dance notation

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dance notation approaches the body and its movement in an analytic, abstract, and systematic way, using specific symbols for documenting movement. Not every written documentation of movement can be called dance notation, just as not every movement necessarily constitutes dance. Systematic notation of dance differs from the arbitrary and unsystematic usage of stick figures, verbal descriptions, and floor patterns which can be observed transculturally and transhistorically. During the history of Euro-American dance since the Renaissance, more than fifty different systems of notation have been developed. The high number of systems emphasizes the fact that dance lacks the achievement of European music, where one system of notation has been used since the sixteenth century.

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, notation was used primarily to record the formalized movements of theatrical dance, mainly ballet, and to a certain extent also of social and folk dances. It is possible to identify several categories in the variety of notational approaches that developed within Europe between 1500 and 1900. The first two categories, ‘letter codes’ and ‘floor plans’, used primarily in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, concentrate on the execution of dance steps as the primary element of dancing. Body movements beyond those of the feet are either neglected or described in only rudimentary terms. ‘Letter codes’ are featured for the first time in Thoinot Arbeau's 1588 Orchesographie. This book presents a fictional dialogue between a dancing master and his student, in which dance steps are described in the text, and reduced to their initial letters and presented in temporal order in the so-called ‘tabulations’, which are connected with the musical notes. Arbeau complements these descriptions with drawings showing the whole body in certain steps and postures.

Notation, featuring ‘floor plans’, appeared in Chorégraphie — a system invented by Pierre Beauchamps and published by Raoul Auger Feuillet in 1700 in Paris. This very influental ‘Feuillet System’ represents the spatial execution of the steps as seen from a bird's eye view, thus establishing the ‘floor plans’. Feuillet's procedure was analytical; he broke up the steps into their mechanical parts, invented symbols for each of those parts, and organized them temporally by bars on the progression line. These bars reflect the temporal sequence of the steps according to the musical score.

In the nineteenth century, two categories of notation systems became prevalent, namely ‘stick figure’ notations and systems using ‘musical notes’. The characteristic feature of both approaches was the isolation of specific movement elements. Notation was no longer limited to the documentation of dance steps alone, but sought to capture the complexity of the whole body movement. The focus shifts from a bird's eye view to a frontal view: the inventors of ‘stick figure’ systems place themselves in front of or behind the dancers. In his Stenochorégraphie, published in Paris and St Petersburg in 1852, Arthur Saint-Léon used a scheme consisting of five horizontal lines for the movements of the legs and one additional line for the actions of the upper body. The figurative notation signs appear directly above the musical score, relating them approximately to the musical values. ‘Stick figures’ have continued in use as, for example, in An Introduction to Benesh Notation, published in 1956, or in the 1973 Sutton Movement Shorthand.

Yet another innovate approach to dance notation in the nineteenth century used ‘musical notes’ to record movement on bars and staffs. Thus, procedures of sound notation are transferred to movement notation: addition (a movement is, just like a musical sound, the sum of several elements) and duration (the temporal value of a movement is indicated by the time value of the note). In his Alphabet du Corps Humain, published in 1892 in Paris, Vladimir Stepanov described the human body within a scheme consisting of nine lines, divided into three parts. The top two lines are used for the movements of the head and torso, the three middle lines indicate the actions of the arms, and the bottom four lines the movements of the legs. The position of the tail of a note indicates whether the movement concerns the left or the right body part: for the left parts, the tail is directed upwards, for the right parts, it is directed downwards. The notation system developed by Vaclav Nijinsky in the early 1910s is quite similar: like Stepanov, he used a system of lines consisting of three sections; in contrast, however, he assigned five lines to each of them, thus shifting the focus of movement analysis from the legs toward the torso.

In the twentieth century, dance began to be recorded in ‘abstract signs’. This new approach creates a dynamic relationship between notation, the spatial/temporal occurrences and corporeality. Rudolf von Laban's early attempts at notating (his) dance are based upon the concept of ‘natural’ movement, which for Laban meant emotional and visionary dancing as well as notating. His experiments in the 1920s with notation not only have practical consequences for documenting movement, but also manifest a strong theoretical concern; they relate to his concepts of Eukinetics and Choreutics — terms describing the patterns of expression he found in the temporal and spatial dynamics of the movement. The original continental Kinetography Laban of the late 20s and early 30s as well as the Labanotation, a slightly different American version of the 40s, are both still used today — Kinetography in continental Europe, Labanotation, to a greater extent, in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Both versions go far beyond Laban's initial experiments by shifting their focus from the ‘natural’ view to the phenomenological aspects of dance. Laban, Kinetography, and Labanotation use geometrical shapes as symbols that indicate not only directions, but also specific levels and duration. Direction symbols modify the basic rectangular shape and show the directions forwards/backwards and left/right as well as the diagonal directions in between; the shading of the shape indicates the direction upwards/downwards, and its length shows duration. The body is represented within a vertical system from behind that is to be read from the bottom of the paper towards the top: following the central line, the right side of the dancer is also the right side of notation. The central line represents the vertical centre line of the body, and also the progression of the movement. Next to this line, on both sides, there are the columns for all movements transferring weight. The body parts themselves are identified by particular symbols. Their various movements are observed and notated separately and then synchronized in the notation score.

Like Kinetography and Labanotation, the Eshkol/Wachmann Notation of 1958 also conceives movement in its complexity. It consists of various components that can be identified with a finite alphabet of abstract symbols within a system of coordinates. Eshkol/Wachmann lists the body parts along the vertical axis; temporal information is given along the horizontal one. The movements themselves are digitalized by using the mechanical potential of the joints: their physical structure forces each movement either into a circular or into a conical shape, and this shape can be identified by evaluating its vertical and horizontal coordinates.

Eshkol/Wachmann Notation shifts the focus of movement analysis from phenomenology toward mechanics. This approach is neutral and abstract, featuring movement observation and composition, but not necessarily dance documentation; it allows to describe movement beyond historical or stylistic definition of dance. Thus, it establishes a new strategy that enables notation to react to contemporary dance concepts: both declare any movement to be able to operate as dance movement, and shape up dance sequences that decidely transgress traditional and conventional choreography.

Claudia Jeschke


Davies, M. (1972). Understanding body movement. An annotated bibliography. Arno Press, New York.
Hutchinson-Guest, A. (1984). Dance notation. Dance Books, London.
Hutchinson-Guest, A. (1989). Choreo-graphics. Gordon and Breach, New York.

See also ballet; dance.