Table of Contents
Dance notation is the act of describing human movement on paper with symbols or abbreviations. Around 100 notable systems have been invented since the 15th century, but only a handful have been in widespread use.1
As juggling involves movement of the body, and in order to get more understanding of different ways of notating, I needed to know the basics of dance notation and its history. On top of that, I’ve studied Laban and Benesh notation in particular, as these two appear to be the most popular and widely used systems, both today and historically. This article is a notebook of what I’ve learnt.
Like juggling, but unlike music, dance notation can not be read and executed at the same time (Unless you wear AR glasses like LabanLens). One must read the score, remember it, and then execute it on the floor. Juggling notation often describes short tricks, but dance notation describes long sequences or even whole pieces, so this need to memorize the notation could be holding back the usefulness of the systems.
Dance notation is sometimes described as difficult to visualize:
“I am still dazzled, and always initially overwhelmed, when I open a new score. With the exception of solo studies that use a familiar dance vocabulary, I cannot conjure the dance upon the page: I must move into the space, disassemble the notation signs and then reassemble them in and through my body before I am able to understand what is written.”
- Victoria Watts2
The degree of detail that needs to be noted down can differ a lot. For some projects it is more useful to write only a ‘shorthand’, so it can be written and read fast. This often assumes knowledge of the dance style or even requires the reader to have seen or performed the dance before. On the other hand, if the purpose is preserving dance, there can almost never be enough detail. Do the feet also turn out when walking? Is the facial expression important for this part? Very often dance is about those details, but it can be hard for the notator or the creator of a system to be aware of their own assumptions.1
I think that is fundamentally different from juggling tricks: A trick is often a very specific path or series of actions that a limb or ball needs to take, for example: For a “backcross”, a ball needs to be thrown behind the back and be caught on the front of the body. Within this construction, a juggler can try and find the easiest execution style, or can try to change the style by adjusting the positions in less optimal ways, but the “trick” remains the same. Therefor not the same level of detail is required as in dance. However, when a juggler looks beyond my narrow definition of “tricks” of course juggling performance can be greatly expanded with extra movements, which is why the involvement of Benesh notation in Harmonic Throws is suitable.
It surprises me how little dance notation is used today. Of course the ease of video recording has made notation less important, but one can’t glance over a video timeline like one can over a score and one can’t produce a video always as easily as one can write a choreography with some notes on paper. I had expected it to be easy to find good sources online that explain how Benesh or Laban work, but I was very disappointed to find almost nothing.
I need to talk to dancers or choreographers to explain to me why they don’t need notation for their work, or why this knowledge is hard to come by.
I was in luck. I did not need to write a review on all existing notation systems to compare them like I did with juggling notation, as this had already been done by dance notation expert Ann Hutchinson Guest. In her 1989 book “Choreographics: A Comparison of Dance Notation Systems”1 she identifies 88 different systems (from mostly Western cultures), examines and compares 20 of them, and categorizes them in 5 main groups. For each of these she lists advantages and disadvantages, and although she admits that these are largely influenced by personal opinion, I believe they are an incredibly valuable resource for my work.
The following is a summary of each category and its relevant pros and cons.
Words and Word Abbreviations⌗
This system seems obvious: Movements are codified with words (like ‘plié’ for bending the knees) and then abbreviated so they can be notated faster and take up little space (like ‘p’ for ‘plié’). These abbreviations would often be drawn below or above a musical score.
These systems are easy to invent, as Hutchinson Guests asks:
“How many ballet dancers have not written ‘gl as pdb en 4’ for ‘glissade, assemblé, pas de bourée, entrechat quatre’ as a first useful reminder of a sequence?"1
But even when one knows the meaning of those words or abbreviations there can still be a lot of missing information. In the above example we don’t even know which foot to start with. More structured word systems can include more information, but still most systems are intended as a memory aid than as a tool to recreate a dance from scratch.
