Introduction to Labanotation



This text is a short introduction to Labanotation. Labanotation is a standartizied system for analysing and recording any human motion. Mainly it is used at theatres to archive ballets. This text aims to give the reader a impression how the notation looks like and how the notation analyses movement.


1. Introduction
2. Staff
3. Time, direction signs, position signs
4. Arm and leg gestures
5. Center of weight and transference of weight
6. Body parts
7. Quantity signs
8. Bows
9. Paths, floor plans
10. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Labanotation is a system of analysing and recording of human Movement. The original inventor is the (Austrian-) Hungarian Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958) an important figure in European modern dance. He published this notation first 1928 as "Kinetographie" in the first issue of "Schrifttanz". Several people continued the development of the notation. In the U.S.A. among others by Ann Hutchinson Guest to the notation known as "Labanotation". In Germany among others by Albrecht Knust to the notation known as "Kinetographie Laban". This two systems differ a little in the writing and analysis (approximately. 5%): they could not get together to a common system (I only support Labanotation).

In Labanotation, it is possible to record every kind of human motion. Labanotation is not connected to a singular, specific style of dance (unlike other dance notations e.g.: Benesh Notation is based on English classical ballet). The basis is natural human motion, and every change from this natural human motion (e.g. turned-out legs) has to be specifically written down in the notation. Actually, this text contains some pictures with turned-out legs, without writing it down in the notation - this is not correct but I have done it to keep the scores as small as possible. For all pictures showing the ballerina you have to use the Ballet-Key Signatures.

This text describes Labanotation in the form of "Structural Description". A way of writing which tries to record every aspect of motion as precisely as possible. There are two other systems of writing: "Motif Description" and "Effort-Shape Description". Motif Description is a kind of simplified "Structural Description" - you only write down what you think of as important. You could write for example its a kind of forward directed movement without saying if you creep or jump. Effort-Shape Description is used to record the energy content of a motion. It is used in industrial research as well as in physiotherapy and psychotherapy.

2. Staff

2.1. The columns - Which part of the body?

Similar to music notation Labanotation uses a staff. It consists of three lines and runs vertically. The score is read from the bottom to the top of the page (instead of left to right like in music notation). This has the advantage that anything what happens on the left side of the body could be written on the left side of the staff and anything what happens on the right side of the body could be written on the right side of the staff.

L = Left side
C = Centerlinie
R = Right side
1 = Support column
2 = Leg gesture column
3 = Body column
4 = Arm column
5 = Head column

Column 1 the support column has the special function of recording transference of weight (e.g. steps). Every change of the center of weight is recorded in this column. This column also keeps track which part of the body carries the weight (by default: the foot), and also the absence of a weight carrying body part (jump). If no part of the body is carrying weight this column is empty.

All other columns are used for recording gestures. Gestures are all movements taking place without carrying weight on this part of body. Is the leg for example extended to the side in the air and should be now carried to the back, this action is notated in column 2. While in the support column an empty space means absence of weight, an empty space in all the other columns means absence of movement in the specific part of the body, then this part of the body keeps its relation to the part of the body its attached on.

You can add as many columns on both sides of the staff as needed. To describe which part of the body is recorded in the individual column a presign is added to the movement. In column 1, 2 and 4 usually no presigns are needed. If no body part presign is in this columns it is assumed that in column 1 the weight is carried by the foot, in column 2 the leg gestures are recorded and in column 4 the arm gestures are recorded (If someone is walking on the hands a hand presign would be added to the movements recorded in column 1).

2.2. Structure the staff

To structure the staff different types of lines are used (similar to the bar lines in music notation). The individual beats in a bar always use a constant amount of space on the paper (in opposite to music notation where the space used on the paper is dependent how many space is needed to write down the notes).

A = Line at the start of the staff
B = Starting position
C = Double line indicates the start of the movement
D = Short line for the beat
E = Bar line
F = Double line indicates the end of the movement
G = Large numbers for the bar
H = Small numbers for the beat (only in the first bar)

If there is no specific starting position the staff starts at C. If more than one staff is needed to record a longer movement sequence, then a single bar line is placed at the end of the individual staff to indicate that the movement sequence is continued on another staff. On the beginning of the staff where the sequence is continued there is also only a single bar line.

There are some other signs used to structure the staff, like artificial bar lines and different kinds of repetition signs.

3. Time, direction signs, position signs

In the different columns of the staff, symbols are written to indicate in which direction the specific part of the body should move. The length of the symbol shows the period of time the movement takes, from its very beginning to its end.

