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theory: analysis and notation of steps in labanotation

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P.W. Pulto, 2009

In Labanotation, the step symbol is traditionally interpreted as follows (Hutchinson Guest, 2005, p. 127): the start of the symbol indicates when the heel touches the floor, while the end of the symbol corresponds to the moment when the weight is fully centred over the new supporting leg (Figure 1).

The traditional interpretation of the step symbol in Labanotation.
Figure 1: The traditional interpretation of the step symbol in Labanotation.

We filmed a person’s steps with a video camera. After this an experienced tango dancer took forward steps set to tango music. We examined the images to see when the heel touched the floor and when the weight was centred above the new supporting leg. We then let two people, by clicking a mouse, indicate the video frame which in their view corresponded to the rhythmic reference point of the movement. They both indicated exactly the same frame. So the gait cycle always consists of the same sequence: Centring (previous supporting leg) – Heel – Rhythm – Centring (next supporting leg).

The analysis of the gait cycle in a normal 
								movement, and a tango dance step
Figure 2: The analysis of the gait cycle in a) a normal movement, and b) a tango dance step (C = centred, H = heel touches floor, R = rhythmic reference point).

Figure 2 shows the results of this analysis. It uses one video frame as a unit of time, i.e. one 25th of a second. The reference points in the two cases are distinctly separated. In the ordinary movement (a), the gait cycle is subdivided into three approximately equal parts. The tango dancer’s gait cycle (b) goes much more slowly. Proportionately more time passes between centring the weight above the previous supporting leg and when the heel of the new supporting leg touches the floor.

This analysis shows up two shortcomings in the current interpretation of the step symbol. First of all it appears that after centring the weight above the supporting leg, a considerable time elapses (about one third of the whole gait cycle) before the heel of the next leg touches the ground. This fact is ignored in the present interpretation of this symbol. Which is why a new interpretation of the step symbol is necessary.

Figure 3: Left: the old interpretation of the 
								step symbol with its disregard for the time 
								between centring the weight above the previous 
								supporting leg and the contact of the heel of 
								the next leg with the floor; Middle: stopping 
								after the step, which remains the same in both 
								interpretations; Right: the new interpretation.
Figure 3: Left: the old interpretation of the step symbol with its disregard for the time between centring the weight above the previous supporting leg and the contact of the heel of the next leg with the floor; Middle: stopping after the step, which remains the same in both interpretations; Right: the new interpretation. (C = centred, H = heel touches floor).

As figure 3 shows, stopping causes no problem. The end of the symbol does actually correspond to the end of the movement: centring the weight above a new supporting leg. This is in itself already an argument for, in the new interpretation of the step symbol, ascribing the ignored part of the cycle to the beginning of the symbol. What is more, it is almost irrevocable that the following step is taken when the weight is moved past the previous support point. In short, in our interpretation, the start of the symbol corresponds to the moment when the weight has just ceased to be centred above the previous supporting leg: the movement to a new supporting leg has thus begun. The end of the symbol indicates the moment when the weight is centred above the new supporting leg.

Stepping forwards in the notation currently in use.
Figure 4: Stepping forwards in the notation currently in use.

The second shortcoming is that in terms of rhythm the symbol cannot be interpreted unambiguously. The simple notation in figure 4 might signify ‘stepping on the beat’. In this case the rhythmic reference point will coincide with the stroke on the beat. The heel will touch the floor before the stroke and the weight will be fully centred after this same stroke.

One could also apply the traditional interpretation of the step symbol as correctly as possible. In this case one would read that the heel falls on the stroke and the rhythmic reference point falls between two strokes. The end of the symbol then corresponds to the situation in which the weight is fully centred and the heel of the following supporting leg is touching the floor (but only as a gesture, since on the stroke the weight is still entirely above the previous leg). The fact that this interpretation results in such an odd movement is of course because we have now actually deleted the disregarded part from the movement. The rhythmic reference point still comes after the stroke, even if all we retain from the traditional interpretation is the principle that the heel is represented by the beginning and we add on the missing part at the end.

One can also focus on the fact that in the notation the symbol comes between two strokes. In this case too, the rhythmic reference point occurs between two strokes.

The rhythmically correct notation of the steps 
								on the beat, with an indication of the rhythmic reference point.
Figure 5: The rhythmically correct notation of the steps on the beat, with an indication of the rhythmic reference point.

