Creating a Language For Movement

Around 1913, Rudolf Laban contemplated a career change from visual art to dance. But he recognized that unless a means could be found to record movement, dance was condemned to remain an ephemeral and consequently trivial art.



In developing a language and symbol system for dance and movement, Laban thought visually. The theoretical models he developed are geometrical, not linguistic. This is both the beauty and the challenge of Laban Movement Analysis.


In recognizing that human movement is a psychophysical phenomenon, Laban saw that his language of movement had to capture two domains – the physical actions that unfold in the space of the outer environment and the movement of thought and feeling as these evolve in the inner world, coloring physical actions and making them expressive.


For analytic purposes, these two domains had to be separately conceived. Hence, Laban created two geometrical models – one for the outer world of visible movement in space (the kinesphere) and one for the inner world of thought and feeling (the dynamosphere).


And here is Laban’s genius.  Because inner and outer are always connected in volitional action, Laban’s two geometrical models can be related. The dynamosphere can be nested within the kinesphere.  


Find out more about the brilliance of Laban’s geometrical language of movement in the forthcoming course, Decoding Choreutics.

Advancing Laban’s Work in Germany

I will be teaching master workshops for Eurolab in Berlin in mid-October. The workshop theme is “Laban as Pattern Maker – Material That Never Gets Taught in the Certificate Program.”


Across three days, we will be exploring patterns in space and effort patterns. In terms of space, I aim to start with concepts that underlie Laban’s Choreutic forms, such as “rhythmic circles,” symmetry operations, and spatial intervals. Practical work will focus on embodying the Primary Scale, along with mixed 7-rings (one of the Choreutic forms that is seldom taught).

We will also explore how Laban applied symmetry and asymmetry in developing effort sequences and patterns. These little known aspects of Laban’s thinking are critical to phrasing effort changes organically and meaningfully.

During the last day of the workshop, we return to spatial themes, learning and working creatively with peripheral and transverse 5-rings, tilted planes, and an open form that Laban’s intriguingly referred to as “snakes!”

Eurolab (European Association for Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies) has been running Certificate Programs in northern Europe since the late 1980s. By now, there is a healthy community of European Laban Movement Analysts doing very interesting work. I taught and helped run some of the early programs, so I’m very excited to be returning, to reconnect with familiar faces and meet new ones.

Comments on “Decoding Choreutics”

I created the correspondence course, “Decoding Laban’s Choreutics” last year for two reasons: 1) I wanted to push myself to study this seminal book deeply, and 2) now that it is back in print, I wanted to encourage other movement analysts to read it, too.


I’ve read Choreutics more than once, and it has always been my favorite of Laban’s books. I learned a lot by organizing the reading assignments, and re-reading along with fellow movement analysts. Here is what some of them had to say:

“The course provided me with a most satisfying and fulfilling re-engagement with the world of LMA.”

“I gained the chance to digest/redigest this material 30+ years hence my original training – which allowed me to bring MY experience into the mix.”

“The pace was just right. The work load was enough to be engaging but not so much as to be overwhelming.”

“The commentaries are very interesting; they add more information and insight to the writings of Laban.”

“I’m inspired to rethink how I engage my students in the Space Harmony material.”

“Decoding Laban’s Masterpiece Choreutics” starts again in October.  Register now.

Advancing Laban’s Ideas in the Movement Studio

During the recent MoveScape Center workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” in New York City, we all had an “ah ha” moment about Laban’s effort theory. Here is how this insight unfolded.

Laban identified four effort drives. Of these, the Action Drive is the best known, for it deals with practical movements involved in working with tangible objects. The other three drives – Vision, Passion, and Spell – are called “transformation drives.” These are more subtle and complex effort combinations that have less to do with physical actions and more to do with mental activities such as thinking, feeling, and willing.


For Laban, mental activities also involve moving. I’m sure he would agree with Mabel Ellsworth Todd, who wrote “For every thought supported by feeling, there is a muscle change.” Laban obviously characterized the combination of space, time, and flow factors as the outward embodiment of visionary states of mind – those mental acts of following a line of thought, steadily concentrating, soaring on the wings of imagination, catching a sudden insight, coming to a gradual realization, and so on.

