Spatial Orientation and Awareness

For many years of my own eurhythmics practice, I focused mostly on trying to coordinate my arms and legs through ever more complicated rhythms. Only recently have I become entranced by one of the very things that makes movement possible—space.

It seems obvious: How can you move if you are not aware of the space you are moving in? Like the air we breathe, it’s easy to take for granted. It’s (hopefully) always there! The simple act of putting your attention on your breath can alter your state of consciousness. Likewise, increasing your awareness of the space around you can open new worlds. At least, that’s what it has done for me recently. Perhaps it was trying to teach eurhythmics from my tiny Brooklyn studio during the pandemic that made space precious. But suddenly, every bit of available space—the space above me, behind me, even space I could only imagine—became a blank canvas at my disposal.

Upon returning to the classroom, I tried to continue this exploration, and now consider it a valuable teaching tool. “Space” can obviously refer to many things, but in this context, I simply mean a volume, real or imagined, in which something can happen or exist. Here, in no particular order, are some ways I have been using spatial orientation and awareness in both my teaching and in my own practice.

photo by Michelle Li

Imagination and Metaphor

Spatial metaphors are embedded into our language: the future is ahead of us, the past behind. I may work under one person but have power over someone else. Likewise, in describing pitch, for example, we commonly compare pitches that are lower or higher than one another. This is literally true for the frequency of the pitch, but most people, I believe, are really imagining notation on the staff, in which notes with higher relative frequencies are notated above those with lower. In the Dalcroze classroom, the space around us can become a metaphor for anything our imaginations will allow, and I find it valuable to break these kinds of largely unconscious associations. My goal in the classroom is to bring the spotlight of attention to everything we experience as musicians and artists. The imagination is an excellent tool for this.

Fortunately, an active imagination is readily available for most children, and space can easily be invested with meaning. When a squirrel has climbed too far up a tree but needs to jump to another branch, the distance between point A and point B takes on a special urgency and immediacy. The problem is made immediately clear by calling attention to the scariness of the height (a fat, sustained low tone from the piano heightens the urgency). Here the spatial orientation is entirely in their imaginations, but it helps focus their movement in a way not otherwise possible. The children stop  and prepare to jump to safety. Or perhaps I am aiming for an expansive stretch on the floor. I can get a much greater range of motion in their limbs if I ask them to, say, draw a letter than if I were to just ask them to stretch their legs in the air. These images can be tied to the musical goal of the day. Maybe the squirrel ends up jumping after two-bar phrases; perhaps the letter A is drawn at different speeds in a lesson about tempo changes (this can be as explicit or tacit as is appropriate). In each case, it is imagined use of space that helps students of all ages to engage their bodies more fully.

When used in the beginning of class, imagination-based experiences like these can prime minds and bodies for the musical subject material of the day without forcing a concept too early. When used in the middle of class, imaginative play involving spatial awareness as a factor becomes a concept to use in a later improvisation game, which can also be notated at the board. For example, I can introduce notated accents and have the children play the squirrels movements on drums. We can move from imagination to experience to representation, eventually translating one medium (space) into another (perhaps notation).

The imagination is just as powerful a tool for adults, even if it can take more work to get there. Props are helpful, but for me, they are often only a starting point. Elastics are wonderful tools to experience tension—push and pull—but performing the same exercise with an imagined elastic requires a different, and arguably more powerful, set of questions. “What am I experiencing by pulling this elastic?” becomes “How would my body behave if I were experiencing pulling on an elastic?” The space between two people becomes charged by the memory of a prior experience. The necessity of using the imagination for that all-powerful if encourages a different spatial awareness, and therefore a different body-mind engagement. 

This also allows me to make use of impractical materials. I can ask students to blow an imaginary feather when they hear subdivisions (the blowing, too, can be imaginary to avoid hyperventilation). If they track the imaginary feather’s journey with their eyes, the space above them turns into a field of possibility. The feather can change into a medicine ball to toss to a friend when the durations change to multiples. Our imaginations are activated, and I am released from having to gather feathers and lug around medicine balls!

photo by Michelle Li

Space Above, Behind, to the Side, Underneath

I have a very poor sense of direction. Except in Manhattan, where the (mostly well-behaved) grid system of streets and avenues is firmly imprinted on both my visual imagination and conceptual understanding, I tend to equate forward with north. When I turn, there is a part of me that still feels as though I’m heading north, a kind of “new north.” I often lack the ability to hold an absolute reference point when moving about in the larger world. I tend to use landmarks instead. It’s an oddity that I have more or less accepted about myself.

