Gurdjieff International Review

Living the Oral Tradition in Movements

Diana Rosenthal

Gurdjieff brought a teaching to the world that calls us to question why we are here on earth. How can we experience this life, in our bones, so to say, engaging in the movement of life, trying to follow it, wishing to be in the process, moment by moment? Is it possible to come into contact with a bigger view of ourselves, other people and the world, under a higher, more objective influence? Gurdjieff’s Movements give us the opportunity to pursue this search, to discover our deepest questions, to experience the opportunity—if only for a moment—to be in movement, feeling the relation of body, mind, and feeling as a doorway to another current of life. This current is always present—and we are not in contact with it.

Gurdjieff’s Movements, the Sacred Dances, are one of the pillars of his teaching—works of objective art in which knowledge about Man and the Cosmos has been encoded. Madame de Salzmann says: “These movements have a double aim. By requiring a quality of attention maintained on several parts at the same time, they help us to get out of the narrow circle of our automatism. And through a strict succession of attitudes, they lead us to a new possibility of thinking, feeling and action. If we could truly perceive their meaning and speak their language, the Movements would reveal to us another level of understanding.”[1]

How is this meaning and language searched for and transmitted? How is it perceived by the people engaged in a movements class? This is where the question of the oral tradition arises. It is through this tradition that the study of Movements has been passed—and continues to be passed—in a work together that is in the moment, active, dynamic, alive.

Gurdjieff himself wrote very little about the Movements, and he called himself “simply a ‘Teacher of Dancing.’”[2] How do the Movements remain living as a vehicle of his teaching when the teacher of dancing is no longer here? The way Gurdjieff gave the Movements to classes of pupils has been described many times: it was his vision, the demand he made, his being, his presence that was recalled and that made the imprint on his pupils. Fortunately for all of us, a few people recorded the form of the dances that he gave, but nothing that was written down on paper begins to convey the meaning and language Madame de Salzmann refers to. It is only in an actual class of living people, with one in front who serves as guide—the “assistant”—and a musician at the piano, that a Movement comes to life. The task of keeping this work alive has passed from person to person, directly, in the flesh—in real time, in space, in action, in quiet—in very special conditions.

Many elements contribute to the special conditions of a movements class. The central demand is the search for presence in each person. It is an inner effort that can open the body, mind and feeling to a new kind of seeing. The key relationship is that which exists between the assistant, the class, and the pianist—a moving triangle: all three are crucial to the study of a Movement. That relationship depends on preparation, adaptation, listening, attention, seeing, intensity of thought and sensation, and following. When each part of this triangle is engaged, an interest appears, opening to an entirely new level of feeling.

The first element of the triangle is the class. Everyone coming through the door of the Movements Hall can leave all the concerns of life outside and enter into a quiet atmosphere of preparation. Here, within each of us, the call to a fuller attention towards what is happening in each moment can be heard. This is a room where the ideas of Gurdjieff’s teaching can actually be lived. Here, we consciously encounter our lack of attention, the unrelatedness of our centers, our clumsiness, our inability to listen, our lack of awareness of other people, the heaviness of our thought, and many other impressions that result from our efforts to engage in a Movement or exercise. This is a laboratory and, with the help of these conditions, we can each verify our inner situation, and try to follow its constant movement. To meet the demand, to discover what it is to be in unfamiliar positions, to sense them in the body, and to understand the form of the Movement brings the need for the participation of the mind to prepare, to attend, to intend—moment by moment. We can feel that the mind must be more active, the awareness in the body deeper. When this is truly felt and lived, a new dimension appears which brings a certain quality of joy. It is not a question of doing the Movements, but of following what is taking place. How a position is taken, where it comes from, what happens in between one position and the next—can there be a link in our movements, can we taste what it is to truly be in motion? This question as a living impression opens us to the wish to be present in the movement of our lives. When we walk out the door at the end of the class, we have an opportunity to feel our state, to recognize that it won’t last, and to be aware of what we received and what we gave in the class.

For the assistant, the second element of the triangle, the demand is multi-leveled. He must prepare with all the understanding gained over years of work in classes, re-discovering questions of quality, tempo, rhythm, exactness of positions, and the purpose of working on a certain Movement. Each class is a new study, a new demand. How the assistant is in front of the class influences how the people in the class move and see themselves. The assistant must try at the same time to be in contact with himself, show the movement, see the class as a whole and each individual in it without judgment, to be a little ahead of everyone else, and convey interest and search. His task is to invite the class to experience the sensation of each gesture. Words help when needed, but it is the way he moves, and is, that is essential.

The third element of this dynamic triangle is the musician. Having come into the room with everyone else, he is in the same atmosphere of study, alone at the piano yet not alone, because the music he plays connects everyone. The pianist must have practiced the music or be ready to improvise for an exercise that could demand any number of different qualities of tone, rhythm, tempo and mode. He must take direction from the assistant and relate to what is asked for, and at the same time, while playing, watch the class, sensitive and vigilant to what is needed. He must discover if the music is helping or hindering the development of a Movement, if it corresponds to the speed and quality needed, and if it helps bring a certain relaxation that can open the class to another kind of seeing. Through what he plays, the musician’s quality of presence is felt by everyone. The vibrations of the music go directly into the bodies and hearts of the people in the class, influencing their states and internal processes.

The relationship between the assistant, the pianist, and the class—a triadic expression of the oral tradition—creates a new condition, in which the Sacred Dance itself can appear. This relationship informs the search to understand what Gurdjieff left us in this aspect of his multifaceted teaching. In this working together, the language and meaning of a Sacred Dance can be revealed, and the fundamental question that called each of us to Gurdjieff’s teaching can be awakened—the question of the meaning of our existence, of how to be in the movement of life in a way that is to open to a higher intelligence, a sacred force.

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Diana Rosenthal has been associated with the Gurdjieff Foundation of California in San Francisco and with the work of the Movements there since 1969. Photo by Bill Jordan.

Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2012


[1] Jeanne de Salzmann, The Reality of Being: The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff, Boston: Shambhala, 2010, pp. 121–122.

[2] Gurdjieff, G. I., Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1950, p. 50.