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Moving Well: Laban Movement Therapy in Action

by Edwin Alan Salter(more info)

listed in movement, originally published in issue 107 - January 2005

Conjure up in your mind the image of someone a bit down and finding it hard to make an effort; and now let it exaggerate until the person is hopelessly sad and depressed. If you were able to visualize or feel that image, try again but now with someone rather anxious and troubled; and then let that develop towards uncontrolled agitation. Does one of these come more easily to you than the other?

We recognize these emotions in others and, if we are at all empathetic, can feel the moods that are enmeshed in such physical states. Our postures and gestures both announce how we are and condition our thoughts and feelings. Though these are the simple truths of everyday experience, they are too often overlooked by narrow 'scientific' blinkers which seek to treat symptoms in isolation, a drug for this bad thought and another for that bad emotion. In reality we live out and enact ourselves in the totality of our activity and the way we set about life.

Mind and Body

I recently had a patient whose childhood contained a secret. She did not know her father. This would not have troubled a more robust person, but in her case protecting the secret led to a gradual reluctance to take any risk, to chat freely, to go out or to let neighbours through her front door. Another patient, chronically anxious and ill at ease, had a small but curious gesture. His hand would go to his ear in a circular defence, brief but tense. Scarcely noticing it, he was hearing his mother repeating the same old destructive injunctions of infancy. The signs in these cases were easily overlooked, the first because so generalized in life, the second because so tiny a quirk. A Laban movement practitioner would understand them both.

Rudolf Laban worked in Germany and Britain and, with his many associates, established a way of describing, analysing and notating human movement from the most general to the highly detailed. From this analysis sprang ways to repair and rebalance, to enhance and enliven, body and mind through movement.

Consider your own life. You know fairly well what you eat and wear, what fills your thoughts, how you spend your money and your time. But how do you move, how does your energy appear in action? Do you think of yourself overall as strong or sensitive, swift or sustained, straight or sinuous, steady or spontaneous? These, respectively, are the four motion factors of weight, time, space and flow. Each is a range between two polar opposites, so there are two distinct groupings at the extremes of strong – swift – straight – steady and of sensitive – sustained – sinuous – spontaneous. (Single words are inexact equivalents and my choice here is an approximation only.)

Alongside this description of the dynamic qualities of movement, Laban developed a way of identifying the shapes and patterns in space traced out by our body habits and gestures. Lifted or sunk, wide or narrow, advancing or withdrawn, these are the simple three dimensions of body states, the vertical, sideways and front-back axes of physical space. In the zone around them we weave the spatial design of our inclinations and actions, trails more or less stable, more or less expansive. All these features, and many others, can be summed up and dissected, and perhaps checked against fundamental organisations of efficient or expressive movement.

Laban's ideas flourished first in theatre (and I met them through dance where his influence and his notation for recording choreography are still important), but in Britain their effect was also partly on work and then chiefly on education. For many years schools, especially primary, included creative dance and movement in their timetables. Sadly an era viewing children essentially as adults in the making, employees and consumers to be, rather than having the distinctive rights of their age, has had little time for such teaching. Creative movement sounded soppy (which it is not), nonprofit-making and unfit for league tables, something that might encourage children to become positive individuals with their own ideas. The politicians were precisely correct in fearing such encouragement. And more children suffer psychological and physical problems that are movement related because their lives at school and at home are so very deprived in movement terms. Of course other large factors (pollution, diet, lifestyle, uncertainties and threats) are contributing to the flood of developmental and early onset disorders. But there is no excuse for stifling in childhood such a natural protective as the joys of action and interaction in movement.

A Movement Inventory

Much of the language by which you (and others) describe yourself has fairly obvious movement equivalents, for this integration is naturally built into speech. Cohesive individuals will 'hang together' these characteristics. A lightning mind does not of course translate as rushing about, but there will be some swift precision; and real strength of mind does not require thumping, but might correspond to resolute focus. Some social and psychological polarities are fixed in stereotypes (for example, the down-trodden and the nose-in-the-air). Laban reminds us not to forget the simplest and broadest perspective, but recognizing and prescribing for the subtleties of character is a highly skilled task.

How would you break down your own week in movement terms, and what do you do most of? Suppose you spend long hours at a computerized workstation, your body even more stuck in a groove than your mind. One plausible sounding compensation for this might be a ferocious game of squash or session of aerobics. The sensible advice for most bodies would be first to mitigate the work situation by a regular routine of stretching, tension readjustment and whole body movement – and, no, this does not have to be either conspicuous or time-consuming. Secondly, the balance should probably be less severe and more integrated, perhaps dancing would do (it contains relationship, is larger in rhythm, whole body, non-visual, and so on). Think of the movement demands on a hair stylist: would swimming compensate? And how to balance the odd mix of frustrations and repetitions in keeping the home going – what about rambling? If too much of your movement week is heavy and dreary, try badminton; if fast and finicky, try yoga.

Part of the work of all good therapists is to teach how to maintain health. A vulnerable spine may always need exercise to adjust it and build muscle strength. A predisposition toward depression may need an equally tailor-made prescription. One such patient of mine was given a set of movement-based routines: a daily postural exercise to maintain a lifted and alert carriage; a regular energetic social activity; and, when necessary, an imagined (pictured and felt) dispersal of burdening glooms by splendidly airy fireworks deserving of smiles.

Looking Good

Almost all of us rightly care how we look and some of us spend enormous amounts of time and money on our appearance. The results are not always for the best, like a decorative revamp that unwisely ignores material, function and history. Sometimes it is as though we lose the knack of graceful natural movement, so that merriment is supplanted by vulgarity, elegance by mannerism; and even standing and sitting seem beyond some people. Mr Bush's gorilla walk and Mr Blair's stagey hand repertoire reveal the contrivance of their roles.

Standing and sitting (often adjusted by Alexander teachers) are important, especially when prolonged or awkward as workers in offices and shops, factories and orchestras, readily discover. But correction has to be taken in the context of function and individuality. Re-establishing the natural is not always easy and begins by discarding the dross of bad habits and poor compensations. Then comes the basics of a movement education and learning to use the body well. This has little to do with either ballet exercises or pumping up muscles.

When was the last time you did something with exquisite gentleness or fierce energy? What does it feel like to stand perfectly still for a couple of minutes? How is it if you release your hands from endless busyness to carve out the largest spaces within reach. The Laban method is to create a range of movement and to integrate what is appropriate into a coordinated whole of posture and gesture. Having a conversation is as much a dance as a dialogue; the design of buildings is about pathways, enclosures and dynamics rather than uninhabited structure however decorated. We look good not in isolation but as we bring our particular life and expression into environments and relationships.

As a theatre artist, Laban himself was most interested in enhancement, in bringing to life the peaks of human potential. Remedy where necessary, but his tradition has even more to do with making ordinary life become special. For example, community 'movement choirs' opened participation in expressive action to all, opposing the world of shabby harms and alienation.

Practice and Principle

Recognizing a movement-related impairment, a Laban practitioner will sometimes prescribe a sequence of movement to be regularly practised. Important will be the dynamics of movement, its design in space, the way the body is used and the context or relationship built into the phrasing. In psychotherapeutic work I often find mental change far easier to sustain if it is not forever negated by physical enactments of fear, sorrow, shame, the ills tied by habit into every action. A systems approach to individual or group therapy may not necessarily deal with the apparent content of 'the problem' at all, but rather address the process which sustains it. By changing the interactive system – for example how members of a family or a work team look at each other, place themselves in a room, use eye contact and touch – a healthier pattern may emerge which simply allows an unnecessary problem to resolve and fade. Needless to say, my technique with weight issues does not involve any attention to weighing or to diet foods. Insomnia is another common problem best tackled indirectly, not by seeking sleep but by restoring the variety and rhythm of activity.

The usual therapeutic approach to many problems is a direct attack: if stiff try limbering, if phobic try confrontation. This is fine if it works, and with skilled support it does surprisingly often. Done badly it is like the world's advice to the lonely that they should make friends. Smokers are wise to give up, but what activity is to displace the movement habits of fingers and lips let alone compensate for the neurochemical effects of nicotine? Giving up one thing often needs to be an exchange for the better, a matter of both ins and outs.

Sometimes I find that a more general strategy towards change is helpful. In movement terms this concerns the dynamic factor of flow and the necessary range from restrained caution to lively initiative. If someone is stuck, in their life as a whole or with a dominating problem, then embracing any change will promote freedom. First tasks may be as simple as a different journey to work or a rearranged household routine; and usually new consequences arise. A creative movement class can promote improvisation and the sparky vitality of youthful flow which is often diminished by tedium and restriction and by ageing itself.

