Kevin O’Connor

The Axis Syllabus Movement System: A Rhetoric of the Material Body

This paper explores the Axis Syllabus (AS), a human movement analysis and training system, as a rhetorical form that persuades a dancer to “dance-with” the materiality of the physical body. The materiality includes the bones, ligaments, muscles and fascia and the ways these entities are situated in relationships that hold the physical body together. AS demonstrates ways of approaching and being with the physical body while moving. Moving includes the changes in external forces and pressures acting on the materiality of the body that then change the material relationships. Through the practice of moving, the AS practitioner cultivates a listening attentiveness to the network of relationships that make up the physical body and the felt sensations they produce. This leads to an interpretation and appropriate responsiveness to the signals that these relationships emit. The listening attentiveness includes developing an attuning to the sensing of alignment in the multiple joints of the body during movement. The attuning results in a felt body memory of the sensation of resting-in-alignment. This memory is then retrieved or called upon and utilized as a way of dancing-with the physical structures of the body while moving. The memory emerges into the presencing, situation at hand. Rather than centering itself around aesthetic criteria common in most dance technique trainings, the Axis Syllabus can be thought of as a process where one continuously asks: what movement choices or movement responses might support a “moving-with” the body?

Axis Syllabus appeals to the logos of the skeletal body. It starts with an approach to movement and dance that examines the already developed and formed dynamic relationships that compose the physical body. These relationships suggest certain movement patterns that maintain their integrity. Each of the bones, muscles and ligaments of the body have a unique shape and form and are situated in a supportive network of relationships. AS is aware of the rhetorical stances in many dance classes that focus on creating desired shapes on the body, without attending to safe material parameters that support joint integrity and alignment in the body. Before placing a movement technique or aesthetic movement pattern onto the body, the Axis Syllabus asks the following questions:
1. How are the physical structures of the different objects (bones, muscles, ligaments, fascia) of the body situated in relation to each other in each unique body?

2. How do these relationships change as the moving body interacts with or reacts to forces that act on it? How does these relationships change with the aging body?

3. How can movement training, including the placing of my attention on specific material body relationships, attend to the always already network of relationships that make up the physical body?

To examine the above questions in practice the following movement exercise may be useful:

Exercise 1: Keep you attention on the shoulder joint.
Sit with your arms resting straight down at your side, with the palms of your hands facing in towards each other. Slowly lift your straight arms out to the side of your body until they are straight over your head without changing the arm (i.e. do not rotate the arm or change its direction). Keep your shoulders dropped down so you feel a long neck. The tops of your hands will be facing each other, shoulder width apart, as you stretch your arms straight over your head (your palms are facing away from each other). Place your attention to your shoulder joint and notice the feeling. Drop your arms back to your side.

Exercise 2
Try the same exercise again with a modification. Start with the same initial position (arms straight at your side, palms facing each other). As your arms rise up to the side, externally rotate your arm so that after approximately 40 degrees of elevation (or about the point your straight arm is half way between your hip and your shoulder) move your thumb towards the ceiling. Slowly, keep rotating your arms in the same direction as you lift them. As your arms stretch straight above your head, the palms of your hands are now facing each other. Place your attention on your shoulder joint and notice how your shoulders feel now. How is the sensation different from the first exercise?

The difference in felt sensation can be attributed to the unique relationships found at the shoulder joint (called the gleno-humeral articulation). Chronic inflammation or pain of the shoulder can often be traced back to impingement of the biceps tendon or the supraspinatus muscle by the closing humerus bone and the acromimion (the bony process of the shoulder blade) (Faust 2011). In other words, in the above exercise one is noticing the different sensations produced between the bones and ligaments with a stressful (impingement of muscles or ligaments, or bone hitting bone) and stress-free (2nd exercise) rising of the arm. The difference in sensation might be very slight or hardly noticeable. However, if the momentum of the arm swinging over the head changes, the difference in the felt sensation may change. With practice (the placing of attention to the relationships of the physical body) the AS practitioner attunes her or himself to these differences.

