The Body Politic: Learning from the ‘Dance’ of Our Public Officials

By Karen Bradley and Karen Studd

You enter a room, take a sweeping glance around, note where people sit, where they face, their relationships to and with each other, and how they react to your entrance. It’s not difficult to see any room as analogous to a ballroom or dance studio, with couples, or lines, or circles of interacting moving people. One international peace negotiator has said that all he has to do to understand the group conflicts are, is to preset the chairs and tables randomly in the room. He leaves the two sides to come in and “set up the space.” When he enters, he can tell immediately where the conflicts are among the factions. Unsurprisingly, he is married to a dancer.

The dancer’s eye contains a visual, kinesthetic, and empathetic perspective for taking in much nonverbal information. While all people analyze movement, dancers are specialists in this skill, allowing them to learn and read complex sequences of actions with speed and ease. Certified Movement Analysts (which these authors are) have acquired additional skills in observing, identifying, and naming what is observed, giving them a clear language to discuss the complexities of human movement. But we all navigate through the world by constantly attuning to the ongoing
stream of movement information in our surrounding environment.We navigate through the world by constantly attuning to the ongoing stream of movement information in our surrounding environment. Postures and gestures, rhythms and phrasing, expressive attitudes and trace-forms in space make up the language of the body and of non-verbal communication.

Dancers well understand from their training and experience how our movements serve us both functionally as well as expressively. Movement analysis takes this process one step further: into considerationof both quantitative and qualitative, functional and expressive aspects of the moving body. Movement as the essence of effective human expression and communication is where function and expression merge. This is as true for the sublime combination of technical virtuosity expressed with personal style in a dance performance, as it is in well-crafted words delivered through the powerful performance of a political candidate who breathes life into the speech she is delivering through her physical embodiment.

Beyond Body Language
But when we movement analysts observe leaders and candidates, we are not talking simply about body language, as the media calls it. We are not ascribing a meaning to a particular movement, as in a mimetic sign system. We do not label a particular movement “defensive” (arms crossed in front of the body, for example); nor do we predict future behavior based on one movement event (“He’s going to leave her soon”). Movement analysis is more complex. Movement itself is personally significant and culturally and contextually influenced, and those factors must be accounted for.

Movement analysis reveals the patterns of human movement as they pertain to the context in which they occur. As with all processes of analysis, the whole is broken down into component parts. These components describe and define the what, the where, and the how of our actions. As part of the analytical process, the patterns of these components of movement are identifiedand through these patterns we discern what movement reveals about the intent and mindset of the mover.

Human movement defines each of us — first universally as being human, but also as members of specific groups (ethnic, familial, or social groups, for example) we belong to and, finally, as unique individuals. This, too, is part and parcel of the nature of how dancers experience the human body and its capacity for movement, and it is something that unites us all. It allows us to be connected to a specific culture,while being personally expressive as well. This is the power of dance and the power of all movement: connecting the personal to the universal in how we express and communicate.

Although we are all to some degree movement analysts, most of us are largely unconscious of this and our own movement preferences and biases color our interpretation. CMAs, too, have their own preferred patterns but we are trained to be conscious of them and to see with a more objective eye. In looking at the dance of politics we observe how the candidates’ verbal and nonverbal messages are either connected or disconnected and how this in turn can support whether someone comes across authentically or not. In looking at the dance of politics we observe how the candidates’
verbal and nonverbal messages are either connected or disconnected and
how this in turn can support whether someone comes across authentically
or not. Does he own the space or give it up? Does she mold and shape her message through three-dimensional use of posturally supported gestural actions or does she drive home her points with two-dimensional precision? How does he use his focus? Does he take in the entire room, focus on a specific individual, or easily shift from taking in the whole to honing in on one person? What is the style of her phrasing? Does she make long overlapping run-on movement phrases  or short, deliberate discrete actions? Does he take the most direct path or explore tangential paths? All of these examples can be seen and heard in both voice and actions and are of endless fascination as we try to parse the personal style, likability, and authenticity of those we encounter on the political stage as they try to impress us with their performance.

The Body Never Lies
The dance of leadership is one of range and adaptability, of integration and ease of presence, and of comfort in one’s own skin. It can also be about thinking on one’s feet and stepping outside the box. As we observe this year’s crop of candidates vying for leadership roles, we look for the details but also for the overarching dance  each one is performing. Even in solo roles — for example a politician’s stump speeches or debate performances — they are part of a larger choreography that includes others and, of course, a relationship to the audience!

Nonverbal information matters, especially in a time of sound bites and glib verbal responses. As dancers we know the body does not lie, no matter how skilled the mover, but we also know that adding to the palette of possibilities makes for a more versatile and adaptable performer. And we hope that our pointing such aspects out helps people think about behavior over rhetoric, about how style informs substance, and, most of all, we hope our analysis helps people understand why they want to vote the way they want to vote.

Karen K. Bradley is associate professor of dance and director of graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland, College Park, a Certified Movement Analyst, author, choreographer, and researcher. She teaches internationally in the Certification Program in Laban Movement Studies and comments regularly for the media on the movement behaviors of prominent political and business leaders.

Karen A. Studd teaches in the School of Dance at George Mason University and for the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in national and international training programs in movement analysis. A teacher of movement analysis, somatics and dance, her interest is in promoting awareness of the body of knowledge of human movement across all disciplines. She is frequently sought out as a “body language expert” in the observation of the movement style of political pundits.


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