Movement, Magic, and Transcendence

The magical powers of movement fascinated Laban.  Two anecdotes recounted in his autobiography highlight his keen interest – the first was observing a folk dance meant to make warriors immune to wounds; the second was witnessing Sufi rituals in which dancers actually stabbed themselves but the wounds closed immediately.  Laban mused, “Belief in a magic that conquers nature was surely just foolishness, a childish superstition – but even so, wasn’t there something great, something immense hidden behind it?”

dancer dervish


This reflection, or perhaps quest, is reflected in many of Laban’s theoretical writings, where he hints at the spiritual value and transcendental power of movement.  For example, in Mastery of Movement Laban laments that “The European has lost the habit and capacity to pray with movement… The ritual movements of other races are much richer in range and expressiveness.”


Later, in this same book, Laban explains that “Living beings struggle with their surroundings, with material things, with other beings, and also with their own instincts, capacities and moods; but man has added to this the struggle for moral and spiritual values.” He adds, “The theatre is the forum wherein the striving within the world for human values is represented in art form.”  


Is Laban doing for acting and dancing what Kandinsky did for painting in Concerning the Spiritual in Art?  Find out more by joining other readers for a journey through Mastery of Movement, beginning in early March.

Laban and War

Rudolf Laban’s father was a general in the Austro-Hungarian Army. As Laban writes in his autobiography,  “My father taught me the life of a soldier, which fascinated me almost as much as did the arts.” Subsequent events show that the life of the artist won.  Nevertheless, Laban drew on his military background when it came to theorizing dance and movement.


As Gwynne Dyer asserts, for almost all human history, a battle “has been an event as stylized and limited in its movement as a classical ballet, and for the same reasons:  the inherent capabilities and limitations of the human body.”  Laban concurs, drawing parallels in Choreutics between the cardinal dimensions, the five positions of ballet, and protection of the vulnerable areas of the human body as mirrored in the opening movements of fencing.


The metaphor of battle also plays a role in Laban’s conceptualization of human effort.  In Laban’s dynamic framework, each of the four motion factor manifests as one or the other of two contrasting effort qualities.  Four of these effort qualities indicate the mover’s indulging attitude towards Weigh, Time, Space or Flow; the other four effort qualities reveal fighting attitudes, in which the mover appears to be struggling against Weight, Time, Space, or Flow.        


In Mastery of Movement, Laban applies these metaphors to develop a continuum of personality types, noting that “The fighting against or indulging attitude towards a motion factor form the basic aspects of the psychological attitudes of hatred and love.  So it is useful if the artist realizes how these two poles of emotion are related to other forms of inner attitude, and how their relationship is mirrored in the movements of different characters.”


Find out more about Laban’s movement metaphors in the upcoming MoveScape Center correspondence course, “Mastering Laban’s Mastery of Movement.

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.

Movement Study Anniversaries — Past and Present

Continuing the January theme of looking back and forward, 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Language of Dance Center UK and the twentieth anniversary of the Language of Dance US. The LOD centers are dedicated to the promotion of movement literacy by linking dance notation with creative dance exploration and education.

Movement Study-Anniversaries

To commemorate these milestones, a celebration was held on October 28, 2017, at the Royal Academy of Dance in London.This event included a free workshop followed by a panel discussion on applications of the Language of Dance in the UK, US, Mexico, and Japan. A gala party followed, which also honored dance notation pioneer and LOD founder, Ann Hutchinson Guest, on the happy occasion of her 99th birthday.

Looking forward, the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS) is celebrating its fortieth anniversary with a conference in New York City May 31- June 2. Since 1978, the Institute has carried the mission of preserving, teaching, and advancing Laban-based movement studies.

As a member of the Founding Board of LIMS and one of the honorary conference chairs, I look forward to the event, which will not only honor movement analysis pioneer Irmgard Bartenieff but also highlight the many applications of movement study in all walks of life.

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.