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Commentary on Teaching Dancing with Ideokinetic Principles by Drid Williams

Pamela Matt

I am pleased to be invited to provide comments on Teaching Dancing with Ideokinetic Principles by Drid Williams. I became acquainted with Dr. Williams in 2003 when I was seeking contributors to the website The website is intended to provide a historical overview and bibliography for the somatic tradition begun by Mabel Elsworth Todd (1937) early in the twentieth century, which is now best known as 'Ideokinesis.' Dr. Lulu Sweigard and Barbara Clark, R.N., were both students of Todd who became prominent teachers and writers in the field. They, in turn, passed on their interpretations of the approach to many others, most of whom were also teachers of dance.

     After some preliminary talk about my book A Kinesthetic Legacy: The Life and Works of Barbara Clark (1993), Williams begins by describing her private lessons with Lulu Sweigard in the 1950s and her subsequent experimentation with applications of what she found appropriate from Sweigard's work for the teaching of dance techniques. At that time, she was developing a manuscript about the relationship between the ideokinetic approach and dance teaching that she called "Letters on Ideokinesis and Dancing."

     Dr. Williams and I corresponded regularly about her project throughout the following year. Williams sent drafts of her chapters to me, soliciting my comments as a teacher and biographer of Barbara Clark, whom she considered to be an interesting exponent of Todd's approach but not nearly the equal of Dr. Sweigard. I offered my notes by email, and she methodically challenged most of them in our subsequent telephone talks. I learned to brace myself for her critiques of my comments, although they were always delivered with a chuckle and held open the possibility for eventual agreement about the key educational principles that both Clark and Sweigard employed throughout their careers.

     In nearly every conversation, Williams reiterated her views on what Sweigard's method was really all about and how the understanding of its distinctiveness had been distorted by the appropriation of several other versions of the ideokinetic approach in the field of dance. Since related concerns about the discipline were part of my decision to create the website, our conversations redoubled my dedication to being absolutely clear in my characterization of the historical roots and fundamental principles of ideokinesis whenever I had the opportunity.

     Now, as I reflect on those interviews with her, it is certain that our discussions sharpened my ability to speak with greater authority about the methods, history, and philosophy of the approach. My sense is that Williams's uncompromising tone in our conversations undoubtedly disclosed a great deal about Sweigard's attitudes, which were shaped, in turn, by the cultural and academic environment of her times.

     Sweigard started her career not in the dance but as a student of physical education. She was very impressed by Todd's methods. However, in the late 1920s when Sweigard was a student, Mabel Todd's approach was not taken seriously by most of her colleagues in academia who were dedicated to the proposition that "physical education" was accomplished through exercise and that posture should be corrected with directives for "holding" parts of the body in place. Thus, Todd's idea that posture and coordination could be enhanced by visualizing images that embodied aspects of ideal skeletal balance was summarily dismissed by most of her contemporaries. Todd continued the development of her approach outside academia where she and the teachers she trained helped hundreds of students with strains and deficiencies in movement performance that were related to postural faults.

     In the 1930s, after learning how to perform scientific research as part of her doctoral program, Sweigard conducted a study that demonstrated that Todd's method of improving posture through the visualization of goals did produce measurable improvements in body alignment. She then proceeded to conduct another study that explored other aspects of Todd's basic educational premise. According to Williams, it was terribly disappointing for Sweigard to gradually realize that her scientific findings would have very little impact in physical education. By then, physical educators had lost interest in body mechanics. They were beginning to be influenced by trends from behaviorist psychology, which characterized human learning chiefly in terms of stimulus and response. Consequently, it is not at all surprising that Sweigard began to drastically simplify Todd's educational strategies and present her own approach (now called "ideokinesis"), using language that focused on the dimensions of kinesthetic learning that could be interpreted with a behaviorist's mindset.

