Benesh Movement Notation for Humanoid Robots?

Part of the Springer Tracts in Advanced Robotics book series (STAR, volume 111)


Benesh Movement Notation (BMN) is a written system for analysing and recording human movement. It is a flexible tool that reduces three-dimensional body positions and actions in space over time to a series of two-dimensional key frames. Created in the twentieth century, BMN has been applied to fields as diverse as dance, gymnastics, mime, circus performance, anthropology, ergonomics, neurology, and clinical research. Might it also contribute to research in humanoid robotics? The intention of this paper is to provide the scientist with an introduction to its application across a variety of fields as well as a rudimentary understanding of the Benesh system, so that he may evaluate its potential contribution to robotics research. To that end, this paper explains how BMN conceptualizes movement and provides examples that illustrate how those fundamental concepts have been modified for special purpose projects. Given its demonstrated adaptability, the author is optimistic that the system may be extended through close collaboration between the notation expert and the robotics researcher.

1 The Genesis of Benesh Movement Notation (BMN)

In 1955, Dame Ninette de Valois, dancer, teacher, choreographer and director of the Royal Ballet, announced at a press conference the adoption of the Benesh Movement Notation to record its repertoire as well as the teaching of system at the Royal Ballet School. Soon after, in 1958, BMN was included among the technical scientific discoveries in the British government pavilion at the Brussels world expo.

It was in 1947, that Rudolf Benesh, an accountant and artist with a deep interest in scientific subjects, and his future wife, Joan Rothwell, a dancer with the Royal Ballet, first considered the problems of devising a practical and efficient notation system. From then on, Joan and Rudolf started eight years of collaborative development. “Rudolf quickly set his mind to the problem, directly and indirectly drawing on concept of music, perspective drawings, linguistics and the new scientific disciplines of ergonomics, information theory and cybernetics.” [1, p. 139].

With the appointment of the first Benesh choreologist1 at the Royal Ballet in 1960, the use of BMN by choreographers expanded to the Commonwealth companies, Scandinavian, Germany, then for a short time to the US, and later to France in 1992. Thereby a wide range of choreographic scores has been compiled in different movement styles. The application of BMN to circus aerial acrobatics is just one example of its versatility [2, 3].

Outside the field of professional dance, BMN has been used in various research studies. In ergonomics, it has been used to analyse the movement of operators in front of machinery. In clinical and medical research, it has been used to analyse gait and record the movement of cerebral palsy patients. In anthropological studies, it has been applied to dance traditions of indigenous peoples in Australia and Africa. The system has also been considered for basic animation [4, 5, 6, 7] and more recently for Human Computer Interaction [8].

2 How BMN Works [9]

In devising BMN, Rudolf Benesh aimed to create a comprehensive notation system capable of recording all forms of human movement. “Notation is a tool for creative thinking in research and composition. To be a creative tool the notation had to be unlimited in possibilities, and only a pure movement approach would satisfy this need.” (Rudolf and Joan Benesh 1977, p. 6).

2.1 The Concept of Movement

Inspired by the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey, one of the pioneers of animated photography, Rudolf retained the idea of capturing movement by a succession of “key frames” and tracing the path of movement using simple lines to summarise the intermediate positions (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Concept of movement retained by Rudolf Benesh

2.2 Transcription of the Concept

Looking for the most efficient representation of the body, Rudolf referred to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and drew five horizontal lines over the human figure (Fig. 2 to the left). He thus adopted a stave similar to the musical staff that reads from left to right, and organized the stave in order to easily identify three key elements: time (specified above the stave), body movement (specified within the stave), and spatial orientation (specified below the stave).
Fig. 2

To the left, the five line stave in reference to da Vinci. To the right, organisation of the stave where the 3 elements—time, body movement and spatial orientation—have their specific placement

This organization of the stave facilitates the analysis and description of postures in time and space, and enables readers to integrate the three elements as a whole.

2.2.1 Body Movement

The five-line stave forms an ergonomic matrix on which the human body is projected. Figure 3 illustrates the anatomical landmark at which each line intersects the body. The stave becomes a scale of height.
Fig. 3

The stave plots the hands just below shoulder height

BMN reduces the human figure to its essentials by using distinctive signs to locate extremities, joints and segments on the stave. Each frame then becomes a simple pictogram from which the reader extrapolates the whole body position (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

The body representation is reduced to a few distinctive signs placed on the stave

Each frame is divided into left and right halves, so that the reader, viewing from behind, can easily identify left and right, i.e., the figure’s left corresponds to the reader’s left (see Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Body viewed from behind. Standing on right foot, left foot to the side at knee height, both hands to the side, left hand at top of head height and right hand at waist height (The dotted centre line is a visual aid, not part of the notation)

