18. Body Movements

The important role the body movements play in human communication was mentioned centuries ago but one cannot find studies on the topic until the twentieth century. One reason for that may be the difficulty of observation without the help of film and video.

The first person to deal with the body movements in a comprehensive and systematic way was Ray Birdwhistell (1918-1994). He was highly inspired and influenced by the studies in structuralist linguistics. Birdwhistell came up with a taxonomy of movements and offered some rather significant ideas. His proposed method of study was not widely adopted but the name he gave to it (alluding to “linguistics”), “kinesics,” (from Greek kinēsis “motion”) got accepted.

Those involved in dance should note that this imposing word, kinesics, is still used with different meanings in mind: some think that it covers all types of bodily movements, some others leave physical touch (haptics) out of it, some think that it involves only the movements that can be identified as “signs,” etc. Since I am thinking of all types of bodily movements (not limited to communicative gestures) in my following notes on movement and dance, I prefer to refer to them simply as “body movements” and leave “kinesics” aside to avoid confusion.

Those who study body movements need to begin with a basic conceptual scheme, building a categorized framework. Yet, this is a rather broad, slippery and unrestrainable field where exceptions tend to be abundant. Many of the existing categorizations are products of imagination as opposed to systematic research. I have seen analyses and categorizations that seem to be scientifically researched but I wasn’t able to draw practical conclusions from them that one can apply to the performing arts (I must admit that I have found some of the technical terminology confusing and incomprehensible).

As a result, I have come to the conclusion that one should not aim for a definitive categorization of body movements. Instead, as was put by Adam Kendon, one of the leading names in the field, one can develop outlines as  “provisional working instruments” for particular studies (Kendon, 107). The categorization I have come up with below is nothing but that: a categorizing outline of overall body movements aimed at understanding the nature of dance.*

A very general question: What is body movement?

Movement has a fairly simple definition: change in the physical location or position of an entity. With “body movement,” I am implying any change in the positions of the units that form the human body – including blinking, talking, walking, clapping, sniffling, itching, shaking hands with another person, etc.

To start with the categorization (at least for the objective of this exploration), I believe that one should question the purpose of the body movements. When looking from that point of view, I first encounter two broad, elemental categories: (1) Uncommunicative body movements: not intended to be seen; (2) Communicative body movements (gestures): intended to be seen. In that respect, I am structuring the categories below in terms of the conscious or unconscious “intention” of the person executing the movement. 

I should point out that the following categories are not oppositional towards each other. They can easily overlap, with a movement belonging to two or more categories at the same time.


I. Uncommunicative body movements: not intended to be seen

I.A. Movements for the comfort/health of the body (including sports) or as a result of physiological needs (auto-manipulative) – and dance?

All of the movements done for the comfort/health of the body, such as sitting, lying down, getting up, tidying one’s hair, stretching, eating, scratching, tics, etc.

The reason for the question mark following “dance”: If we accept that it is a primal and physiological need to make the body do rhythmical and repetitive movements, mostly devoid of communicative codes (usually accompanied by repetitive sounds), then dance should be included under this title. But there are those who think that dance is always done to be seen (Darwin, for example). If that is the case, then it doesn’t belong here.

I.B. Task moves, practical actions

These are the movements necessary to carry out a procedure: moving an object from one place to another, walking from one point to another, sweeping the floor, picking up the pen and writing, etc. They often overlap with the above I.A. category (for example, a person may walk a distance to pick up an object or for exercise).

The key point of this larger category (I.) is that the person who performs these movements does not do them to be seen and interpreted, that is, to transmit meaning to another person. The function of the movements is fulfilled even if they are not seen by anyone.

Yet, the Ervin Goffman tradition in sociology claims that there is always some presentational aspect in all types of behavior in situations where the person knows that s/he will be or can be seen (see “Code” and “Social Frame”). In other words, there is a performance aspect to movements executed in situations where the body can be seen, even if they are not intended to be communicative at all. For example, logically, there can be no intention to communicate in going out to get something from the corner store. But, because we know that we will be seen, we do not leave the house in underwear. We arrange what we wear, how we walk, how we position our arms and hands, mostly according to the social codes and frames that have settled in the subconscious. This can be seen as an overlap of the two main categories in the chart (I. and II.), constituting a gray area.

