Master Class: Labanotation: Recording Movement on Paper

In the 1930s, at the height of the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put the nation to work. Funds were spread to projects all over the United States that required manual laborers, office workers, and even artists. Several choreographers found federal dollars available to them. One of those was Helen Tamiris, who famously designed a series of dances choreographed to Negro spirituals for the WPA. Critics and audiences of the day described her dances as interesting, but today if you wanted to mount them or try to recreate them, it is nearly impossible. There are a few photographs available, and scant newspaper clippings of the era in the New York Public Library, but no films or other detailed documents. Since dancers are typically young when they perform, some of Tamiris’ dancers from the 1930s may still be alive, albeit quite elderly and possibly suffering from memory problems (if they can even be tracked down). Those memories and clippings are all that exist of Tamiris’ legendary dance series. What you could not recreate today from the photographs, newspaper reviews, and interviews would need to be reinterpreted, because the basic choreography of the dances she created for the WPA is lost. All of this could have been avoided if Tamiris had used a newfangled (for her time) system of recording body movement on paper, called “labanotation.”

Above: A picture of Helen Tamiris, who, after working for the WPA went on to choreograph several Broadway shows, including Annie Get Your Gun, Flahooley, Carnival in Flanders, Fanny, Plain and Fancy, and Touch and Go, a show for which she won a Tony award.

Poets and authors have letters and words, musicians have sheet music, but how do you record a dance for posterity (in a way so that someone else can duplicate it without you being present)?

Labanotation is one way to record dance on paper with specific symbols to represent movements in time. It was first developed by Rudolf Laban in 1928, before the advent of widespread video recording devices. Laban created the system as part of his longtime studies of human body movement. It is still useful today because video, or the equipment to save, send, and replay it, is not always available at a rehearsal. In addition, reading labanotation sure beats having to back a video up and play it repeatedly to get a difficult section down, especially when dealing with group dances where the person in the back might not be as discernable on video. Instead, all the information you need to make a move or a certain set of movements is right there on a piece of paper in front of you.

However, you have to know how to use it and how to read it. This article is a basic tutorial to get you started. Obviously, if you are interested in getting more in-depth, you should pursue further study. But, this brief master class will help you to understand the basics.

First, the basic labanotation “staff” has three vertical lines and is read from the bottom of the page to the top. The short horizontal lines along the center line represent the beats. Unlike music notation, which uses as much space as necessary to put all the notes into the measure, in labanotation all the beats and measures are equal in distance and space. If you are using sheets that are not pre-printed, you should strive to make each measure and beat approximately equal in size on the paper. The snippet of labanotation staff below is for one measure that has three beats (a waltz, or ¾ time).

Each vertical white column is divided into two; not by a line, but just in your head. See figure below, but keep in mind that the dotted lines aren’t really there in regular labanotation. They are included in the figure so you can envision the different divisions.

The column numbers correspond to parts of the body.

1 (on both sides of the center line) = support, feet
2 (on both sides) = legs
3 (on both sides on the outside) =body movement
4 (on both sides on the outside)= arms
5= head

Since the human body is bilateral (has two sides), notice there are 2 places to put arm movements: one for the left arm and one for the right. In the same way, there are two places for the body, legs, and feet. The head, of course, is the only body part that gets its own column without a reflection on the other side of the center line, for obvious reasons.

To do something easy, let's look only at arm gestures for the time being. These are recorded in column 4 on both sides. Here is a sample of some simple arm movements and gestures and their corresponding labanotation symbols.

Let's say you want to have the arms lifted up at a 45 degree angle from the center line, out to the side. You would put the symbol for that on your labanotation (column 4 for the arms) like this:

Now, that's nice, but what if you want the left arm up at the same 45 degree angle, but you want the right arm down at a 45 degree angle toward the floor? Here is how it would look (compare to the diagram of arm positions above).

How does it look if both arms are down at the side, as in many Irish dances? Can you visualize how that would look on the following labanotation staff?

Now, let's look at some useful symbols for the legs. These belong in column 2 on the staff. When looking at these symbols, pay attention only to the positions of the legs, not the corresponding arm positions.

So, starting a dance with both arms down at your sides and both legs down and together will look like this (remember, arms are in column 4, and legs are in column 2 on both sides):

But, if you want to keep both arms at the sides and kick the right leg out to the side, you would draw this:

What would the labanotation look like if both arms were raised at a 45 degree angle from the center line, and the left leg was straight out to the side? Visualize it on the staff below.

Before we get more complicated by adding the other body parts, let's look at changing positions. Dance, after all, isn't just holding a position. It's about moving from one position to another. Let's go back to the dancer with both arms down at the side and both legs together. On the second beat, let's say the dancer raises her left arm at a 45 degree angle. All other body parts keep the same position. The only body part to change is the left arm. It would look like this (remember that the little horizontal lines are beats):

Now, let's say that on the third beat, this same dancer is supposed to raise her right arm at a 45 degree angle and kick her right leg straight out to the side, while keeping all other body parts in the same position as on the previous beat. This is what you would need to add on the third beat to make that happen:

Now, on the next beat (actually the first beat of the next measure), the dancer puts her right leg back down straight, and drops her left arm to the side position (while keeping her right arm raised). What would need to be added to the labanotation to make that happen?

Obviously, as you learn different symbols for different movements of body parts, you can see how you can record a whole dance full of leg and arm positions. But, for dancers to move across a stage, the support column (column 1) has to be filled in.

Basically, you have to know that the rectangle means “place”, where the body part would be in a relaxed standing position.

The direction the dancer is to move is indicated by these arrows and symbols:

So, if you want the dancer to move forward diagonally to the right across the stage, you would put this symbol in the support (foot) column, column 1.

Let's go back to our dance we began with the arms and legs. If we add the forward diagonal symbol when the dancer puts her right leg and arm down on the third beat, it will look like this:

A basic principal of labanotation is how to indicate the height of a movement, or where the movement takes place in space. Basically, if the movement symbol is completely shaded, it is low. If it is completely open, with only an outline, it is in the middle, or mid range of the dancer’s body (or limb range). And, if the symbol has little diagonal slashes through it, the movement is to take place in the high range. To be specific, you can add angle degrees (if the dancer is to raise her arms at a 45 degree angle, you can put the little 45 degree symbol next to the raised arms symbol).

There are a plethora of symbols that exist for the body movements and the head movements, along with foot positions (en pointe, etc.), joints, the roundness of arms, and so on. There are far more than this short primer could cover without getting so complex as to lose all but the most dedicated readers. It's a lot to think about, but with practice, these simpler, basic ideas are easy to master, and you can begin recording your choreography on paper.

Labanotation is not just for dancers; Rudolf Laban designed it as an overall system of human movement analysis. The system can be used to record movements in theater and music, such as notating how you want the band to move in synch during a song.

Labanotation is a complex system, but it is taught in many college dance programs and can be learned on one’s own with patient study. UC Riverside’s dance program includes instruction in labanotation; for more information, you may contact Dance Dept. Chair Susan Rose at or (951) 827-7059. The best book on the subject is Ann Hutchinson Guest’s copiously illustrated Labanotation: The System of Analyzing and Recording Movement (Theatre Arts Books, 4th edition, 2005).

To read the January Master Class on singability, click here.

To read the December Master Class on getting beyond cliched art, click here.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know this even existed. Maybe it's useful. Not sure, but maybe. I think video would be much easier all around.

Rodney said...

Dang. I can see how video is not always available but DANG, this looks hard. I thought learning to read music was hard but I cant even imagine having to keep track of all those little signs and where they go. I guess a lot of famous dancers do it, though and it seems like a great idea.