Dance and the Written Word

Dance is a nonverbal art. Yet, as practitioners of an evanescent art, writing is often quite important to dancers. Nijinsky kept a diary. Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Agnes DeMille, and Paul Taylor produced autobiographies. Isadora Duncan wrote essays on the dance, as did Merce Cunningham and Murray Louis. Doris Humphrey and Twyla Tharp have addressed creative issues in dance. Katherine Dunham, whose career spans anthropology and performance, has written profusely.



The list goes on and on. Dance may be a nonverbal art, but dancers are hardly silent on this subject. And the written traces of their lives and work matter.


Written traces not only include published works but the much larger body of correspondence, notes, sketches, diaries, photographs, even invoices. From these scattered sources a fuller picture of the individual artist emerges – their friends and family, their private thoughts, their challenges as well as their successes.


For example, the dance scholar Juana de Laban’s archive is housed at the Dallas Public Library. Dr. de Laban, my undergraduate dance history teacher at Southern Methodist University, was the eldest daughter of Rudolf Laban’s second marriage. Her correspondence with her father, dating from after World War II, paints a much different picture of Laban’s family relations than what is usually recounted in other sources.  


For this reason, the opening of the Irmgard Bartenieff Archive in the Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland, College Park, is cause for celebration. More about this miracle in the next blog.

Effort Range: Home Base and New Territory

“A healthy human being can have complete control of his kinesphere and dynamosphere,” according to Rudolf Laban.   This suggests that a wide range of motion is both desirable and achievable.

And yet, each of us has effort and shape preferences that define our way of being in the world. These familiar movement patterns anchor us; they provide a “home base.” 

On the other hand, it’s fun to move beyond this comfort zone and experience novel dynamic moods and places.  This summer, MoveScape Center workshops provide both — a chance to revel in the comfort of home base and/or the opportunity to explore unfamiliar movement landscapes.  


In the “Introduction to Movement Pattern Analysis” three-day seminar, you will have your own movement profile constructed.  You will learn more about your unique effort and shape range and how these movement patterns relate to decision-making processes.  This seminar draws upon the work of renowned movement analyst, Warren Lamb, to illustrate how movement study enhances the understanding of self and others.

In the “Expanding the Dynamosphere” two-day workshop, you will explore new movement territories, visiting the lands of Action, Passion, Vision, and Spell.  The emphasis is on awakening movement imagination, expanding your dynamic range, and finding new paths for greater expressivity.

It’s your choice – the comforts of home?  New frontiers?  Find out more ….

Flow Changes Everything

When flow takes the place of another motion factor, Laban wrote, “the expression is more intense” and the whole configuration “gains new meaning.” In the Mastery of Movement correspondence course, we tested Laban’s assertion.

Readers were asked to choose one of the transformation drives – either Passion or Vision or Spell. They were to work out the eight effort quality combinations of that drive and then embody each mood.

Group of contemporary dancers performing on stage

The Vision Drive combines the motion factors of Space, Time, and Flow (the motion factor of Weight is latent). Cate Deicher, who will be co-teaching the July workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” with me, explored the Vision Drive. She has graciously allowed me to share her descriptions of what each combination felt like…

I went to a Merce Cunningham exhibit this past weekend and saw footage of Merce dancing. His movement seemed to be a lot about Vision Drive. Those images have stayed in my mind, so I chose that drive.  I’ve also been thinking about Iceland. I was there 40 years ago and will be going back soon.  So this is a combination of Merce + Iceland.

1) free+indirect+decelerating:  I take pleasure in leisurely exploring the incredible, charmingly, unfamiliar landscape.

2) free+ direct+decelerating:  I see an unusual patch of color in the stony landscape, and want to get a closer look.  As I approach it I take my time to enjoy how the shading of color changes with the movement of the clouds.

3) free+indirect+accelerating:  In the harbor, a strong gust of wind scatters a flock of seabirds in the sky above. I try to keep track of all of them as they circle about.

4) free+direct+accelerating:  I scoot quickly, gleefully away from Geyser as it begins to bubble up.

5) bound+indirect+decelerating:  We’re entering an ice cave.  The ground is icy, but there is otherworldly light that is reflected all around.

