Labanotation Part II

Dance Literacy Through Labanotation

Part II: The Informal Use of Labanotation

by Menawara (Laura Le Pere)

In my article in the previous issue of Habibi, I gave some background information on why Rudolf Laban created Labanotation. I discussed some of the pros and cons of the use of dance notation and why it can be useful in combination with video for the preservation and transmission of Oriental dance. In this article I will explain some of the basics of the Labanotation system. I will also suggest an informal way of using some of the Labanotation symbols.

Before I begin with the specifics of using Labanotation, I would like to tell you a little about my personal experience with it. I was first introduced to Labanotation before I ever started dancing. I went to college at a small school that did not have a dance department. But a friend of mine was very interested in dance and started a dance club. She drafted me to make costumes for a show the club was putting on. At the rehearsals one of the dancers was recording the dances using Labanotation: a process which fascinated me (at least in part because I had not had even the slightest inkling previously that such as thing as writing down dance was possible). My friend also encouraged my blossoming interest in “belly dance” and a year or so later, while in graduate school, I started classes.

Those initial classes were paced slow enough that I could remember what I was taught fairly easily and write down verbal descriptions of the movements either in class or just afterwards. But it wasn’t too terribly long until I went to my first workshop. I came away somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of information presented. And only a few weeks later my own notes did little to help me remember what had been taught. Eventually, I decided I too wanted to be able to write down dance. So I went to the bookstore and ordered a copy of Ann Hutchinson’s (now Ann Hutchinson Guest) book Labanotation (1970). I quickly realized that it was not going to be as easy as I had thought but it still seemed worthwhile.

Many years have passed since then and those years included a long ebb in my dance career when dance was just a hobby for me and I did not pursue my study of Labanotation. But about three years ago I began dancing again in earnest, performing whenever I can, and teaching. I teach using choreography in the beginning and introduce improvisation later. (I do this because it was so hard for me to know what to do with the movements I learned when I first started dancing and because I feel one must be familiar with the music to improvise well.) I have been recording the choreographies that I have developed for my students in Labanotation. I also used Labanotation to take notes in classes on my recent trip to Egypt with Shareen el Safy. And I have been writing down in notation choreographies and combinations that I have learned from video. I find it much quicker to find the information I need to refresh my memory about a choreography on paper than using fast forward and rewind on the video player. Also the process of writing down the notation helps me remember the information longer.

The real point of this personal history, though, is that I am self-taught. In fact, I am still learning Labanotation and in no way consider myself an expert. I initially rejected suggestions of writing about Labanotation because I did not feel qualified to do so. But I have changed my mind on this point. I now feel that, although I have not been formally trained, if I can get benefits from using Labanotation, other dancers can too. And the very fact that I am self-taught may, I hope, make notation seem less intimidating and more accessible to other dancers. We can, a la Nike, “just do it.” So let’s begin.

As mentioned in my last article, Labanotation makes use of a staff of three vertical lines. The vertical dimension of the staff on the paper represents the passage of time. Measures corresponding to the music may be indicated on the staff by horizontal lines connecting the outer edges of the staff. Beats within the measure are shown by short horizontal lines (Figure 1,a). The staff is divided into columns, separated by imaginary vertical lines, for the different main parts of the body. The center line of the staff indicates the axis of symmetry of the body, that is the line that divides our body into left and right halves (Figure 1,b). Geometric symbols indicate directions of movement parallel to the floor. The shading of the symbols represent level (movement perpendicular to the floor) (Figure 2). The general part of the body moving is shown by where on the staff the movement symbol is placed relative to the center line. Extremely specific indications of the part of the body moving are made by using small symbols for those parts, called presigns because they are placed before the geometric symbols on the staff (Figure 3). Since the vertical dimension of the paper is time, the length of the geometric symbol shows the speed of the movement (Figure 4).

These are just the most basic features of Labanotation. As I said many times above, it can define movement extremely precisely. Additional symbols are used along with the main geometric symbols to show small variations in direction and level of movement, inclusion or isolation of specific body parts in movement, details of equilibrium (the relationship of the center of gravity to the body), details of dynamics (such as which movements or parts of movements are accented and how strongly), and many, many other attributes that differentiate one movement from another. But Labanotation also has the added benefit that it can be extremely flexible. Guest (Labanotation,1970, p. 13) points out that while the standard system is more analogous to longhand than shorthand and strives to record all details pertinent to the performance of a movement, abbreviated versions are acceptable for personal use, as memory aides for dancers already familiar with a choreography, and “among colleagues in the same field where certain knowledge may be taken for granted.” Even the formal use of Labanotation allows for different types of movement description that convey different levels of detail. The complete standard system is the most detailed and is known as Structural Description. There is also Motif Description (or Motif Writing) which uses the concepts of the staff — the vertical dimension of the paper being time and the horizontal being the various parts of the body — although the entire staff may not be shown. Motif Writing can leave a great many of the details of a performance unstated or up to the performer (i.e., improvised).

