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Dance Literacy Through Labanotation

Part 1: Background and Basics

By Menawara

Labanotation, also called Kinetography Laban, is movement notation: a formal, standardized way of writing down movements on paper. It uses a 3 line vertical staff divided into columns representing parts of the body with geometric symbols showing direction and level of movement. Labanotation was originated by a man named Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958) in Germany during the 1920’s in a desire to describe movement in a way that would be universally applicable to any type of movement regardless of its purpose or culture of origin.

Laban has been described as a dancer and he did spend most of his life working in the theater. However, his interests were much broader than dance (as it might be defined either now or then). One of his students and close associates, Ann Hutchinson Guest (Choreo-graphics,1989; Labanotation,1970), tells us that from a very young age he was interested in the movements people make in every aspect of their lives, including their most mundane and habitual activities. From this interest he began to theorize about movement in general and its universal aspects, apart from any established categorization. This naturally led him to approach artistic movement very differently than his predecessors.

Laura Le Pere. Photo: Peggy Clampet

Modern dance was just evolving in the early part of this century when Laban was having these rather revolutionary thoughts about movement. Prior to this development, the only recognized form of movement as art in cultures with European roots was ballet. And even ballet was not considered to be art on the same level as poetry, music and painting. However, at that time western artists were beginning to assert that dance could express much more in terms of emotions and ideas than it had before and that “new” movements must be used to do so. Interesting to us as Oriental dancers is that there was considerable influence from Oriental cultures and their symbols on some of the early pioneers of modern dance (Buonaventura, Serpent of the Nile, 1994). Concurrent with the exploration of new forms of expression in dance, artists (including Laban) began to chafe at the restrictions of defining dance movements in terms of a set of positions and steps. As an adjunct to his new ideas about movement in general and as art specifically, Laban wanted a way to put those ideas down on paper. And so he began developing his system of notation (which he called “Schrifttanz” or Dancescript).

Numerous forms of dance notation had already been tried historically (Guest, Ibid.,1989); but, none of these suited Laban’s purposes. Some of the notations were based on words, some focused on floor patterns of dance with symbols for the positions of feet and arms, and some even used stick figures or musical notes to represent the body. But virtually all these systems required a previous knowledge of the dance being described and lacked the ability to record clearly movements outside the realm of the style of dance they were intended for. They were, in fact, all based on the description of dance as positions and steps rather than as movement. Also the more complex the movement, the less useful these systems were. And finally with the exception of the music note systems they were very weak at recording rhythm.

Laban’s goals on a practical level were, according to Guest (Ibid.,1970: 1-2), “recording complicated movement accurately, recording it in economical and legible form, and keeping up with continual innovations in movement.” This would allow dances to be passed down through time. But even more importantly, on a more idealistic level, both the process of writing down dance movements and choreographies and their preservation as a form of literature would, Laban hoped, lead to examination, analysis, comparison and evaluation which would strengthen the art of dance and put it on the level of other art forms.

The usefulness of a notation of this sort for Oriental dance should be obvious. All of Laban’s goals apply to us as much as to any other kinds of dancers. Maybe more so: we have felt the need to raise the status of our art particularly keenly. And we could especially use notation because we have no standardized movement vocabulary of our own. Even if a standardized vocabulary is agreed upon in the future, notation can be used to support a terminology by creating a sort of dictionary of Oriental dance movements that defines the movements apart from any given dancer/teacher’s personal style. Furthermore, the use of notation capable of describing any movement along with a standardized terminology could have advantages for us in that it allows for, and may even encourage, the individual expression that is so central to the dance. This is what attracted so many of us to Oriental dance in the first place and is, I feel, why there has been so much resistance to standardization. Using both we can have the benefits of increased efficiency in verbal communication that standardization offers as well as a way to preserve and transmit our individual innovations and interpretations. In any case, because so much of our learning is done by observation, we could particularly use the enhanced ability to observe that comes with analyzing movement in order to record it.

