The Non-Verbal Dance that Happens in a Hug

Recently, upon departure of an event, I reached my arms out in an open fashion inviting a hug to say goodbye to a family friend.  I waited to see if the person would respond to my non-verbal invitation for a hug.  Indeed, she took me up on this offer by moving in with an open posture towards me, leaned in, and we began to embrace.  However, as the receiver of this hug, I actually felt the person hollow her torso backwards in her body, move sideways, and barely make physical contact with me. Then, she gave me a gentle pat on my back that I perceived as her non-verbal message that she was ready to separate from the embrace. I had several thoughts emerge when this happened.  I thought, “am I not huggable? Is there something uncomfortable about hugging me? Is this family friend feeling differently about our departure than me? Am I making her uncomfortable?” All of these loaded non-verbal messages lasted just under 3 seconds.

Messages that occur non-verbally through the movement relationship between others are something that dance/movement therapists attend to. Dance/movement therapists use systems such as Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), the Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP), and Movement Pattern Analysis (MPA) in order to describe, interpret, document, and intervene with a variety of human movements. A dance/movement therapist views movement of the body as both expressive and communicative and in examining one’s movement vocabulary or range we can “open a door to the study of patterns of early development, coping strategies, and personality configurations” (Kestenberg Amighi, Loman, Lewis, & Sossin, 1999, p. 2). Through looking at some of the concepts within these systems of movement analysis along with touch research, we can begin to understand the non-verbal dance might occur within a hug.  Here are a few concepts, over-simplified, of course.

Body Shape: How our bodies make “shape” in the environment is an observational category in the movement analysis systems that look at what forms the body makes. For example, does the body shape change in relation to self or in relation to the environment? What is influencing its process of change? Changes in Shape can reveal a variety of inner attitudes and motivations that don’t need to be conscious in order to be operating. These shaping qualities are based on the growing and shrinking of bodily dimensions resulting from a basic sense of comfort/discomfort, and influence feelings of trust and security.  Imagine a hug when someone molds her body into yours, takes a long exhale, and relaxes their body shape into yours.

Muscle Tension in the Body: According to the research from Judith Kestenberg, a psychoanalyst specializing in child development, all muscles exhibit an ever-changing alternation in muscle tension during any activity. Kestenberg identified rhythmic patterns of these changes in muscle tension– tension-flow-rhythms – based on observations of thousands of free hand tracings she made while observing babies moving. From these observations she identified ten basic rhythms that she felt correlated with particular developmental tasks. For example, the pat on my back (a.k.a., “biting rhythm”) that I experienced in the hug with my friend corresponds with the developmental task of separation and differentiation.  This rhythm could be a nonverbal signal during a hug that tells us it is time to separate and create distance between our bodies.  It can also be a sign that the other party isn’t interested in this physical proximity and is trying to disengage politely.  Most often, many of these movement messages occur out of consciousness and quite quickly. Another example of a different tension-flow-rhythm might be when one strokes your back (like petting an animal) in a nurturing rhythm, simulating the developmental need of soothing, bonding, and desiring connectedness.

Duration: While many studies have repeatedly indicated that three seconds is the average length of time that people engage in a hug, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have also shown that when hugs last 20 seconds, something different occurs.  The oxytocin hormone, the same hormone that is present when bonding with a baby, or while engaging in lovemaking is produced. Oxytocin offers a calming effect on the body and mind, and an increase in this hormone can have benefits on our overall health, supporting among many things, our sense of safety, decreasing anxiety, and increasing relaxation and a sense of calm.  According to Tiffany Field, director of Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, a hug from a friend or a professional massage can also help in the reduction of tension.

Who: Studies have also indicated that it is not just touch that is needed, but the person one is hugging makes a difference, as does the duration. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Ethology, researcher, Emese Nagy, conducted an analysis of video recordings of over 20 sports in the Olympic finals observing 188 hugs between athletes from 32 nations and their coaches, teammates, and rivals. On average, the hugs also lasted about 3 seconds, regardless of the athletes’ and their partners’ gender or national origin. However, Nagy discovered that the identity of the partner did matter: athletes hugged their coaches somewhat longer than they did their teammates and the athletes hugged their opponents the shortest amount of time suggesting that the intensity of a shared experience between two people, especially one as intimate and emotionally charged as an embrace, mattered.

As a dance/movement therapist, I’m always interested in non-verbal messages and ways where we can increase the therapeutic effect on the body and the mind.  While this may sound like such a simple opportunity to do so, it was clear in my recent encounter with my close family friend, that touch is perceived differently among people. In an older study, Anderson and Leibowitz (1978) discovered that in same sex dyads, men were more likely than women to engage in touch avoidance. Another study conducted by Jason Wrench, noted that individuals who are deprived from touch may need more nurturing and noted a relationship between touch deprivation and depression. Regardless, despite the research that hugging and touch can be beneficial, there are many reasons why some may be uncomfortable with physical touch including experiences where touch was not consensual, withheld, or intrusive.  This is why affection of any kind should never be forced.  The non-verbal communication that occurs in the seconds prior to the three-second embrace and after speak louder than words.  Read and respect the cues of the other person.  Affection such as hugging should happen because two people feel like giving them not because of any pressure.

In interesting irony, that evening after I said goodbye to my friend, I unwrapped a piece of Dove chocolate that had a special message inside, it said, “A gentle touch speaks volumes.”  Indeed…. now we know why.

Watch video below:

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