Integrating Meditation and
Dance Movement Work
Colleen Wahl | Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at Alfred University
When I was first introduced to Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies (L/BMS) 18 years ago, I was struck by how its theories and practices seemed to fit in well with Buddhist ideas I had been studying and trying to apply in my personal and spiritual life. Before finding my way to Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies, I spent many years pouring through texts on Buddhism, Zen philosophy and anything I could find that would explore the remarkable spiritual mundanity of being, feeling, and bonding with the central truths of human existence. As I quested for the big ideas and experiences of one-ness between self, the environment and the cosmos, I spent time at an ashram, practiced qi gong, and read works by various masters. Yet, the experiences that most resonated with me came in activities requiring movement such as whitewater kayaking, hiking, dancing, and American football, during which I was consciously aware of my body movement.
While I do not identify as a Buddhist, over the years I have observed with delight how much of my learning and teaching L/BMS has related to and supported the Buddhist teachings I spent so much time learning. The connection between Buddhism and L/BMS was especially apparent in learning to observe in a way that decouples judgement from physical experience, amplifying feelings to release attachment to them, and practicing the fluidity of presence in the moment. Each of these lessons were ideas I had encountered in my spiritual quests, but I had found no practices or specific examples that helped bring these ideas to my lived experiences until I paired them with L/BMS.
Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies is a framework for studying human movement that aims to encompass all of what is possible in the body. This framework identifies the many elements of human movement, which represent the most basic aspects of movement. These elements are organized into categories, known as “body, effort, shape, and space,” which make up the framework of L/BMS. Each category reveals something different about human movement. For example, the category of “effort” addresses dynamics or energetic life, and the category of “space” addresses the space around the body, where the body moves in that space and how it moves through that space. In theory, any action can be addressed by identifying and synthesizing the elements that are present in it to create a comprehensive sense of the movements in that action.
Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies is not a spiritual practice, nor is it connected to any spiritual tradition. However, the theories connected to L/BMS seem to correspond well with ideas I had encountered in my spiritual search. For example, on its most fundamental level, human movement is a process of constant change. The Laban/Bartenieff Movement lens studies changes at the body level – something so fundamental to the human experience we hardly notice it. And when we do notice it, we notice that it is meaningful. In retrospect, I believe I was attracted to L/BMS because it taught me to pay attention to my body’s changes and honored what I had only sensed before, that those changes resonate in impactful ways in my life.
The Laban/Bartenieff system has been developed by a large community of people over the last century, most of whom have shared in the goal of creating a system of symbols and language that comprehensively describes all possibilities of human movement. Those studying L/BMS are expected to experience (embody) each aspect of the system, a process that for many of us translates into being aware of and expanding the range of movements we engage in. These new movements include a greater range of dynamics, a larger zone of space around the body, and a deepened sensory awareness of anatomy and motor development. Experiencing something previously unknown in movement has the effect of making known to the tissues previously unimaginable sensations and understanding. It is akin to opening the doors to new ways of knowing one’s own body, and new possibilities of how one can perceive themselves and their world.
Movement reflects biases that often exist on a preverbal level, and they may be linked before we are able to connect words to our experiences. Meeting the unknown in movement is not as easy as it sounds because unconscious associations and judgements can undermine one’s willingness to embody certain elements of movement. For many students of L/BMS, values and associations are unconsciously linked to movement. For example, abrupt and strong movements may be connected to aggression or masculinity or capitalism or superficial desire. Links like this can make it challenging to give oneself over to fully experiencing certain aspects of movement and seeing value in doing movements that arouse resistance. The process of learning movement through L/BMS asks people to question body level associations and assumptions, and to be willing to change them.
Personally, as I moved through and learned each aspect of movement present in the framework of L/BMS, I was especially resistant to the energetic pace associated with lingering and sustainment. The sense of prolonging and drawing out the moment challenged my desire to be “on the go” which was connected to the satisfaction I received from feeling myself move quickly. Over time, I learned I am not my quickness, and I am not my resistance to sustainment, rather, I have access to them and can value the perceptions they bring me.