6) bound+direct+decelerating:  I’m approaching Geyser.  It’s a stunning display, but I’ve been told that sometimes you can feel and observe fissures starting to form in the earth.  I’m careful about this, I also want to be able to flee if I start to feel the ground rumble. Still, I’m fascinated by Geyser; my whole body is trained upon this spectacle.

7) bound+indirect+accelerating:  I know there are no birds here, so I feel a bit threatened by something that just flew by me from out of nowhere.  Where did it come from?

8) bound+direct+accelerating:  I shudder and dash to the shelter of the bus stop as the cold, heavy rain begins to fall.

Experimenting With The Chemistry of Effort

Laban wrote about the “chemistry” of effort, and this provides a fertile metaphor for understanding dynamic aspects of human behavior. Chemistry investigates the building blocks of matter – atoms, molecules, and compounds. The whole material world is made of these simple elements and their interactions.

Laban effort theory is equally elegant. There are only four motion factors, but these combine to make four Drives. The eight effort qualities combine to make eight different manifestations of each drive. And then there are the “incomplete efforts.”

Testing new chemical reactions in university lab

As Laban describes, sometimes only two motion factors “give the shading to the movement.” Nevertheless, “bodily actions manifesting incomplete effort participation are expressive of a variety of inner attitudes.”

There are six “incomplete effort compounds” with contrasting qualities: awake and dream, remote and near, stable and mobile. These less intense states “appear very often as transitions between essential actions, and frequently have a recovery function.”

In the forthcoming workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” we will experiment with the chemistry of effort. We will not only work through the different manifestations of the Action, Passion, Vision, and Spell Drives, we will also test the “incomplete efforts” to see how they can build to a drive and serve as a recuperation.

Find out more….

Just Add Flow

Laban’s well-known basic actions combine the movement factors of Space, Weight, and Time. However, the whole mood of an action changes when Flow replaces one of these motion factors. Then the functional action is transformed into a visionary, passionate, or spell-binding mood.

Laban admits that “even when man sets about a working job and his bodily actions have to fulfill practical functions they are distinguished by personal expression.”

Colored splashes on white background

However, when flow takes the place of another motion factor, “the expression is more intense.” According to Laban, this is because “These configurations build up individual units in which the single constituent part submerges entirely.” Thus the whole gains a new meaning and importance. In other words, the Vision, Passion, and Spell drives are distinctive moods in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, just as green, while being composed of blue and yellow, is a distinctive color all its own. This is where Laban’s effort theory, composed of only four motion factors and eight contrasting effort qualities, blossoms into a multi-colored landscape encompassing both function and expression.

In the forthcoming workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” we will start with the basic actions and organic sequences of these actions. Then we explore the transformation drives – Vision, Passion, and Spell. Find out what happens to the chemistry of effort when we just add flow!

Demons Into Goddesses Through Effort Magic

Laban personifies each of the eight basic actions in Mastery of Movement. He characterizes Floating (all indulging qualities of Weight, Time, and Space) as the Goddess and Punching (all fighting effort qualities) as the Demon. He goes on to note that it will not be difficult for the actor or dancer to depict these characters, for we “remember the age-old symbolism of love’s soft floating movements, and of the violent and abrupt movements of hatred.”

During the recent MoveScape Center Mastery of Movement Beautiful girl following butterflies on a mountaincorrespondence course, Rebecca Nordstrom created a sequence of basic actions and imagined this movement sequence as a scenario involving the Demon and the Goddess. It is a beautiful example of how imagination can bring Laban’s effort theories to life.


Becky has graciously allowed me to share her scenario….

Scale of moods order: Punch, slash, wring, press, glide, dab, flick, float.

A demon looks at the large oblong object that mysteriously appeared in his lair. First, he strikes it with his fist, punching repeatedly to try to break it open. He then slings it violently and repeatedly around the room sending it crashing into the walls, floor, and ceiling (slashing). When that doesn’t work, he grabs it in his hands and tries to twist it open with great force (wringing). Lastly, he leans against it with all his force trying to crush it (pressing). Exhausted, he collapses into a heap and falls asleep.

Out of a hole at one end of the object a veiled figure slowly, gently and steadily emerges (gliding). Once free of the object the figure quickly but gently pokes at the surrounding veil with long delicate fingers and toes (dabbing). Once loosened, the veil is gently but quickly tossed aside with flicking gestures.

