When Reform Doesn’t Work

Me, Michele Beaulieux, reading “What First Rule of CI?” (at 1:10) at the Reading Jam for Nancy Stark Smith. Behind me is the oil pastel series called “Jam Series” that I drew to illustrate my CQ CI Newsletter articles about the First Rule.

We’re at an inflection point, asking fundamental questions about who we are. The novel coronavirus started the reassessment. Beating the virus requires recognizing that we’re in this together. On this planet. Interconnected. Inextricably linked. I wear a mask to protect you; you wear one to protect me. The virus is showing us why “take care of yourself” is not enough.

And if we didn’t get the message of our common humanity from the virus, the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd is driving it home. Calls to defund the police are based on a fundamental desire to take care of each other.

Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba isn’t looking for reforms. Instead, she addresses the foundation upon which we choose to create our culture.

 “People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation.”

Mariame Kaba, Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police: Because reform won’t happen. New York Times Op-Ed

And that’s what I realized I needed to do, too, when I was confronted with a Contact Improvisation dance community that wanted to make incremental changes in its approach to safety. I didn’t want to talk ad infinitum about wearing armbands or signing in. If the group didn’t agree that the group and its members had, first and foremost, a responsibility to take care of each other, the reforms were pointless. I came up with the Beaulieu Test, modeled after the Bechdel Test, as a quick way to assess a group’s foundational values. That is, does the group encourage members to take care of and respect each other?

My local dance community was failing the Beaulieu Test. It was operating under “take care of yourself” assumptions that many have termed “the first rule of Contact Improvisation.” (In “How the First Rule Brought #MeToo to Contact Improvisation” published in Contact Quarterly, I show how the first rule is insufficient and, as the first priority, actively harmful.) The first rule is an embodiment of the individualism and self-preservation Kaba, who is Black, is advocating leaving behind and that I’d like to see the Contact Improvisation community leave behind, too.

“Take care of yourself” works from the lens of privilege. The CI community, which was started by white athletes and dancers, is well-advised to look at the whiteness and ableism—the privilege—of our assumptions. Society works, more or less, for white, able-bodied people, so we haven’t had need of the cooperation and mutual aid that overcoming the novel coronavirus or the abuses of state violence requires.

I am grateful that in the final print issue of Contact Quarterly, CQ cofounder and coeditor Nancy Stark Smith published a letter, “What First Rule of CI?” You may read Nancy’s letter along with my comment on it—which explains why I don’t think it goes far enough—in the CQ CI Newsletter, Summer/Fall 2020 and watch and listen to me read her letter at 1:10 in the Reading Jam for Nancy Stark Smith.


The oil pastel “Jam Series” behind me as I read at the Reading Jam was published in consecutive issues of the CQ CI Newsletter. The series was conceived to illustrate Starting By Believing Maria: Responding to Sexual Violence in Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces in CQ CI Newsletter, Summer/Fall 2019. The third and final pastel in the series, “Jam with Maria: Listening for ‘Yes,'” illustrates that article. On the left, the first in the series, “Jam with Roland: Just Say ‘No'” was published with “Just Say “No” to Teachers Who Troll: Counterstories” in CQ CI Newsletter, Summer/Fall 2020. The second and middle pastel, “Believing Maria,” was published with “Can’t We Just Dance? Not if We Want to Create Safer Brave Contact Improvisation Spaces” in CQ CI Newsletter, Winter/Spring 2020. Some of these and other pastels are also featured on this blog. Many are for sale.


© 2020 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 10.13.21 Published 6.28.2020

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