In my role as a lead teacher with ECI on Location — Boston Ballet‘s community dance education program which brings classes to non-school based settings such as Boys & Girls Clubs, after-school programs, libraries, and more — I have been experimenting with using Laban’s movement theories to encourage critical thinking and creative composition with my students.
The weekly classes I teach are for students in grades 3-5, majority with little to no prior dance experience. Having studied Choreological Practice with Laban scholar Rosemary Brandt at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in 2015-2016, I’ve been eager to find a way to incorporate these concepts which have made such a rich difference for me in my own dancing. But, adapting them for this age, experience level, and setting has presented a challenge. I have begun experimenting in the following ways in recent weeks:
‘Elements of Movement’ Card Games
The guiding principle in Rosemary’s course at Laban was the 5-pronged star describing the “elements of movement” – body, action, space, dynamics, and relationships.
I decided the best entry point for this work in my young classrooms was the “action” segment – Laban’s 11 actions (lean, fall, transfer, jump, open, close, etc.) are all quite easily attainable and understandable at face value, with plenty of room to explore and delve deeper. After going over the list as a whole and giving broad examples, I’ve handed out cards randomly to each student with one action on each (or two, depending on the overall level of the class); after facilitating the creation of a movement for each student based on their action (sometimes simply by asking, “should we start standing or on the ground?”, “should we make this big or small?”), I’ve then put the students in small groups and had them combine their movements, again facilitating as needed and encouraging students to teach their movements and experiences others’ decisions.
The next level for this work is giving out cards, within a similar process, that have a body part on one side and a spatial direction on the other (i.e. straight down, up and to the right, in a curved line above you, in a diagonal line, behind you to the left, etc.). This encourages students to begin thinking about both initiating movement not always as a whole-body effort, but as segmented into endless choices throughout the body; and, to a variety of points in space. Again, I’ve had students make their own two-card phrases and then teach them to each other. This allows “space” to be introduced as a straightforward element to explore, without actually delving into Laban’s complicated numbers-based system.
I’ve seen huge successes within this process – students taking ownership of their movement; making creative choices; and working together cooperatively. Tasks meant simply as exercises have now become the expressive beginnings of our performance pieces.
Using ‘Dynamics’ Vocabulary
Within this work as well as other parts of class (warmup, barre, center technique), I’ve started using the language established within Laban’s work. Rosemary emphasized that movement is so often spoken of in a roundabout manner – using metaphor and imagery, lacking its own specific language and descriptors. Encouraging students to use this “language of movement” elevates their choices and also gives them the tools they need to identify and discuss the dances they see. Instead of saying “like air” and “as if hitting a wall” – I’ll describe movement as “floating / without resistance” and “with impact”, drawing on Laban’s characterization of rhythm dynamics, efforts and the tension/release spectrum. The power and specificity that results in students’ dancing has been striking.
I hope to expand on this work and eventually introduce the entire rhythm scale (impact, impulse, rebound, swing, continuous) and encourage students to explore more broadly with space, tension, and weight within our technique training.
It is always a struggle in these classes, which are not strictly creative movement or contemporary nor strictly ballet, to cover both the required introductory ballet curriculum and also foster an understanding of their wider choices as movers. But by using these prompts and speaking about all movement with these elements in mind, I’ve been striving to create a unified whole and give students a functional knowledge of what it means to be a dancing body.