Often for dancers, injuries occur because of repetitive stresses imposed on specific joints over long periods of time. A four-year study by the aDvANCE project (2004) reports that the average length of a dancers career is thirteen and a half years. Up to fifty percent of dancers retire due to injury. In attuning to the slight differences between stressful and stress-free movement, repetitive injuries can potentially be minimized or avoided. AS can be thought of as a practice of finding the path of least resistance, which results in joint-to-joint surface integrity of the bones. The path of least resistance leads to a place of support and ultimately strength. This path offers infinite possibilities for movement within the parameters discovered as well as a sense of strength in the collaborative support of the material-networking body. The shoulder example above was a single plane, non-weight bearing movement exercise. It can be used as a starting point for exploring safe movement parameters; however, it must be noted that maintaining alignment in motion, while loading and shifting weight onto different parts of the body, often never occurs in single plane movement orientation. The Axis Syllabus is pertinent to dance studies because it explores physiological alignment of the body within dynamic situations where speed, direction, levels and the surfaces one comes into contact with change. It asks how one maintains the integrity of the materiality of the body in these situations.

Applying biomechanical principles to the moving body results in a sensing of “appropriate” alignment or joint integrity. The 900 or more synovial joints in the body used to channel the energies of dynamic motion have specific shapes and functional parameters. “ Appropriate” alignment, a term used often in movement studies, implies bringing as much of the available cartilaginous surfaces of each joint together during compression, torsion or shear at any given moment. Appropriate alignment expresses itself in the maintenance of skeletal integrity while moving (for example changing levels from lying down to standing to jumping in the air).
Paying attention to the logos of the skeletal/muscular bodying in any given moment is a life long process/ practice. According to the AS, the ability to both sense the multiple relationships always already occurring in the body and interface with other objects in one’s surroundings is predicated on the following:

Knowledge of the placement, proportional distances and motion potential of individual somatic structures and their collective interactions.
Awareness of the interplay of kinetic energies and gravitational forces available to and acting on the body
The ability to measure the distance of the body’s surface to other objects, implying an appropriate reaction time to avoid collision or covert a fall into an opportunity to move
The development of appropriate reflexes for receiving or avoiding moving objects (for example, other people)
A general knowledge and awareness of other dancers structures and proportional relationships, so that one can cultivate an empathetic sensitivity to their comfort or discomfort while entering into a moving relationship with them
An awareness of the interplay of kinetic energies and gravitational forces on and between two or more bodies
(Faust 2011)

The AS comes out of a long line of somatic movement practices dating back to 1937 when Mabel Todd, a pioneer in theorizing on the mind/body connection, published “The Thinking Body”. This book is considered by many dance schools to be a classic study of the physiology and psychology of movement. Her book was one of the first to acknowledge the knowing materiality of the body. Todd described the human body structure as a composite of balanced forces. She examines the way the body mechanically adjusts to external forces so that it can maintain structural support with the least strain on the several parts. In “The Thinking Body”, Todd asked the following questions: How does the pull of gravity act upon the spinal curves and upon the flat body walls, which balance at front and back, upon this curved, supporting upright body? How do these function to meet the pull of gravity and to keep the skeletal structure supporting its mass of weight? What are the lines of force operating continuously upon the skeleton? (Todd 1937)
The ability to improve a pattern of support and movement for the reaction of mechanical stresses comes, not through the development of bulk and power in individual muscles, but from the study and appreciation of the human body as a weight-bearing and weight-moving structure (Todd 1937). To do this, Todd developed an approach to body movement called Ideokinesis. This technique involves visual and tactile-kinesthetic imagery to guide the student toward healthier forms of movement. The key idea of Ideokinesis is that the mind’s eye can alter potentially injurious movement forces (stress) to avoid injury (strain) (Todd 1937)
This use of imagery, common in many somatic based practices, can create many different individualized senses of alignment. This use offers many benefits for body practitioners and yet can also move the practitioners’ attention away from the sensing of the physical body, into fantasy. The lack of pain receptors in the joints allows the dancer to continuously move in ways that eventually lead to injury. The AS focuses on the logos of applied anatomy, biomechanics and physics in relation to the moving body.
Through examining the skeletal bones (there is often a fake skeleton body in an AS class so one can see and touch the shape of the bones and notice how they fit together with other bones), and through both the repetition of set movement phrases and improvised movement practice, the practitioner develops a felt sense of the range of motion in the chosen area of the body. Examples of exercises that help bring a practitioners attention to the muscles or physical relationships under study include the following:
Working in pairs, one person taps gently with his/her fingers on a highlighted muscle or relational network while the other partner moves across the floor. One partner traces the muscles in relation to other muscles or traces the anatomy train lines as another partner moves across the floor.
In both cases the practitioner develops a felt sensation of the anatomical region being examined, while moving. Often the practitioner mimics a set movement phrase offered by the teacher that draws attention to certain relationships within the body, or improvises across the dance floor while placing his/her attention on specific relations in the body. As the practitioner becomes attuned to the felt sensations associated with being in alignment or the limits of what it means for her/his individual limbs to be aligned, they can adjust their physical placement of the material body accordingly. It is a rigorous practice of always rediscovering the path of the middle way, the path of moderation or what it means to be in alignment. This dynamic approach to alignment creates a readiness for coordinated action.