3.1. The timing - When (does it happen)?

Unlike music notation, Labanotation has no special symbols for the time a movement takes. Instead of using symbols, Labanotation indicates the time a movement takes by the length of the symbol (or for jumps the length of the gap in the support column).

Here is a sample of the simplest way of recording movement - the action stroke. The action stroke only indicates that an action takes place in a specific part of the body and over what period of time this action takes place. In this example, first a transference of weight to the right foot takes place in bar one: beats one and two. Then next in bar one: beat three and bar two: beat one, a transference of weight to the left foot takes place. Next in bar two: beat two, the support column is empty therefore a jump occurs, simultaneously the right leg performs a gesture and the arms are moving (slightly longer than till the start of beat three). At the end, an action in the support columns of both legs occurs therefore the weight rests on both feet.

3.2. The direction symbols - What (happens)?

To indicate into what direction a movement occurs direction symbols are used. The basic symbols allows to indicate the direction of the movement in angle increments of 45 degrees. Using more complex symbol combinations, it is possible to divide the directions more precisely using intermediate directions (allowing a resolution of 22.5 degrees or 15 degrees or 7.5 degrees steps).

There are nine horizontal direction symbols derived from the rectangle.
P = Place
F = Forward
B = Backward
L = Left
R = Right
LF = Left forward
RF = Right forward
LB = Left backward
RB = Right backward

The signs are modified by three kinds of shadings to indicate the vertical dimension.
U = Up, high - the sign is hatched.
M = Middle - a point is added in the middle of the sign.
D = Down, low - the sign is shaded black.

Here again the example, now including direction symbols. In the beginning I added a starting position. The person is standing on the left leg, the right leg is directed diagonal low to the back (the small hook on the sign modifies the direction in the way that the toe has contact to the ground - the sign is placed in the gesture column therefore no weight is on that leg). The right arm is directed straight up, the left arm is directed to the left side. The double line separates the starting position from the movement sequence.

The person takes a step forward onto the right leg in a middle level (normal stepping) and a step forward onto the left leg in a middle level. Next the person jumps from the left leg onto both legs. During the jump the right leg is moved diagonal forward low (45 degrees) and the arms are moved from the starting position to straight down. For the right arm, which started straight up it is necessary to write the movement over the right side because one rule of Labanotation says any movement occurs on the shortest way (here: straight down the body). Therefore I wrote the signs for side right and place down and I added a bow to the symbols that means the movements should occur as one movement.

3.3. The relationship pins

The relationship pins are used to show relations in space. They are similar to the direction signs. The orientations of the pins indicate the horizontal directions, and the heads of the pins show the vertical directions.

P = Place
F = Forward (in front of)
B = Backward (behind)
L = Left (of)
R = Right (of)
LF = Left forward (of)
RF = Right forward (of)
LB = Left backward (of)
RB = Right backward (of)

The pin symbol is modified for the vertical indication by using different types of heads:
U = Up (above) - a empty circle as head.
M = Middle (of) - a line as head.
D = Down (below) - a black circle as head.

The relationship pins are used in different ways:
1 = As sign showing the direction in the room. The pin is written inside a square.
2 = As intermediate position. The pin modifies the direction of the direction symbol 1/3 into the direction shown by the pin. The pin is written inside the direction symbol. Sometimes it is necessary to keep a blank space inside filled direction symbols to make the pin readable.
3 = It is possible to show intermediate positions by merging two pins together (Mostly used for room directions).
4 = As relation between two parts of the body (and in relation to the centerline of the body). Then the pin is placed beside the specific part of the body (here: the right foot is in front of the left foot - fifth position). This way it is for example possible to describe if the right arm is in front of the body or behind the body when directed to the left.

4. Arm and leg gestures

Gestures, as mentioned earlier, are all movements of parts of the body which carry no weight. In the use of the direction symbols introduced above it is assumed that each movable part of the body has a point of attachment and a free end. The free end is now moved relative to the point of attachment in the direction described by the direction symbol.

Arm gestures and the direction symbols
From left to right: place low; side low; side middle; side high; place high; front high; front middle; front low.

Leg gestures an the direction symbols
In the leg gestures place low is usually only possible in jumps - otherwise the floor is in the way (provided the leg is not contracted). All other symbols are used similarly to the arm gestures.

Arm gestures and intermediate directions
If the resolution of 45 degrees to coarse to write down the movement as exactly as necessary, intermediate positions can be used. A pin is added to the direction symbol to get a deviation of 1/3 into the direction shown by the pin. 22.5 degree - the point written in front of the second sign means - halfway into the second direction (both signs are connected by a bow). In using both - pins and halfway directions it is possible to get a resolution of 7.5 degrees.

