See also Boot Goosestep

Copyright © 1998 - 2001 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)


The body dances in time with the speech. --Condon and Ogston (1967:225)

The truest expression of a people is its dances and its music. Bodies never lie. --Agnes de Mille

Body motion. A repetitive series of usually rhythmic movements of the body and body parts (esp. feet, hands, and shoulders) to a musical beat, based on the alternating oscillations of walking.

Usage: An ancient and powerful medium of nonverbal communication, dance is a nearly universal venue of human courtship. Dance not only synchronizes a couple's physical movements (e.g., as they move to the beat of the same drummer), but their moods and feelings as well. Some dance forms (e.g., break dancing, military marching, and the tribal war dance) stimulate strong feelings of togetherness and esprit de corps through the reptilian principle of isopraxism.

Anthropology. "One field which still awaits exploration is the question of how far a dominant kinesthetic awareness of certain parts of the body is related to psychological factors. If posture and movement of an individual are closely interdependent with his psychological state, would not stylized posture and gesture in the dance of a people be relevant to a general psychological trend in their life?" (Holt and Bateson 1944:52; the authors contrast, e.g., "rhythmic, rotating movements of the pelvic region" with "rigid" postures of the torso and hips in dancing.)

Motions. The human form is more noticeable when it is moved. Thus, dancers not only attract attention of their own partners but of onlookers as well. Through principally palm-down motions, the arms participate in dance as "walking" forelimbs. Exaggerated reaching (i.e., extension) movements of the arms (e.g., while waving the hands high above one's head) signal strong emotion through a principle of nonverbal release. In dancing, a. we show our emotions, physical prowess, and health, and b. giving our partners an opportunity to touch.

Popular culture. When Joey Dee and the Starlighters played loud music with a beat at the Peppermint Lounge in New York in the 1960s, "even the waitresses were twisting" (Sutton 1984:33).

Neuro-notes I. The oscillating movements and rhythmic footsteps of dance are keyed to a two-point pedestrian beat. The natural rhythm of our upright, bipedal gait is coordinated by the same spinal paleocircuits which once programmed the oscillatory swimming motions of the earliest fishes (Grillner 1996; see AQUATIC BRAIN & SPINAL CORD).

Neuro-notes II. In right-handed dancers, music appeals to the more emotional, intuitive, and nonverbal right-brain hemisphere. Thus, dancing couples are on similar feeling (rather than rational thinking) wavelengths .


Copyright © 1998 - 2001 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies) Detail of photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (copyright Life)



He even walked like a crab, as if he were cringing all the time. --Elia Kazan, commenting on actor James Dean (Dalton 1984:53)

Body movement. To travel by taking steps with the legs and feet, at a pace slower than jogging, sprinting, or running.

Usage: While we walk on our hind limbs to commute from point A to point B, the manner and style of our gait (e.g., marching, mincing, or swaggering) telegraphs information about our status, feelings, and moods. Our bipedal walk's two-point rhythm provides the neurological foundation for a. music's syncopated beat, and b. the oscillating movements of dance.

Anthropology. A bipedal stride enabled our human ancestors to cover great distances on African grasslands ca. three m.y.a. Survival required that they stay continually on the move (Devine 1985). The earliest physical evidence for human-style walking dates back 3.5 m.y.a. to the tracks of three upright ancients (probably australopithecines) who strolled across a bed of fresh volcanic ash one day on the east-African savannah, in what is now Laetoli, Tanzania. The footprints are nearly identical to those of modern humans, only smaller.

Evolution. Our legs originated ca. 400 m.y.a. from the lobe fins of Devonian fishes resembling crossopterygians.

Media I. "I am in the moment, living the experience, when I am walking." --Joy Evans (Washington Post, November 25, 1995)

Media II. The scariest movie monsters walk upright like human beings. Their resemblance to people renders them even more terrible than ordinary land (i.e., quadrupedal), air, and sea monsters. Bipedal dynosaurs (e.g., Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park), insectoids (Aliens, 1996), and primates (King Kong, 1933) resonate with horrific images of the upright human form.