Leaving out information could be no issue at all when the transcription is intended for contemporaries with similar foundation knowledge (or in fact, for oneself only), they might know the rules of the dance and thus a lot of meaning can be assumed. However, as knowledge gets lost or texts get misinterpreted, the dance may transform or become impossible to perform as it was intended by the notator.
Track drawings describe a pattern on the floor, and are very suitable for movement. These systems flourished in France and Italy in the 17th century. Next to the track lines it could be indicated where the feet are placed or what movements are made, often using specific symbols for the male and female parts of couple dances. They remind me of the ballroom dance steps diagrams that I’ve seen before, where feet are drawn on a floor plan with numbers and lines.
The systems that were popular such as the Feuillet system fell out of use when the dance style they were specifically designed for went out of fashion.
Stick Figure Systems⌗
Stick figures include famous systems such as Zorn, Benesh and Sutton. Some systems draw from the audience perspective, others draw from the back of the dancer independent of its orientation. Typically the systems notate pose to pose, and movement between the poses is assumed. Not all features can be easily described with stick figures, they are 2d figures representing a 3d space. Benesh is a bit of an odd one out in here, as it does not use lines to describe the arms and legs but rather uses symbols for the hands and feet and possibly the joints. If a system is more representational it can be understood almost immediately, a more abstract system like Benesh requires more study.
Stick figure systems are often drawn under or over a musical score to indicate their tempo.
One often finds a lack of detail in stick figure notation. The reader might then ask themself if a notator was lazy or inexperienced, or was the focus on writing only on the main actions are the details supposed to be known from experience?
Stick figures seem most suitable for ballet like dances with upright bodies.
Music Note Systems⌗
Because of the success of music notation, and the rhythmicality of dance, people have tried to create a music-note-like system for dance. It has been tried for juggling too. Extra symbols or modifications of music symbols were invented to display body positions and movements, but timing symbols could often be copied from music notation.
A single note can display multiple meanings at once, just as in music you can change the position on the score, add signs to the stem of the note, or place extra signs above or below the notes. These systems tend to become rather abstract, the meaning of the height on the score is by far not as obvious as it is in music. Even being able to copy timing symbols from music notation is hardly a benefit. Hutchingson Guest explains in detail in her book how musical timing is different from dance timing, as music notation is not designed to show the speed of a movement. A musical note can only be lengthened or played at a different moment in time, not played faster.
Abstract Symbol Systems⌗
Abstract systems like Laban seem to be less biased towards specific dance styles than the other styles discussed, and most of them result from movement analysis rather than move codification.
Since even visual systems like stick figure drawings require symbols for some details, an argument could be made that it is better to start a system with abstract symbols and build upon those in a logical manner.
Even abstract systems are not necessarily devoid of visual meanings, for example Laban places events that happen on the left side of the body on the left side of its score, and movements that last longer are visually stretched out. These kind of connections make a language easier to learn and interpret.
A disadvantage of starting from movement analysis rather than codification is that it might be unfamiliar to dance students. One may have learned how to walk in a certain dance style, but not how to understand that as a sequence of hip, knee, and ankle bends. In such a case codification (eg. to write “walk” or to draw a symbol that means “pas de chat”) can feel much more natural as it speaks the same language as is being used on the dancefloor.
Benesh Movement Notation is a system developed by Joan and Rudolph Benesh, first published in 1956.
My first introduction to Benesh notation came when studying Harmonic Throws, which implements a simplified version of Benesh in it’s own notation.
Benesh notation visually represents the body as seen from behind, similar to how a stick figure does but without drawing the limbs itself, only their endpoints and if relevant their joints. The body is drawn on a musical score.
‘Benesh adopted the five-line music staff to represent the body. He stated: “Any attempt at a dance notation must provide for it to be written upon the music stave. This not only solves many problems such as tempo and scoring, but has many obvious practical advantages."'1
It is unclear to me what these obvious practical advantages are. You can’t use music scoring paper for Benesh as the lines are typically too close to each other. Also, Benesh is best represented on red score lines to be able to distinguish the score lines from the drawn (black) position and movement lines which may overlap sometimes. Benesh does not borrow symbols from music notation. At last, Benesh and music score are rarely written next to each other, probably in part because Benesh typically takes up much more space than music notation.
