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How are dances written down and passed along?

Dear Cecil:

As a casual dance-goer, I've often wondered: how are dances written down and passed along? Is there some sort of choreographic notation, the way there is for music? Or do dances just disappear when no one can remember them anymore? That hardly seems fair.

Karen B., Wilmette, Illinois

Cecil replies:

Every choreographer, it seems, has his own eccentric system of dance notation, generally imponderable to anyone but its author. The one system that has received anything like wide acceptance is known as Labanotation, after Rudolph Laban, who developed his unavoidably complicated method for recording and preserving dances in the 1920s. Labanotation is tied to a musical score: off to one side, graphic symbols of the various body parts (head, torso, right arm, left arm, etc.) appear, describing the position and direction of each member at that particular point in the piece. The symbols are accompanied by various code words describing the particular “quality” of the movement at that moment (“fluid,” “swept,” etc.). Since very few dancers can read Labanotation scores, a company that wants to reconstruct a piece will often call on the Dance Notation Bureau of New York–an organization that acts as a clearinghouse for scores and provides a “certified dance reconstructor” who will fly out to your provincial theater, appropriate Labanotations in hand, and instruct the backwoods chorines in the subtleties of their interpretation. All for a nominal fee.

Cecil Adams

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