As a rhetorical form the AS practice is linked to the practice of cultivating body memory. This includes developing a functional anatomical archive of responses that are then utilized in the right time while the body is in motion. Traces of the memory archive are then utilized and emerge into the situation at hand. Memory, the recollection of the past, then becomes presencing. One can retrieve muscle memory patterns based on previous training. Based on what one deems significant from one’s present vantage point of view, these patterns are then woven into the emerging process. For the AS practitioner, this sense of memory includes an attunement to the sensations associated with alignment and the multiple possible ways to move in response.

An important source of information in the development of motor skills and sensing of alignment occurs in watching and mimicking others. Since the discovery of mirror neurons that fire when performing and observing action tasks, many studies have provided evidence that watching another person perform an action engages sensorimotor representations of the observed action (Wolpert et al. 2011) Sensorimotor control deals with a dynamic, real-time control system that turns sensations and memories into actions and vice versa (it is a feedback loop). Dancers call it muscle memory. And while it manifests through the doing of the dance, what actually happens, according to neuroscientists, is that the movements become thoroughly mapped in the brain, creating shorthand between thinking and doing. Steve Paxton, the founder of the movement form called Contact Improvisation, writes about tuning our attention (he calls it consciousness) to the speed of reflex (Paxton 1993). The thinking becomes aware of the doing. In tuning to the speed of reflex the practitioner has the potential to change the reflexes that do not support a dancing-with the body in movement.

Included in body memory and this attunement to the speed of reflex is a sense of anticipation for what is to come. This refers to prolepsis, a rhetorical figure where one is thinking of something future as though already done or existing. It is a figure of anticipation. Part of the AS training includes anticipating future supports for the moving body. For example, as a dancer falls off balance from the vertical standing position to the floor, they can train their body to anticipate the contact of the floor by directing their landing pads (the areas of the body composed mostly of muscle and tendon that can serve as direct supports for bearing weight while moving along, toward, or away from the ground) toward the floor as future supports. If this ramping from a standing position to a horizontal position to the floor includes a slight jump as one falls off balance, than a future support side bend is used to prepare the body for landing.

Part of the AS training includes slowing down movement so that while doing a movement the dancer can anticipate a future movement and find an appropriate response. The dancer takes the role or attitude of the listener while moving in real time. Within an AS class there is the common practice of moving in different lines across the room (like in many dance classes) called “rivers.” What is unique in AS classes is that there are always slow, medium and fast rivers that the practitioner can start in as they move across the floor. Multi-ability practitioners are all in a class together. Students are encouraged to move between each river over the course of the class. Entering the slow river is helpful in learning new coordination because it allows the nervous system time to process what is happening and to prepare for the next movement. However, speed reduction changes the way weight loads into the muscles, bones and connective tissues and changes the relationship of the body parts to each other in time. (Faust 2011). Therefore as the practitioner moves down each “river” a different coordination is practiced and a different embodying memory is created. Repetition in each river and across each river allows the practitioner to layer or expand their attentiveness to the movement in the body.