As I have said, my own personal motivation for using Labanotation was originally to help me remember what I learned in my dance classes. Over the years I have included many Labanotation symbols in my notes along with my old verbal descriptions. This is what I refer to here as the informal use of Labanotation. It does not qualify even as Motif Writing because it does not use the staff at all and because it uses words. I still use this type of note-taking when I am really pressed for time. (Although as I get more proficient, I use Motif Writing more and more for my notes.) In the following paragraphs I will present some of the symbols that I have found most useful in this informal manner. A more complete glossary of symbols may be found in Labanotation (Guest 1970, pp. 499-509).

Symbols for parts of the body

Symbols for parts of the body are shown in Figure 5. I’ve included the symbols for the most basic parts of the body as far as Oriental dance is concerned. Please note that there are separate symbols for hips and pelvis. The hip is the joint between the femur (thigh bone) and the pelvic bone. This symbol would be used for movements that involve emphasis on one hip. The pelvis is the entire pelvic girdle. This symbol would be used when the pelvic girdle is moving as a unit, which we sometimes think of as both hips moving in the same direction. Likewise the individual shoulder joints are given a separate symbol from the shoulder area including the shoulder blade and collar bones.

The basic symbols for direction and level were presented above in Figure 2. In Labanotation, movement is primarily described in terms of motion of all or part of the body towards a given destination which is defined in terms of direction and level. The direction and level symbols are used when the movement does not involve rotation. (There are special symbols for rotation that are explained below.)

You may have noticed that there are two symbols for the forward direction and two symbols for the backward direction. In standard Labanotation the symbols with the projections in the left side are used for movements of the right side of the body and are placed on the right side of the staff and vice versa (see Figure 4). This adds to the visual/intuitive relationship between the staff and the bilateral symmetry of the body. Since we will not be using the staff in our informal use of the symbols, this distinction is not as important. You may choose to use only one symbol each to represent forward and backward movements. In fact, I use simplified versions of all the direction and level symbols for more rapid note-taking (Figure 6).

Certain conventions relate to the use of the direction and level symbols in standard Labanotation that are useful to know even for our informal usage. These conventions are really some of the fundamental concepts of Labanotation. Knowing them can help us be more consistent in our own usage as well as make the transition to using Motif or Structural Description easier. This may seem a bit confusing just reading through it at first. But it should make more sense once you start trying to use the direction and level symbols to describe specific movements.

The columns immediately to either side of the center line of the Labanotation staff are for the body supports. We normally support our bodies with our feet (except during floor work when we may use our knees, hips, hands, etc.). All the other columns of the staff are for movements of the parts of the body NOT supporting its weight. Movements of the parts of our body that are supporting us and therefore involve transfer of weight are called steps and movements of non-supporting parts of our body are called gestures. The staff is the only way of distinguishing between the two types of movement in formal Labanotation. Since in this informal usage we are not using the staff we must differentiate between steps and gestures in some other way. For example, out of the context of the staff, Figure 7(a) may mean that the right foot steps to the right or that the right foot points to the right and has no weight on it. You could differentiate these movements with any kind of shorthand you like. One possibility is to use a “G” as in (b) to define the movement as a gesture while the use of the foot symbol alone as in (a) would indicate a step. This would be easy since the majority of the time the feet are acting as supports. Conversely, an “S” could be used to indicate movements of other parts of the body when they are the supports.

Direction and Level for Steps

Direction and level are defined differently for steps and gestures. Let’s consider the whole, standing body first. When the whole body moves it is the result of movements of our supports, or steps as defined above. Considering horizontal direction, center for the whole body, called “place,” is its center of gravity. The other horizontal directions, forward, backward, etc., are normally defined in relation to that center of gravity and to the anatomy of the body, not in relation to the space in which we perform. So every time we turn, forward becomes the direction we are now facing. Steps in a given direction move our center of gravity in that direction. Steps in place do not generally move our center of gravity horizontally. A closing step (or a “step together” as it’s sometimes called) is also considered a step in place even though there may be a slight shift in the center of gravity. As for level for steps, when the feet are supporting the weight of the body, high is on the balls of the feet. Middle level is ordinary standing position. (I also use middle level for the slightly bent knee that is the normal starting position for most Oriental dance movements.) Low is when the knees are quite bent but feet are still flat on the floor.

