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A motion philosophy that has marked history

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In the early 1900s, a dancer who is now known as one of the most important pioneers of American modern dance undertook her first movement research. Thanks to her contribution, and that of people and researchers like her, dance today has the opportunity to be grounded in concrete research. That dancer was Doris Humphrey.

Initially she went back to the body and its inclination to motion by stripping it of all sorts of emotional reactions. How does a body abandoned to itself behave? What is its attitude to balance? How does it maintain it while moving? And what happens as it moves? She discovered that the first movement of the body, instantaneous and natural, is a falling movement. She realized the strong influence that physical laws have on nature and man: in creating her dance technique, she not only accepted their coexistence, but based the entire structure on them. The second movement she discovered, in succession to the natural movement of falling, was the need to counter the first with one's own strength, namely the human being's inclination to desire to live, which in the technique she called recovery. Evident to her was the ability in man to survive the force of gravity, sometimes his friend, sometimes his enemy. She recognized that the emotional implications were strongly connected to the movement. She herself responded instinctively with strong enthusiasm to the exciting danger of falling, and with much strength to recovery control of her body and restore peace in her emotions.

As she continued her research, she found in Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian philosophical concepts a fertile place to develop her own philosophy of motion in this direction as well. The actions of fall and recovery, the fulcrum principles around which the entire technique is based, thus took on a profound spiritual and psychological significance. The German philosopher, with his book The Birth of Tragedy (1872), provided Humphrey with the broad philosophical outline she needed to continue all her investigations into natural motion. Apollonian and Dionysian are two terms that originate from the Greek deities Apollo and Dionysus. They represent two instincts in man that are in conflict but closely related to each other. The former sublimates the dark forces allowing one to achieve perfection and stability, while with the latter one comes to experience the ecstasy of abandonment, celebrated during the Dionysian Mysteries, the most popular of the mystery cults of ancient Greece. These two elements validated Humphrey's philosophy of the pulsating properties of rhythm, and helped her develop the concept of the arc between two deaths: a philosophical scheme that analyzes the natural flow of the motion action of the dancer. It encompasses the intersection of physical scansion and psychological response, also representing their varying degrees of intensity, which Doris called movement quality.

All the principles of the technique are enclosed within the arc between two deaths, and the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits represent their vital ends. Beyond these extremes are two types of death: static death and dynamic death. By the former we mean the end in itself perfection of Apollonian serenity, of symmetrical balance. While in the second we encounter an excessive state of motion out of balance, too far gone and now irretrievable. It is only in the rhythmic oscillation of a body between these two deaths that we find life, potential energy to generate natural motion. 


The structure of the technique aims to move away from the artificiality of ballet and take inspiration from everyday natural actions that are part of being human. First, breathing, which we will discuss in the next article, is experimented with for the purpose of bringing movements to life and guiding the dancer to rediscover his or her natural rhythm. In addition to breathing, among the many actions that Doris identifies, and around which she articulates her technique, we find: 


Fall – The body begins to fall from the static point of balance, first slowly and then with increasing speed as it resigns to gravitational pull. The direction of the fall can be forward, backward, spiral or sideways. During the process of falling, exhalation occurs gradually.


Recovery – Once the fall has taken our body away from its point of balance, in the direction of approaching impact against the ground, a self-protection mechanism comes into play and a reverse movement is performed, in which the body recovers its balance by gaining new energy. During the recovery phase, one inhales gradually, so that inhalation can be used throughout the movement.


Rebound – Instead of recovering gradually, we can repel the ground with the same force with which gravity draws us to it, as if we were a ball bouncing upward. The movement of a rebounding body is rapid, then decelerates as it progresses toward a suspension. In fact, inhalation occurs abruptly and then continues gradually


Suspension – At this point the body's recovery enters the suspension phase, which is the moment of transition in which it sustains itself momentarily out of balance, in a precarious dynamic equilibrium. In physical terms, as the extremities of the body struggle in opposition to each other, the movement reaches a point where there is no longer any oscillation. In terms of dance experience, the body is balanced in midair, having successfully recovered from the danger of falling. At this stage, one continues to inhale slowly to the peak of suspension and then exhale gradually as the body begins its falling motion. 