     Later, when her career proceeded into the field of dancing, Sweigard's inclination to reduce the parameters of the approach to the simplest terms became even more urgent due the fact that the vibrant youth culture of the 1960s was embracing a variety of body methods based on what Williams called "quasi-mystical flights of fancy." Sweigard's young dance students at Juilliard undoubtedly made connections between the atmospherics of that culture and their teacher's procedure for improving body balance by visualizing images while lying in 'Constructive Rest.' With movement science pulling in one direction and her dance students pulling in another, it is certainly understandable that Sweigard focused on those aspects of the ideokinetic approach that could not be misrepresented. She adamantly adhered to those principles. By continuing her own discussion of the ideokinetic approach in this vein in Teaching Dancing with Ideokinetic Principles, Williams certainly presents a clear picture of Sweigardian ideokinesis.

     Including Sweigard's articles as appendices at the end of many of the book chapters renews our appreciation of her considerable contributions to the field; but by building her discussion of the use of ideokinetic principles in the teaching of dancing exclusively on the scaffold of the perspectives Sweigard adopted somewhat defensively in decades long past, Williams promotes an extremely conservative point of view of the ideokinetic approach and largely ignores the development of many other creative dimensions of the field.

     In thinking back over the tenor of our telephone conversations several years ago, my guess is that Williams's reaction to the previous comment might be something like, "Well, did you expect me to tie it all up with a bow?" And, indeed, this was not the purpose of her commentary.

     For Sweigard, the relationship between ideokinesis and dance teaching was quite simple: better dancing can only be achieved through the development of better posture. Better posture can only be achieved through changing established neuromuscular habit patterns in the body. In turn, better habit patterns in the body can only be achieved through the discipline of constructive rest.

     Williams's method for teaching dancing with Sweigard's ideokinetic principles focuses on a strategy for improving established neuromuscular habits that cultivates a more accurate experiential understanding of the location of the major articulations of the body. Such knowledge improves a dancer's ability to initiate movements more efficiently and eliminates layers of unnecessary muscular tension in movement performance. Williams's fascinating description of her work with a wide range of students from well-known professional dancers to chatty housewives provides invaluable insights into the lived reality of the process of teaching that technique.

     She continues her discussion by drawing interesting distinctions between movement pathology and movement potential, anatomical and aesthetic imagery, abstract anatomical knowledge and experiential anatomical knowledge, kinesthetic imagery and mirror imagery, and the differing needs of the novice dance student and the dance professional. These discussions should be enormously helpful not only to those seeking to enhance their understanding of the particular implications of the ideokinetic approach for dance teaching but for all teachers using anatomical information to deepen the kinesthetic awareness of students in their dance classes.

     Williams also plants several intriguing starting points for further investigation that are of particular importance to those who are seriously engaged in the contemporary development of an ideokinetic approach, including the notion of the social lexicon of the human body and how its casual use in teaching movement interferes with the development of a more ideal posture and movement coordination. She stresses the need for 1. better methods for building understanding of the ideokinetic principle of "not doing" or imagining anatomical relationships without any voluntary action; 2. the need for strategies that help students effectively to manage the transition between the kinesthesia of natural skeletal alignment and the postures of various styles of movement in the performing arts; 3. the relationship between refining the keenness of the kinesthetic sense and aspects of psychological and spiritual development; and 4. the implications of the ideokinetic approach for the development of a philosophy of mind that includes the kinesthetic experience of the body.

     If ideokinesis is not to become falsely universalized in the twenty-first century, as Williams warns may occur, then those of us who are dedicated to the development of the approach will have lots of work to do. By reminding us of Sweigard's basic principles, Williams's book provokes serious reflection on ideokinesis as a discipline and its use in dance education. Equally important is the fact that the book provides an interesting array of specific topics to consider through further discussion and research. As a colleague who enthusiastically encouraged Williams to bring this book to fruition, I am very grateful for its potential to positively influence the future development of our field.

References Cited:

Matt, Pamela
1993. A Kinesthetic Legacy: The Life and Works of Barbara Clark. Tempe, AZ: CMT Press.

Todd, Mabel
1937. The Thinking Body: A Study of the Balancing Forces of Dynamic Man. Boston: Charles T. Branford Co.



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