Brown College, teaching Contact Dance Improvisation. She has choreographed over 40 dance works and been nominated for five DORA awards. Her film Lapinthrope, co-produced with Alec Kinnear won Gold Award at the Festival Der Nationen (Austria). Kathleen is also a recipient of a K. M. Hunter Choreographic Award and is a published author (“The Healing Dance”, Charles C. Thomas). She has a Master’s in Expressive Arts Therapy and is a Registered Psychotherapist (CRPO). Recently Kathleen graduated as a Brain Advancement Coach. In January 2015 Kathleen became a candidate teacher of the Axis Syllabus. She is the director of REAson d’etre dance productions who produces the Wednesday Dance Jam, the Contact Dance International Film Festival, and the Moved by Natural Forces Retreat. Recently Kathleen premiered Men’s Circle a dance-theatre play that tells the story of a men’s therapy group. “…The vulnerability we are often taught to erase in men is fully realized throughout the piece in a variety of gorgeous choreographed modes” Bateman Reviews

11 thoughts on “The Newcomer Experience in Contact Dance Improvisation

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  1. This post is full of wisdom, and I’m grateful that you wrote it. I know it will circulate far and wide. May I adapt your Newcomer Tip Sheet for our jam, acknowledging you? (To me, the example of enthusiastic consent you use ( ) would be better without the “grab and lift” in the beginning, where Anna is given no chance at consent and seems startled when Kristoff grabs her. )


    1. Yes, I agree she does startle in the lift in the example of enthusiastic consent. I thought about not using it because of this. but then my thinking is that even in enthusiastic consent situation it will not be perfect. It seems like he senses her startle and then pulls back to check in with her. If I had more time and resources, I would have liked to make my own video example. But I ran out of steam and this was the best example I could find. I had also wanted to make a video versions of the tip sheet. But I ran out of steam for that as well. All in time. Yes please adapt the newcomer tip sheet and reference me as a source… and then please send it to me or post it on Benjamin Pierce.
      I am really excited to see how people do things differently from me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Kathleen, for holding this flag on the other side of the ocean. It surely supports the work I am trying to do in our community. I also appreciate how hard it is to stand against the current, which sometimes seems as if it wishes to sanctify the anarchistic freedom of CI, even at the expense of some people getting hurt.

    Part of the satisfaction in the practice of contact and improvisation is that things are not as clear as they are in the spoken world. This ambiguity gives us space to experience parts of ourselves which are more associative and less structured, more imaginative and primal than our usual daily existence. I believe we can keep this practice while still cultivating care for the other.

    I find this article very important because it captures very subtle psycho-social nuances of what can happen to people in jams, and as you so rightfully stated, some of us are still dealing with those scenarios to this day. It is not shameful. The problem starts when we ignore ourselves for the sake of “getting along” schoolyard style. Unfortunately in order to do this, we need to dissociate from parts of ourselves, and eventually we are in the danger of being left neither with good company of people nor the company of ourselves.

    I will make sure this article is reposted on our community boards, in hope that it will heighten the awareness of the community to newcomers, as well as help some of us reflect on our own practices.

    I will add that as much as I was scared to do this in fear that it will drive away new students, I am making it more and more a habit to open every class with a little text about boundaries, and the obligation to act or speak out, even in a class, when something is not comfortable for us, even if we’re dancing with a superstar partner.

    Thanks again!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Imagine yourself a young man (woman?) going into a room full of people you wish to belong to (the prom? first year party in college?) and someone who seems like they know what’s going down approaches you and starts telling you things and wishing to show you around. Though your body may say “wait! I need more time!” your other part may go into “I better follow. This is my ticket in. It may never return. If I say no to this person he will go away and tell about me that I am not a collaborator and no one will approach me. I will be alone in this room and will not belong!” so even though they may be saying a feeble yes, fear of not belonging – one of the deepest ones I think – looms around there and controls them.
      If I am really considerate, really want to have a new dance partner who will stick around this form, I will have to be patient with all their parts.
      BTW I find this as a teach as well – move too fast, and you loose have the beginners in your class. Remember how many fears this can bring up – touch, and so close for that matter.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Great Question Bogdan
      I will speak from my personal perspective. I think one of the main reason to seek enthusiastic consent is that it often is more fun. If I ask someone over for tea and they say a very lukewarm “yes” that seems uncertain then I imagine the tea we will have together for me will not be that fun because they are not excited about having tea with me. If hower they give an enthusiastic yes to tea then I think the chance of having a great time is much higher.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. dear kathleen! thanks for your post, I enjoyed reading a lot. it highlightens many topics, i’m experiencing/observing at many jams, and which kept me thinking about how to adress them. I’m not teaching ci myself, but just recently i started organising ‘how not to crash’-courses for complete newcomers together with a teacher of mine. in those short workshops we try to give the participants an insight of how CI ‘works’ and what’s happening at a jam (which starts half an hour after the workshop). for the last months there were 5-10 people each time, some only for the workshop, some stayed for the jam.
    the reason why I started this was because I wanted to provide a low-theshold-approach to CI. there are a lot of jams (in Vienna, where I live) and a lot of classes and workshops. but if you are a newcomer and not sure what you are looking for, a ‘weekend-workshop’ might be too much for you (and too expensive), but if you are just entering a jam, you will probably feel lost and/or overwhelmed. so i thought about something in between…
    I read something about a ‘newcomer tip sheet’ on top… is this available for everyone? this might be useful for what I’m trying to convey..
    thanks again for sharing your thoughts! keep that blog running! 🙂


    1. What a great idea to do a ‘how not to crash’-courses for complete newcomers. The name for me implies how not to crash in many not just physical but in other ways too. It would be great if you submitted a blog post describing your approach and how it is working out. The beginner tip sheet is a work in progress. I just created it last week. Please let me know if you see something that is not there that could be helpful or something that could be changed to be more helpful. The tip sheet can be found at the end of the article in the resource section…. but here is the URL as well.


      1. Dear Kathleen, thanks for your offer of publishing a blog post! i love to write something about it, as soon as we have some written feedback of participants.. which i’m really courious to read. meanwhile the discussion goes on in our community, we just had a small discussion panel regarding aspects of your post and are working on an adapted beginner information-sheet. thanks again for sharing!


  4. Thank you Kathleen!
    This is some excellent writing, thinking, explaining here. I “lightly facilitate” the Sunday Movement/Contact Jam here in Seattle, and I know this issue has been lurking around many jams for years. I will use your permission above to adapt your newcomers sheet as a hand out here and send you a copy. Thanks again for your leadership…!


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