Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement | Vol. 25 No. 1 | DRID WILLIAMS: Signifying Bodies, Signifying Acts: New Ways of Thinking about Human Movement: Chapter 4: Three Different Realities

       Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Signifying Bodies, Signifying Acts: New Ways of Thinking about Human Movement


Chapter 4: Three Different Realities

There may always be another reality
To make fiction of the truth we think we've arrived at.

Christopher Fry, A Yard of Sun, Act II (1970)


This chapter describes three bows from three action sign systems. The first opens a short form of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, the second is the first bow a Dominican celebrant makes before the high altar in the Tridentine Mass, and the third is the bow of the Red Knight to the Red King after he is unable to kill the Black Queen from the ballet Checkmate.

     Comparative ethnographic descriptions of each bow is meant to illustrate ways in which single visible action signs depend for their meanings on invisible indexical and deictic features of the whole system. The features governing the moves in a single action sign are often those which influence all of the actions in a system.

     The purpose of the chapter is twofold: 1. clarification of important distinctions between structural universals and semantic diversity in the field of human movement study; and 2. illustration of how an ever-unfolding space/time is related to 'person.'

     On the whole, movement researchers deal with rites, dances, and sign languages—movement systems that utilize subsets of geographical space, although this is not always the case. The form space of the Chinese exercise technique T'ai Chi Ch'uan, for example, uses actual geographical directions for its referents, in contrast to the [Roman Catholic] Tridentine Mass, where the form space consists of an embedded set of spatial referents that bear meanings relevant to the rite. Both sign systems are performed in geographical space, of course, but the distinction 'actual' and 'embedded' spaces is made between systems that draw meaning from the real directions and sets that are imposed on (embedded in) the geographical directions.

1. A Chinese Exercise Technique

Figure 1
Figure 1. T'ai Chi Ch'uan

By reading the key sign1 in Figure 1, we see that the standard geographical coordinates of North, South, East, and West are used, but they are arranged in an unfamiliar order. The space used by Chinese T'ai Chi practitioners is G = [S,W,N,E],2 which is a different syntactical ordering of the elements than [N,S,E,W]. In China, people practicing the exercise technique face the actual geographical direction of 'South.'

     When T'ai Chi was introduced to the West, the ordering of directional elements caused so much confusion in classes that the directions were changed to accommodate the new group of students. American and English students face 'north,' although this is not always geographical north.3 The reason the syntax of direction was changed is that Europeans and Americans are accustomed to thinking of 'north' in front of them, as at the top of a map.

     Regardless of which order is used, however, the performer of T'ai Chi imagines himself or herself standing in the center of a compass lying flat on the ground because the teacher's directions for the movement sequences are in terms of (for example) directing a hand "towards the south," extending a leg "to the east," and such. For our purposes, readers are meant to imagine a T'ai Chi practitioner facing 'south,' so that 'west' is to the right,' 'north' is behind, and 'east' is to the left of him or her. What is important in any case is the cultural rationale for this particular conceptual space.

T'ai Chi and the I Ching (Book of Changes)

The spatial orientation of Chinese forms of T'ai Chi were meant to correlate with cosmological features of the arrangements of hexagrams in the I Ching. The Chinese practitioner of this Taoist form of meditation faces geographical south because of an arrangement of trigrams called the "Sequence of Earlier Heaven" or the "Primal Arrangement" (I Ching 1961: 285). Part of the text regarding the arrangement follows Figure 2:

Figure 2
Figure 2. The Primal Arrangement

3. Heaven and earth determine the direction. The forces of mountain and lake are united. Thunder and wind arouse each other. Water and fire do not combat each other. Thus are the eight trigrams intermingled.

     Counting that which is going into the past depends on the forward movement. Knowing that which is to come depends on the backward movement. This is why the Book of Changes has backward moving numbers.

