Dance History Lessons

Here you will find lessons that pertain to different parts of dance history


History Lesson – Rudolf Laban

Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) was a Hungarian born scholar who was a philosopher and theoretician of dance and human movement. Throughout his life, he was concerned with the nature of work movements and the effective utilization of effort. Laban became Ballet Master of the State Theater in Berlin during the 1920’s, but left Germany before the war to develop his theories in England. Fundamentally, Laban analyzed human movement and its meaning and application to art, education, therapy, recreation and industry. Architect, painter and esthetician as well as dancer, Laban saw dance as a means for joining with the larger systems of the universe: space, rhythm, and dynamic change. His extraordinary mind and consuming curiosity led him to develop a method of dance notion, Labanotation, and to develop a method for systematic description of quality change in movement. Kurt Jooss and Mary Wigman were his most noted students.



When someone moves, you perceive it as more than a change of place or a change in shape. Movement does not flow along in a monotone. You see it swelling and subsiding, quick flashes, impacts, changes in focus, suspension, pressures, fluttering, vigorous swings, explosions of power, quiet undulations. All this variety is determined by the way the mover concentrates his EFFORT. This effort might be concentrated in the quality of tension or flow of the movement, the changing quality of weight, or the quality of time in the movement or in the mover’s focus in space.


Flow, weight, time and space are called EFFORT factors.

Flow of tension can be either    FREE or BOUND


Quality of weight can be either LIGHT or STRONG


Quality of time can be either     SUSTAINED or QUICK


Quality of Space can be either   DIRECT or INDIRECT



ACTIVITY #1: Everyone walk with eyes closed. A leader will make sound and everyone move toward the sound.


Question: How do you sense space? How do you move when you cannot see?

Answer: Bound energy.


Question: What happened when a sound was made?

Answer: You moved from a broad focus to a direct focus.


One stage we concentrate our energy and use various forms of focus.


ACTIVITY #2: In couples: sit back to back. Give and take each others weight. One person gives weight and one accepts weight, Keep moving and sense when to change.


Shape Flow is a constant shrinking and expanding, unfolding and opening, going away,

folding, gathering, shrinking, going in.


ACTIVITY #3: 6- 8 people stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle. One person stand in the middle and give your weight to the people in the circle. The center person’s weight is passed around from one to another. Share Weight.


Question: how do you catch your balance? How do you release? Where is your center of gravity?

Glossary of Terms


KINESPHERE: The limits of an individual’s reach into space without changing place or taking a step.

THREE-DIMENSIONAL CROSS OF AXES: Laban investigated movement to see if their was a “harmonic” relationship to movement up and down, forward and backward, side to side, and diagonals.The upright human being has a three-dimensional orientation to SPACE. This means he had access to the HEIGHT, WIDTH AND DEPTH of the surrounding space.

VERTICAL DIMENSION ( or axis) called the “door” plane is composed of two directions, up, away from the pull of gravity and down toward the pull of gravity.

HORIZONTAL DIMENSION or “table” plane intersects with the vertical and goes from side to side.

SAGITTAL DIMENSION or “wheel” plane goes forward and backward.

You can describe where movement goes in the kinesphere by means of these six directions.

SPACE SCALES: a system to explain movement relationships.

WEIGHT FACTOR: A mover must be able clearly to sense his own body weight before he can actively change its quality. The center of weight refers to the part of the body most involved in initiating shifts of weight or supporting the body. The shift of weight is either Light or Strong.

TIME FACTOR: Changes in the quality of time in movement becomes either Sustained or Quick.

SPACE FACTOR: Movement in the body in which spatial attention in the body is pinpointed, channeled, single-focused, we call Direct, but if the shifts of attention varies or overlaps, we call it Indirect.

SHAPE FLOW: Movement involves a change of relationship of one, several or all of the parts of the body. The change is called Shape Flow and can be said to grow or shrink, unfold or fold.


Laban Space Scales

#1 Reaching out to define the six cardinal directions: High, low, Left side, Right side, front, back.

  • (RIGHT SIDE: Right hand reaches. Right leg is more active. Always go and return hand through the center or the place. The left hand reaches in opposition. Begin standing with feet together, arms down at sides)
  • Right hand reaches high over-head and returns to the center by the navel…place.
  • Right hand reaches low as you plie and returns to place.
  • Right hand reach across the body to the left side middle as right leg also crosses and steps. Return to place.
  • Right leg opens to the right side in a lung, right hand opens to right side middle. Return to place.
  • Step back in lung and reach backward with right. Left leg extends straight in front. Return to place.
  • Step forward on right in plie and lift left leg in arabesque. Reach front with right arm and back with left.

