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When people talk, they almost always gesture with their hands.
This expressive movement can be coaxed
into a choreographic form if observed carefully.

Field Notes:

During the Dance Exchange's 1996 Shipyard Project in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the company collaborated with local artists, community members, and current and retired workers in the shipbuilding and submarine maintenance professions.

In the early stages of gathering material for the project, we asked Joe Smith, a retired rigger, to tell about the kind of work he had done. In describing the actions involved, he made a series of spontaneous, and very specific, gestures indicating mechanical adjustments. Later, he demonstrated the arm signal that riggers use to direct construction cranes from a distance.


  • Ask a question; watch the hands of the person answering.
  • Collect some of the movement you observe by watching, then repeating. (Variation: In a group setting, wait until the entire group has talked, then show several of the gestures. This requires some practice, or a way of recording notes. The leader can make a thumbnail sketch and write down the phrase a participant says at the time of the movement. The connection of the movement to the text is usually quite helpful as a memory device.)
  • It is possible to discover a more detailed kind of gesture by questioning the participant further. For example, when asked to describe a beautiful place, a person might describe the experience of a hike; the accompanying movement for the walk might be a large sweep of the hands to indicate the vast beauty. But if asked to further describe a particular walk, the large sweep of the hand might be interrupted as they talk about sunrise. Suddenly, the second hand will become more involved as they make a picture of the mountain, then sun, its slow rise, and even an indication of the coloring of the sky. All of these images will affect the simple gesture they are making. Inside those nuances is the unique expression and some essential quality of the person speaking.


People can practice spontaneous gesture by forming pairs, then observing and questioning each other. They then show the group what they have collected from their partners.

It is fun to surprise a group using this technique. For example, if the group has just formed, you may observe and collect spontaneous gesture from their introductions, then make a small dance immediately from your observations.

Spontaneous gesture can be applied in meetings, when people least expect it, as a way to help a group observe itself or as a compelling recap of the passionate gestures people use when a group struggles with a particular issue.

Spontaneous Gesture is an excerpt from the
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