Cesar Millan is a dog-whisperer of international renown. We can be sure that canines approve of what he does. But how would a dance expert assess him?
Karen Bradley, who heads the graduate dance program at the University of Maryland, sees him as someone who is fluid.
“He’s beautifully organized intraphysically”, she said when she first saw tapes of Cesar in action. “That lower-unit organisation – I wonder whether he was a soccer player”. Movement experts like Bradley use something called Laban Movement Analysis to make sense of movement, describing, for instance, how people shift their weight, or how fluid and symmetrical they are when they move, or what kind of effort it involves. Is it direct or indirect – that is, what kind of attention does the movement convey? Is it quick or slow? Is it strong or light – that is, what is its intention? Is it bound or free – that is, how much precision is involved?
If you want to emphasise a point, you might bring your hand down across your body in a single, smooth motion. But how you make that motion greatly affects how your point will be interpreted by your audience. Ideally, your hand should come down in an explosive, bound movement – that is, with accelerating force, ending abruptly and precisely – and your head and shoulders would descend simultaneously, so posture and gesture would be in harmony.
Suppose, though, that your head and shoulders moved upward as your hand came down, or that your hand came down in a free, implosive manner – that is, with a kind of vague, decelerating force. Now your movement suggests that you are making a point on which we all agree, which is the opposite of your intention. Combinations of posture and gesture are called phrasing, and the great communicators are those who match their phrasing with their communicative intentions – who understand, for instance, that emphasis requires them to be bound and explosive. To Bradley, Cesar had beautiful phrasing.
…”The thing is, his phrases are of mixed length,” she went on. “Some of them are long. Some of them are very short. Some of them are explosive phrases, loaded up in the beginning and then trailing off. Some of them are impactive – building up, and then coming to a sense of impact at the end. What they are is appropriate to the task. That’s what I mean by versatile.”
Movement analysts tend to like watching, say, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan; they had great phrasing. George W Bush does not.
…”Mostly what we see in the normal population is undifferentiated phrasing,” Bradley said. “And then you have people who are clearly preferential in their phrases, like my husband. He’s Mr Horizontal. When he’s talking in a meeting, he’s back. He’s open. He just goes into this, this same long thing” – she leaned back, and spread her arms out wide and slowed her speech – “and it doesn’t change very much. He works with people who understand him, fortunately.” She laughed.
“When we meet someone like this” – she nodded at Cesar, on the television screen – “what do we do? We give them their own TV series. Seriously. We reward them. We are drawn to them, because we can trust that we can get the message. It’s not going to be hidden. It contributes to a feeling of authenticity”.
Authenticity exhibited through a versatility of movement. It's quite a heady mix, but it's grounded in responding to each moment in the moment rather than in an habitual way. It's such an effective communication tool - so much more effective than language - that even dogs respond to it.
But there appears to be a price to pay to attain this. We have to be prepared to lose some of the habits we cultivate in trying to be someone else, and instead become a little more like the people we are. After all, what else could 'authenticity' be?
(Excerpts from Malcolm Gladwell's 'What the dog saw' 2009)