#2 Reaching to connect the points in space.

  • RIGHT SIDE (This time the arms travels from point to point rather than returning to place. The left hand remains at your side.)
  • Reach high over-head with right hand.
  • Reach to the right side middle and lung open to the right.
  • Reach back middle in plie with left leg extended to the front.
  • Reach low and plie.
  • Reach forward middle. Step forward on right and arabesque left leg.
  • Reach across to the left side middle. Cross right leg in back.
  • Return to the high over-head reach.

#3 Three Dimensions

Vertical Door plane:  Open arms and legs to diagonals

Horizontal Table plane: Step on right foot, plie in arabesque (on a slight diagonal in back) and reach arms to the sides, torso parallel to the ground.

Sagittal Wheel plane: Step back on left and reach right arm forward and left arm backward. (slightly bend the back arm. Palms face middle of body)

#4 FACE THE DIAGONAL: Right hand reaches to points in space.

  • Reach across in front of body to left back middle. Right leg steps across back (twisted shape)
  • Right side high. Open both arms high diagonal Right leg goes to side (on half toes)
  • Right side high. Open both arms high diagonal Right leg goes to side (on half toes)
  • Reach low back. Right leg goes back (both legs bent)
  • Reach left middle across. Right leg steps across front.
  • Reach low right side diagonal. Open in lung to right
  • Reach back high . Step across back
  • Front right middle diagonal (plie on right and extend left leg in back)
  • Left low front diagonal, Right cross in back.
  • High front diagonal (step front on right, half toes)
  • Back Middle (step back on right and extend left leg in front off floor)
  • Left side high. Right leg cross in front (half toe)
  • Forward low (bend both legs)
  • Left side back middle. (right arm crosses in front of body) Right leg cross in back

ACTIVITY: Ask students to create their own Space Scale by making a written plan, determining the points in space to explore, and then transferring the plan to movement.

Basic Effort Actions

By observing people working, Laban found that most work movement required that people concentrate on weight, space and time simultaneously and called this Basic effort actions.

  • FLOAT: Indirect, light, sustained
  • PUNCH: Direct, strong, quick
  • GLIDE: Direct, light, sustained
  • SLASH: indirect, strong, quick
  • DAB: direct light, quick
  • WRING: indirect, strong, sustained
  • FLICK: Indirect, light, quick
  • PRESS: Direct strong sustained

ACTIVITY: Improvise with the EFFORT ACTIONS.  Put the actions into movement in the hand and arm and make it travel in various directions.



Traveling (walking) through space in various directions using Basic Effort Actions.

Use the right arm to initiate the action.

  • FLOAT (Front right high) travel on the right diagonal, reach low to high
  • PUNCH( Back left low ) travel backward left diagonal, reach high to low
  • GLIDE (Front high) travel forward down stage, reach front high diagonal, low to high
  • SLASH (Back right low) travel backward right diagonal, reach high to low to high diagonal
  • DAB (left back high) travel left straight sideward, reach high horizontal
  • WRING (front right low) travel on right diagonal, reach high to low
  • FLICK (Back high) travel straight backward, reach back high diagonal, reach low to high
  • PRESS (Front low) travel left front diagonal, reach high to low
  • FLOAT (Front right high) travel on the right diagonal, reach low to high right diagonal

Michio Ito

Repertory Dance Theatre is proud to be the US repository for the works of Michio Ito (1892 – 1961). Twice, RDT has worked with Ito master teachers from Japan learning Ito’s technique, style, and choreography.

Below, you will find a 20-minute documentary that introduces this lost modern dance pioneer.

Following the video are some discussion questions. More Ito lesson plans are being developed and will be offered once they have been created.

A brief documentary on the history and pedagogy of Michio Ito.
Film edited by James D’Arcy. Created 2006.
Discussion Questions
  • What are the ways Michio Ito fused ideas from Eastern & Western cultures?
  • Can you think of any artists working today who fuse artistic ideas from various cultures, movement styles, and backgrounds? Who?
  • How do the movement and dance styles we study today differ from the movement Ito used in his choreography?
  • From the few clips of his choreography, what lines, shapes, and forms do you see used again and again? How would describe his movement style and choices?


A & B Gestures

Repertory Dance Theatre is proud to be the US repository for the works of Michio Ito (1892 – 1961). Twice, RDT has worked with Ito master teachers from Japan learning Ito’s technique, style, and choreography.

