Notation, Language, and Meaning-making in Dance
The purpose of my talk here today is twofold:
1) To show that these aspects of dance are beginning to submit to that uniquely satisfying kind of understanding that we call science;
2) And to argue that dance can be a language and that we, as educators, must teach children how to create it.
For the student of dance interested in the science of language and human movement, I hope to avoid the airy platitudes - what I call, language of dance lite - that typify some discussions of notation, language, and dance by people who have never studied these disciplines.
For the language lover, I hope to show that there is a world of elegance and richness in our ability to represent human experience that far outshines the local belief in so-called "natural" language.
Finally, for my professional colleagues, scattered across so many epistemological viewpoints and studying so many diverse topics, I hope to offer a semblance of an integration of this vast territory.
This conversation, therefore, is meant for everyone who uses language and movement to communicate and create meaning in our lives.
As the lights dim, the audience watches the screen quietly, expectantly. Music seeps into the theater. DaDum DaDum DaDum. Something resembling a fin swims across the screen. DaDum DaDum DaDum. As the music reaches its climax, the screen comes alive, someone stifes a yelp, and … the roar of a plane passes overhead. The title of the movie, "Airplane 2" streaks across the screen.
Think about what these words have done. I did not simply reveal to you the opening gag of the movie Airplane 2 with its parody of the Jaws theme. And it's true that my demonstration depended upon your cultural knowledge, but the real engine of this verbal description is the spoken language we acquired as children. Indeed, language is so tightly woven into human experience that it is scarcely possible to imagine life without it.
There was something else too. The music. The fact that music is intended to evoke a response, and usually does, poses all sorts of questions about nonverbal communication, aesthetic response, and the power of language.
[OVERHEAD: Cartoon 1] Language is power. This cartoon is not only a cautionary tale. It shows that the ways we make and talk about our world can have profound implications. Not only can we use language to create meaning, we can use it to create reality. Indeed, to argue that there exist languages of art or that the arts can not always be defined by verbal description alone is anathema to many observers. Moreover, the suggestion that a language of dance should be taught alongside the English language is considered blasphemy to conservative educators and policy makers.
And so, while my objective today is to help us understand what language is and its relationship to dance, I also believe that our discussions here are revolutionary acts. In my experience, the suggestion that dance-making is an act of intelligence, and its product a language, makes many in academia nervous. So together, we become barbarians at the gates of reason! Still, others have led the charge before us. As Akira Kurosawa -- the movie director -- once said, it is inherent in the evolution of an art form to make trouble.
For the trouble I want to make, and for the purpose of explaining the workings of human intelligence and language development, we must turn to a relatively new science, called Cognitive Science, which combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology.
Findings in three areas of cognitive science are pertinent here: neurology, cognitive psychology, and linguistics.
At the neurological level, the left hemisphere is often branded the verbal hemisphere and the right hemisphere the spatial hemisphere. Although this dichotomy is a gross oversimplification, it does capture some of the main differences between the hemispheres. [OVERHEAD: Brain] We know that the left hemisphere area of the brain called Wernicke's area, named after the German physician Carl Wernicke, is involved in speech communication and is located near the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that receives signals from the ears. The area called Broca's area, named after the French neurologist Paul Broca, is involved in speech production and is located next to the part of the motor cortex that controls the muscles of the mouth and lips.
At the most general cognitive level, we know that language is part of our biological inheritance. Language is the manifestation of our propensity to categorize and extract similarities in the environment and to share that information (Lenneberg, 1967). In short, people do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; we think in a language of thought and our words label the process of categorization.
At the more specific linguistic level, we know that for a system of communication to be considered a "language" it must have grammatical complexity and several kinds of linguistic structure, including phonological, morphological and syntactic levels.
In light of these generally accepted ideas, and because our interest here today is in nonverbal systems of communication, we must pose two questions: Is the brain's organization for language based solely on the functions of hearing and speaking? Are all types of language limited to auditory input and verbal processing?