“The key process of memory is retrieval” (Tulving 1991).

The felt sensations associated with alignment acquired through moving are not detectable on their own. When an AS practitioner practices placing their attention on a particular joint in the body while moving they create a memory of the movement and the related felt sensations located in the attended to location. For some practitioners they are creating a new felt way of moving that is different from what they previously experienced. For others, it could be their first time placing their attention on this area and so they have nothing to compare the new sensation to. According to experimental psychologist Endel Tulving, the new felt sensation in the body does not exist independently of retrieval. The retrieval cues are the memory and they are only activated in the repetition of doing or moving across the floor.

Tulving uses the analogy of wind to think of memory (Tulving 1991). Wind is the movement of air molecules. To create something that that we identify as wind, two necessary conditions must be satisfied: (1) the presence of the air molecules in sufficient quantity and density, and (2) the operation of some source of energy that sets the molecules in motion. If we then think of memory: (1) the blowing wind is the brain activity that aids the experience of remembering (2) the air molecules constitute the physical sensations (substrate) of the activity (called the engram: the before and after difference or trace) and (3) the energizing force is the retrieval cue that “activates” the physical sensations. Therefore memory arises in the act of doing. It is the state of cultivation. It is like trying to remember a song. Often you can’t remember the second verse unless you sing the first. In the practice of moving across the floor, the moving creates the sensation. The moving produces sensory qualia that might then inform further actions. Memory is then folded into the next canon of rhetoric, called kairos.

Let’s return now to the arm lift exercise we did previously. For this exercise keep your hands in your peripheral vision at all times. As you sit reading these words back away one foot from the computer screen. Now, resting with your arm straight down at your side as before, raise your arms by first moving them forward in front of your body. Your thumbs are at the leading edge of the movement. As your arms lift and arc away from each other (think of opening your arms to give someone a big hug) externally rotate your arms out as before so that as your arms raise over your head the pinking finger is facing forward and your thumb is facing back behind you. Your arms are angled over and slightly in front of your head (creating a large V shape). As you lower your arms trace the same pathway back. As your hands move back to the starting place down at your side the palms will face in to the body. Now, keep the movement going behind you so that your arms arch out away from the body and internally rotate as hands move behind your body (your hands are slightly behind your body and the outside edge of the pinky finger is facing up). Return the arms back to the starting place as they externally rotate back to the neutral position. Now gently swing the arms forward and back tracing the movement arcs we just explored (externally rotating the arms as you lift them away from each other and over your head and internally rotating them as you swing them behind and away from your body).

Again, keep you attention on the sensations felt in the shoulder joint.
As you swing your arm forward and back in the movement pattern described the shoulder axis arc is being traced. The angle of the humeral neck to the glenoid fossa indicate healthy parameters for shoulder socket mechanics. The value of application of the Shoulder Axis is that the movements inside of the area defined by the arcs maximize the support value of the joint by orienting the cartilaginous surfaces toward each other (Faust 2011). The deployment of the arc in movement will prevent the flexing and extending arm bones in relation to the shoulder girdle from impinging on near-lying attachment points for ligaments and muscles. While loading weight into arms (pushing or pulling) or swinging the arm dynamically, the AS practioner re-remembers and re-creating the shoulder arc axis so it is useful for the moment at hand.