II. Communicative body movements (gestures): intended to be seen

II.A. Movements connected to utterance

The most basic characteristic of these movements is that they do not bear meaning by themselves when they are not accompanying utterance. For example, when saying “he banged his fist on the table,” we can demonstrate the fist and its movement in the air or on a surface. If we execute that movement by itself, without the words, its meaning would be unrecognizable or ambiguous.

All movements that accompany utterance involve timing and “dimension.” When we observe, we see that these movements are determined by the “musical tools” in speech, which are generally known as “prosody”: we increase and decrease the volume of our voice, we rush some syllables and slow some others down, we insert pauses in some places, we sharpen or lower the pitch, etc. In that respect, we can see these movements as dances performed to the tune of words. In other words, the mechanics of the movements accompanying the utterance are determined indirectly by the meaning of the words: meaning determines the prosody and prosody determines the timing and the size of the movement.

Let’s go back to the example above: “he banged his fist on the table.” If we are pointing out that the person has banged his fist, as opposed to his arm, palm, etc., we have to increase the volume and sharpen the pitch with the word “fist.” Parallel to that, the hand in the mimetic action will most likely form a fist and rise during the first three words and hit with the word “fist.” But, if we want to emphasize that the person banged his fist on the table, as opposed to some other surface, then the fist will hit with the first syllable of “table.”

II.A.1. Movements that illustrate the meaning (illustrators, propositional gestures)

Movements that illustrate the meaning of the utterance for emphasis or reinforcement.

II.A.1.a. Iconic illustrators

Depiction of the meaning of the words with movement. Examples: moving the open hands away from each other to show the size when saying “I caught a fish this big.” Or, showing the act of grabbing while saying “I grabbed him by the collar.” These tend to be iconic signs.

II.A.1.b. Metaphorical illustrators

Illustrators can consist of metaphors as well. Examples: snapping fingers when saying “she can get it done just like that.” Or, holding the open hand sideways and moving it to the side in steps, on an imaginery line, when saying “I will tell them all one by one.”

II.A.2. Movements independent of meaning

The vast majority of the movements we perform while speaking tend to be independent of the meaning. The easiest way to see this is to turn the sound of the television off and watch how people use their arms, hands and faces as they speak. These movements can be divided into three groups:

II.A.2.a. Beat gestures, baton

Movements that mechanically follow the prosody of the utterance, independent of the meaning, are called “beat gestures.” Some liken them to the movements of the conductor of an orchestra and give them the name of the stick (the “baton”) that the conductor uses. Beat gestures can be described as the body’s mimicking of the changes in the volume, pitch and duration of the utterance with movements that are usually uncoded. 

For example, let’s take a phrase such as “I don’t know who wants to do that.” To emphasize the word “who,” we may open and close a hand when that word comes out of the mouth. There is no direct or indirect connection between that gesture and the meaning of the word “who.” Another typical example of beat gestures is people sitting around a table, tapping on the surface as they speak. 

II.A.2.b. Organizing movements (regulators)

Similar to beat gestures, regulators are also independent of meaning and are timed according to the prosody but they consist of somewhat coded gestures. They are usually aimed at organizing and controlling the space where the utterance takes place, the positions of the communicating parties and the flow of the communication.

Regulators mostly take place in front of the speaker, within the space between the speaker and the listener(s). The vast majority of regulators are pointers (deictic gestures) but they point at the space and the flow of the ongoing communication, not at the object or person being talked about. In linguistics the term “deictic” (or “pronominal”) involves the pronouns in a language (I, me, you, we, us, this, that, other, he, his, she, her, etc.). The bodily gestures of the speaker (particularly the hands) point at the immediate state of affairs: “I am here, at this moment, speaking to you, you are here, at this moment, watching/listening to me.” We can look at these as movements that define the context and the parties involved. In a way, they enable the communication to “materialize.”

