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Part 5: Miscellaneous Questions

This revision Mar. 25, 2002
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Part 5 of seven parts

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  1.   Miscellaneous questions
    1. Is there a way of writing down dance, the way we write down music?
    2. Is there software for doing choreography?
    3. Is there software for my dance studio?
    4. What is Contact Improvisation?

  •  Miscellaneous questions

    1. Is there a way of writing down dance, the way we write down music?

      Yes, and the tradition is very nearly as old as ballet itself. The earliest notation, in the late 15th century, consisted of writing the initials of the names of the steps under the musical notes in the score. The first widely used system of dance notation using special symbols was apparently that attributed to Raoul Feuillet and Pierre Beauchamp and set forth in Feuillet's Chorégraphie in 1700. This system was used mainly to indicate the steps and the movement of the dancers about the floor, which were regarded as most important, with only a few indications of arm movements. It was used for about 100 years, gradually being extended until it became too unwieldy. Since that time, more than 80 systems of notation have been devised, the bulk of them in the 20th century. Dancers in this century who specialize in recreating Baroque dance have revived the Beauchamp/Feuillet notation; Wendy Hilton's Dance of the Court and Theater provides a comprehensive text and is the standard reference.

      In the 19th century, Charles Victor Arthur Michel Saint-Léon developed a system which he published in his book, Stenochorégraphie (1852). (The difference between the titles of the books reflects the fact that "choreography," which originally meant recording dance, had come to mean the making of dances.) This system was fairly widely used in the latter half of the 19th century but eventually fell into disuse. About this system, Sandi Kurtz writes,

      It was a version of this system that Sergeyev used to reconstruct the classical works for the early Sadler's Wells Ballet, which gave the west a view of that tradition and helped forge the style of what is now the Royal Ballet.

      Dance notation is never simple, since there is so much that needs to be specified for every dancer: positions of the feet, arms, hands, head, and torso; whether the dancer is standing still or moving and, if moving, in what direction (horizontally, vertically, or both) and how fast...and so on.

      In this century, Vaslav Nijinsky devised a notation system about which little is known, although Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschke were able to use it reconstruct Nijinski's Afternoon of a Faun.

      The two most popular systems to-day are Laban (introduced by Rudolph von Laban in 1928 in his book, Schrifttanz) and Benesh (the work of Rudolph and Joan Benesh, 1958). (The picture is complicated by the fact that there are two dialects of Laban: the dialect in use in the U.S. and Great Britain is called Labanotation; the dialect used in the rest of Europe is called Kinetography-Laban.) You can recognize Laban notation from the fact that it takes the form of long vertical lines to which blocks and other markers are attached. Because Laban describes the movements of the body in such minute detail, it has been applied to time and motion studies in industry.

      Benesh notation uses 5-line musical staves. The lines, from top to bottom, are used to indicate the head, shoulders, waist, knees, and floor. Benesh notation has been part of the RAD curriculum since 1956.

      For a comprehensive history of dance notation, see Ann Hutchinson Guest's book, Dance Notation, cited in the reading list. Victor Eijkhout has compiled a Web page about dance notation which you can access here. For information on computer-aided dance notation, see the next question.

    2. Is there software for doing choreography?

      Do you mean software for doing choreography (that is, for modeling it on the computer) or for writing it down (i.e., notation)?

      1. The only software for doing choreography known to this group is a program called LifeForms. There are versions for the Macintosh and Silicon Graphics (SGI) system and also for Windows. Contact

        Credo Multimedia Software Inc.
        Suite 270 - 8900 Nelson Way
        Burnaby, BC Canada V5A 1S6
        tel: (604) 291-6717
        fax: (604) 291-7484
        or link to their Web site,

        The following information and opinions are extracted from postings to alt.arts.ballet. These postings date from October, 1994; more up-to-date information may be available from Multimedia.

        LifeForms was developed at Simon Fraser University by a team including dancers and computer programmers. Its original name was COMPOSE and it's over 10 years in development. There are currently 2 versions available. The high end version runs on a Silicon Graphic workstation and creates amazing lifelike animation. The less powerful version runs on a Macintosh and is not quite so thrilling, especially in its emulation of walking and running. --Sandi Kurtz

        Life Forms is commercial software (and fairly expensive commercial software at that!) Although it was developed originally at Simon Fraser University (under the name "Compose") it was marketed by Kinetic Effects and then taken over by Macromedia (the people who make Macromedia Director and Macromodel.) They don't advertise it any more, but I believe they still sell it. --Jim Williams

        In a feature article on Merce Cunningham in The Village Voice several years ago, Deborah Jowitt observed that [he] was using the computer in place of getting up and noodling around, which he can no longer do easily. I would add in addition that MC has long been interested in whatever technology was emerging, and that the computer, in particular, mirrors some of his own concerns. --Nancy Dalva

        I have done some basic experimenting with LifeForms on the Macintosh. The premise is as follows: You have a stage on which you can place a one or more "dancers." You can then manipulate the bodies of the figures, and program movements that occur over time.

