The Language of Movement

The Language of Movement

Written by Barbara Mettler for the Conference on Research in Dance

Mexico City, December 6-8, 1985

There is a universal language in which all people everywhere can express themselves and understand one another. It is the language of movement.

We are all using this language all the time. Whatever we are doing, the movements of our bodies express something of what we are feeling. Movement expresses the feeling better than words. For babies, movement (sometimes accompanied by sound and touch) is the only language. Human beings and animals often communicate with one another though movement. Even plants respond with movements of growth or decay to the gardener's care or neglect.

The language of movement cannot be translated into words. It must be sensed in the muscles. We have a muscle sense, technically called the kinesthetic sense. It consists of nerve endings in the muscles and joints which send messages to the brain telling us exactly how we are moving.

Try this: close your eyes, then raise one arm slowly forward. How do you know that you are raising an arm instead of a leg? ... How do you know that you are raising one arm and not two? ... That you are raising the arm and not lowering it? ... That you are raising it forward, not sideward? ... Slowly, not fast? You cannot see your movement. It is your kinesthetic sense that is telling you. We make use of this sense unconsciously whenever we move. Learning to use it with awareness and control can enrich all our movement experiences.

The language of movement, like all forms of expression, can be cultivated on the esthetic level and become an art. The art of body movement is dance. It is the primary art because everything we do involves movement.

Art means creating beautiful forms for the pure joy of creating them. Beauty is order, wholeness, truth, perfection - a perfection which is impossible for us to achieve in daily life but which is possible in the art work. Art is not an escape from daily life but a dimension of experience without which human life is incomplete.

The art of body movement, like all art, is primarily something to do and only secondarily something to watch others do. Although movement can be seen, it is not a visual art. It can sometimes be heard, but it is not the art of sound. Dance is a motor art. Unless sensed in the muscles, it is not dance, for either the participants or the spectators. I believe that the increasing tendency today to separate dancers from spectators, so that only a few persons dance while the majority watch, is a distortion of the true nature of dance which is essentially a group activity.

I have always believed that dance is a basic human need and that all people should have an opportunity to do it. When I look back on my professional work over the past fifty-two years, I see it as a kind of research, a continuous effort to find basic principles, common denominators and a way of work which can make dance immediately available to anyone who wants it. I have danced and taught dance not only in my own studio but in many parts of the United States, and in Canada, Central America and Europe. I have worked with young and old, male and female, including those with handicaps.

Much has been revealed to me about dance and about people. I have found that the average person longs to dance but considers dance an activity out of reach for all but a few. When I hear someone say, "I wish I could dance" and I ask "Why don't you?", the answer is always "I am not graceful" or "I don't have a good body" or "I am not creative" or "I am too old to dance". This means that the average person is deprived of something he or she longs to do, can do and needs to do. Anyone can be graceful, all bodies are good, everyone is creative, and no one is too old to dance.

As a result of my continuous experimentations with materials and methods, I have developed a kind of dance which has come to be known as "creative dance" because it can liberate and cultivate the natural creative movement resources which are in everyone. In creative dance we each create our own movements, expressing our feelings. No two people are expected to move in exactly the same way because no two people are exactly alike.

Creative dance is a free approach to the art of body movement. It differs from other kinds of dancing in a number of ways. Some kinds of dance emphasize theatrical techniques and audience entertainment. Others perform traditional cultural patterns. Some tell stories or interpret music. Creative dance stresses natural body movement and free expression. Its purpose is to enable each one of us to create movement forms which express our individual feelings and together to create movements which express the feelings of the group.

We improvise. This means that we make up our movements while we dance. Instead of practicing learned movements, we practice improvisation. Improvisation is the freest form of dance. It opens the doors of dance activity to everyone. At the same time it challenges even the most advanced dancer because it calls forth maximum skill in the spontaneous creation of satisfying movement forms. It is not a preparation for some dance which will be performed in the future. It must be satisfying dance now.

Although each one of us is unique in body structure and temperament, we can all share the same movement feelings. While improvising, we can sense the movements which are going on around us and, by relating our movements to the movements of others, together create group movement forms.

Group improvisation is the most satisfying of all creative dance experiences because it enables us to participate in the creation of movement experiences that are greater than any we could create alone. We learn to recognize and develop movement themes as they occur, every individual contributing as much as he or she can to the movement of the group body. It is like a conversation. We do not know what we are going to say until we start talking and then we find things to talk about.

