Analyzing the Dance of the GOP Debaters

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What accounts for the astonishing Mike Huckabee surge of recent weeks?

"He listens," says Karen Studd. "He's willing to hear other perspectives."

"It's about innovative ideas," says Karen Bradley.

Not that these women -- two university professors watching Sunday's GOP debate in a chic Georgetown rowhouse -- necessarily support the ideas of the conservative former Arkansas governor. They've barely been listening to them, in fact. But as professors of dance, they've got their own theory about Huckabee's ascent in the polls:

It's something in the way he moves.

A man of confident gestures and lively demeanor, Huckabee just might be this cycle's Great Communicator in the quadrennial contest that Bradley claims always comes down to the candidate with the greatest "shaping" ability -- the subtle body language that conveys warmth, strength, energy, whatever it is that makes people think they like and trust you.

Does this stuff really matter? We'll just note that Bradley, who directs graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland, was talking publicly about the incredible physical charisma of then-unknown Howard Dean back in 2002, way before his campaign took off. (And later fizzled, but that's another body-language story.) And she was publicly touting Huckabee as the smoothest-moving Republican over the summer, when he was still polling in single digits.

Bradley and Studd, a professor at George Mason University, are both practitioners of Laban Movement Analysis, a technique for describing body movements and hypothesizing about the signals they send. They and Jan Whitener -- a Laban student who has partnered with Bradley in a new consulting firm, Move to Win -- agreed to watch Sunday's debate on Univision with us. Since it was translated immediately into Spanish, they found themselves relying almost completely on the candidates' physicality.

Mike Huckabee: It's not any one trick or gimmick; he's simply the most "integrative" guy in the race, the professors say. Talking about the need for preventive health care, he moves his hand forward and brings his body's full weight along, his eyebrows lifting in perfect synchronicity. The message? "That all of him is invested," says Studd.

Not always: When quizzed about the problem of anti-Hispanic sentiment among some Americans, Huckabee seems ill at ease, his hands moving back and forth in opposition to the little side-to-side shift he's doing. "Grasping for straws," says Studd.

But he warms to the topic of schools, talking about educating both the left and right sides of the brain (hands and body moving left and right), about how kids drop out because they're bored, and he reaches out to the audience in a gesture that says Let me hold your baby or Let me hand you the answer, and then brings his hands together in a point.

"That was beautiful," sighs Bradley.

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