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The philosophy of the arc between two deaths

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The source of inspiration that helped Doris Humphrey, a pioneer of Modern American Dance, develop her own technique was The Birth of Tragedy (1872). In this book Nietzsche tells about tragedy in ancient Greek culture and introduces the reader to the opposing forces of Apollonian and Dionysian, two spirits derived from Apollo and Dionysus, and coexisting in human beings in open discord. The former sublimates the dark forces allowing one to achieve perfection and stability, while the latter radiates life with chaos, vitality, and gives free rein to the most subterranean drives of the unconscious.

According to Doris, these two spirits perfectly interpenetrated the principles on which the entire technique was based: the actions of fall and recovery. Anatomically in contrast as well, the fall incorporates Dionysian ecstasy to itself, while the recovery the Apollonian composure. The first action is physically connected to muscular release and loss of control, the second to effort and body awareness.

The meaning of the interplay between these ends was what for Humphrey gave life to her arc between two deaths. It is a philosophical scheme composed on the one hand of static death, the lifeless verticality of a body that does not allow itself to lose its balance, and on the other hand of dynamic death, an excessive boldness, in which the body goes too far from its center and the possibility of recovering it. The two deaths are also deeply rooted in human instinct. It is between them that life meets, in the oscillation between one extreme and the other. The Buddha maintained that the human mind always moves between two extremes, just as the pendulum of a clock moves from one side to the other. And there, in that space where there is a swing, there is life. Doris had identified a life space, a potential source of energy to generate movement naturally, in which the body dresses the intentions by which it is moved. In her philosophical scheme, life takes the form of an arc, drawn in space by a body falling from its standing position.


It is no coincidence that deaths are represented by two straight lines, which moreover meet to form a right angle. Humphrey believed that the angle was an expression of conflict, the dominant symbol of her era. A form that is still very widespread today. His mother is the straight line, rigid and immovable, which is considered more beautiful when it is well defined, shiny and sharp like the tip of a knife. However, the cleaner it is, the more unnatural it appears. It is the line of men, while the curved one is the line of God. In fact, dance is also connection with the divine, and this only happens when it moves away from a square system of thought, approaching creativity and free expression.

The arc drawn between the two deaths thus offers a space in which to open up to life. A place where we have access only by abandoning our "straight line". The courage to throw ourselves into the action of falling is the key to going beyond, but it is also of great importance to keep alive the desire for balance and stability. Only by accepting the existence in us of both spirits can we find a vital oscillation between them, in which the human soul does not die neither on one side, nor on the other. The principles of fall and recovery therefore contain a deep spiritual and psychological significance, which, uniting with the biomechanical research of the body and the laws of physics, constitute the pure essence of movement.


If we delve into the arc between two deaths, we can analyze it deeper and deeper. For example, in this way:

Arco Tra Due Morti ENG.jpg

Humphrey believed that natural movement happens in waves, with a strong tendency to repeat and become cyclical. We can find this idea – the essence of fall and recovery – everywhere: in the rhythm of words, in walking, running, in temperatures that oscillate between hot and cold, in the succession of waves, in the alternation of day and night, in the circadian rhythm of sleep-wake, in breathing, in birth and death. What moves always oscillates between two or more opposite poles, in a space where life, possibilities and changes are created. Let’s take two colors as an example, putting them in opposition to each other: if between red and blue we mix with a brush only red, we will never get purple. We need to swing the brush from one color to the other, and repeat the action several times so that the two poles can come together. This possibility exists for every opposition, as in the case of Apollonian and Dionysian.

Paradoxically, a wise person is not the one who faces the impossible task of standing up for good to defeat evil, but the one who is able to strike a dynamic balance between the two. This active interaction creates a fertile place for life, and never assumes a static identity, for that would imply a neutral flatness, a death on the side of one extreme or the other. Opposites are thus faces of the same reality, the extreme parts of a whole in continuous dialogue. Achieving this awareness is considered in the spiritual traditions of the East to be one of the highest goals of the human being.

An understanding not so easy to pinpoint. For example, we all have the ability to move our bodies, but how many of us are aware of the opposites between which this happens? Only by acquiring this awareness can a dancer truly develop his or her movement. We can say that anatomically the two extremes between which a body moves are a contraction and a release, which allow one to resist or surrender to gravity. Having an awareness of fall and recovery means finding a dynamic balance between these natural elements, in combination with many other principles, to finally rise above their oppositions.

For Humphrey, the actions of fall and recovery therefore go beyond the mere words with which they are depicted; they are infinitely expressive actions that contain the primordial essence of life. They paint the core of the whole technique. They are the beating heart of the movement. Their conflict can never end with the total victory of one of the poles. On the contrary, their interdependence is the vital place where the natural forces to which we are subject meet the way we choose to deal with them.


Without the lived experience of extremes, 
there can be no experience of totality.

Written by Matteo Mascolo.

Translations: Text translated into English by Alberto Rabachin and Bianca Pasquinelli, into Spanish by Matteo Mascolo.

Sources: The information is based on my personal learning about Limón technique, undertaken through the study programs of the Limón Dance Company in which I took part.

La Tecnica di danza di Doris Humprhey: Chi siamo
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