Storytellers and movement

Movement is core to storytelling. There is movement in telling, there is movement in listening and there is movement in story. Some of it is evident, part of it is more introvert by nature.

Storytellers move in various ways: our own unique body language, ritual movement for ritual texts, some of us bring in skilled movement we’ve developed somewhere else – dance, pantomime, acrobatics, martial-arts.

We use specific gestures we believe enhance the telling. We illustrate something – not by duplicating the text for it is usually a poor choice; we’d rather add meaning, extend or contradict the spoken.

From years of observation, I can see that when it comes to gesture, storytellers divide into two kinds of ‘movers’:

  • Those who add movement from without
  • Those who release movement from within

It might be that both kinds are needed and it might be they are different maturity stages on the same path. I’ll give you an example: in one of the stories I tell, a story several tellers over here tell too, the main character walks into the ‘eye’ of a sand-storm. After one of my tellings a storyteller came up and said, “most storytellers I’ve seen tell this story, craft the storm movement very dramatically. You – hardly moved, but I saw the most ferocious storm I’ve even seen while listening to this story. How come?”

It’s connected to releasing movement from within. Movement in this case is a response to a situation I can see very clearly. While telling I’m actually there, in the place the story describes, where the character is, I sense it fully. If I sense it fully, I react authentically. The audience sees my reaction and reacts upon, by completing what’s missing – the storm and it’s ‘eye’.

I’m not trying to illustrate a storm – which would be adding movement from without. I react to the storm – which is releasing movement from within. The text tells me about the storm, and it sends me to find-out more details in the narrative – what kind of sand-storms happen in that part of the world, what they look and feel like, what people who have encountered such storms said about the experience, etc. If I can physically experience such a storm – all the better. If not, I’ll research until I know with my senses what it is (from within).

Sometimes I do illustrate from without, but I’ll make such a choice only if it is necessary. For me, it’s the same consideration as in using props: does the audience need it? (from without)

Sand Storm in the Gobi 2

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28 thoughts on “Storytellers and movement

  1. Very interesting.

    Movement from within. Yes, yes. I have been thinking about redundant movement lately. Doubling up or trying to embody the actuality of the story can detract from the experience of the story. Movement from within is more subtle and requires greater presence.

    Talking Skull Ensemble (my company) focus on many ideas as part of our ongoing development. But essentially what serves the story? One of our teachers Mikel Murfi passed on some knowledge he learned in his years of training:

    “If you move you must be more interesting than stillness, if you speak you must be more interesting than silence”.

    Worth sitting with.

    Thanks Limor. Keep asking the questions.

    • “…the actuality of the story can detract from the experience of the story.” This is such a great way to put it Clare, thank you. Stillness and silence – we don’t have the privilege of being there for too long, do we? we’re about the human side of things…

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  6. this is just in time for me, i have been practicing a story of Shiva’s dance of destruction and creation….. and have been feeling that a certain stillness on my part may convey shiva’s Tandav more effectively, than any movement on my part :)

  7. Nice post. I think whether the movement is from within or from without also depends on the kind of story. Doug Lipman makes a distinction of “front of the seat” stories, where the audience is leaning forward in their chairs, and “back of the seat” stories, which tend to be more trance stories (and some stories have both elements).

    • Hi Priscilla – interesting food for thought. I wonder if there is an inner distiction, concerning the storyteller, between these two kinds of story. Hmmm… pondering. Thanks!

      • I’m not sure what you mean by “an inner distinction concerning the storyteller.” I tell both kinds of story, often within the same story performance. Shifting the energy, and therefore the movement and where it comes from, often feels to me like conducting an orchestra.

        • I was curious to know if storytellers see a distinction between “front of the seat” and “back of the seat” when they relate to the story itself. From what you have written here – you do.

  8. I trained myself to tell before a stationary mic for that very reason. I wanted to convey the story’s movement through my words and natural gestures, not through extraneous movement. I often see beginning tellers moving all over the stage, and find it distracting. To each his own, but the inner movement, as you so well describe it, is inherent in stories. It is up to the teller to find it and let it flow.