Maybe this is why, in the eurhythmics studio, I try to expand my awareness of what is not directly in front of me. Rudolph Laban’s kinesphere is a useful concept here. The awareness of space above, behind, underneath, to the side and, yes, right in front take the direction of potential movements from two dimensions into three. If I spend enough time inhabiting this three-dimensionality, the feeling of freedom is exhilarating and stays with me even when I am walking again out in the streets. Perhaps one day my sense of direction will show signs of improvement!

Once my imagination has inhabited this kinosphere, I like to spend time moving between the potential planes: vertical (space above to space below); sagittal (space in front of me to the space behind me) and horizontal (spaces to either side). In an adult class, I can pair each one of these planes of movement with a musical element. 

For example, in a warm-up, I might ask the students to move in the vertical plane if I play major, the horizontal plane if I play in minor, and the sagittal if I play in a mode other than those two. (This kind of x=y activity is the Dalcroze teaching technique known as association.) In a children’s class, we can imagine spiders moving up and down a web. We can contrast that with a butterfly’s all-over movement in space, and this can all be associated (i.e. paired) with melodies that glide up or down verses melodies that frequently change direction. 

Using space in this way can allow students to move in place rather than travel, which is sometimes essential when the students have been moving a lot or when space is at a premium.

Interior Space/External Space

I can direct my attention to both the space within my body and the space outside my body, and this can deepen my engagement and experience in the eurhythmics classroom. Unless something is drastically wrong with my health, I have no sensation for much of my own interior space—for example, my liver or pancreas. However, once I see an artist rendering or am told by someone who knows, I can imagine where they are and can even imagine moving specific places of my body I cannot directly feel. (I was recently asked to move my liver in a Feldenkrais class. That definitely required some imagination of my own interior space!) 

When it comes to exterior space, except for what is available to my eyes by moving my head, it is all mostly invisible to me at any given moment. Becoming aware of the space underneath, above, behind, as well as farther in front than I can see (because of great distance or physical barriers) changes the way I experience my body. Because of the concrete, the subway, and the expansiveness of buildings in New York City, it can be hard to feel connected with the actual ground. 

When I am able to take a few minutes to become aware of space at the beginning of practice, it changes the way I experience my physical self. I feel more grounded, which is definitely an advantage for pursuing challenging musical subjects such as polyrhythms or complex meter. Likewise, my physical experience can change as the result of imagining the sheer vastness of the exterior space I cannot see. This kind of imaginary spatial orientation and awareness can add further depth and dimension to my experience of my physical self in the eurhythmics class.

In class, I might create or use music that evokes these contrasting experiences of space: interior and exterior. I find that focusing attention on a physical element can at least delay people from favoring analytical modes of processing, which is exactly what I want at the beginning of a class, especially if the subject is challenging. I enjoy introducing even the most complicated subjects with a red herring like this. 

For example, I might ask a class to move between space that is intimate (close and personal) and extended (reaching beyond the room) as suggested by the dynamics of the music. As they warm up their bodies and consider the movement possibilities, I might slip in the real rhythmic theme of the day—three against four, perhaps, or unequal beats. Exploration of spatial dynamics can open doors while bypassing other modes of processing that might hinder full immersion in a musical subject. They can help us to take full advantage of the body’s intelligence toward mastery of rhythm.

Interpersonal Space and Distance

The distance between two objects is another useful parameter involving space. In the adult solfège class, for example, person A stands, representing the tonic of a do-to-do scale. Person B hears a do-to-do scale and has to place themselves at the appropriate distance to comfortably pass Person A at the right time while singing it. The size of the stride can also be mapped onto the whole/half step pattern as they walk. 

Even young students can hear the counterpoint of two scales moving together or moving apart. They enjoy adjusting the space between themselves and a classmate in association with what they hear. Older children and adults can explore the distance between themselves more freely in the room and with more subtlety as two voices on the piano move between parallel, contrary, and oblique motion. In this case, awareness of space is the actual musical subject of the activity! 

The distances need not be only between two people. There can, of course, be distance between two points in space. The distance between point A and point B can be helpful for mastering complex rhythmic subjects such as four against five. In my own practice, I am much more successful if I imagine my arrival point five steps away than if I try to “count” it. This awareness of space often involves measurement and calculation: How far is it from here to there? What path will I take? How will I move? How much time will it take? How much energy do I need? Here is space in its role as member of the famous trio: time, space, and energy. There are many dials to tweak, and they can all be used to teach an endless variety of rhythm subjects involving meter, duration, dynamics, and tempo.

How many steps does it take to get from point A to point B? It depends on the length of stride, of course. For children, animal imagery is time-tested and effective. An elephant’s three steps to get from one end of the circus tent to the other as opposed to his mouse friend’s nine steps. (The numbers can remain tacit. The important thing is for them to feel the difference.) The toy soldier must match her steps to her comrade’s so that they stay in an even row. The distance is constant in the time/space/energy quotient in this case, though if the mouse gets tired, she will need much more time to catch up with her friend.