In the same spirit as practicing Buddhism, the elements of movement within L/BMS do not hold specific value or meaning; they exist and are options, but arenot deemed good or bad, attractive or unattractive, useful or unnecessary. Humans have access to and can embody and experience each element because they all exist as possibilities. The human tendency is to layer meaning onto experience. Meaning emerges from our previously established ways of knowing but is not the truth of that element. Take my example of a sustained approach to time. The experience of prolonging the moment is like taking the moment one makes a decision and drawing it out, prolonging it. This sensory knowing does not represent anything except the energetic attitude of lingering manifested in movement. Contrast lingering and sustainment with the quickness discussed above, which in movement energetically hastens and compresses the moment in movement.
Many bodyworkers and movement therapists work with concepts related to physical processing. Physical processing refers to working on the body/physical level to meet and unravel what needs to be let go. When processing through movement, whatever is there is quickly transformed into its next iteration. States of being that are associated with discomfort, like stress, tension, and unwanted emotions, must be experienced and dealt with on the body level in order to be transformed. When students of L/BMS amplify what is present in movement, they heighten their sensations of it in order to acknowledge it, live it out, and move past it. For example, say you are struggling with the discomfort associated with not knowing if a potential employer will hire you. You could try to ignore the discomfort, or live with it, or move it in your body to amplify it and heighten your sensation of it. Very often, once the discomfort is brought to movement, the movement will morph and change, and the new versions will bring keys on how to transform the discomfort into the next action or way of understanding it.
Laban/Bartenieff encourages learning about movement by experiencing it, perceiving it, observing it, describing it, coaching it, and giving it meaning. Each unique way of addressing movement asks the student to become aware of movement in their life through a variety of ways and teaches them they can deliberately switch their attention to generate knowledge about movement through multiple inroads. Through practice, students experience the fluidity of their consciousness and learn to observe and morph their intentions and attention to serve the role they are in. In practice, each of these roles is clearly interrelated with what is known about eachinfluencing the others. Take for example a boxing coach whose primary role is coaching students. This coach observes her students first for what is present in their movement, yet even here, her eye is looking for what is working in movement and what could be improved. She filters what she sees through earlier knowledge and experiences. All of this is done before she has even begun to describe or coach a movement. If trained in L/BMS, the coach would have awareness of what is “right and timely” with her attention and each role she brings to the task.
In conclusion, I want to end with a phrase one of my teaching colleagues uses to encourage students, which is to “notice what you notice” as they learn different aspects of the Laban/Bartenieff framework. This cue shifts the intention of one’s attention and suggests a meta-awareness of how any experience resonates within the sensory self. Noticing what I notice about the connection between L/BMS and Buddhism, I am acutely aware that the two are not the same and do not have the same beliefs, but I am simultaneously comforted by how the two seem to support and/or complement one another. While Buddhism embraces change, L/BMS studies it in the form of human movement and the material of the physical body. While L/BMS is about attention and sensitivity to movement in the many interrelated roles it plays in human life, Buddhism teaches the interrelatedness of the human experience and the conditions of one’s existence. L/BMS approaches movement as a framework of possibilities not hindered by judgement, while Buddhism presents a framework for describing reality as a process that continues to change and unfold. Finally, together they encourage the student/practitioner to develop the skills of being in the moment and fluid consciousness in which they can attain what is most “right and timely.” Both Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies and Buddhism offer guides to becoming more conscious of who we are, how we sense ourselves, and how we perceive our world. The ways in which they do this support each other and offer alternative possibilities for further realizing each.
Colleen Wahl teaches dance and movement skills to all levels of “movers.” Along with being a Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at Alfred University, Wahl is a co-director at Integrated Movement Studies, a Graduate Certification Program on Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analysis. Her book, Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies: Contemporary Applications, integrates Laban/Bartenieff theory with an embodied and practical approach that encourages the reader to gain new awareness of movement in their life.