The Practice of “Marking” in Dance and Distributed Cognition

Dancers of classical ballet and of neo-classical companies typically rehearse their choreographies by running through the dance steps in a reduced form, which is physically less straining than performing them “full out”: this wide-spread practice is known as “marking”. Notably, marking has gained more interest from scholars in the field of cognitive science than from dance research, with some scientists (Kirsh 2010, Warburton et al. 2013) positing that there may be cognitive benefits besides the physical ones when dancers mark their steps in rehearsals.

Unlike other related research which considers marking as “convention-driven and quotable” in terms of Kendon’s Continuum (Kirsh, 2010, p.2866), we argue that the gestures produced during marking are not emblems, but are motivated iconically in their production by schematically representing the images created by the body in motion (image-driven, rather than convention-driven).

In this study, we compare formal movement aspects in the dance steps, between marking sessions and the corresponding full-out session, in order to identify which aspects get reduced when dancers are gesturing to recall their choreographies. Using an ethnographic approach, we accompanied and video-recorded the daily rehearsals of the National Ballet Company of Portugal for the première production of a neo-classical dance piece, focusing on two of its dancers, for a period of 4 months.

Dancers’ steps of the target “full out” performance were segmented and matched with their corresponding markings, produced naturally (without elicitation) soon before. Expert raters coded the dance steps as novel or more or less conventional. Various formal movement parameters of the steps (e.g. trajectory, scale, effort, spatial and temporal properties) were compared between the marking and the full-out conditions and scored as more or less present in the marking.

The aims of this study are above all to identify which movement parameters are perceived as essential or not when dancers mark their sequences, and what motivates the inclusion and exclusion of these parameters in their marking (e.g. affordance, conventionality, imagistic and iconic properties). One hypothesis that is tested is if the more formally conventional the dance move is (e.g. arabesque, développé), the more reduced it will be in the marking, as opposed to more novel dance steps, which would require more information encoded in their gestural forms.

Our data confirms that marking is used by all dancers of choreographed performances in some form, but suggests that it is acquired in context, much like a gestural system of a linguistic community which is not taught, but rather acquired. Moreover, the imagistic qualities of dance motivate the spatial and iconic representations in marking, closely related to those found in co-speech gestures (Mittelberg & Evola, 2014). As such, our analysis of iconicity in marking practices intends to inform iconicity and reduction in gesture research.

A paper on this study will be published soon.



Kirsh, D. (2010). Thinking with the body. In S. Ohlsson & R. Catrambone (Eds.), Proceedings of the 32nd annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society, 2864–2869.

Mittelberg, I., & Evola, V. (2014). Iconic and representational gestures. Body-Language-Communication. An International Handbook on Multimodality in Human Interaction (Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 38.2.), C. Müller, A. Cienki, E. Fricke, S.L. Ladewig, D. McNeill, and J. Bressem, Eds. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 1732-1746.

Warburton, E. C., Wilson, M., Lynch, M., & Cuykendall, S. (2013). The cognitive benefits of movement reduction: evidence from dance marking. Psychological science, 24(9), 1732-1739.


Video Examples


Dancers mark their steps using various degrees of effort (top left/right) to prepare for rehearsing the choreography (bottom left) before performing on stage (bottom right).

A dancer of the Portuguese National Ballet Company demonstrates the next step in a choreography to the other dancers. Professional dancers in large companies like this are often under a lot of pressure to memorize a new choreography sometimes in a matter of minutes even.

The dancer on the left marks the turn with his right arm, which allows him to conserve energy but also keep an eye on where the turn should end.