        You manipulate the figure by clicking on a body part with the mouse, and dragging it to the desired position. The program is smart in that, unlike an animation, you don't have to draw every frame. An example would be starting with the left arm down, and five seconds later having it raised to 90 degrees. You just program the starting and ending poses, and the computer figures out the movement in between. The arm follows the most obvious, straight line path between point a and point b, which often looks a bit stilted. Giving more life to a movement like this means breaking it down into shorter bits.

        The program also offers a library, where you can store movement sequences that you can call back later. Helpful if you are creating thematic material that returns later in the piece.

        On the Macintosh version, the bodies are drawn as "wire frames" so really only suggest a real body. I think the version that runs on Unix workstations might do high quality rendering of the bodies, so that one probably looks a lot better.

        Though I am a composer not a choreographer, I must say that the process gets very tedious over a period of time, especially when compared to choreographing on one's own body, which is instantly responsive to your ideas. One thing that would help this program a lot would be some kind of alternative input device, perhaps reminiscent of the little wood artists models that you can get at an art supply store. To be able to physically move body parts on a model to create the poses would speed the process up immensely. It seems certain that someone will do this, as it is so obvious.

        Of course, the criticism in the previous paragraph assumes that you have a body that still moves well. When I think that this tool has helped Merce Cunningham continue to choreograph new works (a person whose body moves not less beautifully but perhaps a little less well these days) it would seem something to seem grateful for. -- Mark Coniglio

        There is also a program called Poser, from Fractal Design, which might be thought of as a choreography program. Jim Williams writes,

        If you don't need to do animation, just show body positions (useful for teaching, illustrations etc.) another piece of software to consider is a new application called Poser, from Fractal Design. I've got it and have been working with it. This is in effect a software "mannequin" that you can pose in various positions, then render into detailed images. It isn't designed to produce animated sequences the way Life Forms is; instead, it's useful for producing "still photos" of body positions. The rendering quality isn't photo-realistic, but is much more detailed than the wireframe images produced by Life Forms.

        Poser's price is quite reasonable ($99 US until Aug. 31, 1995) and it's relatively easy to learn and use. Currently it's available ONLY for Macintosh and requires either a Power Macintosh or a 680x0 Mac with an FPU [note: FPU stands for floating-point unit]; that means some popular Macs that use the FPU-less 68LC040 chip will NOT work. (I haven't been able to find out whether the shareware control panel SoftwareFPU can be used as a workaround or not.) I've been using it on a fairly modest Mac, a Color Classic with add-on FPU, and it runs fine, although somewhat slowly.

        Poser allows you to create your own "libraries" of frequently-used positions, body types, camera positions, and lighting setups (you're limited to three lights, but they're fully adjustable in direction, intensity and color.) These libraries can be re-used as needed, so you can work fairly quickly once you've invested the time to create libraries of poses you use most. --Jim Williams

      2. For choreographic notation, there is a program for the Macintosh called Labanwriter. According to Callum Downie, it is available from FTP sites after a search by the likes of "archie." I understand there is also at least one program for Benesh notation; contact Andrew Ward, Marketing Director of the Royal Academy of Dancing and Benesh Institute Director on

        For further information, see `topics/labanotation-dialog-FAQ.txt' in the Dancers' Archive. For information on dance notation in general, see also

        Dance Notation Bureau
        33 West 21st Street
        New York, New York 10010
        (212) 807-7899
        Here are some European addresses linked to Laban (courtesy of Marion Bastien):

        Laban Centre, Laurie Grove, New Cross, London SE 14 6NH, U.K.
        Tel: 44 (181) 6924070
        Fax: 44 (181) 694 87 49
        Dance Department, that offers in their curriculum Laban theories studies and Labanotation studies. The library contains many Laban related documents. They also have a dance company named Transition.

