Blog Post

05. Embodied Writing Exercise

Embodied Writing Exercise

The embodied writing exercise was developed to teach students in an online instruction setting how to write about dancing and moving. It is a particularly useful tool for getting students to involve the live presence of their bodies in asynchronous online interactions. While the exercise is particularly useful in a writing course on performance, it can be adapted for any writing course as a way to practice descriptive writing. *This post is a part of "The Pedagogy Project" by HASTAC Scholars. 

Embodied Writing Exercise goal:

The goal for part one of this exercise is to practice detailed and descriptive writing about movement from an embodied perspective. One skill set for writing a research paper on dance is being able to describe someone else’s physical movements. Sometimes, it is easier to understand what goes into a movement and, therefore, how to describe it, if we consider what it is to move ourselves. We do not all need dance training in order to describe dancing and we can never assume to understand someone else’s experience in terms of our own. Still, it can be helpful to think about a personal experience moving – taking a step, raising our hand, lifting a weight – to remember all of the little details that go into making and experiencing each movement in a dance and to practice what it means to put words to a physical practice.

The second goal of this exercise is to practice describing someone else’s movement and to recognize that our descriptions of someone else’s movements are necessarily distinct from their experience moving. This is important to keep in mind as we write about other people and strive not to place our own assumptions onto their experiences moving. In the second part of this exercise students will describe their partner’s movement. The partners will then exchange paragraphs and discuss the distinction between a first person embodied account of movement, and a third person descriptive perspective.

Due date: 

Length: Two paragraphs total


Part one: describe your own movement

1.     Think of a short, simple movement. Ex: the wave of a hand, taking one step, the blink of an eye, turning your head from left to right.

2.     Repeat this movement several times, paying close attention to how you make the movement.

3.     Write one paragraph describing your own movement. What muscles do you engage to perform the movement? How does it feel? Is it difficult? Is it easy? Do you make contact with your surroundings in order to make the movement? What doe they feel like? Please refer to the course Writing Guidelines in conjunction with this prompt for more guidance on the elements of descriptive prose.

4.     Upload paragraph to course site.

Part two: describe your peer’s movement

1.     The instructor will assign you a partner to collaborate with for part two of this exercise.

2.     Take video of yourself performing your movement and post to the shared exercise folder.

3.     When your partner posts their video, watch the video and write a detailed one-paragraph description of your partner’s movement. Please refer to the course Writing Guidelines in conjunction with this prompt for more guidance on the elements of descriptive prose.

4.     Upload description to course site.

5.     Exchange both paragraphs (from part one and part two) with your partner.

6.     After exchanging and reading paragraphs, discuss the difference in describing your own movement as opposed to describing someone else’s movement. How is the language different? Did your partner accurately describe your movement, or is it missing nuance as compared to your own description? Perhaps your partner misunderstood your movement. Or, perhaps your partner saw something in your movement that you hadn’t noticed.  



After reading your post, I revised my plans for the composition course I am teaching this afternoon.  I began class by screening Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse Study which was labeled as the first film of a horse (which is not historically accurate; one of the points I made was about verifying research).  Students then made and described a movement.  After I screened Eadweard Muybridge:  Naked Truths, students then paired up and wrote about each other’s movements.  Paragraphs were shared.

Some responses from students:

“It helps us realize how simplistic some actions can be, but in reality, it is more detailed than we would actually assume.”

“It was fun to move my hands around.”

“The differences in writing styles around a simple topic were large.  My style was more poetic and his style was much more visual and technical.”

“It used our imaginations well. For example, I was virtually slapped into another world.”

“We learned about what people know—and do not know—about the human body.”

“People can be seriously uncoordinated.”

“There are many different words that can be used to describe something so simple.”

“I mentioned in my writing that I would like to continue my motion as a daily practice; the fear of death.  I then wrote a brief song:  ‘Did you know that time will pass you by.  You will die.  We will die.  Nothing lasts forever.  The seasons will change.  Then black hair turns gray.  Constantly.  It’s perpetual.  Try to do your best.’”

“It was cool to analyze all of the muscles you can use in one movement.”

“When you sit down and think about it, there are so many little things that can go into one action.”

“Seeing all of the different movements people chose showed creativity in the room.”

“The choice of actions that people did did not match what I thought some of the people might do.”

Next Steps

We will be reading Cathy N. Davidson’s “How to Moon Walk (and Why).”

We will also be looking into other suggested activities posted in the HASTAC Scholar’s Pedagogy Project and responding to them.

We will also watch, Eadweard Muybridge’s Movement Four.


Hi Steven, 

Thanks so much for checking out my exercise and for sharing your students reactions. I had hoped that the exercise would translate well to courses outside of a dance/performance studies department and I'm thrilled to see you using the activity with Muybridge - such a great bridge between film and dance. I love that you will read Cathy's "How to Moon Walk (and Why)" essay paired with this exercise. 



I simply love this project!