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Why the Gesture is an Essential Element of Storytelling

Updated: May 1, 2023

Throughout nature, we find communication. Communication is the ability to impart or exchange information and this is done in myriad ways within the plant world, within the animal world, and within the human world. Not only that, there is communication happening between those worlds as well. In this exploration, I will present examples of communication that we can experience with our five physical senses. This article does not attempt to address other levels of communications that may exist. For example, the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto, which he documented in his compelling book, The Hidden Messages in Water, suggests quite strongly that there are levels of communication within nature that far exceed what we can observe with our "naked eyes". However, for the sake of simplicity, I want to confine our contemplations to those based on phenomena we can perceive with one or more of our five physical senses.

Why does the cherry tree, for instance, produce such gorgeous and fragrant blossoms? As a child I unconsciously thought that it did so simply to be pretty. Along the way I learned that the blossom is a very emphatic signal, a communication from the plant to its pollinators. It is telling the pollinators that a food source, usually pollen or nectar, is actually or potentially available for harvest. Thus, the pollinators come to the cherry blossoms having understood the trees' signals. In their activities, the pollinators take pollen for themselves and they also distribute it, fulfilling the next step in the plant's efforts to procreate. Later on in the season, the pollinated blossom creates a fruit. A deeply colored cherry fruit is another communication. It tells many more creatures, which can include insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and/or human beings, that the fruit is ready to be eaten. Is the cherry tree just an incredibly "generous" plant, ready to feed other beings? Of course not. The cherry tree's production of cherry fruit is a survival strategy. Cherry-eaters of all kinds either instinctively "know" or they learn to "interpret" the language of color being communicated by the cherry tree. After eating the fruit, the cherry-eaters will often discard the fruit pits (the seeds) elsewhere, thus perpetuating the lifeline of the cherry tree in the next generation. So the changing coloration of the fruit is a communication inviting valuable interactions with other creatures.

As Sir David Attenborough and other naturalists so wisely point out, fruits and vegetables are incredibly successful in their communication efforts. While the human being may, from their point of view, believe that the orchard is a picture of fruit trees in service to human beings, it is just as valid to see that the human beings are serving the plants. In the bargain, the plant has compelled the human beings to bring it in from the wilds, to protect it from harm, to feed it, to water it, to rid it of pests, parasites and other maladies, and to cultivate it to be even healthier and more productive.

The truth of course, is that the arrangement is mutually beneficial. And the relationship was reached through basic communication efforts and resultant interactions.

Obviously, the term communication is being used quite freely in these scenarios. There is a tremendous difference between plant "communications" and those we find in the animal world. Likewise, there exist even greater differences between communications within the animal world and those of human beings.

Human beings will employ various methods to represent their thoughts and feelings to other human beings. We use words, either written or spoken. If spoken, those words are given voice with a particular tone, in a particular cadence, with a particular volume. Our facial expressions and even the direction of our eyesight will give the other more clues about our thoughts and feelings. Among the many other ways that we strive to convey our thoughts and feelings, there are gestures.

We all know that body language is perceptible. It might be general or vague, but we can gain a sense of someone's mood by the way they stand or walk. We can sense a person's attitude in their posture. We don't really gain a sense of their thoughts from basic body language, however, until we focus on the hands. These very human adaptations are actually quite capable of more sophisticated communications. Gestures are even part of elaborate communications within many primate societies.

In their article, "Nature's Masterpiece: How Evolution Gave Us Our Human Hands", written for Discover Magazine in November 2020, the authors (Bohme, Braun, and Breier) cited some primate field research. A British study performed in 2018, which included over 3,000 separate observations, discovered that several primate species used approximately 33 gestures for communication. Interestingly, the gestures were consistent in performance and meaning among bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Below is the link for that article, though it may require subscription to view.

What this study suggests bears some import: namely, that there are levels of gesture communication that are likely deeply embedded within human beings as well. To be clear, this does not mean that human beings would recognize the primate gesture language instinctively. In other words, it is not the specific language that is important. What is important is the existence of a gesture language at all among primates, those animals closely related to homo sapiens sapiens, relatively speaking (no pun intended). It is not a great stretch of imagination to think that our own more closely related ancestors would have also employed a gesture language on the path of developing our more sophisticated methods of communication. It is especially easy to conceive when we observe that pre-lingual children will employ basic gestures for communication. The use of gestures in human communications is readily observable in daily conversations.

If you begin to explore hand research, you will eventually discover researchers who suggest that some primate hands are actually more specialized for particular functions than human hands. While such specializations are irrefutable, it is too simplistic to suggest that any "hand" is more useful or skillful than the human hand. Indeed, let us not lose sight of just how special the human hand is! Evolutionarily speaking, the hand is a rose of human development.

Human beings can play violins, build clocks, knit sweaters, paint chapel ceilings, sculpt marble, juggle chainsaws, and thousands of other things. Even if we limit the use of hands to the realm of gesture communication, we need only compare those 33 primate gestures with the systems of sign language that have been developed by human beings.

All of this is brought to your attention to attest to the power and potential of the human gesture, particularly as it can be employed by storytellers.

Allow this brief aside to explain why the story, as the fruit of the storyteller (the teacher) is fundamental to Waldorf education.

In Waldorf education, we use stories as the foundations for many future lessons. In the grades, for example, the Waldorf teacher derives future lessons from the images and events conveyed in stories. A first grade math lesson can be based, for example, on the Grimm's fairytale, "The Twelve Brothers". A second grade language arts lesson can be easily developed out of the fable "The Fox and the Grapes". A fourth grade biology lesson can be brought out of a Norse Myth. By doing this, the teacher brings to the student the "colder" and more abstract aspects of the lessons through the vehicle of the story imaginations. These more abstract lessons include symbolic language work (writing and reading) and symbolic numeric processes (mathematics). The child encounters these lessons within the context of stories vividly told to them, of stories that they imagined, building rich and meaningful imaginations within themselves. Thus, the ensuing lessons are "pre-warmed", presented and exercised within their own soul-wrought imaginations.

With the importance and role of storytelling in Waldorf education being understood, we can return to the gesture. Now that we see how deeply the gesture language potential exists within human beings, now that we see the evidence of just how far such a gesture language can be developed, it is easy to appreciate why a simple gesture language, consistently utilized, can help a storyteller more effectively deliver the story content to the audience. It renders that story content to the audience on a deep level, integrating the experience on many levels.

As an enthusiastic student of the art of storytelling, I take great interest in learning how storytelling can be brought in ways that will usefully support the growing human being. In my courses for storytelling in the grades, I include a basic repertoire of about 25 "formal gestures". There are other natural gestures that a storyteller may use spontaneously, but these 25 provide a baseline of classic expressions that can serve the storyteller and the audience member(s). As we practice gestures over time with our storytelling, we develop a greater and greater sensitivity to what works most effectively. There is a balance to be found between being overly demonstrative, which would detract from the important imaginative process of the audience, and being a "talking head", which would be boring. In the right balance, the gestures support the storyteller and the audience optimally.

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