Standing – It is a way of affirming one's existence. The upright body finds its center so that each part is aligned in a position of balance. Standing still, but with the ability to move at any moment, it resists the forces that would like to break it down. In dance it is necessary that the symmetry in standing should not be lifeless, but full of the possibility of releasing great reserves of energy, otherwise one might run into the stillness of static death. Apollonian in its perfect balance, standing serves as the starting point for a Dionysian fall. 


Shifting body weight – As soon as we start moving from a static, upright position, it inevitably happens that we transfer our weight to one foot or the other. Muscle coordination during this action should be automatic to facilitate movement, but when this is lacking, all the motions of shifting and pushing are performed with difficulty. In Humphrey's technique, the sensation of shifting body weight is a vivid, real experience. The magnetically drawn downward body counteracts the ground decisively, aware of its relationship to the earth. This action becomes a physical and emotional affirmation. Doris writes «The modern dancer must establish his human relationship with gravity and reality».


Walking – It perfectly represents the oscillatory dynamics of movement, the cyclic succession of the principles of fall and recovery. When walking, the first action is a fall, the next is to restrain the falling weight and then push it toward the next step, the third is the first action that is repeated, and so on. The arms swing in opposition to the legs, not only to save the moving figure from falling, but also to gently direct the body's progression through space.

Walking is a physiological and psychological experience. The impulse behind moving is the desire to move in a particular direction: the key to feeling the action as a potential dance motion. 

Finally, as in breathing, we find various rhythmic resources. The syncopated pace is characteristic of excitement; the half tempo gives the walk gravity and nobility; the discontinuity of the stride often adds a touch of comedy or grotesqueness; the increase in the tempo of the walk, from moderately slow to fast, enlivens the movement and changes the atmosphere.


Running – It is an exaggeration of walking, an intensification of its primary purpose: to reach a predetermined point in space. It can also more simply represent a burst of energy, which does not take the one running to any particular place. The natural liveliness of the action can be emphasized with jerks that take the body out of its regular course, with falling motions that rhythmically interrupt the uniform tranquility of advancing. During running, the body naturally tilts forward in the direction of displacement and appears to beat the force of gravity as it uses its own weight to advance efficiently.

In the technique, the arms are kept free at the sides, so that they can advance with greater speed and control; the natural opposite swing of the arms, in fact, would greatly hinder the action.

As a dance experience, running often becomes a modified expression subject to the limitations of the room or stage space, but no less intense. From a choreographic point of view, this compression is equivalent to distortion, an important element of composition in Humphrey's technique, which is the way in choreography to intensify and clarify the meaning of what one wants to express. 


Jumping – It is the extreme expression of a body in motion. All energy of the body is gathered in the jump in an attempt to fight gravity in the air. The action may arise from simply standing, or as an exaggeration of running. To prepare for the momentum the flexion of the hips, knees and ankles becomes greater. The legs act as a spring to elevate the body up into the air. Inhaling may be difficult, but it gives life to the jump and the positions to be taken and maintained. During exhalation, the falling phase takes place. Although the battle against gravity is explosive, the landing must be soft. As soon as the body touches the ground, the weight of the body is redistributed to all its parts and the energy flows directly into the next movement.

Jumping is an exclamation point,

a shout of the whole body.


During her lifetime, Humphrey not only decrypted the secrets behind the movement but also bequeathed to us all her research. Thanks to Doris's successor, José Limón, and the Limón Dance Company, her philosophy and principles have continued and continue to this day to be passed down from generation to generation.

Written by Matteo Mascolo.

This valuable information, rephrased in a brief summary, was gleaned from a book that I highly recommend reading to explore the topic further.

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

Source: The information is based on my personal learning about Limón technique and the book La tecnica di danza di Doris Humphrey e il suo potenziale creativo, Ernestine Stodelle, preface and appendices by Sandra Fuciarelli, Bologna, Massimiliano Piretti, [2012] 2015.

La Tecnica di danza di Doris Humprhey: Chi siamo
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