Decoding Choreutics – Key #2

As an artist-scientist, Laban is concerned not only with the geometry of movement, but also with its expressive meaning.  This dual vision gives rise to his theory of natural affinities between lines of motion and effort qualities.

Decoding Choreutics with Movescape

Laban’s working out of these correlations, introduced in Choreutics in Chapter 3, is intriguing but not entirely original.  The expressive value of line and form has its roots in theory of empathy propounded by late 19th and early 20th century  psychologists and art theorists.


According to the theory of empathy, we project our visceral and kinesthetic feelings into the objects we perceive.  In order to be expressive, the art object must possess certain formal qualities, but it need not be represent anything in particular.


Art Nouveau artist August Endell went on to spell out the empathic reactions aroused by various kinds of lines.  Straight and curved lines, narrow and wide lines, short and long lines, and the direction of the line were all correlated with various sensations.  For example, length or shortness of a line are functions of time, while the thickness and thinness are functions of tension.


I’ve been unable to find a full description of Endell’s system, but it seems to me that the germ of Laban’s theory of effort affinities can be linked back to his days as an Art Nouveau artist.  The fact that effort notation postdates the development of direction symbols suggests that Laban may have assumed that the movement dynamics were inherent in the spatial form.


Want more clues for deepening your understanding of Laban’s theories?  Register for “Decoding Laban’s Choreutics,” beginning March 26.

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.

Body Language and Social Order

In Body Language and Social Order, Albert Scheflen argues that body language is used for political control, manipulation, and the maintenance of power and class hierarchies. The book reveals how specific bodily behaviors in public places reinforce the status quo. Scheflen utilizes numerous candid photographs of men, women, and children to support his arguments.

When I first read this book many years ago, I found it deeply disturbing. I felt that body movement was a liberating force, not a binding one. Scheflen’s perspective made me reflect.

MoveScape Center, Denver CO

While reflecting, I began to look more closely at the behaviors Scheflen had flagged. Most involved still poses or isolated gestures. In other words, Scheflen was not actually looking at movement of the whole body. He was observing what was static, not what was dynamic. No wonder he concluded that body language tends to preserve order and social stability!

As Rudolf Laban observes, stability and mobility alternate in human movement behavior. Continuous movement of the whole body is punctuated by moments of stillness and by instances when only a single part of the body is in motion. These postures and gestures can be singled out, just as camera captures a moment in time and freezes it forever.

However, there is a big difference between looking at snapshots isolated from the stream of bodily movement and observing the stream itself. In the next blog, I examine differences between the study of body language and the analysis of body movement in more detail.

The Iconic Irmgard Bartenieff

When I first studied Laban Movement Analysis with Irmgard Bartenieff, I was in my early 20s and she was in her mid-70s.  Like all of the other young students, I regarded her with a certain amount of awe.

Irmgard had an extraordinary resume.  Not only had she studied with Rudolf Laban in Germany in the fertile and exciting 1920s, she had gone on to work as a movement professional in an amazing array of fields – dance, physical therapy, visual anthropology, child development research, and dance/movement therapy.  She had managed to make contributions in these fields despite having to escape from the Nazi regime, immigrate to the United States with her family, and make her way in a different land and language.


Irmgard had the gift of being old without ever seeming elderly.  Students and faculty alike looked up to her as an authority, but not because she ever stood on her laurels.  Quite the contrary.  She embraced change.  Although her life had been both rich and difficult, Irmgard was not oriented to the past.  She always looked forward.

Irmgard managed to give her students and colleagues the sense that we were standing on the threshold of an uncharted territory, one in which we, too, could make discoveries.  Few people could appreciate the complexity of studying human movement as Irmgard did.  As Marcia Siegel put it, “She thought mind, body, and action are one, that the individual is one with the culture, and function with expression, space with energy, art with work with environment with religion.”

Irmgard’s global vision human movement could confuse students who wanted answers in neat compartments.  However, her greatest gift as a teacher was not to give pat answers but to suggest possibilities and connections.  For, as Siegel notes, once you had worked with Irmgard, “you could never again see the universe as a collection of isolated particles.”