Movement and Human Needs

“Man moves in order to satisfy a need,” Rudolf Laban writes in the Introduction to Mastery of Movement.  “It is easy to perceive the aim of a person’s movement if it is directed to some tangible object. Yet there also exist intangible values that inspire movement.”


Laban returns to the theme of tangible and intangible motivations several times in Mastery.  In many ways, his notions of the motives that spur human movement echo Abraham Maslow’s theory of a Hierarchy of  Needs. Put simply, Maslow’s model differentiates human needs based on sustaining personal existence from those aimed at transcending personal existence; that is, his hierarchy divides the tangible from the intangible motivators.

In Beyond Words, we drew upon Maslow’s ideas as a way to survey different roles of movement in human life. Lying along a continuum from the functional to the expressive, we identified four key areas: movement in work (the productive function), movement in war and sports (the protective function), movement in a social display (the communicative/affiliative function), and movement in worship (the transcendental function).

In interesting ways, Laban’s own theories and studies of movement touch upon all four areas. Find out more in the next series of blogs.

Unlocking Laban’s Legacy

I began my blogs this year by looking back. Now I want to look forward – to how the past accomplishments of pioneers of movement study can enrich present and future generations.

Unlocking Laban’s Legacy

Rudolf Laban’s assertion that human movement has a harmonic structure analogous to musical harmony is one idea I would like to see taken seriously enough to be tested. While I have presented Laban’s notions in detail in The Harmonic Structure of Movement, Music, and Dance, this is not enough.

Consequently, I am launching the Advanced Movement Harmony project later this year. With measured steps, I intend to present the Choreutic and Eukinetic sequences identified by Laban in comprehensible forms that can be embodied. Many of these effort and space sequences have been published, by Laban and by others. But these representations are scattered, and in some cases, very difficult to understand, let alone embody.

So stay tuned. More about this project as the year unfolds!

Exciting Times in the Laban Archive

For most dance and movement people, glistening with sweat and reveling in the joys of embodiment, research in a dusty archive must sound like one of the dullest pastimes ever. Few things are as exhilarating as dancing, but discovering things in an archive can also be exciting. I ought to know.

Exciting Times in the Laban Archive

I spent seven years (with time out for good behavior!) doing research in the Rudolf Laban Archive at the National Resource Centre for Dance in England. I was perusing Laban’s unpublished writings and drawings. During this time, I learned how Laban worked as a theorist. I glimpsed how he was developing and extending his thinking about human movement.  And I began to see how these new ideas could be brought to life in the movement studio.

In these ways, the past has animated my present and future. I’m dedicated, not just to replicating Laban as we know him, but to pushing the envelope and seeing how his ideas can be tested and extended.  

I’m doing this by encouraging close reading of Laban’s masterworks – Choreutics and The Mastery of Movement.  I’ll be offering two correspondence courses this year – the first on Mastery of Movement; the second on Part 2 of Choreutics (which really does have to be decoded!). Find out more.

More Archival Traces of Bartenieff

Irmgard Bartenieff’s letters to Rudolf Laban, as I mentioned in the previous blog, also reveal how she adapted to American culture and redefined herself as a professional – moving beyond dance into physical therapy, dance therapy, and dance anthropology.

More Archival Traces of Bartenieff

In a letter to Laban dated July 21, 1944, Irmgard wrote:

“I went into my work with the sick abnormal body with this curiosity, and I discovered, while always working with the sick as well as with the average untrained working person, how deeply buried the joy and understanding of movement is in most people – to a degree that we really cannot be astonished about the small audiences dancers get.”

Later, in her letter to Laban dated October 12, 1947, Bartenieff added:

“As you probably remember, this ‘insulated’ business of what we used to call ‘Kunsttanz’ [art dance] has never fully given satisfaction to me – I am much rather an artisan with good tools and alert senses to perfect and understand movement in its many manifestations and work with many different people. And for that here in America is ample opportunity.”

The Laban community is very fortunate that so many archival traces are still available for study. There is still much to be learned from the pioneers of our field. Find out more in the next blog.

Archival Traces of Irmgard Bartenieff

Prior to the Bartenieff Symposium last year, I arranged to peek at a few files in the newly accessible Bartenieff Archive at the University of Maryland. My aim was to look at correspondence between Warren Lamb, Judith Kestenberg, and Irmgard. I think of these three leading figures in the field of movement study as a triumvirate of minds. While they each did their own thing, they also studied and worked closely with one another. There must have been a fascinating cross-fertilization of ideas….

Archival Traces of Irmgard Bartenieff

However, what I discovered among correspondence in the archive had more to do with Bartenieff herself. Among the treasures is a draft or a copy of a letter she wrote to Rudolf Laban in October 1947. By this date, Irmgard had been in the U.S. for over a decade and practicing physical therapy for at least five years.The letter deals with her work rehabilitating victims of the polio epidemic, primarily children.