Deictic gestures can be in different forms (in addition to the commonly used index finger). For instance, a person speaking to a group may lift his/her chin up to mean “you.” If the said person opens his/her palms, with elbows touching the torso, while saying “we are discussing difficult matters,” it gives the impression that s/he accepts the fact that the topic of discussion is difficult both for the audience and for him/her. Yet, if the person is being sarcastic, indicating that s/he is talking about something simple but is not being understood by the audience, then s/he will need to stretch the arms forward and possibly lift them up a little. Some indicate that there are two types of deictic gestures: “proximal” (movements towards the body of the speaker) and “distal” (movements away from the body of the speaker).

II.A.2.c. Adaptors

These are generally defined as movements that “meet the physical or psychological needs of the body” or positions taken by the body. Their difference from the other categories is quite open to debate. Here are the examples mentioned most often: the sitting position of a person (for instance, sitting up straight as opposed to leaning back) creates different impressions due to social codes and, therefore, affects the meaning of the utterance. Other examples include repetitive movement of feet during conversation, scratching the head, playing with hair, chewing on the end of the pencil, playing with an object. 

Since adaptors are usually performed unconsciously, they are used by psychologists to figure out the “real” thoughts of the person. Of course, the meaning or interpretation of adaptors change from culture to culture: putting the feet on a table is often a sign of relaxation and sincerity in the West but would be perceived as an insult to the other person in Eastern societies. 

II.B. Movements that can be disconnected from utterance

I have used “can be” in the title because the distinctive feature of these movements is that they can be used with or without accompanying words. One requisite is that they all have to have a code and a verbal counterpart known by the perceiver(s). For example, a person’s raising of his/her arm in a meeting will be understood as a request to speak, without the need for the person to say “I want to speak.”

II.B.1. Emblems, quotable gestures

These are commonplace gestures with an explicit counterpart (“translation”) in language. For example, stretching the arm forward with the open palm facing the opposite direction means “stop.” Open thumb of a fist pointing up means “success.” These are self-standing coded communicative gestures which can be used independent of language. They are mostly symbolic signs. Naturally, they tend to be specific to the society in which members speak the same language. As a result of developments in communication technologies, many emblematic gestures are getting globalized quite rapidly.

II.B.2. Affect display, display of feelings

Movements that transmit meaning even if not accompanied by words, such as smiling, crying, frowning, raising of eyebrows, holding of the head with both hands. Similar to emblems, these are also coded. While the meaning of the majority of these movements are universal, the interpretation of some of them can change from one society to another.

II.B.3. Touch

With this category, I am pointing at the physical communication between people. For example, hand shaking, holding the other by the arm, pushing, hitting, embracing, kissing. In the studies of nonverbal communicative codes, touch constitutes a field by itself, called “haptics.”

II.B.4. Movements for the comfort/health of the body (including sports)

I.B.5. Task moves, practical actions

As you may notice, the above titles are the duplicates of the subtitles I have used under “I. Uncommunicative body movements: not intended to be seen” (I.A and I.B). My purpose in this arrangement is to point out that ordinary movements necessary in daily life, executed without any communicative intent, can be performed for others to see.

A simple example: Think of a woman with a jar in one hand and the lid in the other. She is putting the lid on the jar. This is an ordinary, simple task move if she is doing it by herself in her kitchen, just as an act of putting the lid on the jar, even if there are other people around. Under what circumstances would this woman execute this action to be watched? If she does it while acknowledging the presence of the watchers and addressing them, then we can assume that her purpose is demonstration or display. We can possibly see this on the cooking programs on television. Or, the woman can be a sales person in a kitchen supply store. Or, she can be a mother teaching her child how to put the lid on a jar.

If a person can execute one of these types of movements better than others or if s/he can do a movement that others cannot, then s/he may want to perform it as a show of skill. For example, everyone can pick up a pen and write but some have more even and interesting handwriting. Such a person may demonstrate the beauty of his/her handwriting before others or cameras, as a display of skill and superiority. For example, many people lift weights at home or at the gym for health purposes. A person who has done weight lifting extensively may want to show his/her muscular achievement by walking around half naked or by participating in body building contests. For example, striptease also belongs to this category: a person executes the ordinary action of undressing (which every one of us does every day) as being watched.