Sign language in the brain
One way to explore these questions is to study a language that uses different sensory and motor channels. The sign languages of the deaf precisely fit the bill. Many people mistakenly believe that sign language is just a loose collection of pantomime-like gestures thrown together willy-nilly to allow rudimentary communication. But in truth, sign languages are highly structured linguistic systems with all the grammatical complexity of spoken language. Sign languages, like spoken languages, have several kinds of linguistic structure, including phonological, morphological, and syntactic levels.
For example, at the phonological level, signs are made up of small sets of components, just as spoken words are composed of a small set of consonants and vowels. The components of signs include hand shapes, the locations around the body where signs are made, the movements of the hands and arms, and the orientation of the hands. In American Sign Language (ASL) the signs for "dry" "ugly" "summer" have the same hand shape, movement and orientation but differ in location.
At the morphological level, ASL -- like spoken language -- has grammatical markers that systematically change the meaning of signs. Morphological markers in English include fragments like "-ed," which are added to indicate past tense (e.g., "walk" becomes "walked"). In ASL the signs are modified using distinctive movement patterns. For example, adding a rolling movement to the sign "paint" changes the sign's meaning to "painted."
At the syntactic level, ASL specifies the relations among signs (that is, who is doing what to whom) in ways that do not occur in spoken languages. In English, the order of the words provides the primary cue for the organization of a sentence such as "Mary paints John." Reverse the order of the nouns, "John paints Mary" and you reverse the meaning of the sentence. Signers of ASL can use spatial patterns, pointing to a distinct position in space while signing a noun, thus linking the word with that position. Then the signer can move the verb sign from Mary's position to John's to mean "Mary paints John," [move right to left] or "John paints Mary" [move left to right].
Thus, we know that sign and spoken languages share the abstract properties of language but differ in their outward form. Spoken languages are encoded in acoustic-temporal changes - they attune to variations in sound over time. Sign languages, however, rely on visual-spatial changes to signal linguistic contrasts.
How does this difference affect the neural organization of language? One might hypothesize that sign language would be supported by systems in the brain's right hemisphere because signs are visual-spatial signals.
[OVERHEAD: Brain] What those who have studied sign language and neural organization have found, however, is that the two regions of the brains' left hemisphere that play important roles in verbal language processing, Broca's area and Wernicke's area, are also activated during sign language (Hickok, Bellugi, and Klima, 1998).
Why is this important? Because, while verbal and nonverbal languages differ radically in their inputs and outputs, they involve very similar linguistic operations and have common neural organization. The brain's left hemisphere is dominant for sign language just as it is for speech. The implication, then, is that there is no A PRIORI bias in our brains toward verbal language.
A final important note concerns what is different between sign and spoken language. Among some linguists, there is a belief in the condition of universality. That is, to qualify as a language, a system of communication must be capable of expressing certain kinds of meaning, such as logical reasoning. The notion is that what I can say in one language I must be able to say in any language.
This raises the conceptual question of whether or not what I can say in sign language with a movement must can also be communicated verbally with a sound. The short answer is no. As Naomi Issacson wrote recently on the Laban List Discussion of "Labanotation as Language": "…it's irrelevant whether I could say in movement what I’m saying now in words; to qualify as a language my medium does not have to be able to communicate everything I can say verbally."
Indeed, as I suggested at the beginning of our discussion, the opposite is true. There are a number of things I can say in sign language that I can not “say “[hand quote] verbally. For example, “Train Go Sorry” is a rapid gesture that deaf people use to tell someone who wants to be involved in a previously started conversation that it is too late, “you missed it.” It gives the viewer a sense of the passage of time and lack of time, plus a heartfelt regret, that one doesn't get if I simply said "you missed it."
Old and new models of language acquisition
What I have described heretofore helps to clarify what language is and where to find it. Now that we've defined and located language, we must understand how we acquire and develop language ability if we are to explain when, if ever, dance is a language.
Perhaps the best example of how a complex language is created comes from the story of the deaf in Nicaragua. As some of you may know, until recently, there were no sign languages at all in Nicaragua, because its deaf people remained isolated from one another. When the Sandinista government took over in 1979 and reformed the educational system, the first schools for the deaf were created. The schools focused on drilling the children in lip reading and speech, and as in every case where that is tried, the results were not great. But it did not matter. On the playgrounds and school buses the children were inventing their own sign system, pooling the makeshift gestures that they used with their families at home. Before long the system congealed into what is now called the Lenguaje de Signos Nicaraguense (or LSN).
