Move Your Body

I remember an observational game we played in an undergrad acting class back when I was at the University of Minnesota. I can still picture that class very clearly.

The teacher, Nancy Houfek (my first real interaction with an incredibly talented and dedicated acting teacher), asked the class one at a time to stand up and walk around the room. The room was a cool, modern theater-in-the-round setup, with darkly lit audience seats fully surrounding the stage, going up about fifteen rows. I remember how well-lit the stage area was, like a little bastion of security /insecurity. Whenever you were out on it by yourself, if you felt any self-consciousness, you just felt totally exposed as classmates looked in and down on you from every angle.

So in this activity - this walking thing - one at a time, we were told to just walk completely normally, don't ham or strut or anything, just do your natural walk. Nancy would let each of us keep walking in silence for maybe a minute while everyone else in the class watched. It felt like a long time to just walk around, across the stage, up and down different stair cases, not really having anything to do except walk. The internal chatter started up immediately. Am I moving my arms normally? What do I look like from the back? Do I have a silly walk?

Then, after a minute of silent walking and everyone watching you, after you started to hopefully walk naturally and not how you wished you walked, she began to ask the class questions. "What are you seeing? Is he Fast or Slow? Is he Light or Heavy? Is he Direct or Indirect?" Those same questions were repeated for each individual. The class would discuss and state opinions about the walker's rate, semblance of (not physical) weight, and directional style, all while the one in the spotlight continued to walk about for a few more minutes. After a total of perhaps four minutes, the walker could sit down and the next person would stand and the process would begin again.

The learning was awesome. I learned not just about my own movement but also about how other's movement impacted me. The questions she asked during the walks were a simplified slice of Laban Movement Analysis, specifically the Action Drives people employ when they move. It remains my most useful movement awareness tool for large group communication. I use it when jumping into a character for a second in a story I am telling, to consider how to best make an impact for a certain bit I want to say in a speech, to assess staff I train on how their movement impacts student engagement, or to consider how I am physically presenting myself when I walk through a room full of Bolivian dignitaries. Slow/Fast, Light/Heavy, Direct/Indirect. The point is that all of the categories occur in how we move all the time, whether it is by choice or reaction: when we walk, when we gesture, and in our posture.

Changing any one aspect of our movement changes the emotion conveyed, the intention conveyed, and even perceptions others have about our personality. For example, we all have our own natural movement tendencies (I typically move slowly, heavily, and indirectly. Laban labels this a "wring" movement style.) We also have choices to purposefully change our movement to create a new combination, changing how we are perceived.

Do you need to make a detailed, important point in a speech? When you speak it, move slowly to let the detail 'breathe', use a heavy weight for credibility, and be direct in gesture to give a purposefulness that correlates with the intention of your communication. Want to appear uninterruptable and busy? Move fast, heavy, and direct. Want to convey upbeat and energetic because you need to loosen up a group? Move fast, light, and indirect to convey casualness. It's all about matching the strategy to the situation, and in this case the strategy is your body.

Laban Movement is like a blueprint for the body-in-action that provides us with more choice in our communication. It is not something to build a fake mask about ourselves, but rather to open up choices when we are looking to be more dynamic or generate a certain result with others. So much is communicated through our body language - we hear these stats - but Laban gives us a reference for making meaningful choices to do something about it. I highly recommend it for anyone invested in public communication.