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The Fascinating Nonverbal Dance in Every 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 responded to my non-verbal invitation for a hug. Indeed, she took me up on this offer, came with an open posture towards me, leaned in, and we began to embrace. However, on the receiving end 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 indication that she was ready to separate from the embrace.

Several thoughts emerged when this happened: 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?

Dance/movement therapists attend to the messages that occur nonverbally through the movement relationship with others. Some movement frameworks are used to describe and support intervention decisions 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 nonverbal dance that might occur within a hug.

Here are a few (simplified) concepts:

  • 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. According to 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 freehand 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 (i.e., “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 three 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.

I’m always interested in nonverbal messages and ways we can increase the therapeutic effect on the body and the mind. It was clear in my recent encounter with the family friend that different people perceive touch differently. 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 in which touch was not consensual, was intrusive, or was was withheld. This is why affection of any kind should never be forced. The nonverbal communication that occurs in the seconds prior to a three-second embrace, and after, speaks louder than words. Read and respect the cues of another person. Affectionate acts such as hugs 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: A gentle touch speaks volumes.

Indeed—and now we know why.


Anderson, P.A. & Leibowitz, K. (1978). The development and nature of the construct touch avoidance. Environment Psychology and Nonverbal Behavior, 6, 253-258.

Field, T. (2002). Infants’ need for touch. Human Development, 45, 100-103.

Grewen, K.M., Anderson, B.J., Girdler, S.S., Light, K.C., (2003). Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. Behavioral Medicine, 29, 123-130.

Kestenberg Amighi, J., Loman, S., Lewis, P., & Sossin, K.M. (1999). The meaning of movement: Developmental and clinical perspectives of the Kestenberg Movement Profile. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Gordon and Breach.

Laban, R. ., & Ullmann, L. (1960). The mastery of movement. London: MacDonald & Evans.

Light, K., C., Grewen, K., Amico, J. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological Psychology, 69, 5–21.

Nagy, E. (2011). Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. Journal of Ethology, 29(2), 389-393.

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Punyanunt-Carter N., & Wrench, J. A. (n.d). Development and Validity Testing of a Measure of Touch Deprivation. Human Communication, 12(1), 67-76.

© Christina Devereaux, PhD, LCAT, LMHC, BC-DMT

To learn more about how dance/movement therapists view "body language" view Stacey Hurst in the speaker series ADTATalks: Dance/Movement Therapy: Analyzing "Body Language"

"Dance/movement therapists believe that all movement meets a need - whether functional or emotional - and it is an outward expression of one's internal world." ~ Stacey Hurst


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