In order to plot a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional page, the depth dimension is represented by three differently shaped signs that depict an extremity in front, level with, or behind the body (Figs. 6, 7 and 8).
Fig. 6

Three peripheral spaces “in front of, level with, behind the body”

Fig. 7

Walking attitude. Standing on both feet (flat), left foot in front and right foot behind the body; both hands just below waist height, left hand behind and right hand in front of the body

Fig. 8

Kicking a ball. Standing on the right foot, heel off the ground, left foot in front at knee height (as if having just kicked the ball) right hand in front, just above shoulder height, and left hand diagonally behind at waist height

These three signs that represent the extremities (feet and hands)—a vertical stroke, a dash and a dot—are the foundation of the evolving BMN alphabet. For example, these three basic signs are modified to a cross to identify the joints (knees and elbows) (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9

The cross signs are used to plot bent knees and elbows on the five-line stave

Once the position of the limbs is recorded, the path of the extremities and the transitions from one key frame to another are shown. Using movement lines and locomotion lines, as shown in Fig. 10, all intermediate positions are summarized in an efficient visual manner.
Fig. 10

A kick of an imaginary ball (on 1) followed by four steps going forward

2.2.2 Movement in Relation to Time

BMN records a sequence of key frames. To specify rhythm and timing, signs are written above the stave as needed to show main beats and sub-beats. A key frame corresponds to a pulse beat unless otherwise specified. In Fig. 10, the sequence consists of a starting position followed by five movements executed on five regular beats.

The placement of a rhythm sign above a frame modifies the moment in time at which the position is reached. In Figs. 11 and 12, the “an” sign, corresponding to the half-beat, has been placed differently, which changes the rhythm of the sequence (Fig. 13).
Fig. 11

Same movement sequence as in Fig. 10, with a different rhythm (1, 2, 3, “an” 4)

Fig. 12

As Fig. 10, with another rhythm (1, 2, “an”, 3, “an”)

Fig. 13

Musical transcription of Figs. 10, 11 and 12

2.2.3 Movement in Relation to Space

Direction faced, path of travel, etc., are shown by signs placed below the stave, as illustrated in Figs. 14 and 15.

To show direction faced in relation to the working area, a direction sign is placed below a key frame. The direction sign may be thought of as an arrow in which the tip has been reduced to a dot. The travel sign is a modified arrow that traces the path of travel.
Fig. 14

Starting facing right front corner, the sequence will travel forward on a straight path

Fig. 15

Starting facing right wall, the sequence will travel forward in a small circle, clockwise

2.2.4 Details of Movement

The development of BMN for recording movements of eyes, gestures of fingers, and expressions of the face arose out of Joan Benesh’s interest in East Indian Classical Dance. Signs placed above the stave specify these details (Fig. 16).
Fig. 16

Two illustrations of Bharata Natyam: finger gestures and eye movements. Notating Indian Dance by Rudolf Benesh, in 1956

Soon after the launch of BMN, Joan Benesh met Marianne Balchin, a former member of the Ram Gopal Company. Marianne joined the first graduating class, which also included students of modern dance, folk and national dance, character dance, historical dance, choreographic analysis, ergonomics and medicine. Rudolf and Joan gave students the responsibility for researching their own practice. The team then worked at developing BMN for recording each style, which led to its extension beyond the realm of classical ballet [10].

3 Specificity of the Benesh System

Watching a film or a cartoon, one forgets that the movement reproduced on the flat screen is made of a succession of snapshots, which are in themselves static. As one starts to read a Benesh score, the movement emerges from the paper as the eyes move from one frame to the other. With the addition of an essential element: the Benesh system analyses the posture in three dimensions in relation to time and space (Fig. 17).
Fig. 17

Organization of the stave

3.1 Several Layers of Information

The organization of the stave allows the reader to abstract body movement and spatial-temporal activity. This enables one to concentrate on one element at a time. For example, as shown in Fig. 18, the reader might focus on the spatial description (below-stave information) but ignore the body position (in-stave information).
Fig. 18

Starting at the left edge of the room, standing in profile, facing a chair placed in the centre: go forward towards the chair, stop in front of it, facing front; then position yourself on the chair. Standing? Sitting? The information in the stave will tell you

3.2 The Information Revealed by Key Frames

Each key frame shows a body position in relation to time and space. The position of the feet provides a sense of gravity, as illustrated in Fig. 19.
Fig. 19

Four figures viewed in profile, and their notation

Let us concentrate on the notation of the supported feet, remembering the three basic extremity signs illustrated in Fig. 6 (Fig. 20).
Fig. 20

a Left foot behind, right foot in front: weight distributed evenly on both feet. b, c, and d are on one foot. b Standing on left foot level with the body, steady on his leg. c and d: are both off balance. c Standing off-balance on left foot that is behind the body. d Standing off-balance on left foot that is in front of the body