Pediatrics. Babies begin advancing one limb at a time on all fours between the 6th and 9th months of life, to crawl for the sheer pleasure of movement (Chase and Rubin 1979). Infants are born with two walking reflexes. The plantar reflex causes an infant's lower limbs to contract the extensor muscles when their feet touch a horizontal surface. Held under the arms, a baby can support its own weight and take several steps forward. The plantar reflex lasts for two months, and is not present in all infants. When a baby's leg touches the side of a flat surface, it will automatically lift its leg and place its foot on the horizontal plane. This, the tactile placing reflex, is also present in many other terrestrial vertebrates.

Philosophy I. Followers of Aristotle (384-322 BC), who founded the Lyceum in 335 BC, were known as peripatetics because they walked and underwent "restless practices" (Flew 1979:265) as they thought and shared ideas, rather than merely sitting in place.

Philosophy II. The two-point rhythm of walking's stride clears the mind for thinking. (N.B.: Perhaps, after telling the spinal circuits to "take a walk," the forebrain shifts to automatic pilot, so to speak, freeing the neocortex to ponder important issues of the day.) Many philosophers were lifetime walkers, who found that bipedal rhythms facilitated creative contemplation and thought. In his short life, e.g., Henry David Thoreau walked an estimated 250,000 miles--ten times the circumference of earth.

U.S. politics. "The black-footed species [of Pacific albatross, nicknamed "gooney bird"] . . . has a more distinctive walk--head down and clavicles hunched like shoulders. 'After [Richard Milhous] Nixon visited here [Midway Island] during Vietnam, the black-footed species' distinctive method of walking suddenly looked familiar,' says [U.S. Fish and Wildlife manager Rob] Shallenberger. 'Since then, it's been referred to as the Nixon walk'" (Friend 2000:54).

E-Commentary "I was hoping you might be able to help me. I am a New York based author writing a book called The Encyclopedia of Aggravations and Annoyances. I am trying to find information on a particular occurrence, when you're walking down the street and you try to pass someone but you both dodge to the right then to the left. I have read articles on this in the past, but I have been unable to find them again. As the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, I was hoping you might be able to point me in the right direction?" Laura Lee (4/5/01 8:56:24 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "The legs of an amphibian served the same function as the inertial force of water for a swimming animal, providing a fulcrum that enabled early amphibians to be little more than fish that swam on land" (Jerison, 1976:11). 2. Basal ganglia initiate movement and ". . . are responsible for the automatic movements we make without thinking" (Restak, 1995:16).

Neuro-notes I. The natural rhythm of our upright, bipedal gait is coordinated by the same spinal paleocircuits which programmed the oscillatory swimming motions of the early fishes (Grillner 1996).

Neuro-notes II. Something deep in our vertebrate soul finds walking for its own sake an evolutionary necessity. Impulses to go on walkabout are coordinated by oscillatory circuits of the spinal cord, by excitatory centers of the aquatic midbrain, and by the basal ganglia of the reptilian forebrain. (N.B.:

Neurologically, our nonverbal nature lies in movement.)


Copyright © 1998 - 2001 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies) Detail of photo by George Rodger (copyright Magnum)



It had the power to drive me out of my conceptions ofexistence, out of that shelter each of us makes for himself to creep under in moments ofdanger, as a tortoise withdraws within its shell. --Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, 1899; see below, Origin)

Gesture. 1. To lift, raise, or flex-forward one or both shoulders in response a. to another person's statement, question, or physical presence; or b. to one's own inner thoughts, feelings, and moods. 2. One of several constituents of the larger shoulder-shrug display.

