Dance Kinesiology and the Art of Dance

Kinesiology is the study of human movement. It is the study of how the human body is put together and its mechanics. It is the study of the bones and muscles and the physics of motion. (There is also something else called Applied Kinesiology…but that is a crunchy-granola, “dysfunctional energy pathways” approach that I do not believe in.) Kinesiology encompasses biomechanics which is “the field of study which makes use of the laws of physics and engineering concepts to describe motion of body segments, and the forces [both internal and external] which act upon them during activity.”AIMBE

Dance Kinesiology is the same study of factual human movement within the context of the complex art of dance movement.

My story: My first exposure to the fact that science might have a place in dance, was when Patrice Whiteside came to substitute for my ballet teacher Tricia Kaye (the founder of KD Dids) when I was about 15. In a few short days, I got more practical advice about how to use my body than I had in my entire life. Patrice was responsible for me becoming one of those students who asked why and how…drove some of my teachers nuts. But at 15 it occurred to me that if it can be DONE, there is an explanation for HOW. I wanted to know HOW and was usually very frustrated by the lack of information (and patience!) that my teachers could offer.

My first formal kinesiology class – sports kinesiology – was as an undergraduate dancer at The University of California at Riverside. Although I am sure that Sally Sevey Fitt was well on her way to becoming THE dance kinesiology guru (there is NO info on her specifically that I can find), the field of dance kinesiology had not been widely established when I went to college. Our department chair, though, felt there was value in her dancers learning about the science of movement, and we girly dancers had to join the shocked jocks in a physical education lecture course. My fellow students hated every minute of learning about swinging a bat, throwing a ball, running, moving in the various planes, but I was enthralled. I had the ability to translate this info into dance, and I was hooked. Here were the reasons, the whys and wherefores of human movement no matter the movement style or form. This was not about any specific movement technique, this was biomechanics. My dancing and my teaching changed immediately as I regarded movement as not a style but as manipulation of my bones by my muscles through space, with and against gravity. Sounds dry, I know….but I was in heaven! I finally had a framework for everything I was doing and teaching.

My kinesiology studies went on through the years as I studied everything I could get my hands on. I took a few more sports kinesiology courses because there were no dance kinesiology course being taught anywhere that I could find except at the University of Utah with Ms. Fitt. I was on my own. But, I did encounter so many other experts in other body therapies and techniques, all of whom became integral parts of my developing framework for understanding human movement: Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, Neuro-muscular Re-alignment, Labanalysis, Labanotation, Dance Therapy, Body Mapping, Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation, Physical Therapy, etc. It all fit in. I had started collecting books on sports kinesiology, anatomy, biomechanics, stretching, injury prevention and rehabilitation, movement analysis, etc. And then I discovered Sally Sevey Fitt’s book, Dance Kinesiology. There it all was! In black and white! Everything I had discovered on my own was true!! It became my bible.

So, when I got my first university position when I was 25, I wanted to teach dance kinesiology. It complemented my studio dance courses. My students soared, and I was the happiest teacher on the planet.

What value does the study of dance kinesiology hold? It teaches dancers about their bodies: how they are constructed, how they are meant to move, how they are NOT meant to move, how movement is produced and/or restricted, how to use gravity. Is it a complex field of study? Yes and no. There are so many “things” to be learned, yes, but the basic concepts, once mastered, give a dancer a framework for evaluating and analyzing any and all movement challenges.

The body is the dancer’s instrument…how can it truly be used to its full potential if it is not understood? Over the years, I have encountered arguments that all resemble this one: one does not need to know how a car is constructed to drive it. Give me a break…does your driving teacher tell you that you can drive really fast by pushing on the brake? This is illogical, right? Well, the body functions in an extremely logical manner, and dance teachers should know the logic! Instead, dancers are routinely told to do things that essentially work against actual body mechanics, against the logic of body construction. A few of my favorites are: “Squeeze your butt muscles to turn out your legs!”, “Lift your arms using your (middle) back muscles!”, “Tuck your pelvis!”, “Lift your leg from underneath!”, and in Irish dance, “Knees forward, toes out!” Even if the students do not know dance kinesiology, it should be a GIVEN that a dance teacher does. Then, a dance student would be getting nothing but correct information.