Mary Jean Cowell is an Ito scholar who received an MA in Dance from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in Japanese Literature and Theatre from Columbia University.  She is the author of East and West in the Work of Michio Ito and Michio Ito in Hollywood:  Modes and Ironies of Ethnicity.

The following information about the Ito Gesture Series is taken from documents and writing provided by Ms. Cowell.

The Ito Gesture Series

Michio Ito began teaching in New York City in 1919, at least six years before Martha Graham began to develop and teach her own technique.

The central component of Ito’s method is two sequences of ten arm gestures called A and B, masculine and feminine.  This is not about defining restrictive gender-appropriate movement but about the idea of balance.  The two sequences relate to yin-yang, the East Asian concept of a balance of contrasting elements in the universe and in each individual.  Ito expected his students, whether male or female, to master both the A and B sequences and he freely combined gestures from both sequences in his choreography.  Ito characterized the A sequence as strong, sharp, assertive, direct, with breathing integrated so that the dancer inhales on 1, 3, 5 and so on, while exhaling on 2, 4, 6, 8, 10.  All positions were defined more softly in the B series, in keeping with its assumed feminine character, and the dancer reverses the breathing, exhaling on the odd numbers, inhaling on the even.  Beginning students also learn a specific style of walking which is the same for both A and B.

In studying the Ito method, the dancer first learns the gestures in their basic order at an even, slow pace, one gesture and one step to every four beats.  The required slow transfer of weight through the feet and the sustained arm gestures are Ito’s approach to developing continuity of movement and control of energy.  Just as beginning ballet students go from simple steps and rhythms at the barre to more difficult variations, the Ito student progresses from the basics to more complex exercises.  For example, the gestures may be done in different rhythmic patterns, may be done in backward sequence, may be done with the sequence reordered 1,3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 8, 6, etc.  More advanced exercises also develop coordination, as when the right arm moves through the sequence 4 counts ahead of the left, or when R arm moves through the A sequence while the L arm simultaneously executes the B sequence.

In his choreography, Ito freely combined gestures from both sequences.  And of course, other movements were added to these gestures, depending upon the specific musical accompaniment and expressive intent of a dance.  But like ballet training, the Ito method prepares the dancer for the style and carriage typical of the choreography to be performed.

Click HERE for A Gestures
Click HERE for B Gestures

Watch the gestures in action is select Michio Ito works HERE


So you’ve learned the Ito Gestures?

Now let’s see if we can move from one set to another! Let’s connect the A & B types together into one sequence.

Going from the masculine to feminine gestures is actually how the piece Pavane begins so we are going to do it to that music.

What makes this tricky is how we count the gestures. We are going to vary the time we take to complete each gesture. This is very common in the Ito training as students learn to do the gestures with various rhythm and counting structures.

For this exercise, we will move through that type A, masculine gestures twice. That’s moving from 10 to 1 the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, up to 10 again, twice. The first time is given 4 counts. The second time they will only be given 2 counts each. Then we will move through the 2 rounds of the feminine gestures. Again, starting in gesture 10, moving to gesture 1 and then up to gesture 10. The first time each gesture is only given 2 counts. The second time they will only be given 1 count each. It’ll be tricky but follow along until you get it.

You may also notice that Elle’s right heel is slightly lifted. This is true for when we do the masculine gestures. However, you will notice her feet will do a small exchange when she is switching to the feminine gestures. That is because anytime we are doing the feminine gestures it is the left heel that is lifted. It’s a small detail, but see if you can catch it!

Create Your Own Gestures

So you’ve learned the Ito Gestures?

But what is a gesture? How did Ito use gestures as the basis for choreography?

A gesture is a way that we communicate an idea without speaking.

Think about how you would say “hello” to someone without using your voice. Let’s say you wave to them with your hand and arm, well that would be considered a gesture for greeting someone. How else might you greet someone? What are some other gestures you see in your everyday life? Check out the 7 gestures Elle created that relate to the COVID-19 outbreak. Can you guess what each gesture means?

How would you use Elle’s 7 gestures to make a dance?

What gestures could you create on your own?

Could you create 7 new gestures that reference the COVID outbreak? How could you use the elements of dance (time space and energy) to change the gestures into an entirely different dance?

Share any and all of these creations on social media and tag us @rdtutah. We can’t wait to see what you make!





RDT appreciates the generous funding provided by the Utah Legislature and the Utah Board of Education that help make our Arts-in-Education Programs possible in Utah’s Public Schools.



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