Contact Jams


Contact Jams (a guide for the unfamiliar, plus some thinking points for the familiar)

Contact Jams are open gatherings where people come together to practice contact, ranging from weekly gatherings of a few hours to weekend or week-long retreat gatherings.

Contact Jams are normally unfacilitated, having no central instructor or guide. As such, there isn’t someone leading you into what to do, but you are left up to your own devises and curiosities. What makes it a contact jam is a common curiosity in the investigation of contact improvisation.

What you will find at a contact jam could vary wildly, both from community to community and even from one night to another. There is even a a fair bit of variance in the implicit definition and etiquette of what a contact jam is.

Historically, there was perhaps more coherence. When contact improvisation was a newer investigation (in the 70s and 80s), people were drawn in primarily because of what they were seeing at contact jams. Even if their was an avoidance of nailing down explicitly what was being done, the specificity of the investigation in terms of an exploration of physics on subtle and gross levels, was relatively clear from observation and this is what drew people in. However, over the years, as the practice of contact took off in different directions and the specificity of reference point became less obvious, more and more people were draw into jams or started jams more from the reference of the words “open investigation”, rather than the movement studies which started the investigation. As such, there are some contact jams which are more like “Open Movement Jams” (example … Seattle Sunday Jam), as well as some which are more framed (explicitly or implicitly) as Ensemble Improvisation Jams. Some jams have more of a flavor of evolving physical investigation, while others lean more towards social dances or decompression spaces.

Etiquette and Frame

It is the exception, rather than the rule, that someone explicitly sets out the frame or etiquette of a jam, so it is usually something that is left implicit and organically created by the people who happen to keep showing up. This approach has its advantages and disadvantages and of course really depends on the particulars of who is their implicitly shaping it.

Here is an attempt to make explicit our understanding of what a contact jam is and the underlying etiquette. Valuing specificity, this description represents the frame and invitation that we try to hold to when we host contact jams. This can be contrasted to other forms of open movement frames (some of which are described below).

By our meaning, a contact jam is an open, unfacilitated space where people are coming together with a shared curiosity and reference point in the investigations emerging out of the experiments of Steve Paxton et al in the mid 70s under the name “contact improvisation.” We have a curiosity about body organization and the physics, subtle and gross, of bodies moving through contact, primarily in duet, but inclusive of other configurations.

Our investigations and curiosities may move off from there, but there is an understanding of and sincere (and primary) interest in investigating those questions of physics and body-use in contact. As such, we take time for personal warm-up and for solo explorations as we are drawn to. The difference from an open movement jam in this context has to do with motivation … the motivation for warm-up and for solo-time has to do with the exploration of these questions of body-organization and physics.

Etiquette is intentionally somewhat amorphous, but the spirit is to create a space where contactors have the freedom to explore where individual curiosities go, given our idiosyncrasies as well as common reference points in contact. As such, we generally

  • respect each others needs for finding self/warming-up/exploring solo investigation (some people may jump straight into contact, while others may want an hour or more for self first)
  • put a priority on duet investigations without being too precious about it, so we can allow transitions as well as occasional trios and beyond.
  • enter dances with a spirit of listening and tuning into what is already there
  • negotiate in sharing the space (more fast-moving dances respect slower dances by being careful or steering into empty space… more quiet dances respect faster dances by holding an attention to clearing space and collaborating on personal safety … finished dances clear the space (note: two relatively motionless dancers are not necessarily “finished”.) )
  • keep social chat off the dance floor and all talking discrete in order to facilitate a focused atmosphere.

We do NOT assume that we have to dance with anyone in particular or enter into any particular flavor of exploration just because someone else initiates.There is a sense of autonomy, rather than obligation. (We may find it interesting to investigate our internal resistances, but this is ideally motivated by an active curiousity, rather than sense of obligation.)


Is a contact jam a place for a beginner? Sometimes, but not necessarily. Some jams are very beginner friendly with an explicit or implicit etiquette of experienced dancers taking up responsibility to greet and introduce new dancers to the practice. This is generally more true in smaller communities where there may not be ongoing classes and where the jam also serves as an informal class space for beginners (example … Wednesday night jam in Eugene, OR).

Other jams are more focused on people pursuing their own personal dance and exploration. In these jams, more geared towards people who are already comfortable with their investigation of contact in a jam setting, beginners may be actively discouraged from coming (encouraged to go to classes first to get a basic intro to contact) or may be invited but left to themselves to figure their way in. This is usually the case in larger communities where there are more ongoing classes for introducing dancers to contact and where the community is less coherent (example …Counterpulse Tuesday night jam in San Francisco, CA). When do you know if you are ready to attend such a jam? ‘hard to give a straight answer, but it has something to do with your own comfort in figuring things out socially in the unknown as well as your growing familiarity with contact and the idiosyncrasies of the particular jam (both that community and that particular night). A rule of thumb that Steve Paxton once put out many years ago was that someone would have an idea of the contact fundamentals after about a week (~ 30 hours) of study. Things have evolved much since then in the practice of CI, but this is still an interesting reference point. In any case usually at such jams, unless their is a posted policy to the contrary, it is safe to assume that people are happy with people coming to try things out in any case, as long as you are coming in the spirit of trying to figure out the basics, rather than just using it as an Open Movement Jam.

class vs jam? training and technique — Should one go to classes or jams to practice contact and develop technique?