I would like to highlight two simple principles which underlie much of the Laban work, and neither is fanciful or far-fetched. The first distinguishes what might be called contrived movement – a way of doing adopted out of necessity or pretence that may pass muster but is ill-fitting and comes at a cost – from authentic movement that is properly integrated with personality and is truthful (though not always perfect or ideal of course). Contrivance can be done with virtuoso skill and many jobs are so badly designed that there is no alternative, but it is always to be reduced as far as possible. In severely damaged individuals – or those who have for many years suppressed their real talents and opinions – finding the authentic can be both difficult and inspiring. Additional expressive development may be needed, for example, of voice and speech as means and of knowledge and attitude as content.

The second principle recognizes that expression and impression are equally real processes which shape individuals and cultures alike. Understanding the outgoing behaviour of others is a complex achievement, perhaps a defining specialization of human evolution that makes us so effective as social beings. Equally, what is done to us (even if by ourselves) is similarly forceful and stamps itself on our personalities. Chain up people for long enough and they may be able to survive only as beasts, require unquestioning obedience for long enough and you will achieve automata. Many lives bear witness to similar if less extravagant blighting.

It cannot be said that Laban discovered these two principles from scratch. Ancient rhetoricians, like modern politicians, were well acquainted with contrived performance, and military trainers have long used brutal routines to harden soldiers to the cruelty of war. But he did give them salience and redirect them toward the betterment of humanity rather than its harm. If I try to reformulate and focus this therapeutically, we come to see what is done – action whether produced or prescribed – as a kind of behavioural pivot. It operates between inner and outer, experiential and social, existential and biological. It is at this pivot that movement therapy operates.

Shams and Truths

Contemporary life is not kind toward the body. The visual far outweighs the kinesthetic. There is also a strangely morbid fascination with the body as machine and with all the opportunities for technology to intrude. This interest extends lifespan from Caesarians to autopsies, embracing everything from instruments of apparent enhancement (breast enlargement, 'recreational' drugs) to those of destruction (extreme sports, the means of torture and war).

In the privileged West our bodies suffer not from poverty and cruelty but from choices we make (or are lead to) which are profoundly uncaring. We unduly value an essentially static and temporary glamour which has no respect for the varied attractiveness of individuals of different ages and outlooks. Never have so many been overweight and so many (mostly the same) on diets. Never have the opportunities for activity been so varied with movement so often ugly and inept. These disadvantages are particularly evident among the less privileged in our increasingly divided society.

Part of our contemporary vulnerability is the pressure (largely economic from the forces of consumption and of employment) for us to be narrowly defined. We may be very good in one role but allegedly quite hopeless outside it, so prosperity leads us to require a mentor, coach and trainer to decide to buy shoes, choose them and tie the laces. The Laban approach is quite opposite in spirit and emphasises our versatility and our humane involvement with others.

Movement therapy is no fad. The particular approach introduced here which I have developed is only one of many that have sprung from common foundations in the original work of Rudolf Laban. As a movement system that has an enormous background of academic study and of practical implementation over many years in different fields of endeavour, it has much influenced other methodologies and often been unwittingly adopted. The next time you see a television psychologist pointing out how lying is often accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek gesture or how chaotic home routines are associated with child misbehaviour, think Laban.

Simply because it is nonverbal, the movement approach can evade the thickets of wordy defence and untruth that often surround problems. It becomes a key part of what might be called expressive behaviour therapy. Its sheer differentness can give heart to those sceptical about talking their way to improvement. There is much to be said for brief therapy in general, though re-education in movement can be relatively slow if long-held habits are to be overcome, and I increasingly believe that therapeutic change may need some defence against attrition. But the notion that a banished symptom will inevitably reappear in a new guise should be abandoned along with the invariable necessity of pain for gain.

Whether to cure an ill or to realize a potential, the starting point is to notice, to feel. We are so used to the photograph and the sound bite that it takes an effort to recognize these as no more than poor substitutes for reality. In the therapeutic programme, as in life itself, the first step is to learn how to become aware. The second step is to discard the merely artificial and outrightly damaging. And the final step is to rediscover and enhance a natural integration and individuality.

Bibliography

Laban R. The Mastery of Movement. Northcote House. 1988.
Laban R. Life for Dance. Macdonald & Evans. 1975.

Further Information

The Laban Guild for Movement and Dance at www.labanguild.org or via the Guild Secretary at 7 Coates Close, Heybridge, Maldon, Essex CM9 4PB.

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About Edwin Alan Salter

Edwin Alan Salter MA MSc PhD now lives in King’s Lynn and has worked in diverse fields including dance and psychotherapy, biochemistry and education, with recent writings on language, humanism and climate. He may be contacted via kl.humanfactors@talktalk.net.

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