     Here, in what is probably a very ancient saying, the eight primary trigrams are named in a sequence of pairs that according to tradition dates back to Fu Hsi—that is to say, it was already in existence at the time of the compilation of the Book of Changes under the Chou dynasty. It is called the Sequence of Earlier Heaven, or the Primal Arrangement. The different trigrams are correlated with the cardinal points. . . .

     Ch'ien, heaven, and K'un, earth, determine the north–south axis. Then follows the axis Ken–Tui, mountain and lake. Their forces are interrelated in that the wind blows from the mountain to the lake, and the clouds and mists rise from the lake to the mountain. Chen, thunder, and Sun, wind, strengthen each other when they appear. Li, fire, and K'an, water, are irreconcilable opposites in the phenomenal world. In the primal relationships, however, their effects do not conflict; on the contrary, they balance each other.

      When the trigrams intermingle, that is, when they are in motion, a double movement is observable: first the usual clockwise movement, cumulative and expanding as time goes on, and determining the events that are passing; second, an opposite, backward movement, folding up and contracting as time goes on, through which the seeds of the future take form. To know this movement is to know the future. In figurative terms, if we understand how a tree is contracted into a seed, we understand the future unfolding of the seed into a tree. (I Ching 1961: 284-86)

     The three primal powers in this system are heaven (yang), earth (yin), and humanity (in between, standing on earth). The yang is light, and, in performance practice, a foot, for example, that has no weight on it is a 'light' or yang foot. A foot that has weight on it is a 'heavy' or yin foot. The distribution of weight constantly shifts and changes. The only time the weight is really in static equilibrium is at the beginning and ending of a whole form, as shown in the beginning position (see Figure 1).

     Before going on, an important point must be made: there is nothing visible on a T'ai Chi practitioner's body that tells an observer that the performer is standing inside the perimeter of a compass which is attached to important aspects of cosmological thinking of great numbers of Chinese people. The 'compass' is, so to speak, invisible.

     In other words, empiricism has limitations: what you see is not always what you get. Indeed, if what you see is all that is deemed important, then Urciuoli is right: "The social [and in this case, cosmological] dimensions that could come into being remain invisible, like the ten or eleven dimensions curled up inside molecule-sized universes" (1995: 194).

     The ethnographic facts of T'ai Chi, however, tell another story: the practitioner's moves themselves, even the performer's body-weight distribution—everything—is governed by the conceptual space (the form space) of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. In turn, the form space is linked in specific ways to the 'G' set of elements in the visible, manifest world. In other words, there are conceptual imperatives involved with any human actions whatsoever—an idea that will become progressively clearer as we proceed.

2. The Latin Mass

Figure 3
Figure 3. The Missa Major

A celebrant of a Tridentine Mass4 stands in a form space which is 'embedded' in the geographical space in which it exists. The cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) are used in the liturgical space (the 'L' space) of the Mass, but there are important differences in how the directions are conceived. First, the key sign in Figure 3 tells us that the celebrant faces liturgical east; thus, 'west' is behind him, 'liturgical north' is on his left side, 'south' on his right. The priest's orientation in the old Mass was taken from the high altar, his back to the congregation. Both priest and congregation faced liturgical east. The north side of the altar was the 'Gospel side,' and the south side was the 'Epistle side.' The relationship is diagrammed in Figure 4.5

Figure 4
Figure 4. The priestly space of the Tridentine Mass, where L = {e,w,n,s}

It is important to know why 'east' was the highest valued element of the canonical directions: the following texts from Psalm 67 (Douay) reveal the answer:6

Verse 5: Sing ye to God; sing a psalm to His name: make a way for Him who ascendenth upon the west. . . .
  6: God who maketh men of one manner; to dwell in a house . . .
  34: . . . who mounteth above the heaven of heavens, to the east

"Ascendeth upon the west" in the first text (verse 5) refers to the oppositions east/light/dawn in contrast to west/dark/sunset. This is, of course, a theological metaphor in virtue of which the divinity is associated with light, illumination, and understanding in contrast to the darkness of ignorance, confusion, and absence of understanding. The "manner" of dwelling "in a house" can be taken to mean a humanly constructed space, and verse 34 is a positive statement of the negative formulation in verse 5.

