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.

"He's capturing the complexity," says Studd.

And no one knows how to put on a listening face like Huckabee. Eyes wide open, brows at attention, very I'm taking it all in.

John McCain: The man doesn't move a whole heck of a lot -- understandable, given the injuries he suffered as a POW in Vietnam. Except for the occasional chopping hand gesture, he's got both arms on the podium, bracing. Does that make him boring? Undynamic? Hardly, Studd says. "He's a pyramid -- the most stable shape in nature."

The topic is Iraq, and McCain keeps his head down, his neck tense. His upper arms and shoulders are drawn in; Bradley calls that a "control" thing. "He's definitely appealing to the military community," she adds.

But then, as he holds forth on border security and the "heart-wrenching" quandary for U.S. children with undocumented parents, his torso spreads and sinks -- a kind of full-body sigh, like "he's frustrated that this hasn't been solved already," says Whitener.

McCain has a "bound flow," she says, as opposed to Huckabee's free-flow body language, and it evokes the time he spent confined in small places as a POW. "There's a sense of a line that can't be crossed with him."

Mitt Romney: Well, he's certainly sending some interesting signals. He's praising the work ethic of immigrants, especially those who seek legal status through proper channels, but he's doing this with his chin coyly tucked, a smile dancing on his lips, his eyes twinkling up from under his brow.

"He's doing courtship things," says Bradley. "It's almost like he's going to wink at you."

"He's cute," says Whitener. "He's so focused on you, he's not seeing anyone else in the room and -- well, you'd just want to go out with him!"

"Clinton had a lot of that," Bradley scoffs.

Romney talks about families separated by the border, but when he gestures, it's mostly with his wrist, not his full arm. "It's detached, it's peripheral, it's not touching the core," says Studd. But when he brags about his record of insuring Massachusetts's uninsured, he's suddenly engaged -- pelvis back, forearm forward, like "he's about to pounce," says Bradley.

Rudy Giuliani: Where Huckabee is expansive and McCain establishes a solid perimeter, Giuliani keeps his frame narrow and controlled. His gestures are often at odds -- hands spread wide while his head moves forward -- and with pinched expressions and a habit of pointing, he has a tendency to look "schoolmarmish," says Studd.

He telegraphs his discomfort over a question about border security, Bradley says, by flinging a dismissive hand to the side and licking his lips.

The fidgetiness could work, though, say the profs. "He's bound and quick, with a controlled shudder -- it's a gearing up, a preparation, like he's ready to attack," says Studd.

Fred Thompson: He's the actor, but his face -- forever fixed in an expression of concern -- isn't nearly as malleable as Huckabee's. His head droops, his hands don't move. "Whatever he's talking about here, he's not selling it," says Bradley. "He doesn't even seem interested in selling it." On the question of when to leave Iraq, he makes a pushing gesture that seems to the profs as if he's pushing the problem away from himself.

What happened? "He's got broad shoulders and he's tall, and I think that bought him a lot of status, but it just doesn't read so well when it's you by yourself," says Studd. "You put him in a scene with someone else, and it plays to his advantage, but at a podium, there's nothing."

Duncan Hunter: Swagger is a good thing, right? Not when you're swaggering with a backward lean, like Hunter, who has a way of gesturing off to the side. "It's disdainful," Bradley says. "You get the sense he doesn't listen."

Hunter looks exasperated when asked about anti-Hispanic sentiment. He's talking about all the support he gets from Hispanics in his district, but he grabs his head with his right hand, "like 'there's no answer I can give that's going to sound good to you,' " Studd says. And then he jabs his thumb toward the space behind him onstage.

"Oh my gosh, you do not usually see that!" gasps Bradley. "It's past, it's negativity, it's 'Send 'em back.' "

Ron Paul: He's the only candidate who, when he gestures, keeps his fingers loose and wide apart. "There's more thinking than sensing," says Studd.

His eyes are alert, but his face barely moves. "He's self-involved," says Bradley. "The focus is inside his own head."

As he rages against the flight of jobs overseas, Paul finds his groove. His head lifts, his torso follows, in a rare display of authority and power. For the most part, "he comes across as likable but not authoritative," says Studd.

Bradley shrugs. "That may be why people like him."

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