You’re in a CI beginners class, and after a series of fun warm-up exercises, the teacher is getting down to business. She’s imparting information now, and she says the following mystical sentence: “There’s only one rule in contact improvisation, and that is: take care of yourself.” She raises her eyebrows as she says this, and you get the sense that there’s some hidden meaning behind her statement. What is it? What’s going on there?

It’s called the First Rule of CI, or the Only Rule, or the maybe the Fundamental Principle. Its shorthand version is “take care of yourself,” but I’ve heard it expressed as, “Above all else, you are responsible for yourself.”

As I understand it and as it’s been explained to me, the First Rule is what allows a heterogenous group of people to dance and play safely with each other in the same space. The First Rule charges each person with knowing their body, knowing their own limits, knowing what is safe and what isn’t for them, and communicating that to others in the dance space as much as is necessary. You are responsible for not getting into a physical situation you can’t handle, or for not pushing yourself beyond what is safe for you. You are responsible for setting and communicating your boundaries.

Beyond that, the First Rule is a bit of a philosophical imperative as well. It gives you the responsibility not only for your safety, but for everything you experience in contact improvisation. Paired with contact improvisation’s open structure, it means no matter how you feel or what you experience in contact improvisation, you (1) are responsible for it, (2) are empowered to change it, and (3) can’t blame any existing structure for your experience. Having a “bad dance”? It’s not because your partner is bad — it’s because you’re experiencing the dance as bad, or because you’re not able to dance with that person, or because you haven’t made the dance better. Any number of options are available to you: to change how you feel about the dance, to change the dance from the inside, to ask for something from your partner, to wait and see what happens, to leave the dance. Feeling like someone you’re dancing with is “creepy”? Again, it’s up to you to change how you feel, change the dance, say something, to wait and see what happens, or to leave the dance. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Actually, that last example is a kind of dark side or shadow around the First Rule.  I too often hear the First Rule, or some version of it, voiced as an excuse for not being proactive when it comes to preventing and addressing potential sexual harassment at jams. I worry about a young, inexperienced, usually female dancer, who doesn’t understand that her own comfort and physical safety are up to her, who doesn’t understand that she’s responsible for setting her own boundaries (that in contact, there’s essentially no etiquette or social code that sets those boundaries for her), and who ends up in an uncomfortable situation with a more experienced, usually male dancer, who takes advantage of her ignorance of her responsibility for communicating her boundaries or her hesitation or inability to do so. But then when we talk about addressing this, people feel weird about this (simply because it’s sex, I think), and say something like, Well, everyone is Responsible For Themselves. Why shouldn’t we explicitly have a talk about sexual harassment at multi-day jams, or appoint a special liaison to report complaints to? Well, everyone knows that they’re Responsible for Themselves, don’t they? Sigh.

But don’t get me wrong: aside from the First Rule being as an excuse for inaction (not just in dealing with potential sexual harassment, but also, for not building community, for not being courteous in some situations, for being excessively individualistic), I do genuinely think it’s brilliant most of the time.

And the First Rule can easily be a departure point for a personal philosophy off the dance floor as well. Applying the First Rule off the dance floor would go like this: I’m responsible for how I feel. It’s up to me to take whatever situation I’m in and change how I feel about it, to alter the situation itself, to wait and see, or to leave it. The difference, however, is that there are Other Rules off the dance floor, some of which arguably take away your freedom to change your situation.

* * *

As has been often the case, I’m surprised at the extent to which the First Rule of CI was ingrained in my early days of dancing in Los Angeles and on the West Coast, and how frequently I *don’t* hear it mentioned east of the Rockies. And I’m not sure to what extent the First Rule has failed to be codified outside the West Coast, and to what extent it’s understood but just not talked about much.

It’s deeply ingrained in Los Angeles, to the extent that I think it’s actually said at every opening circle at the jams now. But I don’t think I’ve actually heard it mentioned in three years in New York. Hm.

I’m going to do some investigation and find out if I’m the only one out here that’s heard of this. I’d love to hear other folks’ experiences with the First Rule — is it talked about where you’re from? Or maybe, is it something that makes intuitive sense, but has never been codified for you?


Further evidence that the First Rule is well-established on the West Coast: I received an e-mail on October 11 from Carolyn Stuart promoting her and Patrick Gracewood’s January workshop, the 7th annual WOW of Contact, at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon. The focus of the workshop will be “the One and Only guideline in C.I. ~’To take care of yourself, first.’~.”

9 comments for “Rules

  1. 2023/04/07 at 17:40

    Hey Richard,

    At the end of your blog post, you offer that you’ve mostly seen the “First Rule” on the west coast, and have an update with a 2014 reference.

    I was recently looking for some inception and found this 2020 article from Nancy Stark Smith in CQ stating that in the earliest days taking care of one’s self was squarely alongside taking care of others, and in fact the mutual care was central in the earliest days of CI.

    • 2023/04/07 at 17:41

      oops – left off the meat of the question:

      Did you find any more about the source of this “first rule” framing?

