Check it out on Psychology Today:
American modern dancer Martha Graham claimed that she could tell everything about a dancer by the way he walked across the floor of the studio. Walking – head lifted, chest opened, legs long – revealed a person’s attitude towards life, and whether he greeted life with avidity, stepped tentatively into the unknown, or charged with false bravado against unseen resistance. As Graham intoned, “Movement never lies.”
Recently, in an effort to identify movement patterns in individual humans that are “distinct, detectable, and durable,” a group of French and Australian researchers developed a way to measure the “movement signatures” of eighty healthy men and women. As Gretchen Reynolds reports in this week’s New York Times, the researchers attached electrodes to eight muscles in each participant’s leg, and asked the participants to pedal on a stationary bike, then walk on a treadmill in ninety second intervals of varying intensity, and come back for a second session to repeat the two exercises.
After researchers compiled each participant’s “muscular activation” data, they fed data from the first session into a pattern-learning AI software program. When they gave the computer unspecified muscular activation data, the machine was able to identify the participant to whom the movement patterns belonged 99 percent of the time for data from the first session, and 91 percent for data from the second – data it had never seen.
The researchers interpreted their findings as proof that every human individual has a movement signature – “subtle, interior movement patterns” – that are as singular as a fingerprint and are easily detectable by a machine, even when that machine is given muscular activation data from only eight (out of over six hundred) muscles, recorded in the performance of only two common activities.
As responses to the article confirm, this insight is “old news” to many dancers, athletes, martial artists, and those involved in somatic and alternative movement practices. As Graham observed, even when asked to do the same simple movement, no two humans do it alike. Yet she went further, and claimed that those differences are revelatory. What does a movement signature reveal?
For one, the nature of our bodily selves. The fact that we have a movement signature suggests that our bodies are not biological entities that take shape and then learn to move in idiosyncratic ways. Even Reynolds and the researchers seem to presume as much when they identify the implications of this study: improving sports training; refining robotics, prosthetics, physical therapy and personalized exercise programs; or serving as “coal-mine canaries for disease or injury risk.”
These stated implications presume that a body is a self-enclosed set of genetic instructions that learns to move, even if it does so uniquely. They assume that if we can identify “its” durable print, then “we” can manipulate “it” more effectively.
Yet the implication of having a movement signature is that a body is not a thing that moves, but itself made by movement. Movement is the “stuff” out of which a body is made.
If we have a movement signature at any point in our lives, then we have one from the very beginning – from the moment of conception. That signature goes all the way down. And if it does, then “we,” as clusters of cells, are moving in unique patterns before the shape of our bodily self emerges. As a result, the movement patterns that our cells are making as brain and limbs emerge inevitably influence the development of our material form itself.
In fact, there is new evidence that our brains develop in response to this fetal movement as a way to record it. The movements I make pull my body – my senses, systems, organs, and abilities – into form as memories of what has moved me (e.g., light, sound, touch, rhythm, oxygen, nutrients, water, mother), and as trajectories along which future movements shuttle to new degrees. The twitching of the fetus in the womb, the constant gyrations of infants when awake, and the wiggle and wriggles of toddlers, represent the active matrix of relational movement possibilities that comes into being as the bones and muscles and tactile-kinetic coordination of a specific adult human.
The fact that I have an identifiable movement signature, then, implies that my body itself is a dynamic field of movement potentials. It is (and I am) a bodily self. The bodily self that I am is a record of every movement I have made in relation to every other movement that has made me. It is a record of what happened when I made that movement, and what might happen if I make it again. It is the ever-evolving collection of kinetic templates through which I am always becoming conscious of the world around me and within me; it is the font of possible responses I create.
I see what I see because of the way bouncing light has taught my eyes to move. I grasp what I grasp because of the way objects in gravity have taught my hands to move. I think what I think because I’ve made the bodily movements of reading, studying, rearranging, sorting, comparing. Even movements that might seem inward or hidden, like my thoughts and feelings, stand revealed – for those who know how to discern them – in the way I move.
What this study implies, then, goes beyond the need for individualized physical interventions: Every human person, in order to know and honor herself, would do well to engage in some kind of practice that helps her learn to be a responsible movement-maker. Doing so is a fundamental, enabling condition not only of personal health and well-being, but of the health and well being of social relationships, larger communities, and the earth itself. We need to dance.