One cultivates body memory through training so it can be used at the right time. This idea implies an orientation to the Kairos. Kairos and memory are partnered in several ways. First, both require a kind of ‘attunement’ in that the rhetor who is gathering items for reserve in the memory must be thinking simultaneously about what’s available now that might be useful later (Sipiora et al. 2002). Secondly, memory requires an attunement during the moment of speaking or composing, recognition of the right time for recalling in the AS case a physical response.
Kairos implies both a calling forth of certain reactions and reflexes and a constraining of other ones in relation to a given place and time. Karios is tightly linked to the appropriate audience. For the AS practitioner the consideration of the audience can include the multiple objects (i.e. the floor that he or she moves towards whiling ramping down from standing to lying down, or another dancers body that they come in contact with) that touch/impact the movement choice (or reflex) in the moment. Appeals to kairos attempt to make use of the particular moment—attempting to capture in the moment what will be immediately applicable, appropriate, and engaging for a particular movement. Kairos is hard to pin down because it is “a dynamic principle rather than a static, codified rhetorical technique” (Sipirio 2002). As a dynamic principle it implies movement. Kairos represents the ephemeral, “fleeting” nature of “the right time,”cultivated through training.

In relation to AS, karios can be thought of as being an observer of the sensations as they arise in the body during movement. As we observe the sensations we adjust our bodies in response, always trying to find a pathway of support. The small details matter. We start to notice our habitual patterns of movement and can question whether they support a moving with the body.

The Karios of the Axis Syllabus can be applied to multiple scales. The Axis Syllabus is based on current information on known biomechanical understanding on the multiple relationships within the physical body. It is a physical practice of theory deemed to be current and the best available, for the moment. As understanding of human physiology change the way one thinks about the moving body the physical practice of moving with the body may change in response
Learning how to describe and manage the dynamic, sequential or undulatory mobilization of the various body entities is essential to the transmission and application of biomechanically optimal, structurally sound movement. In the process of applying biomechanical principles to the moving body there is often the experience of an initial disorienting confusing, often felt as dizziness, in to what physical choices are appropriate at the right time as ones habits are disrupted. (Faust 2011) Steve Paxton writes that dizziness and nausea are signals that the dancer has reached the borderland between two aspects of physical control: conscious and reflexive. In practicing AS we are subjecting the reflexes to stimuli so we can watch them react and then notice what that reaction does. According to Paxton, normally our attention slips out, reflexes step in, and then step aside again in the blink of an eye. When moving the attentiveness becomes attentive when we feel pain. We are normally not aware of this flux in attending to and not attending to while moving. Kairos implies a continuously trying to attend to the body.
I use the analogy of the brittlestar when thinking about a dancing-with the material body. For feminist theorist, Karen Barad’s the brittlestar, an animal closely related to the starfish, is used as a tool for thinking through how we understand the intelligibility of the material body (Barad 2007). Found in the deep waters of all marine areas, the entire skeletal system of the Brittlestar is covered with roughly ten thousand calcite crystals that collect and focus light directly into nerve bundles that are part of the Brittlestar’s diffuse nervous system. The entire Brittlestar is a sense organ; its skeletal system is eyes all around. Its very being is an “attending to” apparatus. Brittlestars “. … challenge our Cartesian habits of mind, breaking down the usual visual metaphors for knowing along with its optics of mediated sight” (Barad 2007) Barad writes, “It is not merely the case that the brittlestar’s visual system is embodied; its very being is a visualizing apparatus… Similarly, its bodily materiality is not a passive, blank surface awaiting the imprint of culture or history to give it meaning or open it to change; its very substance is morphologically active and generative and plays an agentive role in its ongoing materialization.” (Barad 2007). The AS can be thought of as a tool for asking how we can attune to being more brittlestar like in our bodies? How do we develop tools for developing attentiveness to a supportive, aligned being-with the body in motion? What does it mean to be, like the brittlestar, an “attending to” apparatus?


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Karen, B. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University, Duke University Press.

Todd, M. (1937). The Thinking Body. New York, New York Dance Horizons.

Sipiora, Phillip, and James S. Baumlin, eds. Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory, and Praxis. Albany: State U of New York P, 2002. Print.

Steve, P. (1993). “Drafting Interior Techniques.” Contact Quarterly 18(1)(Spring/Winter): 6-61.

Tulving, E. (1991). “Interview with Endel Tulving.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 3(1): 89-94.

Wolpert DM, Diedrichsen. J. and Flannagan. J. (2011). “Principles of sensorimotor learning.” Nature Reiews Neuroscience 12: 739-751.