      • richard
        2023/05/08 at 22:44

        Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think you’re referring to this letter by Nancy Stark Smith:

        I have no particularly strong insight into the lineage of the “First Rule.” I think in the years since I wrote this, I’ve learned that Carolyn Stuart is often identified with this idea, with two important caveats: First, that Carolyn has consistently presented this as “Take care of yourself, *first*,” often with an “oxygen masks on an airplane framing”—thus avoiding some of the potential callousness that might be inferred by the bare “take care of yourself,” and second, that Carolyn doesn’t take credit for this phrase, instead appearing to attribute it to the original group of CI dancers (see ).

        It might be worth asking Carolyn at some point, if folks are curious. I think it’s safe to say that if Nancy Stark Smith disclaimed the idea, that it evolved sometime outside that original crew, but I wonder where and when? I suspect somewhere on the West Coast still.

  2. Michele Beaulieux
    2018/09/21 at 19:54

    Hi Richard,

    In regard to your statement, “that freedom can come at the expense of folks who may have difficulty asserting their boundaries” in your comment, I would say that that freedom can come at the expense of more than just people who have difficulty asserting their boundaries. It’s at the expense of anyone who doesn’t want to spend their time dancing fending off unwelcome advances.

    Also, while dance training is helpful, it’s just part of the answer.

    My article, “How the First Rule Brought #MeToo to CI,” will be published in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of Contact Quarterly.” Here’s the gist: The first rule of CI—take care of yourself—is a necessary and useful element of a comprehensive safety strategy, but it is problematic on its own or as a first priority. It sides with people who have privilege and power because such people are both less likely to need to defend themselves and better able to. It is difficult and unpleasant for the people needing it to use, especially when group and societal norms do not support their saying “no.” The first rule is a risk reduction strategy: it can work for a potential victim-survivor in a given situation but does not prevent future violations. And by putting the responsibility on potential victim-survivors, it encourages victim blaming when violations do occur. As a result, the first rule, when presented as the first or only rule, discourages full participation, changing who dances.

  3. Michele Beaulieux
    2018/09/11 at 23:01

    HI Richard, Given that you now seem to have more reservations about the first rule than you express in this post, would you consider saying something about that here? Michele

    • richard
      2018/09/17 at 13:15

      Sure. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the encouragement to clarify my thought. I’ve been planning a bigger post which I’ll hopefully write in the next week or so, but briefly:

      While I still like the idea of the “First Rule” in that it allows folks who might be self-conscious about whether or not they’re giving too much weight, being rude, doing something they’re not, etc., to relax and devote more of their brain power to doing things like balancing, paying attention to their partner, and not getting hurt — it’s increasingly clear that that freedom can come at the expense of folks who may have difficulty asserting their boundaries, whether because of personality, personal experiences, power dynamics around identity, etc. When it comes to issues of touch that might make a partner uncomfortable (whether sexual, intimate, controlling, or otherwise), it’s increasingly clear that women relative to men bear a disproportionate burden of asserting their boundaries. And other marginalized identities (whether along race, dis/ability, sexual identity, gender identity, etc.) can also bear this burden disproportionately.

      I don’t have any brilliant answers to this. My best answer so far is that as dancers become more experienced, they should take on a corresponding burden of (1) being conscious of the effects of their dancing on their partner, and (2) checking in with their partner as to their partner’s comfort level with the dance. This burden might decrease with your knowledge of a partner’s experience level and/or your personal comfort with them — i.e., I know this person, and I know that they’ll be able to say something if things feel uncomfortable. But checking is rarely (never?) a bad idea.

      Many more ideas that can and should be implemented as well, but that’s a quick gloss.

      But it doesn’t make sense that we treat someone that’s been dancing for 5-10 years as being on the same level as someone who has just started dancing, particularly around the ability to be aware of and articulate one’s boundaries. For now, it makes sense to me that we put a higher duty of care on the more experienced dancer to help both people’s boundaries be honored.

      • richard
        2018/10/24 at 18:48

        Just to tie together with more writing on the subject, I wrote a brief note on the First Rule for the online edition of CQ, in the context of asking “Why is contact improvisation so white?.” You’ll also see I’m attempting to coin the term “critical CI theory” — please feel to use! :)

  4. Berenise
    2018/07/28 at 18:49

    Gracias x la nota! Carolyn Stuart fue mi primera maestra…Graaaan maestra..Y esa primera regla está muy bien sembrada en mi camino de ci. ..desde un principio.

  5. richard
    2014/05/30 at 05:25

    I just revisited Kathleen Rea’s “Promoting Safe Boundaries at the [Toronto] Wednesday Jam” (, which I think has been revised since I last read it. Kathleen has been the first, I think, to actually go *beyond* the first rule, in setting additional guidelines to protect those who may not feel able to assert their boundaries.

    In doing so, she directly references the First Rule (see bottom of the second page), but argues that the First Rule may be insufficient for some. Fascinating, and worth more discussion.

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