Usage I: The shoulder-shrug is a universal sign of resignation, uncertainty, and submissiveness. Shrug cues may modify, counteract, or contradict verbal remarks. With the statement, "Yes, I'm sure," e.g., a lifted shoulder suggests, "I'm not so sure." A shrug reveals misleading, ambiguous, or uncertain areas in dialogue and oral testimony, and thus may provide a probing point, i.e., an opportunity to examine an unverbalized belief or opinion.

Usage II: The shrug gesture bears an interesting relationship to the English word, just, as in, "I don't know why I took the money--I just took it." In this sense, "just" conveys a feeling of powerlessness and uncertainty as to motive. The word also connotes "merely," as in "Just a scratch" (Soukhanov 1992:979). These diminutive aspects of the word "just" resonate with the cringing, crouched aspect of the shoulder-shrug cue (see below, Origin).

Anatomy. The trapezius and levator scapulae muscles lift the shoulder blades (scapulas). Trapezius (assisted by pectoralis major, p. minor, and serratus anterior) medially rotates (i.e., ventrally flexes) the shoulders, as well.

Football. On January 25, 1998, in an NBC Sports interview conducted after his team had won Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego, Denver Broncos quarterback, John Elway, shrugged his shoulders and said, "I can't believe it."

Media. Actor James Dean's defensive shrug set his style apart from the stiffer performances of male leads of his time. The contrast between Dean's nonverbal diffidence and Rock Hudson's square-shouldered dominance in the 1956 movie Giant, e.g., is so dramatic it seemed shoulders had been written into the script. But they had not, for Dean's shrug, according to director Elia Kazan, was "natural." Dean cringed all the time. As American Icon author, David Dalton, wrote, "Jimmy's body is a universe where gravitational pull stems from instability; fascination from asymmetrical shifts and awkward physical contortions formed under internal stress" (1984:53).

Observations. 1. Responding to his father's question ("Do you have your lunch money?"), a son's left shoulder lifts slightly as he answers, "Yes." The father replies, "Better make sure." 2. Bowing forward, a finance director peeks around his boss's doorway and lifts his shoulders as he asks, "May I talk to you, sir?" 3. While conversing in a hotel bar, a man and woman flex, pitch, and roll their shoulders flirtatiously over cocktails (see LOVE SIGNALS III).

Origin. The shrug gesture originates from an ancient, protective crouch pattern innervated by paleocircuits designed for flexion withdrawal. The shoulder-shrug complex was originally identified by Charles Darwin in 1872.

Outer space. On July 11, 1996, while orbiting in the Russian spacecraft, Mir, U.S. astronaut Shannon Lucid shrugged her shoulders, tilted her head, and gestured with her palm up as she answered questions about her six-week delay in returning to Earth. "You know," she told NBC's Today Show, "that's life."

Primatology. Shoulder-shrugging has been seen in South African adult and young adult baboons as a sign of fear and uncertainty, and as a response subsequent to the startle reaction (Hall and DeVore 1972).

U.S. politics. On September 9, 1998, in Orlando, Florida, President Bill Clinton shrugged his shoulders and gazed-down at a public apology as he said, "I've done my best to be your friend. But I also let you down, and I let my family down, and I let this country down." (Washington Post, September 10, 1998).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "When a man wishes to show that he cannot do something, or prevent something being done, he often raises with a quick movement both shoulders" (Darwin 1872:264). 2. Pulling in the shoulders is a response to spatial invasion (Sommer 1969). 3. The shrug is listed in two checklists of universal nonverbal signs: a. as "A fairly sudden raising of both shoulders" (Brannigan and Humphries 1972:60), and b. "Raising both shoulders" (Grant 1969:533). 4. Shrugging the shoulders is a submissive sign in children (McGrew 1972).

Neuro-notes. As a branchiomeric muscle, upper trapezius is emotionally responsive (i.e., "gut reactive"; see PHARYNGEAL ARCH), and quite difficult to control by conscious means. Upper trapezius is innervated by the accessory nerve (cranial XI), a special visceral nerve which also feeds into the voice box (or larynx). Thus, shoulder-shrugs and vocal whines may be given at the same time.

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