Inside out <-> Outside in

We’ve all heard the phrase, “dance like nobody’s watching.” It’s a cliché now, but it caught on because it means something… Something about feeling free in one’s own space, and therefore happy. Not that freedom to feel always means feeling happy. Otherwise, people wouldn’t have come up with so many ways to escape feeling. Nor do all episodes of dancing freely end well. But I digress.

There is definitely something about dancing alone, before no audience and no mirror, with no technique in mind nor teacher to mind. Just the doing of dancing. 

It seems to be a feature of childhood. I loved living room dances as a child (and as an adult) and friends have confessed that they too remember dancing with abandon when the chance arose. Do the chances cease to arise, or does the inclination fade away?

 Photo by pan xiaozhen


A recent article in the New Yorker1highlights director Claire Denis’ use of dance in her films. As Moeko Fujii observes, Denis has her characters dance introspectively, unselfconsciously, in ways that reveal themselves.  Fujii calls it the “kinetic poetry of the ordinary.” Not all of the characters dance alone, but none of them are dancing for us, the audience. 

Chekhov: Movement Qualities -> Psychological Gesture

That connects with an idea I’ve explored in teaching physical characterization to opera students this year. Michael Chekhov (not to be confused with his uncle, playwright Anton Chekhov) sought out each character’s Psychological Gesture as key to the inner self. Chekhov’s psycho-physical method provides a palette of movement qualities reminiscent of Jaques-Dalcroze’s “energy” or Laban’s “effort,” and other physical techniques within a longer sequence of exercises

From there, the actors must discover the Psychological Gesture that embodies the essence of the character. Various methods apply (even hypnosis!?). A starting point is often finding a broad, full-body movement of the character’s primary motivation; then the longing for the goal in its absence, and finally its imagined fulfillment. A large cycle of these movements can reduce to one small gesture and become internalized. Another technique is to observe the actor’s hands and torso as she describes the character.

Delsarte, Dalcroze, Duncan

Isadora Duncan was after something similar. In the introduction to her autobiography, My Life, she wrote: “My Art is just an effort to express the truth of my Being in gesture and movement. It has taken me long years to find even one absolutely true movement.” This is likely an influence of Francois Delsarte, who focused on physical expression (or body language, if you will) in his study of Kinesics. Delsarte sought the ‘one true gesture’ for dramatic contexts. 

Photo by Gabby Orcutt

I often worked that way when choreographing as Dance Director of a large Unitarian Universalist Church. Very often, I had to work with themes that integrated poetic text, scientific findings, news subjects, or an abstract message in the sermon. The ideas could be difficult to relate to human movement, so I’d begin by developing a motive from the immediate, most natural impulse of a key idea, and work from there.


Arising from the inside-out, stage gestures were considered truthful and natural in Delsarte’s day. In Duncan dancing, even today, students are taught to think of what they’re about to do before they do it, rather than as they do it. For example, lifting an arm overhead in ballet generally calls for the dancer to move the head, with the gaze following the hand. In Duncan dance however, one thinks of the sky and looks upward, feeling the impulse to lift the arm before doing so.   

Delsarte developed a lexicon of gesture to express countless emotions and phrases of text, while Duncan built a dance vocabulary from natural movements and Tanagra figures. Delsarte also influenced Jaques-Dalcroze, who devised his own system of 21 positions and specific movements in relation to meter. 

Perhaps the ultimate teacher of inward experience creating outward behavior was Konstantin Stanislavsky. (Or Lee Strasberg took it too far, depending on who’s talking.) Putting the puzzle pieces together, Stanislavsky was Michael Chekhov’s teacher. Isadora Duncan introduced Gordan Craig to Stanislavsky, and they went on to work together. Our old friend Prince Sergei Volkonsky promoted both Jaques-Dalcroze and Delsarte, and was benefactor to just about everyone in this cast.


As the 20th century got going, more movement vocabularies cropped up. Among their creators were modern dancers, gymnasts, and acting teacher Jacques Lecoq who devised his own 20 movements. Once developed however, any such gestures would need to be taught to others from the outside-in. 

In Delsarte’s era, it was thought that gestures themselves could not only change one’s vocal tone and facial expression, but also develop inner virtue and culture. For the upwardly mobile, acting properly meant thinking properly, thus acquiring upper-class morals and demeanor.

In some ways, the outside-in effect can indeed occur. I’m reminded of a Limón class when our teacher yelled at a student, “How can you do this movement and not feel something?!” Some actors get inspired into their role when they first don the costume. There is even some evidence that smiling can help you to feel happy. And of course, there’s music – with so many shades of influence acting upon us, often with such surprise… I’m sure no words are necessary. 

Go ahead. Dance!

So there just might be such a thing as a private dance of mourning, of meditation, of quiet celebration or yes, an actual Happy Dance. Maybe I’ll put on my old-time favorite, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Happy Feeling, and see if it still works! 

What’s the music for your happy dance?

1Moeko Fujii. Dancing with Claire Denis. The New Yorker, April 5, 2019.

2On several occasions, I’d improvise, reject; try a new angle, no good; re-think it, sketch on paper, change music, bad bad bad. After hours of this, I’d collapse in exhaustion, giving up. And just then, The Muse would arrive and give me the whole thing, all of it, tied up in a bow. Those are my moments of “spiritual experience.” 

Photos by Chrissa Giannakoudi