In writing to Laban about this work, Bartenieff notes that she has also started a dance class for convalescent children, and this work in dance is making her happy. Then, in a moving passage, she writes:

“Once one has experienced with a deepening awe what it does to a human being when the language of the limbs has become blurred or distorted [through acute paralysis] one seems to develop an intensified sense of rhythm and harmony, and the job of rehabilitation seems incomplete unless the elements of play and dance are included in some form.”

What a wonderful expression of the therapeutic value of dance!

Celebrating Janus in January

January is named after the Roman god Janus. As the god of beginnings, transitions, and endings, Janus is usually depicted with two faces, one looking to the future and one to the past. To celebrate the god of this month, I will begin a new year of blogging with some reflections on the previous year.  

Celebrating Janus in January

2017 was marked by progress in preserving the history of movement analysis. Materials contributed to the National Resource Centre for Dance at the University of Surrey by Rudolf Laban’s gifted protégé, Warren Lamb, have now been preserved and catalogued. Given the time and resource intensive nature of archive work, this is a major step forward. Hopefully, the catalogue of this archive will become available online later this year.

Through similarly epic preservation efforts, the archives of movement analysis pioneer Irmgard Bartenieff are now housed, catalogued, and publicly accessible in the Special Collections of the Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland, College Park.  

In addition, the archives of Motus Humanus, an Anglo-American professional organization for Laban Movement Analysts, have also been transferred to the National Resources Centre for Dance. A partial donation of material made in 2017 will be followed by additional donations in 2018, including monies for preservation and cataloging.

And that’s not all – find out more about landmarks of 2017 in the next blogs.

Bartenieff Symposium – Many Happy Connections

On November 10th close to 65 Labanites gathered at the Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, to celebrate the opening of the Irmgard Bartenieff Archive.



Susan Wiesner, a digital humanist, had organized the event. Here is birds’ eye view of the happy gathering.


– Forrestine Paulay and Martha Davis in conversation about their respective studies and research with Irmgard


– Carol-Lynne Moore – Bartenieff: Icon of Possibilities


– Ann Hutchinson Guest and others –  sharing memories of Irmgard


– Movement sessions led by Peggy Hackney, Tara Francia Stepenberg, and Karen Studd


-Robin Neveu Brown (and husband) – comedic performance piece on giving birth through Laban lenses


-Catherine Eliot – Bartenieff’s Legacy and Occupational Therapy


-Rachell Palnick Tsachor – Movement and Trauma


-Susan Wiesner – film showing of “Schrifftanz Zwei” – a reimagining of Bartenieff’s “Chinese Ballad” choreography, based on archival notes and floor plans


The event closed with a movement choir led by Catherine McCoubrey


This was one of the most satisfying events I’ve been to – a wonderful reconnecting with old friends and new. Hats off to Susan Wiesner, curator Vincent Novarra, and the whole staff of the Performing Arts Library Special Collections!

Irmgard Bartenieff Archive – A Miracle

For years after Bartenieff’s death in 1981, the Laban Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies carefully stored her papers but lacked the funds for full preservation and cataloging. The papers remained, untouched and unseen, in a warehouse in Brooklyn. And then there was a fire in the warehouse.

Irmgard Barenieff-Archive-Miracle


A cry for help went out to the Laban community, and through crowdfunding, enough money was raised to allow Vincent Novarra, Curator of Special Collections from the University of Maryland Performing Arts Library, to rent a truck, drive to Brooklyn, and see if Bartenieff’s papers had survived. They had!


He brought the boxes, along with the Laban Institute papers, back to Maryland. And then the second miracle occurred. The library found funds to hire Dr. Susan Wiesner, digital humanist, to catalog the collection.  


None of this would have happened if Professor Karen Bradley had not laid the groundwork for housing these archives in Maryland. Three years later, the Archive is now available for public access.  


This means that in the future it will be possible to construct a much fuller portrait of the remarkable woman who has so profoundly influenced Laban training in the U.S.

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.

On Irmgard Bartenieff

In the summer of 1975, I left the Nikolai-Louis Studio, walked across Union Square to the Dance Notation Bureau, and declared I was interested in the Effort/Shape Program.

Irmgard Bartenieff

I was ushered in to see Irmgard Bartenieff, a delicate elderly German lady who had worked directly with Rudolf Laban. She was guiding spirit of the Effort/Shape program. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but Irmgard was open and encouraging. I became her student, then her assistant, and eventually a fellow faculty member.

After her death, when I left New York  and found myself on my own with no Laban colleagues handy, I really missed Irmgard. Then I began to appreciate fully the scope of her knowledge and the positive impact of who she was and her whole way of being in the world.

Consequently, I am delighted that Irmgard Bartenieff’s archives have a home now at the University of Maryland library. I am looking forward to the upcoming Symposium on November 10th, when those influenced by Bartenieff will share their reminiscences. This event, organized by archivist Susan L. Wiesner, launches an exhibit in the Performing Arts Library gallery that follows Irmgard’s path through her professional life. And what a career – dancer, Laban student, Labanotator, physical therapist, dance therapist, Effort/Shape guru, teach, author, and dance ethnographer. She was a living example of the many ways movement study can be applied. Thus the title of my Symposium talk – “Irmgard Bartenieff – Icon of Possibility.”