Floor contact of the foot in low gestures
By using specific hooks on low direction symbol it is possible to indicate that the leg is not in the air at 45 degrees, but that a specific part of the foot has contact to the floor.
A = Full heel, B = 1/2 heel
C = Full foot
D = 1/8 ball, E = 1/4 ball, F = 1/2 ball, G = Full ball
H = Pad of toe, I = Full toe, J = Nail of toe

The limbs are not always straight, to show a specific degree of contraction and elongation or folding and unfolding there are specific space measurement signs written in front of the direction symbols - more below.

5. Center of weight and transference of weight

Column 1 of the staff (the support column) keeps track of everything what happens to the center of weight and which part of the body is carrying the weight.

In principle only five things could happen:
1. Everything stays as it is.
2. The center of weight is shifted.
3. The weight is transferred - steps.
4. No part of the body carries weight - jumps.
5. The center of weight rotates - turns.

5.1. Hold weight (body hold)

If in the center of weight everything should stay as it is or if a part of the body now carrying weight should continue in doing so - a hold weight sign is used.

A = The weight is on both foot, the legs are straight. Both arms are directed to place down.
B and F = If the weight should stay on both foot (or on both sides of the body on a weight carrying part of the body) a hold weight sign (the small circle) is written onto the middle line.
C = Any activity in one of the support columns (or a activity in the gesture column related to the hold sign) cancels the hold sign.
D = If the weight should remain on one part of the body the hold sign is written in the support column.
E = If the weight should be transferred from one leg to both legs a hold sign is written in the support column already carrying weight.
G = A activity in the gesture column related to the hold sign without a action or a hold sign in the support column shows a jump.

5.2. Shifting the center of weight

A body is in balance as long as the center of weight is above the area on ground bound by the floor contact of the weight carrying body parts. Inside this area the center of weight can be shifted horizontal and vertical. Usually this happens vertically by contracting and extending the weight carrying body parts.

A = Starting position: The center of weight is in a middle level, it rest on both legs (=>the legs are straight). The arms are side low.
B = The center of weight is shifted to a low level. To achieve that the legs have to be contracted.
C = The center of weight has reached the low level.
D = The center of weight is shifted to a high level. To achieve that the legs have to be extended and the foot take a half point position (standing on the ball of the foot).
E = The center of weight has reached the high level.
F = The small circle is the hold weight sign therefore the space at the end of the score is no jump, the weight remains where it is (on both legs).

5.3. Transference of weight - steps

The weight could be transferred to either additional, less or different parts of the body.

A = Starting position: The center of weight is in a middle level, it rest on the left leg. The right leg carries no weight there is no floor contact (it is slightly lifted). The arms are place low.
B = The weight is transferred from the left leg to both legs. To achieve this the right leg gets floor contact and shares the weight.
C = The weight is transferred to the front high on both knees (The body part sign in front of the direction signs in the support column indicate this).
D = The weight remains on the right knee. The left leg is raised to middle back. The right arm is carried to middle front, the left arm is carried to middle side.

Steps are transferences of weight from one part of the body to another part of the body (e.g. in walking - from one foot to the other foot).

A = Very slow steps (one half step per bar)
B = Very fast steps (one step per quarter note) first in low level - with bend knees (in Plié) like Groucho Marx. Next in middle level - normal steps. In the end in high level - steps on half point.
C = Balancé: The right leg steps to the right side into the Plié. Step on the left leg into the Plié in place in front of the right leg (indicated by the pin) - simultaneously the right leg sur le cou-de-pied back (the small x in front of the leg gesture is a Space measurement sign). Step on the right leg in place into Plié back - simultaneously the left leg sur le cou-de-pied front. In the next bar everything to the other side.
D = Minuet step: Arms diagonal front low. Step onto the right foot half point. Lower to full foot. Three small (half-)steps left, right, left - on half point. In the end lower to full foot.

5.4. Jumps

While jumping no part of the body carries the weight - therefore the support column is empty.

There are five basic forms of jumps:

A = Jump from both feet to both feet.
B = Leap from one foot to the other foot.
C = Hop from one foot to the same foot.
D = Assemblé form one foot to both feet.
E = Sissonne from both feet to one foot.

The length of the space shows the height of the jump. If the legs should do something special while in the air (e.g. be carried to the side) this is written into the gesture columns.

5.5. Turns

Turns could occur around different axes. Most the time rotations are done around the vertical axis. A wheel rotates around the left-right axis. If a human is doing a cartwheel he rotates around the front-back axis.