Today LSN is used by young deaf adults who developed it when they were around ten years old. Basically, it is a pidgin, which is to say that everyone uses it differently, and the signers depend on suggestive, elaborate circumlocutions rather than on a consistent grammar. But young children who joined the school around the age of four, when LSN was already around, are quite different. Their signing is more fluid and compact, and the gestures more stylized and less like a pantomime. In fact, when their signing is examined close up, it is so different from LSN that it is referred to by a different name, Idioma de Signos Nicaraguense (or ISN). ISN appears to be a creole, a grammatically complex version of the pidgin, which was created in one leap when the younger children were exposed to the signing of the older children.
In little more than a few years, ISN has spontaneously standardized itself; all the young children sign it in the same way. The children have introduced many grammatical devices that were absent in LSN and hence they rely less on circumlocutions and, thanks to the consistent grammar, it is very expressive. A child can watch a surreal cartoon and describe its plot to another child. The children use it in jokes, poems, narratives, and life histories, and it is coming to serve as the glue that holds the community together…much the way the idiom of ballet or Graham technique has created communities of dancers and audiences.
What happened? How is it possible that these children created a complex language from scratch? During the 70s to early 90s, the best explanations came from those linguists who argued back and forth over a single fence dividing the land between Nature and Nurture.
On one side of the fence, nativists such as Chomsky and his adherents claimed that all humans speak essentially the same language based on a universal grammar that allows children to develop complex forms rapidly and without formal instruction (Chomsky, 1975; Fodor, 1983; Pinker, 1994). For the nativist, the development of a new sign language is interesting but to be expected.
On the other side of the fence, psycholinguists argued for consideration of the social bases of language development. These commentators point to the universal use of "motherese" (Newport, 1977). We all have witnessed caregivers who, when talking to their young children, modify their speech quite extensively: grammatical structures are simplified, vocabulary is limited, intonation is exaggerated.
And, there is good evidence to suggest that the social interactions of child and caregiver facilitates language acquisition. In fact, there has also been reports of a motherese of gestures (Bekken, 1989). For the social psychologist, then, ISN is the collective product of a community communicating with one another.
Albert Einstein once said that "Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler."
The problem with these accounts is that their answers are too easy, too simple. They de-emphasize the interaction of genes and the environment in favor of an emphasis on some kind of pre-formation by nature and the hand of God or by a competent adult. What is missing from these accountings is a notion of change - ideas about brain maturation, individual learning, and cognitive development.
New theoretical models of brain and language development called connectionism show us a complex but straightforward way to understand how a language can change from simple signs to pidgin to full-fledged creole language (Bates, 1999; Elman et al., 1996). According to connectionism, new mental structures -- including the development of language -- emerge at the interface between an active child and a structured world. Sound familiar? Remember Piaget?
At a recent conference in Berkeley CA, the well-known brain and language researcher, Elisabeth Bates at UC San Diego, demonstrated that two central construct's from Piaget's genetic epistemology are supported by new research. First, Piaget maintained that higher cognitive structures and processes grow out of a basic stock of sensori-motor experiences. He emphasized the grounding of all symbolic processes -- sounds, gestures, drawings -- in a brain that evolved to deal with sensory, motor and emotional demands.
Second, Piaget claimed that language is part of a broader symbolic capacity that derives from this same sensori-motor base. Hence symbolic representations are literally "re-presentations," a reactivation or re-living of our original interactions with this structured world.
These two premises bear a systematic relationship to a new movement called "embodiment." They are compatible with current findings in developmental neurobiology and neural imaging. What contemporary neurologists are finding is that cortical organization is largely determined by input to the cortex during the early stages of development, starting with input from the our body even prior to birth (Damasio, 1995). That is to say, by the time a human infant is born, the cortex has been colonized by the body and defined it throughout. This research supports the following conclusions: linguistic knowledge is not innate and the brain is not a blank slate either.