In order to understand Benesh better I set out to learn how it was written, and was truly surprised about the lack of freely available resources. One can book plenty of courses through the Royal Academy of Dance, but even books are hard to come by. Is that because Benesh has fallen out of fashion, or is that because Benesh is best learnt in person?
Benesh consists of marks for various parts of the body in various positions, and on top of that there are symbols to denote the timing and the orientation on the stage. Movement is represented with curved lines, and those can be appended with symbols to represent movement through 3d space.
A feature which I appreciate in Benesh is its attempt to be as little redundant as possible. For example, if the arm position does not change between two movements, the arms are simply not drawn at all. Despite all this, Benesh scores can still look cluttered and can take some time to decipher, there is simply so much information that can be presented in one image.
‘To keep scores simple Benesh stressed redundancy avoidance. If from two pieces of information a third can be deduced, there is no need to state the third. In contrast, Laban advised: “It is better to record too much detail than too little. If the detail is not recorded, the reader cannot know later on what was left out.” A simplified version can be made from a full score, but not vice versa.'1
Benesh certainly has been used a lot, for example the Royal Academy of Dance has a catalog which lists 1750 Benesh dance scores, which appear to be of complete dance pieces. Sadly, they are not easily available.
Labanotation was created by Rudolph Laban and first published in 1928.
I first learned about Laban in a course on movement analysis which I took in circus school, which used Laban movement analysis to understand movement and space.
In Labanotation there is a vertical score of 3 lines which is read from the bottom upwards. Symbols are placed along these lines. Their horizontal position indicates the body part, their vertical position indicates the moment in time, their shape indicates the direction, their shading indicates the height, their length indicates their duration.
“A significant advantage in the Laban system is the fact that one symbol provides four pieces of information: the part of the body that moves, the direction and level, the moment when the movement begins and the duration of the movement. In no other system is such economy achieved."1
I was once again disappointed by the resources that were freely available to learn about Labanotation. My learning resources have been the few videos I could find of this 1988 course of Jill Beck, the LabanLab, this webpage “Introduction to Labanotation”, and Choreographics.1 But similar to Benesh, none go into all of the details of the notation system. However, unlike with Benesh, there appear to be a lot of valuable books published on the subject that are still available today. I’ve even ordered one, but it has not arrived in time to be of use for this article.
Besides the basic directional symbols as described above, signs can be added. There are ‘hold signs’ to indicate the difference between a jump and a continuous standing position, there are signs to indicate different types of bended limbs, ‘foot hooks’ to indicate which parts of the foot contact the floor, turn signs to indicate that the dancer rotates, and body part signs to indicate which specific body part should be doing a certain movement. There must be many more signs, but not ones I could easily discover about.
A floorplan with symbols and arrows can be added to show movement through space.
It appears to me that Labanotation is less influenced by a particular style of dance than most notation systems I have read about. This may be a reason for it’s wide application, I have even come across studies where it was used to describe animal movement such as of spiders.3
Spread of the Laban system has provided such trial through its professional application in recording choreography of many types, classical and contemporary, as well as ethnic dance forms and non-dance activities such as sports, swimming, riding, etc., not to mention its application to zoology.1
Guest, A. H. (1989). Choreographics: A comparison of dance notation systems from the fifteenth century to the present. Gordon and Breach Publishers. ↩︎
Watts, V. (2010). Dancing the score: dance notation and differance. Dance Research, 28(1), 7-18. ↩︎
John Davis and Toni’ Intravaia, “Zygoballus Spider Pilot Project: An Adaptation of Labanotation to Record Animal Behavior And Movement,” (Southern Illinois University, 1966, 1970), 34. ↩︎