Still, there are problems associated with the use of dance notation, and not only for Oriental dancers. First and foremost is the inherent problem of attempting to put something as complicated as dance onto a piece of paper. For one thing, dance takes place in 4 measurable dimensions (3 of space and 1 of time) while paper has only 2 dimensions. For another thing, the different parts of the body are capable of moving in very different and complex manners at the same time. As Guest (Dance Notation, 1984) says: “The body of a dancer is like a small orchestra”. What’s more, dance contains a highly important emotional aspect. Labanotation does an admirable job of transferring the complexities of movement to paper in terms of accurately describing how all the different parts of the body move through the 4 dimensions. It also includes indications of dynamics which are used to express emotion in dance, although this is its weaker area.

Even though it does largely overcome the inherent problem of describing the complexity of movement accurately, Labanotation has its own resultant practical problem: the written version of complex movement is itself complex. Which means that it requires a commitment of time and mental energy both to learn and to use. This actually is not surprising. Notation can be thought of as a form of language. It takes a long time to learn a language, even our own. And, of course, it takes longer to write, or even type, a sentence than it does to read it. Writing out notation, though, is really more akin to doing a written translation from one language to another, which is even more time consuming.

I do believe that the benefits of dance literacy are worth the price. However, the truth of the matter is that very few dancers of any kind know how to use Labanotation, or any other form of formal notation. This has more to do, I think, with the culture of dance than with the level of intelligence or motivation of dancers in general. Dance is generally taught mainly by observation and repetition rather than analysis. Dancers are encouraged to feel the music and the movement rather than think about them. As a result, the process of reading and writing an abstract notation seems somewhat foreign to us and therefore intimidating. Also, I think that the fact that in most forms of dance other than Oriental dance, dancers do not normally create their own choreography means that they are less inclined to see the value of notation for themselves. Additionally, Guest (Ibid.,1984) feels that there has been a connection between the lack of progress in notation and the social stigma of the profession of dance, which has historically been associated with the lower classes. (See also Buonaventura, Ibid., 1994.)

Whatever the cause, there has been considerable reticence on the part of dancers to learn and use notation. Many people are much more drawn to the idea of using video as the primary means of transmission and preservation of dance. We Oriental dancers are certainly leaders in this field. Video is extremely useful for these purposes and it has an immediacy, a visual quality in common with the art of dance, and an ability to show the relationship of movement to music that are extremely appealing. And it excels in transmitting emotion. It does, however, have certain limitations of its own. Recording conditions may be less than perfect with poor lighting, less than ideal camera angle, or part of the performance area out of the frame. Plus, we have all read criticisms of videos in which too many special effects spoil our ability to see the dance. Even in the best quality performance videos movements may be obscured by other dancers, costumes, props and even other parts of the dancers own body, and can be seen only from one angle. (In teaching videos these factors can be controlled by the teacher, assuming they choose to do so.) When a question does arise about a movement, video can be slowed down but there is a corresponding increase in distortion.

Guest (Ibid.,1984) refers to a thesis done by C. Brook Andrews of Georgetown University Department of Physical Education in 1971 entitled “A Comparative Study of Video Tape and Labanotation as Learning Tools for Modern Dance”. Andrews states that, although he initially preferred learning from video, after some time he began to be frustrated by the inability to “see exactly what happened on-screen,” the distortion of depth, the tendency for images to appear overly large, the slowing down of the speed of movement, and the reduction of dynamics. He also did a study in which 10 dancers learned 2 movement sequences from video and 10 other dancers learned the same movement sequences from Labanotation. The results were judged on accuracy and quality of movement. The Labanotation students had the higher scores. Andrews felt that the concentration required to learn from Labanotation meant that those dancers were more “involved” in the learning process. Although one could certainly have many questions about the objectivity of such a study, especially in judging the dancers, Guest notes that similar results were obtained in a London University study.

Even if these studies do have a subjective element, I find them interesting in that they indicate benefits in using notation do exist for us as students of dance. Furthermore, Labanotation has the other advantages over video that it is more portable, and it doesn’t require any special equipment, nor do you need permission to use it. Actually, Labanotation is strong where video is weak and vice versa. They can complement each other perfectly. There is, in fact, even a video course in Labanotation available (see Towers, “Cultural Literacy,” Dance Magazine, v. 62, Nov., 1988, pp. 70-71).