When the weight of the body is supported by knees, as in floor work, movement of the whole body by means of movements of the knees is still considered a step. Horizontal direction is defined in the same way as when the feet are supporting the body. “Place” is the center of gravity and “forward” is the direction we are facing. High level for the whole body with supports on the knees is when the knees are not bent and the hips are directly over the knees. Middle level is when knees are bent and the hips are lowered halfway down to the feet. Low level is when the knees are completely bent and the hips are touching the feet and weight is on the hips and feet. In this case, the center of gravity does move somewhat horizontally when moving between place high and place low. We do use other parts of our bodies as supports when we do floor work. But we don’t do very much movement of those supports (steps) in those positions. Also the conventions for use of direction and level symbols get fairly complicated in those situations so I am not going to go into them in this article.

Direction and Level for Gestures

Direction and level for gestures are defined differently than for steps because those movements are inherently different. The whole body can move anywhere in space constrained only by gravity; but, the movements of the individual parts of the body are constrained by the other parts to which they are attached. The biggest difference in the use of the direction and level symbols for individual body parts is in the place direction and the middle level. Let’s consider gestures of the limbs first. The arms and legs are attached to the body at the shoulder and hip joints respectively. Since the limbs physically must move around those points, they are considered place middle for the limbs. It is the movement of the extremities of the limbs toward given destinations that is described by the direction and level symbols. See Figure 8 for some examples. Note that limbs are considered to be in the place middle direction and level when the extremities are touching the points of attachment, in which case the limb will be bent (d).

When a foot is touching the floor but is not bearing any weight the leg is considered to be performing a gesture in low level and the foot is not acting as a support. To distinguish these gestures of the legs from gestures in low level where the foot does not touch the floor “contact hooks” are added to the direction and level symbol for the leg. The shape of the hook indicates which part of the foot is touching the floor (Figure 9).

The individual segments of the limbs move in a manner similar to the limbs as a whole. The point of attachment for each segment is the joint nearer the torso and this is considered place middle for that part. The extremity or free end for each part is the joint farther from the torso. The movement of the “free end” joint defines the movement for a given part of a limb (Figure 10).

The palms of the hands are a special case. The palm is actually a surface of the hand. It is not itself a segment of the limb. The direction and level symbols used with the palm symbol shows the direction the palm is facing (Figure 11).

The various parts of the torso also make gestures. In fact, this is where a great deal of Oriental dance takes place and we know that these parts of the body are capable of a very wide range of movement even though the amount of space used is small. For the shoulder and hip joints, place middle is their normal, relaxed position. For the other parts of the torso, Labanotation defines two main types of non-rotational movement as tilting and shifting. In tilting the whole torso, pelvis, ribcage, shoulder area, neck, or head act like a limb with a point of attachment at their base and a free end at their upper end as shown in Figure 12(a). In this case place middle is the base point of attachment. In shifting, the parts of the torso move as a unit with some mobility in the parts attached at both ends (b). Familiar examples of shifting for us are rib slides and head slides. For shifting, place middle is the normal, relaxed position of the part. In Labanotation the use of the presign with a direction and level symbol indicate tilting. Shifting is indicated by adding small “T” shapes (known as the straight path symbol) to the presigns.

In standard Labanotation it is considered normal for certain body parts to be carried along with the gestures of other parts. When the movement of a body part is described using a direction and level symbol any minor body parts attached to that part are assumed to move to the same destination. Many isolation movements require special symbols to be used. Movements of the arms and legs are assumed to carry the hands and feet with them respectively. In the case of the segments of the limbs, segments farther away from the body are considered to be carried along with gestures of segments closer to the body, if their gestures are not shown separately (Figure 13). In the case of the parts of the torso: arms, neck, and head are considered to be carried along with movements of the whole torso, of the ribs, or shoulder area. Arms are considered to be carried along with movements of the individual shoulder joints. The legs are considered to be carried along with movements of the hips. In Oriental dance, however, isolation movements of the torso are more the norm than the exception. So for informal usage I consider all torso movements to be isolations and specifically indicate if other body parts are to be carried along (Figure 14).

The final article in this series will appear in the next issue of Habibi, and will continue the explanation of the informal use of labanotation. I will discuss symbols for rotating and circular motions; straight paths; facing direction; vibrations and undulations; relative size; degree or amount of movement; accented movements; the touching or proximity of two body parts; hold and back-to-normal; and repeat. An extensive bibliography regarding labanotation will also be presented.

Menawara is a professional performer and teacher of Oriental dance, and has been studying the dance for fifteen years. Laura LePere, as she is known in her life outside the dance, has an education through the post-graduate level with degrees in geology, anthropology and archaeology. She has worked professionally as an archaeologist, draftsman, and petroleum geologist. She also has an interest in sewing and needlework. 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 with her husband.

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