As Elizabeth Bates succinctly puts it, from early life until death, the body instructs the brain and activity is the teacher. In neurological terms, the place where perception and cognition meet to do the hard work of understanding and communication, that is, the prefrontal cortex, is really just jumped up motor cortex with attitude.
What does this mean for the development of language and movement?
• Our brains are already highly differentiated at birth with certain regions biased from the beginning toward modes of information processing that are particularly useful for language.
• Secondly, we know that the modes of categorization and the data-processing machinery of the brain are factors that determine a particular type of form for language. Even while verbal and nonverbal languages differ radically in their inputs and outputs, they involve very similar linguistic operations and have common neural organization. Thus, the outer form of languages may vary with relatively great freedom, whereas the underlying type remains constant (Lenneberg, 1967).
• If, as my teacher Howard Gardner suggests, our sensory and perceptual systems have resulted over time in multiple cognitive abilities, then the factors that determine a particular form for language may include musical, spatial, and bodily-kinesthetic representations, with the possibility of different musical and dance languages.
As my philosophical godfather, Nelson Goodman, would say, in this light the question therefore must shift from IS dance a language to WHEN is dance a language? How does dance move from a collection of movements to a combination of meaningful signals to a symbol system to a full-fledged language?
These are hard questions that I have just begun to ask. I believe the answer lies in an analogy to the development of human cognition and communication and the comparative literature concerning the signaling behavior of vervet monkeys. But a comprehensive answer is a ways off.
Suffice it to say that a choreographer's symbol system of movement, her dance, is a language when it meets the meets the linguistic requirements of a language -- the kinds of requirements that we found in sign language -- and it can be attributed in some concrete detail to structures and mechanisms in the brain.
Now, I am not suggesting that all you choreographers out there should leave this talk hoping to create new dance dialects, or that the researchers in the crowd should immediately begin comparative analyses of choreographer's works or signing up your colleagues for neural imaging. But I am arguing that these are not theoretically impossible tasks. Indeed, they would make great dissertations.
For the sake of argument, let's take seriously the possibility of a language or languages of dance. What is the role of notation, and what is the value of learning a notational system? In short, what are we doing here?
On one hand, notational languages are defined by a SCORE: the function of a score is to specify the essential properties a performance must have to belong to the work, but it need not capture all the subtlety and complexity of a performance.
On the other hand, non-notational languages are defined by a SCRIPT: unlike scores, scripts can operate in dual roles as both a representation of the work and a presentation of the work itself. That is, some scripts are intended to be performed orally and some are intended to be simply read. Or to put it another way, the script I use now to deliver this address operates as a representation of what I've thought to say to you all as a kind of group performance piece; when a script is intended as a representation it works just like a score and need not capture all the subtlety and complexity of a performance. However, if my intention were to publish this talk as a work of nonfiction, the intention and the work itself would change from oral performance (listening) to written text (reading), with the potential for very different experiences.
The key here is that both scores and scripts are external re-presentations our internal mental schemas of the world, be they physical, aural, or visual. The difference is that a notational system, like Labanotation, does not have a dual role and is therefore not -- in a strict sense -- a written language.
Still, as Goodman argues in his book "Languages of Art," Laban-based systems of notation do accurately represent dance and therefore operate as a notational language when used correctly; and therefore they hold all the potential for producing the well-documented qualitative shifts in thinking that result from using a visual device to organize a domain of knowledge, from acquiring a literacy of movement.
How I do I explain this woeful state of affairs? In the last section of this talk, I endeavor to demonstrate to you through my own experience and research why it is imperative that we as dancers and educators give children the tools, the conceptual tools, to participate fully in the deep, complex, and rich experience of perceiving and producing languages of dance.
As a young boy in dance class, I felt this truth in my body. When I was dancing, the outside world fell away and, when I left the studio I felt refreshed, cleansed. The experience of dance was a mystery and a blessing to me.
As a professional dancer, I believed this blessing extended beyond me. I believed that by creating art, we as dancers elevate the spirit of the larger community.
As a teacher of dance, I preached these feelings, the belief that art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life. I exhorted and motivated my students to experience dance in that way. I was an eternally optimistic teacher.
When I went back to school, to postsecondary education, I brought that worldview with me. And you can probably imagine what happened. Very soon after matriculating, I encountered philosophy and psychology, mathematics and literature: modes of inquiry and academic disciplines that shifted my gaze from the immutable mystery of artistic behavior to a more searching observation of life and human experience.
I began to ask myself, if art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life, then how does it do it? More importantly, how do individuals as artists in social, cultural, historical contexts learn how to do that? And, if we value art-making behavior, then how do we teach young artists, musicians, dancers to aspire to and achieve the goal of bringing the transformative experience of art into our lives?
This epiphany upset me to no end. How was it that I could spend 15 years of my life apprenticing myself to a domain of knowledge and not recognize the substantial intellectual effort that was involved.
What did I miss in dance? Kenneth Graham, the Scottish author, has said "the strongest human instinct is to impart information, the second is to resist it."
Did I resist this knowledge, or was it left out of my dance education?
Most importantly, I believe young dancers need to be supported by a field of educators that actively encourage creative inquiry. Thus, we as dance educators must ask the question, what is the best way -- pedagogically and psychologically most sound way -- to encourage creative inquiry, to encourage the development of languages of dance?
To frame my own inquiry into this question, we have to review briefly what I call the dance education continuum.
In the middle of the continuum, we have those dance educators who want to teach something else, like math or science, through dance. This is a slippery slope: the danger is that once one subserves dance to other disciplines, one leaves administrators, teachers, children, and parents with the impression that dance isn't a true discipline or domain of knowledge and therefore not a worthwhile component of the curriculum in its own right.
Moving to the left, we find movement begins to take center stage in the curriculum. This is the group that I consider to be on sound pedagogical ground: that is, they use instructional practices that teach for understanding by insisting on active use of knowledge. I'll call this the "movement continuum."
Among these educators, it is generally accepted that, in order to achieve expertise in dance, one needs to emphasize movement and use key concepts in dance. As Laban's work has suggested, it is especially important that dancers internalize concepts that refer to 1) what a dancer does, such as “traveling” or “leaping,” 2) how and where she does it, such as the use of effort and space, and finally, the way she puts these concepts together in a choreographic work. Not widely accepted, however, is the extent to which one should focus on those concepts during instruction.
In this "movement continuum" we have traditionalists on the far end: those who believe that the concepts should be physically embedded in movement and emerge spontaneously through training: the "drill and skill" group (Russian ballet teacher). Towards the middle of the continuum, one finds more moderate educators, who argue it is important to supplement demonstration and practice with detailed verbal descriptions of specific dance concepts. This approach conforms to a kind of “deliberate practice,” which champions repetition of skills guided by an explicit methodology.
On the other end of the continuum, there is a less intuitive stance about dance and education. Educators who hold this perspective claim that, movement analysis, and notation in particular, is a good tool for thinking in dance because it facilitates the understanding of a key concept; notation, they argue, acts as a visual device that underscores "what is happening" in movement. As a key conceptual tool, therefore, it is a superior means for the instructional goal of communicating important ideas in movement.
And so, it was this final group, the notation-use group, and the claim that notation-use facilitates knowledge acquisition in dance, that was the catalyst for my subsequent research.
As I have suggested, arguments about notation in the arts, and dance in particular, are highly controversial, reaching deep into the theory of language and knowledge acquisition. There is long standing debate concerning the impact of literacy skills -- reading and writing -- on intellectual development. While arguments over the general cognitive effects of literacy persist, investigators in domains such as language, music, and geography suggest that reading and writing result in specific, qualitative shifts in thinking. These researchers link notation-use to the development of patterns of thinking that contribute to improved knowledge acquisition.
For example, the noted music psychologist, Dr. Sloboda, suggests that the visual notational system in music appears to support the understanding of complex and abstract forms, such as sonata form.
In a recently published article entitled "The Dance on Paper," I describe how I investigated these questions about literacy, instruction, and notation-use in dance. I asked, if a child reads dance notation, as she would read a musical score, in what ways does her thinking in and about dance change, if at all?