This subtlety is particularly useful for the analysis of walking (Fig. 21).
Fig. 21

The two first steps end with the weight distributed between two feet (back leg bent, weight on ball of foot); the next two steps end with the weight transferred fully onto the stepping foot (back leg bent, foot lifted off ground)

In addition to analysing and abstracting the skeleton in a simple and efficient way, key frames can also record the intention of the movement, as illustrated in Fig. 22.
Fig. 22

Right arm lifts directly overhead: a a simple arm gesture; b the intention is to reach up to the ceiling; and c the right shoulder rises as the arm reaches upward. Example b specifies the upward movement intention, whereas example c shows the skeletal result

BMN can show the body part that leads a movement by using letters, such as A for arms, B for body, etc. Furthermore, adding a number, e.g., B4, may indicate specific body areas (Fig. 23).
Fig. 23

Three different ways to lead the movement described in Fig. 22: a the right arm leads the movement; b the body leads the movement; and c the right shoulder blade leads the movement

The variations of intensity in the execution of a movement can be specified by means of signs borrowed from the vocabulary of music theory (Figs. 24 and 25).
Fig. 24

The vocabulary of music theory

Fig. 25

Two ways to kick a ball, strongly and softly

To indicate the state of muscle relaxation or tension, BMN surrounds the p or f with a circle. This description suggests an inner state, a tonic nuance that may imply emotional expression (Fig. 26).
Fig. 26

A relaxed versus a stiff body

3.3 Movement Lines Visualize Path Direct Versus Indirect

In the coronal plane—level with the body—the movement lines are the exact reproduction of the path drawn by the hands in space. Figure 27 shows paths of the hands opening outward then upward (arms remain straight) while Fig. 28 shows paths of the hands lifting upward and outward (arms flex then extend).
Fig. 27

Lifting both arms in extension to the side, away from the body, up to just below shoulder height

Fig. 28

In the left example, movement lines summarize the folding/unfolding action

According to the degree of accuracy required, key frames will break down the movement paths as in Fig. 29. An addition of rhythm signs will maintain the timing of the movement. A legato line will phrase it and render the fluidity of the movement.
Fig. 29

Break down of the movement paths

The following examples show movement in the transverse plane (Fig. 30).
Fig. 30

The hands start in front at shoulder height. In the left example, movement lines summarize the horizontal path of the hands as they move outward then backward. In the right example, key frames break down the movement paths

4 BMN and Technology

4.1 Software

4.1.1 From ChoreoScribe to MacBenesh

ChoreoScribe, developed at the University of Waterloo (UW) Computer Graphics Laboratory in the early 1980s, was the first main frame computer software for creating and editing BMN [11, 12]. Continuing from this project, MacBenesh, the first personal computer software, emerged in 1984 from collaboration between UW and the Ontario Science Centre. The notation consultants were Professor Rhonda Ryman, an expert in Benesh and Laban notation systems, and Robyn Hughes Ryman, Choreologist with the National Ballet of Canada [13].

MacBenesh, an editor for single-dancer BMN scores, was developed on the Macintosh computer, which offered enhanced graphics capabilities and enabled advanced end-user interface features. It was further developed and commercialized by DanceWrite, until development ceased in 1992. Consequently MacBenesh runs only under Mac OS9. MacBenesh proved helpful to this author in writing the professional course for the Conservatoire de Paris when, with the transition to Mac OS10, she succeeded in importing all the defined Benesh signs into a vector graphics editor.

4.1.2 Benesh Notation Editor

The Benesh Notation Editor (BNE) is a PC Windows software program for creating and editing multi-dancer BMN scores, developed by the Benesh Institute in collaboration with the University of Surrey. It acts as a ‘word processor’ for the notation, enabling the production of quality multi-stave printed scores that can be edited, copied, stored digitally, printed and transmitted by e-mail just like any other file [14].

The BNE was developed to meet the needs of professional notators, but it may also be useful for notation teachers and students, who may find that they can produce quality scores more easily and quickly than writing them by hand.

4.2 BMN and DanceForms

DanceForms is choreography software developed by Vancouver, B.C. based Credo Interactive, Inc. Given that Rudolf Benesh visualized movement as a series of frames, there is an obvious similarity between BMN and DanceForms. Both notator and animator aim to capture a succession of key frames representing body positions over time [15] (Fig. 31).
Fig. 31

Screen capture of a DanceForms animation The top illustrations show the Studio window for two body positions, created with Ballet Moves palettes. The lower image shows key frames placed in sequence in the score timeline

The resulting product is, however, quite different. In notation, the body is abstracted and it is up to the reader to reconstruct the movement as the eyes move along the score. By contrast, computer animation uses various modes to represent the body, and it is up to the viewer to decrypt the organization of the movement.