A group body, like an individual body, consists of various members, all moving differently but able to move together as a unified whole. Members of an individual body are hands, arms, feet, legs, head, and other parts. Members of the group body are people. An individual body can make movements such as stretching, bending, twisting, running and jumping. A group body can form circles and lines, divide, come together, follow a leader, and so forth. In our study of creative dance we explore basic movements of both the individual and the group body.

Creative dance is the pure art of body movement, underived from any other art and undiluted by non-dance elements. Like every art, it uses a certain material and a certain instrument. The material of dance is movement. The instrument is the human body. Although it is impossible to separate the material from the instrument of dance, we must learn to analyze them separately in order to devise studies to develop skill in the use of the body-instrument and craftsmanship in the creation of meaningful movement forms. Studies in the use of the body as expressive instrument include exploration of basic body movements, movement of separate body parts, tension and relaxation. Studies in the use of movement as expressive material include improvising with movement qualities of force, time and space such as forceful, forceless; slow, fast; large, small.

The meaning of creative dance is the feeling inherent in the movement, which begins as a sensation in the muscles then travels throughout the entire nervous system, involving the whole person - body, emotions, mind. The dance form is organic, which means that the dance grows out of itself like any living thing. Every movement has a life of its own, growing out of the preceding one and, at its conclusion, giving birth to another.

Creative dance form may be abstract or representational. In representational form the movement represents an action derived from a specific life experience, while in abstract form the movement expresses a generalized feeling abstracted from many life experiences. Abstract form is more universal than representational form because it expresses feelings which can be understood by anyone, while representational form requires familiarity with the specific actions from which the feelings have been derived.

The art of body movement is the central art, leading us into all the others. Movement is audible, so it can lead into the arts of sound. We sometimes improvise our own accompaniments while we dance, using sounds of breath, voice, hands, feet or a musical instrument. We can accompany ourselves, or some members of the group can improvise in sound while others improvise in movement. Movement is visible and can provide access to the visual arts. Through the movements of our bodies we can create beautiful visual designs. As action, movement can become the art of action, drama. Creative dance can integrate all the arts.

We can establish a creative relationship to our environment through movement. Indoors we can shape our movements to express feeling for the ceiling, floor, walls, windows and furnishings. Outdoors we can dance with the sky, earth, sun, clouds, rain. We can relate our movements to plants and animals.

When my groups dance we are happy to have people watch us, but the average spectator would rather be part of the dance. Our performances are not show business. Their purpose is to reveal the beauty of creative dance to persons who might not otherwise know of its existence. Spectators are always welcome if they are willing to try to sense in their own muscles the feeling of the movements which we are making.

Many people today are not prepared to understand the language of movement because they have never consciously tried to express themselves in this medium. Activities such as competitive sports and theatrical dance techniques, which are stressed in our world today, sometimes more for the benefit of spectators and commercial interests than for the enjoyment of the participants, do not give an opportunity to cultivate movement as the language of feeling. Creative dance is a new kind of experience with which people need to become acquainted.

Creative dance requires creative teaching. The teacher creates movement problems to be solved creatively by individuals or groups. The word "create" means, as a little child once told me, "to make up something all by yourself". The teacher must become sufficiently at home in the language of movement to make up something all by herself/himself and to help the students do the same.

It is possible to dance and to develop creatively without a teacher by practicing individual and group improvisation, trying continuously to make ever more satisfying dance forms. I have published a number of books for the purpose of providing teachers and students with study material.

In the countries where I have taught I have found that teachers on all educational levels are becoming more and more interested in creative movement and dance because it can further the healthy wholeness of individuals and groups.

Creative movement can be adapted to persons of all ages. It may begin in the home where members of the family improvise together. It can become an area of basic learning in elementary schools, and a serious study in secondary schools and universities. It is to be hoped that someday there will be whole colleges offering research and complete study programs in body movement both as science and art.

Two years ago I invited to my studio in Tucson, Arizona, a group of people from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Switzerland, Italy and the United States to study creative dance and to demonstrate the universality of the language of movement. They could not communicate in words but they could understand one another in movement. Members of the group affirmed that the experience of creating together meaningful movement forms made them "feel like brothers and sisters".

My work in different countries has made me realize that people everywhere are the same in their natural ability to dance when given an opportunity to create their own movements, and in their joy of communicating with one another in the language of movement. I believe that if this language, practiced as a creative art activity, were recognized for it universality and power it would be widely used to break down barriers between people who speak in different tongues. Creative dance is a new kind of folk dance which can unite a group as no other activity can. It can become a factor in furthering international good will.

Copyright 1988 Barbara Mettler
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