Laban was born in Poszony in Hungary (now in Bratislava), part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was a high ranking officer and military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovinia.
Laban was an influential person in 20th century dance with a strong link to the Dada movement (see 6). He was a dancer, choreographer, actor, artist, sculptor, theatre producer who became best known as an educator, therapist, writer and adviser to industry. He published a system of movement notation which is used worldwide and identified the fundamentals of movement which he organised into a structured progression.
Laban's very formal and rigid schooling may well have strongly influenced his theories on education. He found school both unkind and uncomfortable where 'formal education had been an unpleasant and unproductive time' (J.Hodgson & V.Preston-Dunlop). Another factor which might have affected his later views was his exposure to many different folksongs and dances encountered during summer holidays spent travelling throughout central Europe. Certainly, at a very early age, he became aware that expression and creation needed to be 'central for growing young individuals' (Hodgson&Dunlop). He viewed education as a holistic process whereby the qualities of people are developed, taking into account social and cultural environment rather than as a separate activity taking place at school. Laban further saw the role of movement in society as 1) an end in itself and 2) as a tool with which to construct a philosophy of education and dance where the two are not just complimentary but jointly beneficial/joined in a beneficial relationship. Many believe that he had a revolutionary effect on education.
In 1910, he formed the 'first movement choirs' for non-professional dancers and in 1930 he became Director of Movement at the State Opera in Berlin. From 1938 until his death in 1958, he lived in Britain where he applied his vision and knowledge in the theatrical, therapeutic, industrial and educational fields.
Laban's educational ideas met with great resistance from the Nazi party in Germany which remained rigidly attached to the notion of regimented 'drill' in all aspects of education and he was forced to leave for Wales where Lisa Ullman found work for them both as physical education advisors. During the war, Laban visited factories to advice on efficiency and this work has been further developed and the technique known as 'Action Profiling' is now used in Management Consultancy. In Britain, after the war, there was a strong shift in thinking (influenced by Laban) when the term 'physical training' was changed to 'physical education'. However, it was mainly the world of women's physical education that Laban captivated, he was met by a hostile response from men's physical education colleges whose entrenchment in drill and sport did not enable them to adjust to Laban's new and radical philosohy.
In 1948, Laban wrote 'Modern Educational Dance', a work built on his earlier book 'Movement and Dance for Children'-published in 1926. The new book did not only suggest dance themes but also the social, historical and personal importance of dance (Hodgson & Preston-Dunlop). Educationalists were quick to adopt Laban's principles and by 1952, the Ministry of Education had published a book for primary teachers called 'Moving and Growing'. Policy makers recognised in Laban's methods, what might be called a 'complete teaching' related to movement. It began to understand that movement was not merely jumping around during playtime, movement was a way to communicate and express. It was common and instinctive to all yet, at the same time it was unique to each individual, from the cradle to the grave. Lisa Ullman said, 'One of the aims of education and I think the most important one, is to help people through dancing to find bodily relation to the whole of existence'. Many educationalists were keen to harness this potential boost to educational standards (some may say for career based motives rather than aesthetic ones) and were therefore, quick to provide an environment where theory could be transformed into practice and the pupil/teacher relationship re-examined.
Laban's methods continued to be applied until the mid 1970s when there was a shift of educational emphasis. The economy was faltering and financial cuts were inflicted on all areas of society and because the Department of Education funds were diverted elsewhere many opportunities for implementing Laban's work were lost. However, as his work has been adapted and applied to contemporary society, his influence is now active in fields he would be surprised at. Like his movement themes, his whole philosophy is capable of evolution and contemporary dance takes inspiration from many of his ideas and theories.
Years of practice and research led to Laban's outstanding achievement; a systematic analysis of movement in relation to dynamic use of the body in space. Out of this came, what is sometimes called the 'Laban technique', a study of the release of human energy into action and expression. It is a whole vocabulary of movement rather than a set of exercises. Many of Laban's pupils became specialists in widely varied fields of activities and for Dance/Movement Therapy, Laban's work has provided a coherent basis.