     In the third and fourth centuries before people knew that the earth was round, there was a much more literal association between liturgical east and geographical east. There is evidence that people expected a literal 'Lord' to appear from the geographical direction of east. In the Missa Major, however, liturgical east is established by the fact that, at the consecration, the priest is in persona Christi; therefore, the Lord "comes" via the consecrations and subsequent communion from the altar, which is why the high altar is liturgical east in the form space of the High Mass.

     In early churches and cathedrals, geographical east and liturgical east sometimes correspond, in keeping with the literal expectations held by many early Christians. The best known example is St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, but Blackfriars' Chapel in St. Giles, Oxford, is a case of noncorrespondence, as in Figure 5 below:7

Figure 5
Figure 5. Two examples of embedded spaces, where L = {e,w,n.s}

     Early missionary orders often had to celebrate the Mass in whatever space was available; thus, the form space of the Tridentine Mass became the canonical image of the rite.

     The primitive Church did not, perhaps, need stable architectural images of its spiritual environment(s). Because many early Christians thought that a real man was going to appear out of the real city of Jerusalem, they had no need to express their longing for the event in architecture, art, icons, and such. It became apparent after the passage of several generations that this was not literally going to happen. It could have been in this way that the need arose to fix liturgies and to construct physical, architectural manifestations of liturgical events. The process represented a kind of general coming to terms with history and literalism.

     In the two bows so far examined, different values are placed on the elements of the cardinal directions. Following Dumont (1987: 7)8 we see that human spatial concepts themselves have hierarchical characteristics that must be taken into account if we are to understand how cultural differences occur—even in movements that superficially may appear to be the same, that we classify together and gloss with the same word.

3. The Red Knight's Bow from the Ballet Checkmate

Figure 6
Figure 6. Checkmate

The conceptual space in the ballet Checkmate9 within which ballet dancers work is taken from a proscenium stage. It is a system of numbering the walls and corners of a classroom (hence, the stage) devised by Enrico Cecchetti10 (see Beaumont and Idzikowski 1940) that orientates dancers to an audience. It is diagrammed below:11

Figure 7
Figure 7. The Cecchetti system of numbering walls {5,6,7,8} and comers {1,2,3,4} of a classroom or stage

Like the L-space of the Mass, the form space of Checkmate is an embedded space. The history of this spatial schemata began with ballet masters in the eighteenth century and was later adapted for use in classrooms. The ballet dancer's space is an abstract space which 1. organizes the balletic idiom of dancing and 2. orientates the individual dancer to a real (or imagined) audience. Specific ballets are performed in this space, and, with each of these, the numbered walls and corners assume different metaphorical properties.12

     In the written text (Fig. 6), the key sign tells us that the Red Knight is not bowing to the audience but faces towards 'wall 7' (upstage—which means that the Knight's back is to the audience). In the ballet, the Red King's 'throne' is up-center-stage. For the benefit of those who may not know the ballet, a synopsis is in order (Ninette de Valois, transcribed from fieldnotes, 1973-74):

The Prologue begins with two players at the start of a game of chess. They are a female and a male figure, respectively characterized as Love and Death. The figure of Love is seated on the audience's left, the figure of Death on the right. Both figures wear helmets. The figure of Love is dressed in dove-gray, her opponent in black. The first action of the ballet consists of the removal of Love's helmet and the stripping-off of a leather gauntlet on Death's right hand, revealing the bony hand of a skeleton. In the shape of a claw, this hand reaches across the board. Face impassive, the slight figure opposite draws back.

     The hand of Death sweeps over the entire board, but does not take a piece. Instead, the helmeted figure leans back, waiting for his opponent to make the first move.

