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Special Issue on Movement Literacy

Editor's Introduction

The concept of literacy can be defined in several ways, and evolving definitions often include a familiarity with all the symbol systems relevant to a particular community, encompassing the ability to understand not only reading and writing but also many different forms of communication, such as speaking and listening and viewing, via live interaction as well as electronic media and text. In contrast to this broad compass, we will focus here on literacy as it refers to the skills of reading and writing but in a form known to relatively few people in which the graphic signs represent elements of body movement. This is the first of two JASHM issues that will be devoted to explorations of the concept of movement literacy. Our goal is to present discussions that do more than simply make a case for 'movement notation' as a 'tool for documentation.'1 We wish to draw attention instead to the complex intellectual abilities and the range of conceptual skills required for movement literacy and illustrate through ethnographic example their central value to anthropological studies of human movement.

     As with all literacy, the key to movement literacy is reading development, which involves a progression of skills that begins with the ability a) to understand 'action signs' as meaningful units of movement within a particular system or idiom and b) to decode the written graphic signs that represent them as the basic building blocks or units of 'action sign systems,' in the same manner that 'words' can be viewed as the building blocks of spoken language systems. This process culminates in the deep understanding of longer texts or movement scores. Reading development in movement literacy involves a range of complex underpinnings, including awareness of movement (kinology), 'spelling' patterns (orthographic conventions of the script), patterns of action sign formation (morphology), action sign meaning (semantics), and grammar (structure or syntax), all of which, as with spoken language literacy, provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Movement literacy, like spoken language literacy, represents the lifelong, intellectual process of gaining meaning from print. Attaining full literacy also includes the abilities to approach printed material (movement scores) with "critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought."2

     We begin by tracing a history of thought and critical response that began in the philosophy of the arts and aesthetics in the 1970s and 80s. Two articles by Adina Armelagos and Mary Sirridge (1978) and Joseph Margolis (1981) addressing the issue of 'movement notation' were published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. These authors also draw on Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art (1968). Their writings prompted critical responses from movement researchers and anthropologists of human movement including Drid Williams (1982, 1999); Suzanne Youngerman (1984); Brenda Farnell (1994, 1996); and JoAnne Page (1990a, 1990b, 1996). As practitioners of movement writing using the Laban script (Labanotation) in a variety of cultural contexts and writing across a broad range of movement idioms, these scholars took issue with many of the assumptions informing the philosophical and aesthetic arguments. As an argument about the limitations of movement literacy from a nonliterate perspective, the capabilities of existing movement writing systems were grossly underestimated by these philosophers. The alternative perspectives from movement literate scholars made a strong case for the importance of movement literacy on conceptual grounds and in anthropological perspective.

     We begin with the 1978 article coauthored by a researcher of dance theory, Adina Armelagos, and a philosopher, Mary Sirridge, titled "The Identity Crisis in Dance." Focusing on the problems with establishing criteria to determine the "identity" of a choreographic work in modern dance or ballet, they conclude that the dance as "an art form is just not amenable to notation." The authors employ Nelson Goodman's bifurcation of arts into "autographic" or "allographic" as the basis for their argument, but, because "choreography" as it is practiced in modern dance and ballet does not fall neatly into either one, they conclude a work cannot produce the kind of "compliants" that a notator requires. An impoverished understanding of "dance style" also lays the groundwork for misconceptions about the ability of movement writing to handle fine distinctions of a qualitative nature. For example, the assumption that "kinesthetic motivation" (where the movement impulse starts and how it develops) is not available to notation is simply not the case. The anthropologically important fact that the Laban script requires the notator to write from the mover's perspective—as a moving agent—makes this feature an imperative, in fact.

     The second contribution is from the distinguished philosopher Joseph Margolis whose paper title "The Autographic Nature of the Dance" also refers to Goodman's distinction. It is important to note by way of disciplinary contrast that philosophers tend to reason largely from introspection based on their own cultural knowledge, assuming a universalism for their discussion of "dance" as an "art" form that is highly problematic from an anthropological perspective. Drid Williams's detailed response to Margolis's article from an anthropological perspective follows his article and addresses this issue and much more. Interested readers will also wish to consult Williams's paper "The Credibility of Movement Writing" (1999), which utilizes seven theoretical criteria from Goodman's Languages of Art (1968) to establish the credibility of the Laban system as genuine script as opposed to a mnemonic device.

     The article by Suzanne Youngerman (1984) presents a powerful counterargument to both the work of Margolis and of Armelagos and Sirridge from the perspective of her considerable expertise on Rudolph Laban's life and work. She aims to rectify some of the misconceptions that they express and widen understanding and appreciation for the theoretical aspects of movement writing. She provides sufficient detail to make the case that the power of the Laban script (also known as Labanotation and Kinetography Laban) lies in the conceptual analytic framework it provides for thinking with and about human movement. As she puts it, "Notation systems are more than tools for documentation: they are systems of analysis."

     Brenda Farnell's paper "Movement Writing Systems" concludes this issue, supporting the arguments made by Williams and Youngerman with an informative historical overview of the development of movement writing in Europe and a comparison of the three major extant systems in use today: Benesh Notation, Eshkol-Wachman Notation, and Labanotation. The paper concludes with an exegesis of an ethnographic example from her research on Plains Indian Sign Language taken from the Laban score of a Nakota storytelling performance.

     We are pleased to present JASHM readers with these primary source materials on an issue that we consider important to the future development of the anthropological study of human movement, and we welcome further responses.


1 Williams draws attention to the different terminology in use when referring to movement literacy: "People tend to say 'recorded' or 'notated' when they talk about sign languages and dances, seeming to avoid the words 'writing' or 'written.' One hears, 'I am recording a dance,' not 'I am writing a dance.' Far from being a quibble over words, such usage frequently reveals deep misconceptions about Laban's script" (1999: 365).

2 This paragraph is adapted from the contributions of multiple authors to the 'Literacy' entry, Wikipedia, note 2,, accessed June 7, 2012. The quotation is from there also.

References Cited:

Armelagos, Adina and Mary Sirridge
1978. The Identity Crisis in Dance. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 37: 128-39.

Farnell, Brenda
1994. Ethno-graphics and the Moving Body. Man 29: 929-74.
1996. Movement Notation Systems. In The World's Writing System (ed. P.T. Daniels and W. Bright). New York: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 855-79.

Goodman, Nelson
1968. Languages of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Margolis, Joseph
1979. The Autographic Nature of the Dance. Paper presented at the conference "Illuminating Dance: Philosophical Inquiry and Aesthetic Criticism," Temple University, Philadelphia, May 5, 1979.
1981. The Autographic Nature of the Dance. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 39(4): 419-27.

Page, JoAnne
1990a. Documentation of Danced Performances: Video Recording and Movement Notation. JASHM 6(1): 21-28.
1990b. A Comparative Study of Two Movement Writing Systems: Laban and Benesh Notations. M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, Australia.
1996. Images for Understanding: Movement Notations and Visual Recordings. Special Issue: Signs of Human Action. Guest Editor, Drid Williams. Visual Anthropology 8(2-4): 171-96.

Williams, Drid
1982. On "The Dance": A Reply to Margolis's Ideas about the "Autographic" Nature of the Dance. JASHM 2(2): 54-70.
1999. The Credibility of Movement Writing. Visual Anthropology 12: 365-90.

Youngerman, Suzanne
1984. Movement Notation Systems as Conceptual Frameworks: The Laban System. In Illuminating Dance: Philosophical Explorations (ed. M. Sheets-Johnstone). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 101-23.



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