September 24, 2008

Etude 1 - Basic Movement

"All physical action is a rich source of dance movement." - Stuart Hodes, "A Map of Making Dance"

"Engineers don't have to reinvent the wheel, but in dance it's done all the time. A walk is basic but can be done in infinitely many ways, with original variations constantly being found." - Stuart Hodes, "A Map of Making Dance"

"Qualities can lead directly to movement . . . [M]ovement has both inner and outer attributes. When walking, for instance, you place one foot after the other - the outer attribute. But a walk can be bold, hesitant, serene, fidgety, or have numberless other inner attributes. We call the inner attributes qualities. Dance is sublimely equipped to communicate the subtlest qualities, and it is impossible to dance without projecting a quality of some kind." - Stuart Hodes, "A Map of Making Dance"

This exercise is about getting used to speaking in terms of basic physical movement. The exercise itself is pretty simple, but I'm presenting it in this linear step-by-step mode to get the idea across.

1. Make a list of simple physical actions. Do not spend more than about 5 minutes on this. Here's mine (feel free to use it):
breathe, climb, walk, run, jump,
swim, fall, catch, throw, cut,
hold, fly, choke, strike, stroke,
bite, scratch, touch, kiss, stab,
clap, cry, laugh, smash
2. Create or choose a character. Don't feel limited to people. The character can be an inanimate object or force of nature. Consider a crowd that acts as a single entity as well.
I'll use the bitabohs as my character.

(WTF are bitabohs? Malevolent West African tree spirits that attack humans that come into their territory. They are usually allies or servants of witches.)
3. Have that character do one or more actions.
Let's have the bitabohs walk.
4. Describe 3 to 5 attributes and/or qualities for each action. Each attribute/quality can be a phrase, but it should only describe only one aspect of the movement. And they don't need to be logical either. Find a way to make the movement "wrong" or "off" somehow if you're so inclined.
What do I want to say about the bitabohs' walk?
  • uproot then reroot themselves to walk
  • zombielike gait - creepy, slow
  • strange cadence to their steps
5. Describe the character in more detail if you want. But remember to keep that short too.
What can I say about the bitabohs?
  • eerily humanoid - including faces frozen in rage or terror
  • could have wind chimes made of human bones in their branches
Putting it all together:
BITABOHS emerge. They are eerily humanoid figures with gnarled limbs and vaguely human faces contorted in expressions of rage and horror. They may even have wind chimes made of human bones tied to their branches. They "walk" by uprooting and rerooting themselves. There is a creepy cadence to their lumbering, zombielike gait.
Of course, you can make it hard for yourself and write a scene with 2 or more characters with this exercise. It's harder than it looks and easier than you think.

What you may find is that it challenges - or at least blurs - the dogma of not being able to act in feelings. Of course, it's nigh impossible to act something like: Character feels sad. After all, how would Character show that? But in the absence of spoken dialogue, how do we convey sadness if we're unable to say there should be a sad quality to it? This is not to get you to start saying, "Character walks sadly" all the time, but to get you to think about how to include the emotional dimension in the absence of something as direct as "Character feels sad."


  1. "BITABOHS emerge. They are eerily humanoid figures with gnarled limbs and vaguely human faces..."
    Did you write that? I very much enjoyed it.

  2. Did you write that? I very much enjoyed it.

    What'd you like about it?

    Also, how'd you find my blog? I thought only about 4 people knew about it.

  3. I chose my favorite fictional character, Dorothy of Oz. That really helped me get into the spirit of the exercise.

  4. Jim,

    Where's your sample? Did the exercise illuminate anything for you?

  5. Sample?

    I haven't done the whole exercise yet. I had her do a few actions, but I didn't know how to describe them, so I skipped to the part about describing the character. She's lighthearted, meek, bold, and curious. That's as far as I got. I still need to act out and describe some more actions, and put it all together.