To reach a point of rhythmic unambiguity, we have opted to note the movements correctly on the time-line and also to indicate the rhythmic reference point. If we then want to step ‘on the beat’, the movement is commenced before the beat, the rhythmic reference point coincides with the stroke on the beat and the movement is ended after the beat. We have indicated the rhythmic reference point by a horizontal line through the symbol. Where the rhythm line coincides with the time intervals on the staff, or if there is any reason why it might not be clear, a short diagonal line is added. The modified notation of the steps is shown in figure 5.

Notation using the rhythm line enables the rhythmic reference point to be noted without analysing which element in the movement provides the rhythmic orientation. While performing steps, this might be when the weight is taken up by the new supporting leg. But if one starts off vigorously using the previous supporting leg, this starting-off might also be the rhythmic reference point.

During a part of the movement to which the step symbol refers, the foot is not yet on the floor. At this moment the free leg is still able to make gestures. Figure 6 shows forward steps. While the left leg is off the floor, it is crossed in front of the supporting leg.

Making a gesture with the leg while stepping.
Figure 6: Making a gesture with the leg while stepping.

This notation could be confused with the old notation for the half-supporting leg/half-gesturing leg (Hutchinson, 2005, p. 439). After all, this was noted by placing a symbol for a leg in both the support column and the gesture column (Figure 7a). If one still wants to use the notation of the half-supporting leg/half-gesturing leg, it could be adapted by adding an inclusion bow to the gesture and support symbols (Figure 7b).

Half-supporting leg/half-gesturing leg: old 
								notation, and new notation.
Figure 7: Half-supporting leg/half-gesturing leg: a) old notation, and b) new notation.

We illustrate the possibilities of our rhythmic notation with an example. The movement we wish to note down is stepping forwards on the beat and at the same time swinging the arms on the offbeat. We have already discussed the rhythmic reference point of the steps. The rhythmic reference point of the swinging movement is approximately halfway through the movement. It does not need to be analysed for the notation, but for this argument an analysis is quite useful. The reference point for the swing originates at the point where acceleration transforms into deceleration. We show an analysis in Labanotation in figure 8.

Analysis of the rhythmic reference point of the upward swing.
Figure 8: Analysis of the rhythmic reference point of the upward swing.

In figure 9 the stepping with swinging movement is noted with the correct synchronisation and the use of rhythm lines. We see that the steps are initiated before the beat, the rhythmic reference point comes on the beat and the weight is centred after the beat. In the swinging movement we see that it is started on the stroke marking the beat and that the rhythmic reference point comes on the stroke on the offbeat. The swinging movement ends on the stroke of the following beat.

Steps on the beat and swings on the offbeat: new notation.
Figure 9: Steps on the beat and swings on the offbeat: new notation.

In the notation currently used, the steps on the beats will usually be noted between the strokes of two successive beats. The swinging movement of the arms could be noted as in figure 10. The possible advantage of this notation is that in the notation of the swinging it gives the impression of offbeats. On the other hand, the disadvantage is that the synchronisation is not correct. This is clear when we add a snap of the fingers at ‘y’.

Steps on the beat and swinging on the 
								offbeat: notation with swinging movements between two offbeats.
Figure 10: Steps on the beat and swinging on the offbeat: notation with swinging movements between two offbeats.

In figure 11a we see that the snap of the fingers occurs during the upward swing. By contrast, in the notation in 11b the lack of synchronisation now has its effect. The snap of the finger appears, incorrectly, to precede the upward swing.

Swinging on the offbeat, plus an additional snap of the fingers.
Figure 11: Swinging on the offbeat, plus an additional snap of the fingers.

In the notation currently in use, one might solve this problem by noting the beginning and end of the swinging movement correctly. The result can be seen in figure 12. A snap of the finger at ‘y’ would now occur in the course of the upward swing. However, the downside is that there would no longer be any trace of the rhythmic orientation of the swing on the offbeat. Hence our alternative notation with correct synchronisation and an indication of the rhythmic reference point.

Stepping on the beat and swinging on the 
								offbeat: notation currently in use, with correct 
								indication of the beginning and end of the swinging movement.
Figure 12: Stepping on the beat and swinging on the offbeat: notation currently in use, with correct indication of the beginning and end of the swinging movement.