There are other high-tech advances being made in the field of recording dance. These, not surprisingly, involve computers. There are computer programs to aid in writing Labanotation (Menosky, Video Graphics and Grand Jetes, Science, v. 3, May,1982, pp. 25-35). Unfortunately, I have not been able to determine if these are available to the general public. The trend in the last ten years or so, though, is in the area of inputting movement data directly into the computer via either video images or movement sensors attached to a person’s body. The computer would then create a three dimensional animated model of the person moving, to be displayed on its screen or saved for future reference. Menosky wrote in 1982 explaining how this research was being applied to dance specifically. At that time, these programs were in their infancy and the animated models, in particular, were extremely crude. Since then, computer scientists have made considerable progress in modeling the moving human body (Taubes, “Virtual Jack,” Discover, v. 15, no. 6, 1994, pp. 66-74). However, the models still cannot emulate the full range of human motion. Also the hardware and software for the most advanced modeling that does exist is largely limited to academic research facilities. The real world applications have been in business rather than the arts. So, while this may be the wave of the future, at this time its practical use for us as dancers is virtually nil (pun intended).

I should also mention that there are two other forms of dance notation that have developed a significant following since their development in the 1950’s. One was created by Joan and Rudolf Banesh. It uses a 5 line horizontal staff, as in music notation, with symbols representing a stylized stick figure placed on the staff to indicate positions of the body and movements (Banesh, Reading Dance, 1977; Guest , Ibid.,1989; McGuinness-Scott, Movement Study and Banesh Movement Notation, 1983). Noa Eshkol and Avraham Wachman developed a system using a horizontal staff divided into 20 spaces for various body parts. Direction and level of movement for each part are shown in the spaces by means of mathematical coordinates (Guest, Ibid., 1989). The Banesh system is more widely used in Europe than in the U.S. where Labanotation predominates. The Eshkol/Wachman system is mainly used in Israel where it was developed.

Of the three systems, Labanotation and Eshkol/Wachman have the advantage over Banesh in the ability to describe any movement with precision. On the other hand Banesh and Labanotation are graphic-based notations which makes them easier to read than the mathematical Eshkol/Wachman system. On a scale with ease of use at one end and precision on the other I would rank Labanotation in the middle with Banesh at the ease of use end and Eshkol/Wachman at the precision end. The qualities at the ends of the scale are both desirable but conflicting. To me Labanotation combines the best qualities of the other two systems. The analogy of language is pertinent here too. A conference between scholars of the three forms of notation (Cheslow, “Three Movements Meet,” Dance Magazine, v. 58, Dec., 1984, p. 116) ended with the conclusion that they were analogous to three different languages. They agreed that no attempt should be made to combine them or proclaim one of them best. Of course, most people tend to prefer their first language and so it is with notation. I will admit that Labanotation is my first notation language and that I have really only a superficial knowledge of the other two systems. However, in my research for this article I looked at those systems with the specific intention of seeing how well they would describe movements of the torso in relation to Labanotation, since those are the movements that are most unique to Oriental dance. I felt that the Banesh system, while its simplicity is attractive, does not have the flexibility I need in order to properly describe those movements. The Eshkol/Wachman system, while it does include plenty of detail, requires too much space as well as too much time and mental energy to convert the mathematical coordinates to and from movement.

I hope that I have at least begun to answer some of the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. I have focused up to this point on the origins of Labanotation and the reasons that I believe it can be of use to us as Oriental dancers. I realize that so far I have not really given many specifics on the actual notation. In my next article, I will give a more detailed description of the Labanotation system and propose an informal way of using some of the concepts of the system for those who may not as of yet wish to commit themselves to learning the entire system.

Menawara is a professional performer and teacher of Oriental Dance. She has been studying the dance for 15 years and will be a student forever. Known as Laura LePere in her life outside the dance; she has an education through the post-graduate level with degrees in geology, anthropology and archaeology. She has worked professionaly as an archaeologist, a draftsman, and a petroleum geologist. She also has an interest in sewing and needlework (which comes in very handy for designing and making costumes). She has traveled widely in the U.S. and abroad, staying for extended periods in China, Scotland and also Ecuador, where she currently resides in Quito.

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