If a body is movement all the way down, then the process of learning what it is – who I am, what I can do for others, what hurts and what heals – can not be a process of simply paying mindful attention to “it.” The process of learning who I am is inseparable from the process of my bodily self becoming what it is as “it” moves in ways that evolve me beyond who I was. In other words, I know my bodily self as I exert and release beyond myself, and follow and flow in response.
Dance, for one, is a practice that not only requires such learning, it makes it the focus of the activity. By “dance” here, I am referring to a movement practice that invites us to learn new patterns of bodily movement as a means for expressing ourselves. These patterns may be codified or free form. The bodily movements may be dictated by abstract shapes or inner impulses. What gets expressed in this sense is not an idea or feeling that needs to get out; what gets expressed is a potential for movement-making – a potential for using movement to sense and respond to and thus create and reveal the relationships that make us and the world real.
In dance, the task of learning new patterns of movement is a rhythm the draws on whatever sensory awareness a person has become up to that point. In learning a new movement, a dancer acts and receives. She exerts the energy and effort to mobilize her bodily self, and receives the sensory information that doing so generates in her. With that new sensory awareness, she acts to move again. In this process, a bodily self becomes what it is — capable (or not) of making a set of life-enabling movements in relation to whatever forces, energies, people, environments, or goals move her.
For example, as I move through a leg bend or plie, I receive the sensory information of where in that movement where I am stuck, sore, or held. As I repeat the movement, I allow the sensory awareness of that pain to guide me to make adjustments that release the tension and do not reproduce the pain. As I welcome another round of sensory responses, I adjust again, until I can release fully into a clear arc of movement that strengthens my capacity to move some more. Practicing dance in this way, I can learn to access and align with the healing wisdom of my bodily self.
In this rhythm, a dancer is both agent and recipient; he practices moving intentionally and being moved by his own bodily knowledge. He learns to give himself to the movements of his bodily self, only to have the movement give him back to himself, changed. And the sensory awareness he cultivates gives him a precious resource for moving more consciously in all moments of his life – whether he is eating food, interacting with a furious child, or choosing his life’s work.
A final implication of this study, then, is that dance traditions are rivers of knowledge about how to cultivate effective ways of moving in relation to sources of life-enabling power. Every dance tradition that endures does so in so far as the patterns of movement it guides people to make have served to help at least some people access the power and pleasure of their own movement-making.
Of course, not every dance tradition or technique works for every bodily self. Every style of dancing has its own history, contexts, and aesthetic. Dance itself, like any primary pleasure (such as food, sex, spiritual attainment), can become an object of addiction – an outlet for thwarted desires. Even professional dancers, and especially professional dancers, need to remember to keep cultivating the sensory awareness of their own movement making as a guide, and not get caught up in the pursuit of abstract forms.
However, in so far as we humans exist in the medium of movement making, practices of dancing also offer us one of the best resources we have for cultivating a sense of the value and wisdom of our bodily selves. Through dance, we can learn to discern which styles of dance remain faithful to this wisdom. The challenge is to find an approach that meets your bodily self where you currently are — as the patterns of movement you have created and become — and helps you express your own signature in accord with what heals.
If you can’t find one, invent one.
Graham was a particularly astute observer of kinetic shapes. Rest assured that not everyone has the ability to see a self in a walk. Still, if anyone learns to read your ever-evolving signature, let it be you!
François Hug, Clément Vogel, Kylie Tucker, Sylvain Dorel, Thibault Deschamps, Éric Le Carpentier, and Lilian Lacourpaille. Individuals have unique muscle activation signatures as revealed during gait and pedaling. 14 Oct 2019https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01101.2018
Reynolds, Gretchen. “Something in the Way We Move: We may each have a movement ‘signature’ that, like our face or fingerprints, is unique to us.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/well/move/something-in-the-way-we-move.html?te=1&nl=well&emc=edit_hh_20191024?campaign_id=18&instance_id=13319&segment_id=18180&user_id=0f6fd25a998ff59f1880a7e150a81e21®i_id=47270092. Accessed October 30, 2019.