Tag Archives: Martha Graham

What Your Movement Signature Reveals About You

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.

Really?

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!

 

References

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&regi_id=47270092. Accessed October 30, 2019.

 

 

Love Your Body? The Dance of Martha Graham

Describing her “way of doing things,” American modern dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991) wrote: “It is a freedom of the body and a love of the body.” “Love” may not be the first word that comes to mind to describe the work of an artist whose early dances were so angular and austere that a critic professed she’d give birth to a cube. Yet Graham’s love of the body was fierce and full-throttle – radical for what it loves and how it loves, and for what it reveals love—and a body—to be.

In the 1920s and 30s, when Graham was developing her “way of doing things,” she rejected the word “technique.” Her approach to dance had nothing to do, she insisted, with imposing arbitrary forms onto a body and demanding its obedience to them. Instead, the “freedom” and “love” to which she aspired involved a different approach: a dancer must learn to pay attention to her bodily self; train her bodily self to move in line with its own elemental rhythms, and in time, trust her bodily self as a source of guidance and inspiration. This “way of doing things” is love.

Paying attention. Graham wanted to discover movement that was strong and significant—“fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” She did not want her movement to “leak out” (Lloyd 1949). So day after day in the studio, Graham urged the young women of her fledgling dance company to pay attention to the fundamental, life-enabling bodily movements they were making in their ordinary lives: walking and running, laughing and crying, breathing, falling and rising again.

For Graham, paying attention to one’s movement is, like listening, “a complete focus upon a given instant.” Like listening it involves tuning in to waves—not of sound but of feeling—sensory swells arising and passing in every moment, across every surface and segment of bodily being. Dancers strive to cultivate a sensory awareness so intense it “animates” their “whole being” (1941), and can mobilize that whole being—mind, heart, and body—in space. No part is left out or forgotten. This attention is love.

Training. For Graham, paying attention yielded a pair of movement patterns—contraction and release—that would become the core of her every exercise, every gesture, and every choreography. She discovered these patterns by noticing how the alternating vectors of breathing—inhaling and exhaling—rearrange a body into complementary shapes.

Graham distilled these movements into kinetic images: an exhale became the “contraction” and an inhale became the “release.” As “images” of breathing, a dancer can feel, study, and recreate the contraction and release independent of actual breathing. As “kinetic,” the contraction and release exist only in movement, as movement. When repeated, they function as an energy pump, developing within a dancer a source of movement motivation – a muscular force field in the lower abdomen – that she can use to direct and deliver her sensorily animated, whole bodily self into a wide range of desired movements with power and precision. By basing her approach to dance on an elemental rhythm without which humans cannot live for more than four minutes, Graham sought to discover movements that would “do no violence, anatomically or emotionally” (1941).

In the early years of her career, as her dancers recount, Graham did not care what a movement looked like. She cared where in a body it began, how it passed through, and where it went. What mattered was whether a movement strengthened a bodily self along paths of potent action opened up by honoring and practicing its own elemental rhythms. This practice is love.

Trusting. For Graham, in dance as in life, the movements that we make us: from “the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual…comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit” (1991). Human actions not only give rise to an understanding of who we are and what we can do, they do so by organizing our nervous system, influencing what we perceive and how we respond. The movements we make don’t just make us, they become us (LaMothe 2015).

And when a person’s movements train and tune his sensory awareness to the rhythms of breathing – as in Graham’s way of doing things – his experience of his own body changes. “It” is no longer a thing or material object. It is him. He becomes someone who trusts his bodily self to discern how to make a movement in ways that do no violence. He becomes a dancer whose every movement can express the care and attention that he has practiced in order to be able to make that move. This trust is love.

Performing. Love of the body is why Graham danced; it is what she nurtured in her dancers, and it was also what she wanted audiences to receive when watching her dance performances. Graham choreographed nearly 200 dances over a period of 70 years. From the most abstract to those peopled with named characters, Graham intention was the same: “to communicate participation to the nerves, the skin, the structure of the spectator” (Armitage 1978).

Graham was not concerned with whether audience members understood what she was doing; she wanted them to feel it. She wanted her dances to wake people up viscerally – to give them an experience of themselves as moved, as moving, and so stir to life in them a sensory awareness of their own movement-making, of their own capacity for freedom and love of the body.

Even when Graham danced a murderer as in Clytemnestra or in Cave of the Heart (as Medea), or when she danced a victim, unjustly accused, as in Seraphic Dialogue (about Joan of Arc) or Rite of Spring, Graham wanted her audience members to identify viscerally with the force of creativity thrumming through every movement that she or her dancers were making – to feel that pulse even in the most extreme moments of human experience – and so emerge affirmed in their own search for movements that do no violence, anatomically or emotionally. This affirmation is love.

To dance, for Graham, is to love the body, where what “love” and “the body” mean are defined by her dancing. Love is not a feeling of abstract or unconditional affection directed towards some thing; it is a way of being a bodily self, open to and oriented by what a trained, trusted sensory awareness helps you perceive. It is a radical love that plumbs to the roots of human experience, willing to welcome all bodily experiences – comedies, tragedies, and everything in between – as occasions to dance. As Graham was fond of saying, “you stand or fall on the vulnerability of yourself to life” (1952). This dance is love.

This post is a continuation and elaboration of reflections begun in an earlier post on Friedrich Nietzsche and Martha Graham: “Radical Love: A Message for Our Time.” For more, see “Winter’s Life-Affirming Extremes—and Martha Graham.”

References

Armitage, Merle, ed. 1978 (1937). Martha Graham: The Early Years. NY: de Capo Press.

Graham, Martha. 1991. Blood Memory. NY: Doubleday.

———-. 1952. “The Medium of Dance.” Lecture. Audiotape, Dance Collection, New York Public Library.

———-. 1941. “A Modern Dancer’s Primer for Action,” in Rogers (1941), pp. 178-187.

LaMothe, Kimerer. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. NY: Columbia University Press.

———-. 2006. Nietzsche’s Dancers: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the Revaluation of Christian Values. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lloyd, Margaret. 1949. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. New York.

Rogers, Frederick R., ed. Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. NY: MacMillan, 1941.