These are the signs for turns around the vertical axis:

A = Turn to the right.
B = Turn to the left.
C = Turn left or right (or untwisted state for gestures).
D = Its easy to remember the direction of the turns if you think of such arrows on the outer corners.
E = The degree of the turn is shown using pins. Here 1/4 turn to the left.
F = A 3/4 turn to the left.
G = A 1/4 turn to the right - the pin is dependent on the direction of the turn.
H = Here a example for a short sequence: starting position - fifth position (indicated by the pin beside the support column) right leg front. The body is directed into the diagonal - "croisé" (indicated by the pin left beside the staff inside the small square). A 1 1/4 turn to the right on the right leg, left leg sur le cou-de-pied, ending in the fifth position - right leg front - "effacé". Next a double turn on the right leg to the left - the rest as before.
I = Fifth position right leg back, half turn to the right on both foot (the sign for the turn is in both support columns). Now the right leg is in front (as result of the turn), Plié, jump performing a half turn in the air (action strokes in the leg gesture columns + turn on both support columns = turning jump), the movement ends in Plié.

6. Body parts

To record the movements of a specific part of the body a additional column is used and in front of each action in this column a body part sign or a "the same" sign is written. Labanotation offers a differentiated system to label every single part of the body.

Here are some signs to describe which part of the body should move:

Join signs:
A = Head
B = Right shoulder C = Right elbow D = Wrist of right hand
E = Right hand F = Right fingers G = Right thumb
H = Hip I = Knee J = Ankle
K = Foot L = Toes M Right knee

In adding a double line to a join sign a limb sign is generated.
N = Neck O = Arm P = Leg
Q = Right upper arm R = Right lower leg

Body areas:
In adding a box a specific area of the body could be described.
S = Chest T = Waist U = Pelvis V = Shoulder section W = Whole torso
By adding pins a specific surface of body areas could be described.
X = Upper front of chest

Area, surfaces and edges of hands and Feet:
A open box is used.
Y = Palm or sole of foot Z = Thumb or big toe edge.

There are additional signs to describe specific parts of the body, e. g. parts of the face, parts of the hand or parts of the foot.

7. Quantity signs - How (is something done)?

If nothing special is annotated, all movements should be done normally. By using space measurement signs this can be modified. If the movement is accented (e.g. clapping hands) accent signs are used. If a special overall style of movement is recorded key signatures are used.

7.1. Space measurement signs

To record if the steps are long or small, if the arm or legs are bend or extended space measurement signs are used.

1,2,3,4,5,6 = degree of the sign - from slightly in the first degree to totally in the sixth degree (e.g. a arm gesture using sign A1 in front of the direction sign is performed with slightly rounded arms).

A = Narrow, small distance, shortened, contracted
B = Wide, large distance, stretched, extended
C = Folding
D = Unfolding
E = Joining - for lateral movements
F = Spreading - for lateral movements

It is possible to add specific directions to the signs. Lines are added to the narrow and wide sign, the other signs are turned into the specific direction.
G = Narrow 1. degree over front; - over front right;
Wide 1. degree over back; - over left.
H = Folding 1. degree over front; - over front right;
Unfolding 1. degree over back; - over left.

I = Three dimensional contraction (e.g. making a fist)
J = Three dimensional extension

A = Limbs marked by a narrow or wide sign are contracted or extended along a straight path.
B = Limbs marked by a folding or unfolding sign are folded or unfolded along a (based on the main direction of the limb) curved path.

C - H = Example for the use of the narrow or wide sign:
D = Step with slightly bent knee onto the right leg (the degree of the contraction - the distance of the center of weight to the floor is described by a narrow or wide sign beside the direction sign. The direction sign is shaded to indicate the approximate level of support).
E = The same with the left leg, the right leg sur le cou-de-pied.
F = Jump - both legs are straightened (wide sign in front of the direction sign) right leg front low, left leg back low - both leg are slightly close together (narrow sign beside the direction sign).
G = Landing on the right leg knee slightly bent (narrow sign beside the direction sign).
H = Two (in terms of space) short steps (narrow sign in front of the direction sign).

I = Sample for the analysis of a hand gesture:
The hand is three dimensionally fully contracted, the index and the middle finger (points on the finger sign) are extended and spread.

7.2. Accent signs

To describe the dynamics of motion accent signs are used.

A = A slight accent (only a soft or no sound appears if one part of the body touches another part of the body).
B = A strong accent (a sound appears if one part of the body touches the another part of the body).
C = A stronger accent could be expressed by two or more accent signs.
D = Passive motion.
E = Shaking motion.
F = Uplift, buoyant.
G = Weighty, heavy - as reaction to the pull of gravity.
H = Strong.
I = Gentle.
J = Relaxed.
K = Emphasised.
L = Unemphasised.
M = Resilient.
N = Strong resilient.

