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L/BMA and Physical Humor

This is an excerpt from Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies by Colleen Wahl.

Contributed by Sarah Donohue, CLMA, MFA. Used with permission.

In the moment of humor, the senses are tickled by information and messages, both commonplace and incongruent. In fact, the juxtaposition of sense-making and altered expectations is the recipe for humor. An unexpected peek-a-boo delights a baby into laughter, the universal indicator of humor. A story is told in which the associated mental images are contradicted by an unforeseen twist at the end. With a shift in perspective, we experience humor on many perceptual levels.

This application explores the physicality of humor through a Laban/Bartenieff perspective and suggests that incongruities in movement not only contribute to humor, but are subconsciously accessed on a kinesthetic level. While acknowledging that humor is situational and relational, my research isolates the movement of the body during a humorous event and reveals that incongruent movement patterns can explain physical humor.

Since determining what is humorous is in the funny bone of the beholder, I have selected a group of individuals whose movements are generally deemed humorous: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Rowan Atkinson, and others. I am not asking if their movement is humorous. Rather, I am assuming that it is and asking if they exhibit common movement patterns. Using the Laban/Bartenieff system, I have also analyzed the movement of humorous dance, such as the choreography of Monica Bill Barnes. Additionally, this inquiry prompts a search for humorous quotidian movement, such as someone walking into a spider web, which is difficult to spontaneously encounter and simultaneously analyze. Although the elements of humor-producing movement vary, I identify patterns of incongruity within the Laban/Bartenieff categories of Body, Effort, Shape, and Space.


Which parts of the body are moved or held and how they are moved or held is culturally and socially significant. In the prototypical clown, we see the legs in external rotation, knees bent and adaptable, and a narrow torso being held in line with the head. There is often superfluous action of the lower legs and feet, and walking is initiated by spoking with the knees. Picture the gait of Charlie Chaplin. This bodily posture appears paradoxically inviting (with legs turned out) and protective (with spine and torso held). The contradictory posture contributes to a pattern of incongruence.

Body-Half and Upper-Lower Patterns of Total Body Connectivity
In the movement of physical comedians and clowns, there is a tendency for locomotion to take place in a body-half pattern instead of in the natural cross-lateral gait, perhaps an intentional indication of being less physically developed. We find familiarity, and often humor, in the body-half waddling of a penguin or toddler. Perceiving someone walk in a body-half pattern is incongruent with the naturally developed human gait of cross-laterality. Additionally, an apparent separation between the upper and lower parts of the body is a trait often present in physical humor. A common theme in cartoons involves the lower body running away from peril before the upper body gets the message to flee as well. In human form, the disassociation between the upper and lower body of physical comedians indicates an incongruity on a basic level of development, as if regions of the body are being controlled by separate forces. Monty Python's sketch "Ministry of Silly Walks" demonstrates an elaborate disconnection between body parts, with the upper and lower body often moving incongruently against one another.

Shape Flow Support and Shape Qualities

The Laban/Bartenieff category of Shape reveals meaning by focusing on the growing and shrinking of the torso and how the shaping of the body connects to Space. How we move our torsos can send very clear messages to perceivers, or, conversely, incongruent messages. If a person lengthens his torso vertically while rising with his entire form to pick an apple from a tree, the experience of all parts organizing toward place high—and the apple—is both functional and congruent. Incongruence in Shape would have the apple-picking man shorten his torso like a compressed spring while the frame of his body attempts to rise to place high. This incongruence may indicate that the mover does not physically embody efficient movement phrasing, which, to those inclined to schadenfreude, is perhaps a humorous situation. From a less vindictive perspective, incongruity between shape qualities and shape flow support is prevalent in clowning and particularly humorous in dance, where the expectation is for efficient movement patterns.

Phrasing in movement corresponds well to phrasing in written language. A movement phrase, or movement sentence, is complete and congruent when there is preparation, initiation, action, and follow through. A dart player prepares by focusing on the bull's-eye, both visually and kinesthetically. To initiate throwing the dart, she carefully pulls it back toward her shoulder before suddenly and directly sending it toward the target in the main action of the phrase. To complete the phrasing, her hand follows the pathway of the dart, guiding it empathetically to the bull's-eye. In dance, a well-executed grand jeté, or leap, is an example of congruent phrasing.

Physical humor often relies on the interruption of phrasing and the viewer's preconceived expectations being altered unpredictably, as is often utilized in the choreography of Monica Bill Barnes—a pelvic gyration in the midst of a flowing modern phrase or a giant cardboard box flying onstage to hit the dancer at the height of a graceful arabesque. Incongruities in phrasing are closely related to surprise, a key element in humor (Weems 2014, 26). Our sense-making minds are stringing together visual input to create a narrative or expected outcome. When what we believed would take place shifts unpredictably, humor is the result.


Phrasing can also be interrupted in regard to Effort. Listening to your favorite song and remembering sweet memories of the past may take you into what Laban calls passion drive (free Flow, light Weight, and sustained Time). However, an unexpected knock on the door will take you into an awake state (direct Space and sudden Time). The complete shift on the effort spectrum, from indulging qualities (free, light, sustained in this case) to condensing qualities (direct and sudden) is incongruent, surprising, and can be humorous. Stand-up comedians exhibit wonderful incongruent Effort phrasing in their verbal delivery. Conversely, congruent effort phrasing is created through effort loading. The effort is a natural progression that develops out of and returns to an established effort constellation.

However, in incongruent effort phrasing, like moving from passion drive to awake state, all the Effort qualities change at once. What was sustained becomes sudden; what was missing (Space effort) suddenly appears in direct Space. We can picture the effort phrasing making a complete shift across the effort spectrum in progressions such as walking to slipping or reading a book to being startled. In choreography, being aware of how effort phrasing falls naturally into, or out of, metered music can mean the difference between predicable musicality and delightful surprise.


How the human body is organized in Space is meaningful not only in humor studies but also in everyday interaction with the environment. A congruent interaction with space allows you to get to the bus stop safely and efficiently. "Natural," unaffected walking takes place in the sagittal plane (forward, with a little bit of up and down). In many clowning examples as well as Charlie Chaplin's walk, space is approached incongruently, by ambulating in the vertical plane (more side to side than forward).

Incongruence in Space is also revealed by countertension, which is what the body uses to balance when one slips or falls. From walking along in two spatial pulls of the sagittal plane, slipping requires the body to balance by moving into the third, previously absent spatial pull, the horizontal dimension (or some deflection of it). The need to move into a countertension is in opposition to the previous action or movement goal. Our expectations for regular locomotion are broken on many levels. While dance lives in the world of countertension, everyday actions meet extreme countertension when something unpredictable has happened—something incongruent.

As a choreographer and dance educator, my aim is not necessarily to create humorous dances. However, humor is an inroad to interpersonal connection, and my aim is to create dances with which a wide range of audiences can connect. Humor, like dance, has the capacity to be nonverbal and to reach beyond boundaries of culture, society, ability, and age (Weems 2014, 154). Infants laugh before they possess language—often they are laughing at motion. Humor is a primal human experience that we understand innately and kinesthetically.

The study of humor through a Laban/Bartenieff perspective offers various benefits to the arts and education. Humor in the classroom serves memory retention, allowing students to create knowledge through their individual, humorous connection to learning. Understanding the physicality of humor through a Laban/Bartenieff analysis of incongruent movement patterns allows choreographers to develop innovation in their movement, audiences to access dance on a subconscious level, and everyday people to connect with each other through the kinesthetic language of humor.

More Excerpts From Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies