What is the link between dance and speaking?

Dancers obviously communicate through their body. But what is the connection between dance, and how we communicate through speech?

I’ve spent five days training with Melbourne Contact Improvisation dance teachers, Emily Bowman and Joey Lehrer. Embodied practice (more on what that means later) has always been critical to my work as a speaker coach, and a specific exercise during last week’s training has helped me better articulate the impact of embodied movement on verbal communication.

The people you meet in a training course – be that dance or leadership and strategy – can be as valuable as the content. You might find professional contacts, new friends or a community of practice. Usually, you meet by making eye contact and shaking hands or saying hello.

In Contact (as we call it for short) your first “meeting” with someone may be through touch.

Pionerred in the 1970s by Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark-Smith, the Contact form uses a rolling point of contact and shared weight to guide movement. The right physics allow two or more dancers to move fluidly together, sometimes slowly; other times almost effortlessly lifting each other.

In their five-day workshop, Emily and Joey introduced an exercise I’ve never before seen in dance training: they gave each participant 3 minutes to talk about whatever they wished to the other 23 dancers. Inspired by an exercise at Freiburg Contact Festival Teachers Exchange, they called it a 6×3: 6 speakers with 3 minutes each to speak. We did one 6×3 each day after lunch.

You may have experienced a similar exercise at leadership training; often done in pairs or small groups, each person has an allotted amount of time to speak freely, without interruption. The practice invites listening, being heard and knowing your peers.

For me, participating in the 3-minute listening activity over the course of a focused week of contact improvisation I felt another layer to what this exercise can offer.

By the time they spoke, each speaker had spent several hours – or several days – dancing.

We might say they were, “embodied”.

Pause now, as you read, to notice what you think, or feel, when you hear the word “embodied”.

Perhaps you recall a taste of “being embodied” after yoga class, swimming in the sea, or playing rugby. You are aware of your body and its sensations; possibly with a quieter mind than usual.

Most Contact workshops give attention to the nuance of attention. We are aware, for example, of individual ribs rolling our torso across the floor; a slight tilt of the head leads the body into a fall and lift; we sense a shift in the balance point of a partner’s sit bones as they roll across our back.


As such, the “embodied-ness” of speakers in this 6×3 exercise was granular.

When they spoke we could see the nuance of this granular embodiment.

I don’t think we can separate embodiment from language and strategy. The three work together.

Drawing on practices like clown, I help speakers learn to read the audience and develop, in “complicité” (something of a connection, or playing with, audience and co-presenters) a vision for a future that starts now. Some speakers separate strategy, language and embodiment from one another – or miss one completely. But my work examines how holding all three allows something to be made possible, for the speaker, audience and idea. So while I focus in this article on embodiment, I am definitely not saying speaking is all about embodiment: it’s one crucial component.

When speakers begin working with me, many think about their body, but not being in their body per se.

“What do I do with my hands?” they ask.

Rather than, say, “How do I be with my hands?”

What’s interesting, is that, for the most part, when you are “in your body”, your arms usually do something quite natural and watchable.

While a ballet dancer may strive for an ideal form, in speakers (not to mention Contact Improvisation) we want individuality to shine through. Ideally, the kind of individuality that comes from channeling what is important.

Images are of Melbourne’s contact improv jam, captured by dance artist Jonathan Sinatra. In his Instagram page Jonathan shares images of dancing in the day-to-day.

Embodiment, of course, doesn’t magically happen with a quick power pose before bouncing on stage.

It’s a lifetime of work. Explored appropriately, as your embodiment practice develops, so too should your (embodied) language and strategy. [Stay tuned to this blog for more on that!]

Many people don’t even realise they are allowed to be in their body when they speak.

When each speaker in Emily and Joey’s workshop took their 3 minutes after lunch, something magical did happen.

They were all marvellous.
We saw them.
We saw what they thought through their body.

To someone who has closely watched many, many speakers, seeing 24 unique presenters all light up – and coherent, fluid and engaging – is a gift.

Many were self-confessed introverts

These 24 people weren’t beautiful to watch because we had a room of 24 extroverted performers. (Dance training can, in fact, make you quite internally focused). Many had said they were terrified. A couple had only just started Contact Improvisation.

The way you move imprints itself in your posture, your facial expressions and your tone of voice. Your movement practice affects how you perceive yourself when you are on stage, and how you perceive your listening audience.

When we hear words that come from a place of embodiment, it’s powerful. When we hold embodied language together with strategic intent we have a speaker who pulls an idea forward into the world.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach interested in the link between how we move, how we think and what our ideas do once we put them to the world.

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Strategic Speaker Coach | Founder | Engineer