     Rising to face the audience, the pale blue-gray figure of Love removes the King's pawn, and with a wide, sweeping gesture, makes the opening gambit of the game. Death rises, and between them they turn the board clockwise once, twice, thrice. As they sit down to resume the game, the house lights go down and they disappear. The lights come up on a scene on full stage (which is a chess board), on which the Red pieces are seen to assemble.

     The audience is originally in the position of viewing two players at the start of a game, placing them in the position of onlookers. With the assembling of the Red pieces, the choreographer reconstructs the semantic space of the ballet such that the audience becomes a player of the game. The Red pieces assemble up-stage, across the 'chess-board' of the stage, thereby putting them in the position of players of the Black pieces.

     Dressed as court-pages, the Red Pawns appear first. Their opening dance is light-hearted and gay. Subsequently, one becomes aware that the Pawns simply reflect the moods of actions generated by major pieces. They have no particular identities of their own, but assume the identities of pieces having greater power. Next, the two Red Knights appear: their movements and gestures characterize them as fierce, powerful warriors, and they are complemented by a reconnoitering visit from the two black Knights—an initial visit that is restrained and mediated by the courtesies of chivalry.

     The Black Knights' entrance is followed by the entrance of the Black Queen, who turns out to be the most powerful piece on the board. In fact, de Valois does not use a full visible complement of chess pieces for the Black set: the audience sees no Black King or Black Bishops. The figure of Death assumes the role of the Black King, for he is later seen to have a relation of directive power over the Black Queen. The relation is expressed in an interaction between her and Death during a cortege which takes place down stage right (area of 'corner 3'in the Cecchetti scheme). Before the Black Queen's departure (after her first entrance from down stage left), she wins the interest and fascination of one of the Red Knights in a subtle dance with the two Knights, playing them off one against the other. Her gestures are provocative and alluring, calculated to achieve the allegiance of one of the Knights, who receives a rose, traditional symbol of chivalry. Completely captivated by her power, beauty and attentions, the chosen one dances a virtuoso Mazurka. The Black Queen leaves the board.

      The Red Bishops enter and a ceremony of blessing of the Knights ensues. The dignity, restraint and gravity involved in this passage are interrupted by the Red Castles who are warlike, mechanical automatons, menacing in their impersonality and unconscious disregard for everything and everybody.

     Finally, the Red King and his Queen appear[;] the King obviously the weakest piece on the board. The Red King is supported by the Red Queen, who directs his faltering steps and encourages him with compassion and love. The assembly of the Red pieces is complete. They are arranged upstage, as on a chess board. The game begins.

     The action starts with a savage onslaught of the Black pieces which ends with a 'check' of the Red King and the removal of the Red Queen from the board. The Red Bishops try to defend the King, but in vain. The Red Knight leaps into the arena to confront the Black Queen. Their duel ends with her on her knees, defeated, in front of him.

     Torn between his fascination for her, his chivalric code of honor and his allegiance to the King, he hesitates and turns away. He cannot kill her. Faced with an opponent who is a woman and unarmed, neither he nor his code can cope. Preoccupied with conflicting thoughts and indecision, the Red Knight doesn't notice the Black Queen removing his sword from his hand because his attention is focused on making apologies to the Red King.13 Having no code of honor, nor anything to restrain her, the Black Queen retrieves her own sword and, together with his, stabs the Red Knight in the back with both weapons.

     The figures of Love and Death reappear—the first to kneel at the Knight's side, the second to sweep his hand over the fallen body of the Knight, after which the Red pieces gather, lift the Knight, and carry him off upstage right. During the cortege, the passage between Death and the Black Queen is enacted and Death leaves the stage.

     Now in full possession of the board, the Black Queen threatens the powerless Red King, but disdains to come close or to attack him. She merely teases him and leaves. The King, alone on the board, attempts to flee but his lines of escape are blocked by the Black pieces who enter and force him back to his throne.