O = A example of the use of accent signs:
Three short stamping steps, followed by three claps of the hands (for bows see below).

7.3. Key Signatures

To define a specific global style - key signatures are written in front of the score.

Here for example the key signature for ballet:
The legs are turned out and straightened, the elbows are slightly turned inward and rounded.

The key signature is enclosed by double lines. The key is always in affect if nothing different is written. If something in the score should be done as written without using the key, a * (asterisk) is used.

8. (Connection-) Bows

To write a connection between two things - Labanotation uses (as in musical notation) bows.

8.1. Vertical bows

Vertical bows show that actions are done simultaneous, show phrasing, include body parts or add specific aspects to the movement.

A = A round bow ("simultaneous action bow") connecting different parts of the body in the same column show that actions are done simultaneous (here: leg diagonal front low and simultaneous the foot diagonal front up - "flex").
B = Without a bow actions in the same column are done one after the other (here: first leg diagonal front low, next foot diagonal front up).
C = A round bow ("phrasing bow") connecting the same part of the body show the phrasing of the movements (here: arm starting at low over front to up, next arm from up over back ending low).
D = The same but now in one instead of two phrases.
E = Here the "simultaneous action bow" show two movements overlapping in time (here: arm to front - already in the second half of the arm movement the lower arm starts moving to left side middle, in the second half of the lower arm movement the rest of the arm moves no more).
F = A body part sign inside a round bow shows the leading part of the body for this movement (here: the elbow is leading the turn).
G = A bow with round corners includes a specific part of the body into the movement (here: the shoulder is included into the arm movement).
H / I = A bow with rectangular corners adds a specific aspect to the movement (here: H all movements are accented and I all movement are short in terms of space).

8.2. Horizontal bows

Horizontal bows show a connection in terms of space.

There are basic forms of horizontal bow showing a short term connection in terms of space:

A = Basic form of the bow for "address" - if someone looking or pointing to someone or something, this bow is used.
B = Basic form of the bow for "near" - something is in terms of space near without touching it.
C = Basic form of the bow for "touch" - something is touching something (e.g. the clapping of the hands above).
D = Basic form of the bow for "support" - if someone or something is lifted or a part of the weight is taken this bow is used.

The basic forms of bows are modified in several ways:

E = Using a space measurement signs - The narrow sign shows a maximum of closeness (e.g. touching of the hand means grabbing).
F = Using double lines - for a passing or sliding movement (e.g. wipe the hands).
G = Using a "hold" sign - for a lasting connection in space. This connection lasts till explicit cancelled.

9. Paths, floor plans

There are two ways of recording paths and positions in space, direct inside the staff or in complex situations using floor plans.

9.1. Paths

Movement paths are directly written into the staff, most the time they show as floor paths how the whole body is moving in space. It is also possible to use paths for specific parts of the body. Floor paths are written into the rightmost column of the staff. The normal case: straight paths are normally not explicit written.

A = A straight path.
B = A rounded path turning to the right.
C = A straight path to the left.
D = A small quarter circle to the right.
E = Turning on a straight path (e.g. a waltz).
F = A increasingly getting larger round path (spiral) to the left.

9.2. Floor plans

Floor plans are written below or beside the staff to get a fast overview of the movement in the room and to describe complex situations. Sometimes, in critical situations they are written in minimised form inside the staff.

A = Symbols for the starting position of the actors (Girl Boy Person).
B = Symbols for the ending position of the actors (They are used if its necessary to show the end position).
C = A example for a floor plan. The rectangle is opened to the audience. The bar numbers are written below the floor plan.
D = Signs for notating the positions in the room.
E = A wide sign added to a position sign show a position outside the stage.
F = A narrow sign added to a position sign show a position near to the center of the stage.
G = To get inbetween positions two signs are used.
H = Pins added to the position signs further divide the parts of the stage.

10. Conclusion

My brief look at Labanotation ends here. There are some signs which I have not described here and many, many details. A language for describing human motion has to be as easy as possible and as complex as necessary - Labanotation fulfils this demands.
The language of the human body is complex and it will not be possible to do a satisfying simulation of it using computers before computer scientists give up their rough simplifications in simulation and notation of movement and use the experiences collected in the last seventy years (and the centurys before) in dance notation and make them their own.
To get more information on Labanotation go to your library or bookstore and get the book of Ann Hutchinson: "Labanotation".

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