Laban Movement Analysis was created by Rudolf Laban (Lah’bahn), a comprehensive thinker, choreographer and movement educator in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s. He has had a seminal influence on modern expressive dance and on efficient work and sports movement patterns. Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) is a way of describing movement that is now an important part of the training of dance/movement therapists. Labanotation is a system of notating dance, or any kind of movement, and can be specific down to the blink of an eyelash.
Laban himself analyzed and categorized all the possibilities of movement. Awareness of these issues is crucial not only to dancers, but also to musicians, in order to prevent them from developing excessive muscle tension. Some of the distinctions Laban made were: (1) whether the movement was freely flowing or bound, (2) whether the movement was quick or sustained, (3) whether the weight of the body was used in a strong, light or heavy way and (4) whether the body moved in a sharply direct, indirect or omni-directional way.
Laban-trained observers later made a cross-cultural distinction about body attitudes. They found that the world is divided into two main types of “cultures.” In one type, the torso moves as one unit, which is associated with the control of sexuality. In the other type, the torso spirals or undulates, in a sensual way.
What is “natural”? What is good alignment? Good posture? Every body system has some idea of what is the desirable way of being or moving. One system tells you that you should line up your body like blocks, one on top of the other, while another system says that you should straighten your spine and keep your body in a vertical alignment. Or you should always be releasing tension and expanding up and out. Or you should envision your body as a flat grid that maintains a fixed optimal shape. There are some body systems that offer your body many different ways to move, in the belief that your body will “naturally” choose the one that’s best for it. But unfortunately, over time, habits such as hunching over, tensing some part of the body, or overusing neck muscles can come to feel “natural” and tend to be ignored unless pain appears.
Our ideals of good posture are often culturally defined. For example, we’ve all been told to “stand up straight!” A common ideal for men is a military-like stance, with the chest stuck up and out and pelvis held tucked under. For the average woman, the postural goal is the appearance of desirability. The bosom is accentuated, while the discomfort of other body parts (like toes squeezed into pointed toed shoes) is ignored. Ironically, these stances are difficult and impractical to maintain, especially for musicians! So trying to hold your body in one of these “correct” alignments will only create tension. A more logical kind of alignment would allow our bodies to move harmoniously as they were designed, with our spines undulating and twisting, and our muscles spiraling around our bones. This is not a static arrangement, but allows us to be as ready to move as a cat.
By allowing your body a full range of motion in a way that’s pleasurable, you will find that good alignment is a state of comfortable and fluid expansiveness: every body’s “natural” state. Your body has a mind of its own – your “bodymind.” If you take the time to listen to it, your bodymind is constantly sending you information. This information may manifest itself physically as bodily discomfort, or as emotional distress. These warning signals present the opportunity to examine externally-imposed beliefs, things such as the axiom “no pain, no gain.” By now, these beliefs may be operating on a semi-conscious level, but affecting your body directly. You’ll want to know “where” that belief lives in your body, and how it’s manifesting itself physically and emotionally. If you want to rid your body of externally-imposed beliefs that don’t help, it is necessary to consult your bodymind and listen to its advice. If your body is constricted, shrinking, sagging, bracing or forcing, it is sending you messages about your bodymind’s relationship not only to your playing, but maybe to your teacher, your conductor, your lover, your diet and/or your inner critic.
Oh, that inner critic! From early conditioning and miseducation, most people have internalized a whole range of negative critics, both the avid “encouragers” and perfectionistic “discouragers.” Now we do it to ourselves. We confuse the wisdom of the body (our bodymind) with the voices of our internalized critics. These voices often make negative comparisons between ourselves and other players, siblings, parents or saints, etc., and they tell us: “You’re not good enough.” Perhaps it’s true that you’ll “never” be good enough, but you don’t have to let that keep you from enjoying what you’re able to do right now. Ask your critic for specific and helpful advice. Many of us have been trained to be motivated by fear – of failure, or of success – but acting out of fear is a sure path to injury, if you are imposing someone else’s idea of what your body “should” do, without consulting your bodymind.
Pain (physical or emotional) should not be the norm, since it is really your body’s cry for help. When you hurt, your bodymind is saying, “Pay attention to me. Listen to me.” The reality is that if you give your body a voice, it can give you specific information about what it wants and needs. It may tell you things like, “I want a little ecstasy, not just drudgery” or “Take me for a walk by the river” or “Give me more water to drink, and less sugar” or “Don’t hang out with that person, he’s toxic to you.”
