Cognitive Dance Improvisation

One reason I got interested in cognitive neuroscience and movement studies was to see if I could find any ideas or metaphors that I could apply to dance and choreography. I was also driven by a specific observation: When freely improvising dancers often get stuck, either because they sense they are repeating themselves or because they don't know how to bring structure into their dancing.

To understand this phenomenon we have to dig deeper into how a decision to move is made, how a movement is selected from a set of alternatives, how a sequence of movements is executed, how movements are learned and memorized etc. It should be noted that what I'm referring to here are unconscious patterns, the kind of patterns dancers themselves refer to when they are 'stuck'.

Inspired by my readings into the neural mechanisms of human movement and by the work of the American choreographer William Forsythe, I have investigated the possibilities of developing methods for generating movements and defining a sequential and/or hierarchical structure within a sequence of movements, which are rooted in and build on the implicit properties of the motor system and the movements or 'motor schemas' that constitute our action repertoire.

Unconscious motor patterns are a property of the motor system. Examples: folding your arms, getting dressed in a particular order, brushing your teeth. Similarly a dancer may have a standard way of getting up from the floor. Consciousness is slow and takes effort and energy. Movements can be consciously controlled but only when moving slowly. Patterns also occur through the body posture and body configuration during the execution of a movement sequence. Example: What to do with the hands, the head, the arms etc. when you're moving another part of the body?

Unconscious patterns can be avoided through the root learning of a small set of alternative movements with the same effect or goal.

Dancers and choreographers have come up with numerous solutions: improvising on a theme, that is restricting choice by varying on a pre-established choreographed sketch, imposing some kind of structure, for instance describing triangles with different parts of the body etc.

The implicit properties of the motor system that are being uncovered in experimental studies can be made explicit and put under conscious control. Example: a default property can be seen as a specific instance of a range of movements, while a solution to a particular behavioral problem can be generalized to other body configurations.


Hagendoorn, I.G. (2017). An Agile Mind in an Agile Body. In: Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance (forthcoming).

Hagendoorn, I.G. (2003). Cognitive dance improvisation. How study of the motor system can inspire dance (and vice versa). Leonardo 36 (3), 221-227.

Coming Soon

New recordings of some of my improvisation techniques

Further Reading

Wolpert, D.M., Ghahramani, Z. and Flanagan, J.R. (2001). Perspectives and problems in motor learning. Trends in Cognitive Science 5 (11), 487-494.

Wise, S.P. and Shadmehr, R. (2002). Motor control. in: Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Yin, H.H. and Knowlton, B.J. (2006). The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, 464-476.

Jeannerod, M. (2002). From Action to Interaction: An interview with Marc Jeannerod. Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Berthoz, A. (2002). The Brain's Sense of Movement. Transl. Giselle Weiss. French original: Le Sens du Mouvement, 1997.


William Forsythe has developed a range of tools or techniques for generating movements, which have been collected on the cd-rom "Improvisation Technologies".

An excerpt from Improvisation Technologies featuring Noah Gelber

Another excerpt from Improvisation Technologies featuring Thomas McManus