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  Laban’s unpublished papers and drawings show that he continued to expand and refine his theories of human movement across the final two decades of his life.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.

Laban’s “Language of Space”

In Meaning in Motion, I explain that Laban’s notion of the mover’s space has two aspects: one descriptive and one prescriptive.

To better describe movement, Laban created several “geographies” of space. These give definition to the bubble of territory adjacent to the mover’s body, which Laban called the “kinesphere.” Such geographies created landmarks in the kinesphere and make the systematic description of motion in three dimensions possible.


In addition, Laban designed highly symmetrical sequences of directional change that circle through different areas of the kinesphere. These prescribed sequences of directional change provide a way to explore the kinesphere, to test balance, and to expand the range of motion.

Because Laban’s language of space relies upon geometrical models that must be imagined as surrounding the mover’s body, the spatial aspects of Laban Movement Analysis challenges many students. Consequently, in Meaning in Motion I have incorporated many creative explorations. These address the kinesphere; the Dimensional Scale; the planes; oblique mobility and the Diagonal Scale; and central, peripheral, and transverse movement. More advanced spatial sequences are notated in the appendix.

There is a lot of material in this chapter so that instructors can pick and choose what they want to emphasize in a given course. If the language of space speaks to a student, he or she will also be able to see that there is more movement material to be explored.

Laban’s Alphabet of Human Movement

In the early 20th century, before there were video cameras and smartphones, Laban recognized that dance, like music, needed a notation system to allow choreographies to be recorded.  Developing a movement notation system necessitated two steps. First, the elements that make up the “alphabet of human movement” had to be identified. Secondly, symbols to represent these elements and their combinations and sequences had to be invented.


Like all good theoreticians, Laban wanted to control the number of elements so as to make his notation system as economical as possible.  He had observed that “the dancer moves, not only from place to place but also from mood to mood.”  This observation provided two broad categories for delineating elements of movement: “Choreutics” – where the parts of the body move in the space around the body, and “Eukinetics” –  how energy is deployed as the dancer moves through space.

In delineating Choreutic and Eukinetic elements of movement, Laban’s analytic system becomes more detailed and complex.  Nevertheless, Laban’s alphabet of movement requires the observer to recognize essential similarities among actions that appear rather different.  As I write in Meaning in Motion, the effort quality of lightness “occurs in the tender stroking of a loved one’s cheek and in dusting crumbs off a table top – actions that seem to have little in common.”  Yet they share an essential effort quality.   

It can be a challenge to help college students recognize, as Laban did, that “whether the purpose of movement is work or art does not matter, for the elements are invariably the same.”  But this recognition leads on to the realization that movement is a common denominator of human action.  As life becomes ever more complex, isn’t it worthwhile to know this?

The Dynamosphere: Effort Maps in 3-D

The “dynamosphere” is a three-dimensional model of effort relationships. Laban chose a cube for depicting effort kinships. Cate Deicher and I will be exploring these relationships in the forthcoming workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere.


Many people are familiar with the way Laban positioned the eight basic actions (floating, gliding, pressing, punching, etc.) at each of the eight corners of the cube. Whimsically, Laban likened this effort model to a “town with a good many cross-roads and squares between houses in which the effort microbes live.”  He goes on to add, “It is a curious peculiarity of this city that near relatives dwell nearer to each other than more distant relatives, and these live nearer than strangers or enemies. Hostile effort microbes, who have no effort constituents in common, live at diametrically opposite sides of the city.”

Laban’s dynamospheric action map depicts these relationships.   But effort theory goes well beyond the eight basic actions, to incorporate the three transformative  Drives (Passion, Vision, and Spell), as well as six “incomplete actions” or effort states (Dream, Awake, Near, Remote, Stable and Mobile) and the four elemental motion factors (Weight, Time, Space, and Flow).  Laban also used a different cubic model to depict kinship relations among all these elements and effort combinations.

This little-known cubic model not only summarizes Laban’s whole effort theory, it also maps organic transitions between effort moods.  It is a wonderful resource for building effort phrases.  Find out more in the forthcoming Red Thread workshop.

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!

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.

Effort and Imagination

effort and imagination“Effort is visible in the action movement of a worker, or a dancer, and it is audible in song or speech,” Laban observes in Mastery of Movement.  “The fact that effort and its various shadings can not only be seen and heard, but also imagined, is of great importance for their representation by the actor-dancer.”

Awakening the imagination is an important part of enriching one’s dynamic range.  Laban draws a close link between imagination and playing.  During play, he explains, the child experiments with all imaginable situations —  offense, defence, ambush, ruse, flight, fear  — searching for “the best possible effort combination for each occasion.”  He adds, in children, “we call it play; in adult people we call it acting and dancing.”

Effort patterns become habits as one matures, Laban notes, and that is why young humans “have a much more varied scale of effort capacities at their disposal than their elders.”  This statement reminds me of Isadora Duncan’s observation that most people resort to a set of habits, and “with these few stereotyped gestures, their whole lives are passed without once suspecting the world of dance which they are missing.”

Revitalize your own dynamic range and stimulate your movement imagination in the forthcoming Red Thread workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” July 22-23, in New York City.