Yet, when workshop participants were asked to identify associations with the various combinations of Vision Drive, they kept coming up with practical actions, like throwing darts and quenching fires. They reverted to physical actions that were not visionary in the least.  

This made us all realize that while we movement folk complain about the mind/body split, we tend to privilege the body over the mind. This sometimes leads us to think about effort in strictly physical terms.  

Laban was way ahead. He realized that movement is a psychophysical phenomenon. And he stuck to this view, finding effort in thinking, feeling, and willing as well as in acting.

Body or Soma?

Laban Movement Analysis allows one to approach the body both objectively and subjectively. Labanotation and motif writing provide means to analyze body actions objectively, while the somatic practice of Bartenieff Fundamentals is focused more on internal self-awareness.


Both bodily perspectives are presented in Meaning in Motion. The first section provides a terse illustration of how bodily actions are analyzed and recorded. The second section places the work of Laban and Bartenieff in the broader context of the somatics movement. A third section discusses principles and exercises of Bartenieff Fundamentals. The chapter closes with a compilation of body level concepts.

By incorporating both perspectives, instructors can tailor the “body” component of an LMA course to their specific needs. For some courses, a more basic and objective approach may be appropriate. What are the parts of my body? What are the types of actions I can do? How can I make simple sequences of actions? Studio activities around these questions can lead on to experience with simple notation or pave the way for another course in Labanotation.

Other instructors may prefer to focus on somatic dimensions. Some students relish this, others may resist. In the context of this, I have found that the key is to link the seemingly simple Bartenieff Fundamentals exercises to more dynamic and demanding movement sequences so that students experience links between body, effort, and space.

Shape as Laban Conceived It

Choreutics (space) and Eukinetics (effort) are the two broad categorical headings under which Laban grouped elements of movement. He did not single out shape as a separate category. Initially, shape was a Gestalt concept for Laban, a combination of the lines traced by the body in space and the dynamic qualities observable in these three-dimensional sequences.


Laban’s first career as a visual artist and his familiarity with Art Nouveau and abstract Expressionist theories influenced his initial description of shape as an element of dance and movement. In Meaning in Motion, I explain that Laban’s notion of the mover’s space has two aspects: one descriptive and one prescriptive. Now it is time to explore Laban’s “Language of Space”: example, Laban studied with the Swiss botanist and artist Hermann Obrist. Obrist admonished his students to understand natural objects as images “full of expressive forces, full of linear, plastic, constructive movements.”

Laban applied this notion to dance. In his first book, he noted that “the dancer observes the form of things and the movement of living creatures as to their directional tendencies.” Then the dancer translates these into gestures laden with “psychic tension.”

Consequently, the shape chapter in Meaning in Motion opens with a movement exploration based upon the shapes of natural objects, such as rocks, shells, pine cones, branches, etc. The chapter moves on to discuss a more precise definition of movement shapes, focusing on modes of shape change and shape qualities. The chapter closes with working definitions of the elements of shape.

Laban’s “Language of Space”

In Meaning in Motion, I explain that Laban’s notion of the mover’s space has two aspects: one descriptive and one prescriptive.

To better describe movement, Laban created several “geographies” of space. These give definition to the bubble of territory adjacent to the mover’s body, which Laban called the “kinesphere.” Such geographies created landmarks in the kinesphere and make the systematic description of motion in three dimensions possible.


In addition, Laban designed highly symmetrical sequences of directional change that circle through different areas of the kinesphere. These prescribed sequences of directional change provide a way to explore the kinesphere, to test balance, and to expand the range of motion.

Because Laban’s language of space relies upon geometrical models that must be imagined as surrounding the mover’s body, the spatial aspects of Laban Movement Analysis challenges many students. Consequently, in Meaning in Motion I have incorporated many creative explorations. These address the kinesphere; the Dimensional Scale; the planes; oblique mobility and the Diagonal Scale; and central, peripheral, and transverse movement. More advanced spatial sequences are notated in the appendix.

