(Text of my full Lightning Talk at Distill 2013, i.e. if it hadn’t been slightly compressed due to imminently reaching my 5 minute limit)

Hip Hop


I want to show you a different kind of technology. [Little improv solo] Got it?

All right, so how many of you speak a foreign language, meaning a different language from your native tongue? Raise one hand for every foreign language you speak, and if you speak more than 2 then twinkle your hands. Okay. Now, how many computer languages do you speak? 1-5 raise one hand, 6-10 raise both hands, more than 10 twinkle.

I totally love languages. One of the languages I speak, write, and teach is the language of movement. Written down it looks like this. [*] And here’s that same thing when moved. [Little solo of the slide’s Motif] The written form is called Motif Notation, and it’s used by a small population of choreographers, computer animators, sports coaches, and anyone needing a way to jot down movement. *Any* kind of movement. You want Hip Hop? [*] No problem. Charlie Chaplin? [*] Piece of cake. Boxing knockout? [*] Easy. (That’s a symbol for falling in the upper right, by the way.) And here’s Steve Jobs walking around. [*]

[*] Motif itself is part of a larger system called Laban Movement Analysis, which is a complete conceptual framework for analyzing and working with movement. It can be used descriptively, as in describing what you see or recording it. Or prescriptively, as in optimizing your movement for a particular task, like running or working at a desk or lifting weights or doing yoga.

Think about it. Most of us don’t have a good way to language the movement that we see. How would you describe this? [Tiny solo] Yeah, you’d say, “It’s like he’s doing this… Thing…” Given how precise we are with everything else, it’s pretty funny that we can’t even talk coherently about something as fundamental as our body’s movement.

With Laban Movement Analysis, you get to have that precision. [*] [*] [*] You could describe the movement I just did as stabilizing with the lower body while executing transverse, carving movements with my arms using flow flux and quickness, primarily in the upper kinesphere. That is what you were thinking, wasn’t it?

Distill 2013 Lightning Talk Slides Opening Move MotifBut what’s so great about movement? Why should we *care*? Because it’s everywhere. Everything we do, every interaction we have with others involves movement in some way. Even the act of perception is a motor act. If you want to see something, your head turns, and then the motion of the muscles attached to your lenses determines what will actually be in focus.

So, if everything you do is about movement, and you’re able to increase the granularity of your awareness of movement, then suddenly everything you do becomes richer. Like drinking wine after a wine-tasting class. Or listening to Metallica after a course on classical music. You sense more. You feel more. Because you know more. You become a connoisseur of the body. And subtle observations, missed by most people around you, create pleasure.

And you know what mirror neurons are, right? If you watch someone move, then your body has at least a tiny sensation of that same movement just from seeing it. Well, thanks to mirror neurons, you get to experience what others are experiencing too. You’re connected with them across space.

And if you can feel what’s happening inside someone else’s body, it’s harder to do violence against them, because you feel it too. And maybe, if we increase our curiosity about the diversity of ways people operate in the world, we can replace fear with fascination, the need to control with curiosity, and maybe even a little compassion.

Believe it or not, this system began as a project a hundred years ago by a guy named Rudolf Laban. [*] It’s the most comprehensive system of its kind. And yet, most people have never even heard of it. Why?

One big reason is that it currently has very little online presence. Most practitioners don’t blog, don’t Tweet, don’t contribute to Wikipedia, don’t build apps, and suffice to say, don’t have accounts on GitHub. One of my jobs is to try and change all that.

My mission is movement literacy. I’m looking to create the tools and resources so that anyone can learn to read and write movement, and be able to sketch a movement phrase as easily as writing down the melody of a song. [*] I’ve built an app to help visualize movement scales in space, similar to music scales. And right now I’m digging into standardizing a file format for Motif Notation.

I’m working towards a world where people feel strong, smart, and agile in their bodies, and moving through life is delicious.

[*] Thank you.

[Presentation slides: Distill 2013 Lightning Talk Slides]

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4 Responses to Motif Notation & Movement Literacy

  1. Brenton Cheng, you are the coolest Laban guy in the Bay Area!!!! How come I don’t get to see you very much??? Love your post, and can’t wait to see your new platform!!!

  2. Julianna Hane says:

    Brenton, thanks for starting an article with an invitation to move! I love the progressive use of the [*] to explain motif notation.

  3. Love this post! I incorporate Motif and Language of Dance® pedagogy into nearly all of my classes. And, I too believe we motif theorists are ripe for a shift to social media as a tool for awareness that dance notation exists and is. . . gasp. . . useful!

    I also blog occasionally about dance literacy as well as other dance, movement and meditation topics if you are interested in checking it out! I will definitely be sharing this with my online community as well as my students in the dance studio.


  4. marilyn mclaughlin says:

    Love this. Motif was very difficult for me and is to this day, and yet its one aspect of my learning that I return to again and again. I wouldn’t have thought this to be the case, but alas…tis.

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