Playing an instrument is difficult enough without having to try to keep your body in any particular arrangement at the same time. I don’t want to burden you with another set of things you “should” do, but here are a few pleasurable exercises you can do to give your bodymind some affirmative action. Keep your instrument nearby.
(1) Walk around in your own customary way. (2) Now walk, keeping your torso one piece from head to tail (the bottom of your spine). Think of your spine as a straight line, with no twist. Aim for perfect posture and control. (3) Now walk, twisting and undulating your spine and torso – dance! (4) Stand still, but keep the flow going inside as you take your instrument and play.
You may experience what Laban called the “balance between stability and mobility.”
Arch, Curl, and Wave
(1) Sit fairly erect in a hard chair, away from the back of the chair. (2) Slowly and gently curl your body from your tail to the top of your head, exhaling and humming. (3) Then gently and slowly arch as fully as you can, looking up behind your head, humming and exhaling. (4) Alternate between arching and curling for a while. (5) Take your chest in a big circle: up and forward and over, down and under and back, and up and over again, allowing a wave-like motion to develop throughout your whole spine. (6) Now let the wave travel three-dimensionally – that is, not just forward and back, but also side to side and twisting and untwisting. You can let your arms flow out from your torso in response to the waves if they want to. (7) Sit still and once again, let the flow continue internally. Now play your instrument. Everything flows, spirals and undulates. It is “natural.” You have to make an effort to keep it from happening, or you can encourage it to happen.
Your Bodymind Speaks
As you were moving in the last exercise, you may have become aware of some part of your body that felt less than completely mobile. You can have a conversation with that part of you as though it were a person living inside of you. You can ask it what it has to tell you, what it believes, what it wants, what it likes and dislikes, what’s useful about it. Even a pain in the neck has something of value to tell you when you listen.
(1) Sit close to the back of a hard chair that supports you up to the middle of your upper back. Sit comfortably erect. (2) Clasp your hands high over your head and circle them as far back behind your head, to the sides, and forward as you can go without forcing. Let your rib cage circle too. Make sounds while you are circling. It’s OK to moan and groan, just don’t hold your breath. Then play your instrument. A mobile chest frees the arms.
Writing in Space
(1) Start standing, with plenty of room around you. With your index finger write your name in the space in front of your chest. You can also write anything you like, especially about how you feel doing this. (2) Gradually write using more and more space, and let different parts of your body do the “writing” – your elbow, your foot, your “tail,” etc. (3) Write up to the ceiling and down to the ground, (4) in front of and in back of you, (5) far to one side, then the other. You can write (6) big and small, (7) fast and slow, (8) forwards and backwards, (9) elegant and weird – however you like. Now play your instrument. Being comfortable in and playful with the space around you adds to your flexibility and to your presence on stage.
There are lots of enjoyable physical activities that can indirectly enhance your playing. Sports (like tennis) can give you strength and adaptability. For flexibility, nothing beats belly dancing – it is joyful, erotic and helps you to embody complex rhythms. Some activities, like running (with lightness and rebound) will give you a bonus of endorphins, the “euphoria of exercise” as well. Laughing also floods your body with endorphins. You can start laughing mechanically and when you hit the right tempo of five cycles per second, the laughing becomes real! Tai Chi or yoga, where one moves in slow motion, may help put you “inside your body’s experience.” Whatever you choose, the benefit lies in how you do it and in maintaining the communication with your bodymind and welcoming the meaningfulness of its messages.
- lrmgard Bartenieff, Forestine Paulay and Alan Lomax. Folk Song Style and Culture; The Choreometrics Project. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- Valerie Preston Dunlop. A Handbook for Modern Educational Dance. Macdonald and Evans.
- Cecily Dell. A Primer for Movement Description. Dance Notation Bureau.
- Bjorn Christiansen. Thus Speaks the Body. Arno Press.
This article was originally published, in slightly different form, in Bass Player magazine.
Aileen Crow is a performance coach in private practice in New York City and New City, N.Y. She has been both a Laban Movement Analyst and a teacher and teacher trainer of the Alexander Technique since 1969. She is also a NeuroLinguistic Programmer; a facilitator of Authentic Movement and a practitioner of Dreambody Process Work. For further information, she may be reached at (845) 634-5249, or by email at CROWA@Prodigy.net.