There is a lot of material in this chapter so that instructors can pick and choose what they want to emphasize in a given course. If the language of space speaks to a student, he or she will also be able to see that there is more movement material to be explored.

Teaching Laban’s Effort Theory

Laban’s theory of the dynamics of human movement (effort) is deceptively simple. There are only four motion factors (Weight, Time, Space, and Flow) and eight effort qualities. But the theory becomes much richer because different combinations and sequences of effort qualities express very different states of mind.  


It is difficult to convey this richness in a semester-long course.  And I think that is okay. Students should not believe they have mastered all there is to know about  Laban in only a few weeks.  The key is to spark curiosity and a desire to continue to learn about movement expression.

Consequently, while Meaning in Motion is meant to be an introductory text, there is more material than can be covered in one semester.  For example, the chapter on Effort not only introduces the four motion factors and eight effort qualities.  It also covers all the states and drives, providing suggestions for creative explorations of these more complex dynamic expressions.

In explaining effort as expression, I discuss the psychological correlations that Laban drew with the motion factors and the basic phrasing pattern of preparation, exertion, and recuperation.  These notions are also linked to a reflective movement exploration.

Increasingly I have come to feel that it is important for students to understand relationships between states and drives – how states build to a drive or provide recuperation from a drive.  This is obviously more advanced material, but the adequate explanation is incorporated in the chapter on effort as well as in appendix material to help students begin to “think in terms of effort.”  

This was always Laban’s admonition.  Thinking in terms of effort requires a conceptual shift from focusing on what is done to appreciating how the movement is done.

Effort and Human Potential

“We live only part of the life we are given,” writes Michael Murphy in The Future of the Body.  “Growing acquaintance with once-foreign cultures, new discoveries about our subliminal depths, and the dawning recognition that each social group reinforces just some human attributes while neglecting or suppressing others … suggests that we harbor a range of capacities that no single philosophy or psychology has fully embraced.”


Rudolf Laban would certainly agree.  “Preference for a few effort combinations only results in a lack of effort balance,” Laban notes.  “New dances and new ideas of behavior arise by a process of compensation in which a more or less conscious attempt is made to regain the use of lost or neglected effort patterns.”

If we live only a part of the life we are given, it is because we habitually use only a few effort combinations. To me, the great benefit of effort study is to experience, if only fleetingly, other ways of being in the world.

While I was first studying Laban Movement Analysis, I had a profound experience embodying an effort combination of the Spell Drive.  I momentarily became someone else and glimpsed an unfamiliar inner landscape.  This was not a part of the world that I normally inhabit.  Maybe I didn’t really want to live here.  But it was wonderful to discover a new realm of experience and to realize that I could consciously choose to enter this new world simply by moving in a certain way.

To me, the study of effort is the study of human potential, a chance to access a greater range of capacities that are not just physical in nature, but personal, psychological, and perhaps even spiritual.

Effort Relationships

At its best, human movement flows smoothly and gracefully in organic sequences.  The proportion of our limbs and the structure of our joints determine the way movement sequences unfold in the kinesphere.  As Laban notes, “a movement makes sense only if it progresses organically and this means that phases which follow each other in a natural succession must be chosen.”


Laban was also concerned with the natural succession of effort moods in the dynamosphere.  Exertion obviously requires effort; Laban found that recovery also involves effort.  Moreover, he discovered that the patterning of this basic shift is far from simple.  As Irmgard Bartenieff explained, “the complexity of phrasing is increased as the Effort factors of the actions include more variations.”

This led Laban to propose a “law of proximity” for effort changes, based on the similarity or dissimilarity of their component effort qualities.  He observed that “in ordinary circumstances, no sane person will ever jump from one quality to its complete contrast because of the great mental and nervous strain involved in so radical a change.”

Laban went on to map organic effort patterns.  These “modulated” phrases are wonderfully fun to embody.  Find out more in the upcoming workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” July 29-30, in New York City.