Animated examples can clarify notation theory without using words, which are often distorted and misunderstood. Beginner students often have difficulty understanding how the three layers—time, body movement, and spatial orientation—are interconnected. For example, altering the placement of a direction sign or a turn sign will change the resulting movement (Fig. 32).
Fig. 32

The animations clarify the concept of direction/turn sign placement

The emergence of e-books that blend graphics, writing, images, and movies encourage the use of these medium. The recent iBook, Benesh for Ballet, Book 1, published by Rhonda Ryman and Robyn Hughes Ryman, can only be praised as an example, combining notation, animation, and word description.

5 Adapting BMN for Special Contexts

“Notation is a tool, and it is not an end to itself.” (Rudolf and Joan Benesh 1956, p. 5) To serve a purpose, the system must be flexible for better efficiency.

In 1959, Rudolf contributed to a project initiated by the Paris Centre of Technical Studies for the Clothing Industry. He observed and notated the various manipulative skills of dressmakers and the way they used their machines. He observed and notated the way dressmakers worked at their machines and manipulated their fabrics. His aim was to record relevant information only. To focus on the upper body and arms, he adapted the five-line stave as illustrated in Fig. 33 (Unpublished notes. Benesh Institute, London, 1959).
Fig. 33

To focus on the upper body and arms, Rudolf Benesh adapted the five-line stave by “zooming in” and redefining the anatomical landmarks represented by stave lines

Since the dressmaker’s arm movements occurred only in front of the body, there was no need to distinguish hands in front of, level with, or behind the body. To plot the hands on this newly defined stave, it was possible to use only wrist direction signs, normally added to indicate arm rotation. To plot the hands at precise widths, he added location signs, normally used to locate individuals in the working area, as illustrated in Fig. 34 for a recent project.
Fig. 34

A digital application of Rudolf Benesh’s unpublished notes

In 1976, BMN was adapted to study the movement and posture of sitting subjects [16]. For this project, Rudolf adapted a five-line stave for the chair, as illustrated in Fig. 35: The top half of the stave represents the back of the chair, and the bottom half of the stave represents the seat. The double line on the stave indicates where back of the chair and the seat intersect. The chair is viewed as if from behind, i.e., the left half of the frame represents the left side of the sitter. To signify which part of the chair is providing support, the standard location signs are used (Fig. 36).
Fig. 35

The adapted stave and locations signs used to define parts of the chair

Fig. 36

The chair stave and below the posture analysis

The above examples show the adaptability of BMN. I was able to build on this flexibility in the following two cases.

In the first case, I was asked to assist a PhD student whose thesis topic was musculoskeletal disorders of the thoraco-lumbar region among grave diggers. He needed a way to clarify specific elements in his research photographs [17] (Fig. 37).
Fig. 37

BMN provides a way of recording each subject’s posture from the photos, allowing comparison and analysis of the differences

In the second case, I collaborated on a research program in the field of Human Computer Interaction. In this case, I applied the adapted stave Rudolf Benesh developed for the 1959 study quoted above (Unpublished notes. Benesh Institute, London, 1959).

The basic principles of BMN allow application by expert notators to a wide range of research problems, provided that each specific adaptation or extension is documented in context.

6 Conclusion

This paper gives the rudiment of Benesh Movement Notation, which has proved its efficiency in a variety of applications. Considering its application to the robotic field, BMN answers the need to identify key frames on a time line, to show the path of movement and to locate the body in space. It analyses the body scheme and focus on dynamics of movement as well.

To apply BMN to the robotic field, it requires a deep knowledge and that take years. Within the framework of humanoid robot motion, the use of movement notation makes sense in collaboration between the notation expert and the scientist.


  1. 1.

    Benesh choreologist: A person who is qualified in BMN and is employed to notate and revive works from a choreographic score.



I am extremely grateful to all my Benesh colleagues who left few but essential traces of the genesis and the philosophy of the system. In particular Joan Benesh who drawn up much of her husband unpublished writings in one book which remain a major testimony [11]. Julia McGuinnes-Scott who introduced BMN in medicine, and anthropology in particular [1], Marguerite Causley, who exposed BMN in physical education [18]. My recognition to the Benesh Institute, and in particular to Liz Cunliffe who gave me access to Rudolf Benesh’s notes and to Adrian Grater who commented them to me.

My thanks also to Rhonda Ryman and Robyn Hughes Ryman, for their proofreading and expertise to the English expression towards the Benesh notation.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de ParisParisFrance

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