     The Black Pawns carry staves which are used by the dancers in rapid succession to indicate (i) the single squares which limit the King's moves, (ii) a cage from which there is no escape, (iii) a labyrinth in which the Red King is hopelessly caught, and (iv) a network on which he is impaled and carried.

     Remembering his youth and his past power, the King tries to face up to his assailants, but the Black Queen has re-entered carried aloft by her Knights. Supported by the Black Knights, she triumphantly hovers over the terror-stricken old Red King, snatches off his crown and stabs him to death. Curtain.

How can we summarize comparative features of each sign system?

T’ai Chi Ch’uan The Latin Mass L = Checkmate
E = [S,W,N,E] {e,w,n,s} F = {5,6,7,8}
1.Uses actual geographical space and directions with South as the dominant facing in China and north in the West. Tied to an ancient Chinese cosmological system based on the I Ching, it is a form of Taoist meditation. 1. An embedded liturgical space, using the cardinal directions, not necessarily corresponding to a geographical set. In the Mass, the high altar is liturgical east. The rest of the set derives from Christian theological concepts. 1. An embedded space based on a performer–audience relation where geographical directions are irrelevant. Spatial arrangements of the ballet are taken from a chess game and the choreographer uses the game as an allegory.
2. The initial bow is to the Tao. The movements are smooth and flowing with no break or pause occurring throughout. The aim is control of the chi (energy) of the body. Also used as a self-defense technique. It is from Shao Lin; the 'soft' school of movement. 2. The bow is to a monotheistic Divinity. The actions are 'ordinary' in the sense that they could be performed by anyone. Celebrants are mediators between the congregation and a tripartite Divinity. Actions are dignified and performed deliberately. 2. The bow is to another character in the ballet and is an apology in the context of a code of honor that is central to the plot of the ballet. Like T'ai Chi, the moves are part of a formal idiom of human body language and could not be performed by everyone.
3. The conceptual space of the exercise technique is based on a compass with an actor standing in the center. There is no relation set up with another group as audience or congregation. The technique uses actual (real) geographical directions 3. The conceptual space of the Mass is based on a scheme of assigned cardinal directions The celebrant is a mediator between divinity and congregation. The whole liturgy is a public act of worship related to an institutionalized religion. 3. The conceptual space of the dancers in Checkmate is twofold: it involves (a) the scheme pertaining to the stage and (b) the scheme of moves of each character in relation to others. The ballet is both an art and an entertainment.

There are many more differences among the E-space of T'ai Chi, the L-space of the Mass, and the F[orm]-space of the ballet that could be mentioned, of course. Our purpose has been to illustrate how three visible 'bows' depend for their meaning on several invisible spatial, orientational, and deictic features of the whole systems to which they belong.

Hierarchies of Values

We have seen, too, that different values are placed on elements of the cardinal directions in the systems we have looked at: east is the more valued direction in the liturgy of the Mass, south is more valued in the context of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, and geographical directions are irrelevant with regard to Checkmate. The practitioners of two of the systems subordinate different elements of the same geographical set, assigning to the elements different meanings. The practitioners of the third system disregard the geographical set entirely.

     All of this should provide sufficient evidence for us to question the validity of reducing human signifying bodies moving in what Varela calls "enactment spaces" (1993: 240) to mindless biological organisms interacting through "non-verbal communication" in context-independent spaces.

     Semasiologists ask themselves, "Are the T'ai Chi practitioner, the Dominican friar-preacher, and the ballet dancer doing the same thing when they 'bow'?" While it is true that they are all 'bowing,' we ask, "In how far is this act the same in different contexts?" Questions like these lead to the distinction between natural science and social science that Peter Winch discussed nearly half a century ago:

[I]n the case of the natural scientist we have to deal with only one set of rules, namely those governing the scientist's investigation itself, here what the [semasiologist] is studying, as well as his study of it, is a human activity and is therefore carried on according to rules. (1990: 87).