  9. Hi Limor! What a wonderful post, and I am also enjoying the commentary.

    I used to do lots of movement (and I still do use my hands a lot) but I have let it go…or I should say, it left me. I have less and less need for big movements (to show my skills!) but, often tiny movement will appear, and the story almost tells itself, characterization and all.

    • Hi Robin, I like the way you describe the process – it was there, then it left. You had a need to show, now you don’t. You let the story move you. I think many storytellers can benefit from this acknowledgement. Thanks!

  10. Not sure where you are landing on this. Are you saying storytellers who use movements in their stories are less mature as storytellers? My within/without movments are based on the audience. It’s always the audience. I’m there for them, not for me. As you ask, “does the audience need it?”

    • Hi Sean, reading your question, the answer is no – that’s not what I mean. I’d be greatful if you could point at where in the text this comes out, so I’ll fix it.
      We all use movement in our stories.
      Going through the various comments, I see we use different expressions to facilitate what we mean – which is always what makes storytelling discussions rather complex. Another thing I’ve noticed is that eventually we refer to three sources of movement –inherited in the text, a core physical expression of an idea; influenced by the needs of the audience/communication and our own natural movement.
      So, aiming at sharpening the distinction, the less mature behaviour is another kind of movement that does not arrive from one of those three mentioned above:
      Clare “Doubling up or trying to embody the actuality of the story”
      Robin “To show my skills!”
      Are good examples for the immature approach.
      Thanks.

      • Hello! You wrote: “It might be that both kinds are needed and it might be they are different maturity stages on the same path.” In that, I read it as some movement/gesture is more mature than others. I would disagree with that if that was your intention.

        • Interesting enough, our next Ebook (out this week I finally and truly believe) has a chapter on these types of things- mannerisms vs. gestures. Written by Kathy Jessup of Edmonton, AB, Canada.

          • So in case people are reading this – you are welcome to leave some info about how we can find it.

        • Ok, I think I get what’s missing: Yes, I do think there are movements/gestures less mature than others. But, they are in the same storyteller and change along time with self-awareness, the ability to make audience oriented decisions etc. Unless we’re talking about a storyteller who always “adds” from the outside as in constantly trying to embody the actuality of the story. Aka – does not trust the audience can ‘get it’.

          • Are you saying storytellers should evenutally evolve fixed gestures for each story? I would disagree with that. Gestures are constantly evolving and change with each telling. If they don’t, we are actors and not storytellers.

          • No! just not that… you frightened me now :-)
            Quoting your tweet which I think can help some more here:
            @Storyteller I’m thinking more..planned and unchanging gestures are for actors; planned and changing gestures are for storytellers.
            I’m not sure actors will like this but we are discussing storytelling.

  11. Limor, I think there are (at least) two kinds of movements we’re talking about. Some are conscious, where the teller is almost acting out the story. Depending on the kind of story and the audience, these can add or detract from the narrative.

    Some movements are what Heather Forest calls “physical noise,” those movements and vocal tics (umm, err, well) that do not add to the story and can distract the listener. I often see storytellers doing a sort of bear paw gesture, as if they’re trying to grab the listener’s attention from thin air–these gestures are, to me, often unnecessary to the story. I have a physical tic that I try to curb: I push my sleeves up while I’m telling. When I realize I’m doing that, I know that there’s something in the story I haven’t quite figured out. It’s worthwhile for us to pay attention to how we use our bodies to determine if we are serving the story and the listeners.

    Good discussion.

    • I like this discussion too. By now we might be looking at three kinds of movement (maybe more) which also change under various conditions (change in self, change in audience, change in context, maybe more). “Physical noise” is a wise way to put it if one does not get offended. Under this name I would include also what I call ‘marking’ i.e. storytellers marking almost every single word with their foot, pointing finger, shoulder etc. As you’ve written, figuring out the story fully, really helps here.

      Thanks for sharing these ideas.

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