Now completely free of the veil, the figure begins to spread its wings and gently, delicately rises. As the butterfly goddess knew, she was only able to emerge from her chrysalis cage with the help of the unsuspecting demon. She hovers over his sleeping body to whisper her thanks before floating gently out of his lair and into the bright sunshine.

Laban’s Eight “Basic Actions”

Anyone with even a brief exposure to Rudolf Laban’s work will be familiar with the eight Basic Actions – float, glide, dab, flick, punch, press, wring, and slash. These functional actions are the bedrock of Laban’s effort theory.

As Laban noted, humans move to satisfy needs. Some needs are tangible – food, shelter, rest, and physical safety. This is where the basic actions come in – we employ these when working with material objects to achieve material needs.

Handyman with tools

Movement occurs in sequences, and these basic actions can be arranged to create a “scale of moods.” In the recent MoveScape Center correspondence course, “Mastering Rudolf Laban’s Mastery of Movement, we played with creating sequences of basic actions to see what kind of situations these effort changes might suggest.

In Mastery Laban notes that the “chemistry of effort follows certain rules because the transitions from one effort quality to another are either easy or difficult. 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.”

Consequently, my correspondence students were instructed to shift from floating to its dynamic opposite, punching, by only changing one effort quality at a time. It’s a great challenge — and one that takes you deeper into understanding effort.

Find out more in the upcoming MoveScape Center workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere” in New York City, July 29-30.

April Dances Bring Advances 2

Fifteen years ago, Olie Westheimer, executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group approached the Mark Morris Dance Company about creating a dance class for her clients.  Dance for PD©, a program training teachers and providing classes for those with Parkinson’s disease, is the result.

The program initially met with skepticism, recalls dancer-developer David Leventhal.  Medical doctors felt that dance is “frivolous.”  As Leventhal notes,  “There is a lot of misconception about the amount of learning and skill and brain work and physical work that somebody has to do to execute a dance.”


Helen Bronte-Stewart, a Stanford professor of neurology and former dancer, agrees.  “As physicians, we stress the importance of physical activity, social interaction and mental stimulation to our patients with Parkinson’s disease.  Dance for PD gives them all three.”

Here we have the same triumvirate of benefits noted in the research on contra dance and memory –  dancing provides cognitive and social stimulation in addition to physical activity.  But that is not all.

As Bronte-Stewart continues, dance is more than just physical therapy – “The PD dancers have told us this type of dance restores their self-image and brings them joy.”  Immersed in the activity, participants sometimes find they are able to regain function.  For example, during a flamenco dance routine, one woman found herself snapping her once-rigid fingers – “it just came to me,” she recalled in amazement.

April Dances Bring Advances 1

movement and healthIn late April we celebrate National Dance Week. This year’s festivities come with scientific evidence that dancing is good for you!  A research team based at Colorado State University found that contra dancing may help to fend off aging in the brain.

A four-year clinical trial followed a group of 174 healthy adults aged 60 – 79.  The group was divided into four parts.  One group did aerobic walking, another not only walked but also took a nutritional supplement, the third group participated in stretching and balance classes, and the fourth group attended contra dance classes involving a sequence of figures as dancers progress up and down a line.  Each group met three times a week for six months.

The study focused on the fornix, which connects the hippocampus with other areas of the brain and is believed to play an important role in memory.  Each participant’s fornix was measured at the start of study and six months later.  The integrity of the fornix increased in the dance group in contrast to declines noted in half of the other participants.

This finding led researchers to conclude that “there is more benefit in activities like dance, that simultaneously provide cognitive and social stimulation in addition to physical activity,” according to an article in The Denver Post.

This study of the benefits of contra dancing is just the tip of the iceberg.  Find out more in the next blog.

Dancing with Your Eyebrows

dancing with your eyebrows“You must not think of dance as steps,” Rudolf Laban once told a group of student actors.  “Dance is meaningful movement.  You can dance with your eyebrows. When I have taught you, you will be able to dance with any part of your body.’’

The acting students were skeptical, or course.  They thought that dance was frivolous, not serious.  Laban, however, had spent a lifetime investigating not only the physical aspects of dance, but also its mental, emotional, and social dimensions.  He saw dancing as an activity involving the whole person; he understood that dancing brings together body and mind, self and other.  

Now contemporary science is corroborating Laban’s observations with evidence based research.  Find out more in the following blogs.