The simple identification of the physical regularities of human movement is not enough.14

     Fortunately, trends in British social anthropology in the early seventies provided for new ways of thinking about human movement. Two decades earlier, a less hospitable intellectual climate existed.


1 The key sign is the symbol group to the reader's left at the beginning (the bottom) of the written staff, that is,

Figure 7

2 The notation here should not cause any problem, that is, G = [S,W,N,E] means Geographical space equals South, West, North, East. Similarly, we could say E (for Exercise space) = [S,W,N,E].

3 Strictly speaking, a T'ai Chi exercise notated in Europe, England, or America would be an 'embedded' space because the direction faced by the practitioner is not the actual geographical direction indicated.

4 Human memories are notoriously short. The 'Tridentine' Mass was established by the Council of Trent, held at Trento, Italy, from 1545 to 1563. It was the eucharistic liturgy used by the Roman Church from 1570 to 1964.

5The notation used is different from that of T'ai Chi because the form space of the Mass is different: liturgical space L = {e,w,n,s} indicates an embedded space, that is, small lower-case letters and curly brackets instead of high upper-case letter and square brackets.

6 This psalm is not found in the King James version of the Bible, and, as far as I am aware, it is not found in any Protestant version of the Bible.

7For more complete discussions of corresponding and noncorresponding directions, see Williams (1994), which also includes many problems that arose with modern Roman Catholic masses after the changes made in the liturgy by Vatican II.

8 Dumont suggests,

Let us suppose that our society and the society under study both show in their system of ideas the same two elements A and B. That one society should subordinate A to B and the other B to A is enough for considerable differences to occur in all their conceptions. In other words, the hierarchy present in a culture is essential for comparison. (1987: 7)

9 A ballet choreographed by Dame Ninette de Valois, first performed by the Vic-Wells Ballet at Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, June 15, 1937. The London premiere took place October 15, 1937. Because of World War II, there was a gap of ten years until the ballet was performed for the third time at Sadler's Wells (London) in 1947. From then on, it has been performed all over the world (for example, in Tokyo in April 1961, when Beryl Grey danced the Black Queen). It is still in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet. When I did fieldwork on Checkmate for the doctoral degree in 1974, Alicia Markova and Maina Gielgud alternated in the role of the Black Queen.

10 The Russian Vaganova and British Royal Academy of Dancing (RAD) spatial elements are numbered differently, but they use the same diagrammatic scheme as the Cecchetti system does.

11 This diagram is drawn from the dancer's point of view, as if standing on a stage facing an audience.

12 As, for example, where upstage left (corner 3) becomes 'the forest' and downstage right (corner 1) becomes 'the village' in Swan Lake.

13 It is just here the 'bow' written in Figure 6 takes place. In the words of the choreographer:

[The Red Knight] stands for chivalry. He stands for what the army stands for when we suddenly had to do something about Mr. Hitler. More practically speaking, he stands for chivalry and death—but in a different way. He is prepared to sacrifice himself. And chivalry wins in a sense, because of the way the woman has seduced him, you see. Chivalry means he won't kill her. He can't kill her. There is no ruthlessness in the chivalric figure as there is in their opposite numbers. They've passed that stage. The knight is too civilized for that. They've passed the stage where they're able to stand up to anything, I think. When he turns around to apologize to the king that he can't do it, [the Black Queen] immediately takes her opportunity . . . same as the terrorist bombs, isn't it? Revolution is ruthless, and, to me, it's the ruthlessness of a woman when she is out for what she wants. She starts by leading him on. (Transcribed from Williams's field tapes of conversations with Ninette de Valois, 1974).

14 For examples of the kinds of identification of regularities to which I refer, see Prost (1995) and Gell (1985).


Content in Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (ISSN 1940-7610) is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
© 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.