        Labanotation Institute, Dpt of Dance Studies, University of Surrey,
        GU2 5XH Guilford, Surrey, U.K.
        Tel: 44 (1483) 259351
        Fax: 44 (1483) 300803
        Labanotation Institute offers several courses in Labanotation. Also located in Surrey University is a collection named Laban Archives. For more information, look at studies

        Folkwang-Hochschule Essen, Kinetographiestudio
        Klemensborn 39, D-45239 Essen, Germany
        Tel: 49 (201) 49030
        Fax: 49 (201) 4903288
        Folkwang-Hochschule offers in the dance curriculum Kinetography Laban/Labanotation studies.
        For more information, look at

        Conservatoire de Paris, Dpt des Études Choregraphiques,
        209 avenue Jean-Jaurès
        75019 Paris, France
        Tel: 33 (1) 40 40 46 19
        Fax: 33 (1) 40 40 46 02
        Conservatoire offers professional training in Kinetography Laban/Labanotation studies.

        There is a short introduction to Labanotation as well as a bibliography on it at:

        Another great site to visit is:

      Is there software for my dance studio?

    3. Mark J. Zetler writes:

      My wife (& I) have a dance studio in San Diego. I've been using COMPUDANCE by a company in Texas called Theatrical Administration Consultants (210) 497-4327 for about 7 years. It seems to do the job, and the author seems to be responsive to the people who use the program. There are some quirky things that that are annoying but all in all the program works. I think the price is around $300 (????).

      I have only run into 3 other programs. The first one was about $100 and didn't do anything. I don't think the company exists any more.

      The High Priced Spread is called DANCE MANAGER. Last I heard (I could be wrong) the price was about $1,200. The demo of the program implied this program could do everything. I just could not justify the cost.

      The last program I've run into is called IN MOTION: THE STUDIO MANAGER from Full Spectrum in Anaheim Hills, CA. (714) 921-8743. ($200ish) The program looked promising but seemed to run everything from the accounting end not the student. I'll try to explain, at our studio most question/problems are easier to resolve by first looking up the student, seeing what classes they are registered in, look at the billing, then look at the payments. With the IN MOTION:you have to go to different places to find all that info. In COMPUDANCE you can do all that from one starting place (presentation ain't as pretty as the other programs but I still got the info and that is what counts).

      Compudance will have a Windows version in summer '96.

      There is also an advertisement in Dance Magazine for DanceWorks; runs under Windows; $395; phone (800) 286-3471 for free demo.

    4. What is Contact Improvisation?

      Contact Improvisation is a modern dance form invented by Steve Paxton in 1972. The emphasis is on touching (not surprisingly) and on the use of body weight; it has been compared to a kind of cooperative, non-combative wrestling. To judge by the descriptions and pictures in Novack (1990), it is most often done by pairs of dancers. There is a great deal of lifting, falling, and supporting of one dancer by the other. It started out as at least a semi-social dance form but has become more professional as the years have gone by. It is claimed that contact improvisation requires no prior dance training, but it's clear (and not surprising) that as you learn from experience the range of things you can do increases. In the descriptions that follow, taken from postings to alt.arts.ballet, there is not complete agreement on what it requires of the dancer or what it does to/for him/her:

      "It was extremely cool stuff, but you really had to be a good dancer, i.e., modern or ballet, in order to pull it off." --CarlosC14 <>

      "Contact improv seems like something that would be experienced in dramatically different ways by those with formal dance training (ballet jazz modern) versus those without (despite what everyone says). My impression is that the students from the CU dance department got much more out of the workshops than I did. Mostly I got bruises, because I don't have a lot of natural padding and there I was rolling around on the floor with someone on top of me. My backbone, knees, and hips were repeatedly ground into the floor. Oh, gee, what fun. >-( " --Robinne Gray <>

      "It's usually associated with modern/contemporary dance in that many of the same people do it. Take some music, anything really, and work with it as pairs, triples, n-tuples. Usually some vocabulary has been worked to use. Most `improvisation' has been worked on more than routines. With a common vocabulary and the music, the dancers can interact with each other and it doesn't just become a mess as everyone `does their own thing.' The `contact' is because everyone is working together and physically close, whether imitating a `maul' (rugby union) or breaking into smaller groups for a time." --Callum Downie <>

      "The risk-taking, weight-sharing and be-here-now aspects of this form are truly intoxicating once you get past the bruised body stages. Just like judo, it really is possible to do without hurting yourself once you master the first technical level." --Randy Barron <>

    Continued in Part 6.

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