Advancing Laban’s Ideas

I am dedicated to advancing Laban’s thinking – on the printed page, in the real space of the movement studio, and in the virtual space of the internet. I’ll be working in all three areas this autumn.


Irmgard Bartenieff observed that Laban’s life was “one great unfinished symphony.” She wanted her students to understand that Laban’s notation and movement analysis systems did not come about all at once. According to Irmgard, Laban was counting on future generations to carry the study of movement forward.

Of course, I think Laban developed his ideas to a greater extent than generally recognized.  Laban’s unpublished papers and drawings show that he continued to expand and refine his theories of human movement across the final two decades of his life. Unfortunately, he did not live to see this mature theoretical work published.

I have published some of Laban’s mature theories in The Harmonic Structure of Movement, Music, and Dance. But his notions are not entirely easy to grasp just by reading about them. Consequently, I’ve been developing additional approaches to make these exciting concepts more concrete. Find out how in the following blogs.

Body Movement Is In

Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, was fascinated by how analytical thinking leads us to misperceive our own experience of being alive.  For Bergson, life is an unceasing, continuous, undivided process, a sort of cosmic movement.  Yet, we tend to conceive our lives as passing from feeling to feeling or thought to thought, as if each is separate, unchanging thing.  In reality, feelings and thoughts are themselves in a state of flux, and it is the experience of continuous changes that is central to the experience of being alive.

Bergson illustrates this view with a movement example.  Let us consider a movement that begins with the arms in an open position, and ends with the arms folded across the chest.  The movement of the arms will trace a line in space.  That line, like any line, can be broken into a series of points.  With high speed photography, multiple placements of the arms as they traverse a line from the open to the crossed position can be captured and made discrete.  But as Bergson points out, these snapshots turn the movement into a series of static positions.  The movement itself is something else.

Echoing Bergson, Rudolf Laban writes, “In the past we have clung too stubbornly to a static conception of our environment, and consequently to a misconception of life in general, as well as of our own personal lives.”  The body language proponents are clinging to a static and mechanical conception of bodily being.  They are missing the continuity of change that is the essential quality of movement.  Consequently, they misconstrue the meaning of nonverbal actions.

Therefore, body language should be out.  Body movement should be in.

Boycott Body Language

MoveScape Center

As I mentioned in my last blog, popularity is seductive. The chance for serious movement analysis to garner publicity through the national media is almost irresistible. However, when serious study gets showcased as “body language,” the publicity does little to foster appreciation of movement.

A case in point is the March 7 story in USA Today bearing the headline, “Pentagon studies Putin’s body language to predict his actions.” The studies referred to involved legitimate analysis of movement patterns. Yet the press merely referenced this work as “body language.” Various additional banners read: “A Twitch, A Limp; U.S. Is Watching” and “Pentagon reads Putin’s lips, and rest of body.”

A subsequent interview with a CMA (though not one actually involved in the Pentagon’s studies) was aired on CNN. Then Jon Stewart used excerpts of the interview on his March 11 airing of the Daily Show, largely to lampoon the Pentagon’s studies of Putin’s movement. “What’s with the body language thing?” Stewart quipped. “It would be good information if you were on a date with him.” Referring to some of Putin’s isolated gestures, Stewart indulges in further parody, “Oh, he touched his nose. I think it means he’s going into the Ukraine.”

I would like to encourage all readers who are serious students of movement to boycott the use of the term “body language.” The meanings the public associates with this term are not the meanings we want associated with what we do.

So, the next time someone asks if you do body language, JUST SAY NO!

Why is Body Language Popular?

There seems to be a great divide in the American public’s awareness of movement.

When it comes to watching sports, like the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi, the American viewing public seems perfectly happy to witness a progressive process of change. This appreciation of movement as movement accounts for the popularity of events like downhill skiing, figure skating, and ice dance, where Bergson’s “flux and continuity of transition” are particularly obvious.

When it comes to everyday activities, this appreciation evaporates. Movement is omnipresent in working and conversing. It may be less obviously patterned and spectacular than movement in sport and dance, but there is still progressive development, fluctuation, and continuity over time. Nevertheless, when the American public turns its attention to common action, it demands that movement be reduced to “body language” – a simple set of snapshots with fixed meanings. The most important aim of studying movement in everyday life seems to be the production of a “How-to-Do-It” book on seduction, discerning lies, or gaining popularity. MoveScape Center, Denver, CO

Popularity itself is seductive. Even people who are very serious about understanding nonverbal behavior, like Albert Scheflen, resort to the use of the term “body language.” However, translating serious movement study into body language terms can backfire.

That is why I am starting the “Boycott Body Language” initiative. Find out why in my next blog.

Dancing from Mood to Mood

According to Rudolf Laban, “The dancer moves, not only from place to place, but also from mood to mood.” His perceptive comment illustrates a point that neuroscientists are beginning to recognize – nothing is purely mental or purely physical. Bodily movements accompany thoughts and feelings; and thoughts and feelings accompany movements.

MoveScape CenterIn his unpublished papers Laban also observed, “inner becomes outer and outer becomes inner.” That is, movement not only reflects what a person is thinking and feeling, it also affects one’s inner psychological state.

I experienced the power of movement to induce an altered psychological state when I was first studying effort. During a class on the Spell Drive, I was literally transformed, transported to an inner landscape I seldom visited. This fascinating experience crystallized in a dance called “Fairytale,” which Irmgard Bartenieff described as follows:

“It is a solo but depicts the transformation from one magic figure to another… What is distinctive is the use of Effort as an abstract theme to stimulate images that become integrated into a cohesive tale. It illustrates how the study of Effort can provide a tool – thinking in identifiable movement quality components – that supports and stimulates the intuitive flow of movement themes and development.” (1980, 197)

Isadora Duncan observed that most people are prisoners of their movement habits. Similarly, their mental activities “respond to set formulas”. This repetition of physical and mental movements limits expression “until they become like actors who each night play the same role. With these few stereotyped gestures, their whole lives are passed without once suspecting the world of dance which they are missing.”

No doubt Laban would agree, for his life work was focused on illuminating the world of dance and encouraging people to move. To me, the wonderful aspect of structured movement study, particularly the study of effort, is how it can awaken the individual to new ways of being in the world.

The forthcoming Tetra seminar provides unique opportunities to explore the inner landscape of mood through effort study. Take advantage of the early registration discount by clicking here.