In all of the examples I gave above, persons executing the movements are not hiding the fact that they are doing them to be watched. This is what makes them demonstrative. That is, they don’t deny the presence of the eyes or the cameras looking at them. It is very reasonable for the woman on the cooking program to purposefully look at the camera as she puts the lid on the jar. It would be a nice joke if the stripteaser says “Don’t look, I am getting undressed.”

Can there be situations where such movements (II.B.4. and II.B.5.) are executed to be watched in an attitude that pretends that they are not done to be watched? If we see a muscular person in the street wearing a tank top in cold weather and say “you are out to show-off your muscles but you must be freezing” and if the person replies “I am actually going to the grocery store and the weather doesn’t feel cold,” we call that a “lie” or “fake” or “deception.” Such histrionics we encounter in daily life are in the very roots of the representational performing arts.

Almost all of the non-documentary movies tend to be representational (realistic/naturalistic). They aim at secretly peeping at the representations of people’s lives. The word “secretly” fundamentally implies the concealment of the presence of the camera. Indeed, one of the main rules for movie actors is not looking into the camera. 

The equivalent of the camera in representational theater are the eyes of the spectators: there the actors are asked not to look at them or to look without “seeing.” This rule is the primary safeguard of the plausibility of illusion. The actors on the proscenium stage are required to pretend that there is a fourth wall between them and the audience (or four walls around an open stage).

All types of movement mentioned in my categorizing outline provide material for representational performing arts, which are presented as if they were not for presentation (see “Drama and Theater” and “Mimesis and Performance”).

II.C. Nonverbal and “meaningless” (uncoded) movements

Let’s say that I execute a chain of movements with my hands and these movements (or the shapes the hands form) do not refer to anything, do not have any symbolic value whatsoever. They are not coded. There is no utterance that accompanies the movements. They are what they are. Those who watch them can describe them only as “certain movements of hands.”

For example, let’s think of the rather universal “thumbs-up” gesture, meaning “very good,” “good job”: a fist held out with thumb open and pointing up. We do not have to say anything like “bravo,” “well done,” etc. while doing it, because the perceiving side knows the meaning of this emblematized, coded movement. Now, what will happen if we make this gesture and then, while holding the arm and hand in place, slowly move the thumb sideways until it becomes parallel to the ground? This is what will happen: the sign will slowly lose its symbolic identity and turn into an abstraction, it will change from “thumbs up” gesture into “a meaningless shape of hand.”

Why would one execute such “meaningless” bodily movements in order to be watched? One purpose could be to show how well the person can use his/her body. Another purpose could be to create and present “forms” which the person thinks would satisfy the socially established criteria for “interesting” or “beautiful.” Pretty obviously we are talking about displayed movements generally labeled as “dance.” Yet, it is important to note that such movements can be called “dance” only if they are coded as “dance moves” in society or if they take place in environments associated with dance. In modern dance, almost all types of movement can be proposed to be perceived and accepted as dance, but designation of a movement as “dance” does not constitute attribution of meaning to it, does not carry it beyond the denotative level.

* An article by Paul Ekman and W. Friesen, “The Repertoire of Nonverbal Behavior: Categories, Origins, Usage and Coding,” has been a major reference in the categorization of communicable gestures (Semiotica, 1 (1969) 49-98). My classification is rather different from theirs but most of the terms and definitions in the communicable movement section come from this source. I have also used: Justine Cassell’s “A Framework for Gesture Generation and Interpretation” (Cipolla, R. and Pentland, A. (eds.), Computer Vision in Human-Machine Interaction, 191-215, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Chrystopher L. Nehaniv’s “Classifying Types of Gesture and Inferring Intent”  (Proc. AISB’05 Symposium on Robot Companions: Hard Problems and Open Challenges in Robot-Human Interaction, The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour, 2005).