There are some people who only go to jams and never go to classes, being content with the results of their own process. Some people practice contact for years very devotedly and never step foot in a jam, preferring the more coherently focused environment created by a good teacher or within rehearsal process. Some people go to both, getting different things in different places. It really depends on what you want and what is particularly available in terms of jams and instructors. Jams aren’t for everyone. For others they are the main avenue and reason for doing contact.

Entering and initiating dances? This is often the most confusing thing for new dancers (and sometimes experienced dancers as well)… how and when to initiate dances?

This is definitely one of those amorphous things about the jam. Some people come very open to dance with everyone. some people are very particular about whom they want to dance with. Some are very particular about how they want to explore (which might systematically result in “with whom”). These things can shift from day to day and moment to moment. Some people just “get it” immediately. For others it takes time.

I like to think of initiating a dance as a process of questioning, even if it is non-verbal. What are they investigating, where are they at, internal vs externally focused? Am I open to something that would seem mutually complimentary?

I of course won’t know for sure, but if it seems like a “maybe”, I continue the questioning, which brings me more explicitly into interaction. Maybe i ask, “want to roll?” Maybe i move near and see if they start to adjust their movements with mine in a way that is interesting and interested. If it’s non-verbal, there is, of course the tension between offering initiation and not wanting to disturb, but one step to the next (which might be a split second and might take a while and be an investigation in itself), we find ourselves either in contact or not.

Verbal communication can sometimes be wonderful.

It’s advisable to not take it too personally if someone chooses not to dance or to come with too much attachment. Conversely, you should feel free to say “no” if for whatever reason you don’t feel like dancing, even if you can’t explain it. Freedom goes both ways. Autonomy is the “rule”.

Gender is an interesting issue. Are we drawn to explore contact cross-gender, same gender? Does it have to do with gender itself or with physicality that comes along generally with gender? It’s good to be aware of and, while not necessarily being self-critical about it, to be self-questioning. As anything with gender, they are more statistical regularities than hard and fast rules. Also, while some things have to do with physiology, probably most have to do with social construction of gender. Contact has always been a place where gender roles are invited to be challenged, and it is also a structural fact that most anybody, with effective body use, has the physical capacity to effortlessly lift and move (or be lifted and moved by) most anyone else through a focus on structure and alignment.

Focus Jams: Over the years many contact jams have become more places of social gathering or “do-whatever-you-want” spaces, less about a sense of research and development of technique and understanding and more about decompression and social exchange. In reaction to this shift there are a number of jams popping up trying to reestablish a sense of investigation, both personally and within the group. Sometimes called Focus Jams, structures and frames vary, but usually involve a more clearly held frame of exploration of contact improvisation, respect for supporting personal investigation (usually involving “no social chatter” rules), and some form of group verbal feedback and/or intention sharing.

Other forms or frames of improvisation/movement jam

Often the frames of a gathering are left loose and determined by what people start to do when they arrive. The problem arises when people arrive with different understandings and conflicting desires. People coming to a contact jam with the intention of an Ensemble Improvisation Jam are likely to be very disappointed at contactors’ lack of interest (in this context) to spatial composition beyond practical concerns of making sure everyone has space. People coming from an Open Movement Jam or “free dance” mentality to a CI Jam may disturb through a dilution of focus on contact. Someone going to an Ensemble Jam with a contact jam intention may irritate everyone by disturbing and homogenizing the visual space.

  • Open Movement Jams — the understanding is that there is open studio space for people to do what they want as long as they aren’t interfering with others’ abilities to do the same. The reference point here is New York’s long-standing Open Movement, where you are as likely to find people working on choreography as doing ensemble improvisation or practicing ci, yoga, or tai chi. With the popularity of CI rising, this often looks like a contact jam, but there is still very much the spirit of “anything goes” and “do your own thing” . Usually done without music.
  • Ensemble Improvisational Movement Jams — the focus here is on group collaboration on stage improvisation with an emphasis on composition
  • Dance Jam/ Boogie/”free dance” – dj’d dance events in dance studios with no smoking, no drinking, no shoes rules and an invitation to do whatever you need. The feel varies widely from one to another. Some are more like especially friendly club dancing. Others are spaces where people are using the space to do everything from club dance to butoh to yoga to contact improvisation in a very accepting atmosphere for both casual dancers and those for whom dance is a life-pursuit or profession. Some are spaces where an interest in personal interaction is generally assumed and others where it is easy to move into private movement explorations and back out as desired. example …
 Posted by at 10:52 pm