I hypothesized that notation-use would help young children learn how to recognize and understand dance when they see it. The study involved 96 children ages 8-9 who participated in an 8-week dance program. Participants were divided equally between one of three groups. The curriculum was based on Ann Hutchinson Guest's LOD. Though it stayed constant, instructional style varied according to group membership: control (drill and skill), treatment-minus (deliberate practice), and treatment-plus (deliberate practice plus notation-use).
[OVERHEAD: APACM] The Assessment of Prime Actions in Creative Movement was used to test participants’ ability to recognize and understand dance before and after instruction. It included a video-taped stimulus (5 movement phrases), in which students looked at movement and attempted to differentiate, group, name, express the meaning of and reproduce movements. As you can see, these phrases develop from simple to more complex, and were based on a cognitive developmental scale articulated by the Neo-Piagetian psychologist, Kurt Fischer at Harvard University.
On these tasks, participants had possible scores of 0-100 points on each of the five movement phrases. Descriptive and inferential statistics were used to assess whether or not average scores were significantly different between the three groups.
I found that most students in all groups learned how to observe movement correctly when given dance instruction that emphasized movement exploration and composition. This was especially evident in the simpler movement phrases. But the more complex the movements became, the more abstract and language-like they became, the more notation-use mattered.
Overall, young children who were exposed to movement notation improved more: They scored significantly higher on the recognition tasks. This result tells me that students who used notations were more able to look at and understand dance than those students who learned about dance using drill and skill or deliberate practice only.
The notation-use approach appears to have presented a way of knowing dance that is qualitatively different from that which is accessed by verbal description. At the same time, I found that verbal language is a necessary and valuable tool in dance instruction. Young children learn about dance if it is demonstrated and described to them and they are given a chance to do it. It is much better than mindless practice (drill and kill). By itself, however, verbal instruction does not appear to be the most effective means for learning in dance.
My basic hypothesis, about the need to use a notational system that supports key features of knowledge in dance, is central to advances in cognitive science. To use movement as an expressive symbol system, to dance, one must employ its unique language. This finding provides empirical evidence that nonverbal domains employ qualitatively different forms of mental representation than so-called “natural” language. It shows that even a simplified version of a notational language, like Labanotation, can be a good devise for accessing this kind of domain-specific knowledge.
Indeed, most advanced domains, such as the language arts, music, mathematic and geographic sciences, have and use notational systems. Experts in these domains advocate literacy as a means for developing deep knowledge. As we develop new models of dance education, I believe that the next step is to pursue a universal literacy of movement.
To those who contend that notation-use will denude the experience of dance, I suggest that notations can enrich the experience by embodying the language of dance in a way that verbal description can not approximate. The dance allows us to experience a world we do not normally move in. It transports us psychologically to a place we can encounter through visual and physical forms of representation. The meaning secured through dance has its own special content; it performs specific, epistemic functions only if we are able to “read” what is written or danced.
Finally, the implications for dance educators are clear: if the goal of dance education is to promote the ability to see and understand movement as an expressive symbol system to “read, write, and dance” dance, then notation-use is a good tool for doing so.
My research shows that teaching a child about dance by simply labeling movements or making her “do it again” leaves out important information; information that is embedded within the symbol system and that can be accessed by notation-use. In contrast, a rich instructional environment -- one that emphasizes dance concepts plus notation-use with lots of movement experience -- appears to be an effective way to help young dancers learn about dance.
The purpose of my work has been to explore and investigate the nature of language, notation, and meaning-making in dance. A psychology of dance, if you will. My reasons are twofold: by investigating dance cognition, I endeavor to stimulate a neglected area of inquiry in our domain.
Secondly, as we -- as researchers and educators -- begin to learn more about the complex domain of dance, i.e., how the mind of the dancer works and how we teach our students to better understand dance as a communicative medium, we increase the probability that languages of dance will be created, revised and recreated. And, most importantly, that dance deserves its rightful place in the school curriculum. Hopefully, in this way, the potential Martha Graham talks about will be fulfilled for all children.