Props such as hoops are helpful for demanding a greater degree of spatial precision. They can be placed on the ground at regular intervals and can become targets for students to step into, coinciding with musical phenomena such as count one of a measure, a set of divisions in a pattern of just beats, or syncopated rhythms on the offbeats of a pattern. This precise spatial awareness (coupled with timing) has direct application to the playing of an instrument, such as in the moving violin bow or the left hand of a stride pianist. These skills can all be addressed in the expanded spatial playing field of the eurhythmics classroom.

Changing Orientation in Space

For those with less available space (or for compromised space on video), the direction the body is facing can be invested with meaning in association with a musical goal. For example, students can be asked to face another when they hear a chord in inversion and to face no one if the harmony is in root position. Facing forward, to the side, or turning one’s back to another all have a built-in metaphorical meaning that can be attached to the color of a harmony, a type of cadence, or rhythmic elements such as borrowed divisions.

I have ambitions to find ways to use the location of a sound source as a meaningful event. For years, I have used an aural reaction as one of my first activities in early childhood classes. I move around the room with a drum and have the children point to the sounds as they occur. We repeat with eyes closed (something that children do not necessarily know how to do without covering their eyes with their hands). 

I incorporate this pseudo echolocation into stories and imaginative play in my work with children. I would love one day to bring this kind of exploration into the adult class. It calls to mind the compositional technique of the hocket, in which a melody moves through different instruments or voices in small groups or even single sounds. Meredith Monk has made wonderful use of this technique in her work. And someday, maybe I’ll find the right subject for it in the eurhythmics or solfège classroom.


Shapes and Design 

We can imagine lines drawn between specific places on our bodies: a triangle, for example, between my knee, the tip of my finger, and my nose. Particular sides can expand, contract, or remain constant in any combination. I find myself moving in new and unexpected ways when I work to keep the lines of this imaginary shape intact. This design of space can be paired with changing durations, qualities of triads, number of beats in a grouping, etc., and is made infinitely more interesting when working in duos or trios.

Instead of points in space, we can use the metaphor of drawing as another way to design the space. This type of movement is common practice in all sorts of musicianship classes, such as when we draw phrases or track the ups and downs of melodies. But if we shift our awareness to the line created as opposed to the point of the pencil as it moves through the space, we can begin to work inside an imagined three-dimensional space that can take on not only height, but also width and depth. Children love to relate to familiar and less familiar shapes (squares, triangles, polyhedrons) using not only the shape of their bodies, but their movement in space. There are endless ways to use the two-ness, three-ness and four-ness inherent in these shapes in musical contexts.

Other ways of moving pencils across pages can also be inspiring. I keep a playlist from my music service called “Spirals” and regularly add appropriate music to it for movement warm-ups and explorations. (One favorite from this list has been the Kalendar Princes theme from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.)


I’ve gathered these pieces to inspire movement—they are perfect for warm-ups or explorations at the beginning of class.

  1. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: II. The Kalendar Prince from Scheherazade
    The opening of this movement (really just the first two minutes), a violin concerto followed by a theme played on the bassoon, really casts a magical spell perfect for exploring spirals.
  2. Samuel Barber: Piano Concerto Op. 38, 2nd movement
    This is a much longer and more complex piece, good for adults. Very sweeping and grand, with moments of quiet intimacy. (I like the Keith Jarrett recording on ECM.)
  3. Esperanza Spaulding: All Limbs Are (Arms)
    A 3’30” little gem perfect for movement warm-ups with adults. Check out the lyrics: It invites physical exploration on many levels!


There are endless resources for inspiration when considering awareness and use of space, and we live in an age of abundant access. Sometimes, five minutes on YouTube watching a dance by Mark Morris or Balanchine is all I need to spark an idea. In a walk (or virtual walk) through the Museum of Modern Art, I see a work by Cy Twombly and think of not just spirals, but a certain kind of spiral, ones with intense, monumental, and yet intimate energy and use of space. But really, just looking out of the window can be enough. In my class for five- and six-year-olds this year, the kids have been fascinated by (and are quite knowledgeable of) bird behavior. We explore the many ways birds use space: flocking, lining up on a wire or ledge, or hunting for food in a group. It has made creating a plastique for the first movement of “Winter” in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, well, child’s play.

And that, at least for me, is the point. I wish you many happy and fruitful hours of exploration in this (not at all final) frontier.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Dalcroze Connections, Vol. 7, No. 1.

About Michael Joviala

Michael Joviala teaches at the Lucy Moses School of Music and Dance, the Diller Quaile School of Music and Columbia University in New York City. He is the music director of the improvisation collective Loco Motors, and holds the Diplôme Supérieur from the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva, Switzerland.

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