Sometime in my graduate studies I encountered the discussion about the art of dance vs. the science of dance. I remember not understanding why there was a discussion at all. Understanding my body meant that I could dance my best which meant that the “art” of the dance was clearly illustrated. If a body is performing at its peak, would not the art be best served?

Rather than going off on my own rant about how science and art are not at odds, here is an excerpt from a wonderful article I found once:

‘“Science helps us to understand, to make sense, of the world in which we live. It helps us to understand ourselves. So does art,” Andrade says. “Scientists ask questions, design experiments, make observations, and try to develop answers or understanding of the questions asked. So do artists.”

It’s hard to break a stereotype, however. Scientists and artists, many believe, have as much in common as Dilbert and Salvador Dali.

Engineers, represented in the popular comic strip, are thought of as “left-brained,” meaning they are unemotional, mathematical, exact, and logical. Artists, such as the Spanish painter, have the reputation as being “right-brained,” or creative, spontaneous – even impractical.

“Not quite,” says Andrade, who is driven to debunk the myth. “Scientists and engineers are also very creative – generally the more creative, the more mathematical, logical, and highly experimental.”

Artists often begin a work with a creative vision, undoubtedly stemming from the right hemisphere of the brain, which governs creativity. But the act itself of drawing, painting or composing is a step-by-step process requiring memorizing patterns of logical thought processed by the left hemisphere, the side of physics. Conversely, just as artistry is augmented by input from the left-brain hemisphere sequence, scientific thought depends upon right-sided inspiration, says author Leonard Shlain.’

The rest of the article is well worth the read: What Leonardo Knew

There is another section that reads: McDermott’s own math professors chided him for taking art classes. And his sculpting instructors questioned his decision to spend less time honing his art to crack math texts.”

This was my experience in high school and college. My favorite encounter with a rare teacher in graduate school who got a kick out of my diverse studies went like this:

(This was a math class I took for fun with pre-med students, and the teacher said this loudly for the benefit of the class.) “So, Ann…I see you got ANOTHER A on this test…” Here I began blushing furiously and painfully.

“What’s your major again?”

“Dance,” I whispered, wanting to disappear.

“What? Say it louder!”


“Yep, that’s what I thought!” she said as she looked around the class and began a mini-lecture on how many students were failing this required class.

I was mortified…but got over it as she smiled and winked at me. I realized she was not making fun of me, and we had a great conversation after class. She was fascinated by my interests.

Over the years, I began to understand how my right and left brains complemented and supported each other. Fascinating stuff. I took the collaboration of the parts of my brain for granted. It has helped me understand my children and their learning styles.

And only solidified my standing on the art vs science argument…there isn’t one.

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology

Alignment response

In response to my alignment posts ( Chapter 1, Chapter 2), an internet friend wrote: Thank you. Very informative and positive. Do you think a child, say 8-10 years old (I choose that age because that’s when many serious programs admit students) could understand this type of material? Is it possible to prevent misalignment instead of just correcting it?I guess, like you said, it comes back to the language we use. A kid might not be interested in the anatomy, but they could learn to respond to the language that promotes correct alignment. Hmm. What do you think?

Yes, yes, yes!

Young kids probably would find the anatomy info as I present it dry and uninteresting, but they do most definitely respond to good teaching. And good teaching would include this info in a way that a child would find interesting. Since they respond to the mis-informed, ignorant and bad teaching, I should think they would only flourish with a knowledgeable teacher…and knowledgeable dance teachers do exist!! I know that my posts seem to only be about fixing problems already in existence…those are the questions I get, those are my reactions to the dancers I see around me too often.

And, since you brought this up, I have realized that basically all of my dance teaching career has been working with older dancers (meaning, not beginners), dancers aged 18 to 72 (yes 72!) who came to me with training. I have never thought about this before!

As a background for my thoughts on teaching, I should say that I come from a family of teachers…my mother and three sisters are all teachers at the elementary and junior high level. My father even did some teaching. Teaching is a way of life for my family. I did teach kids dance and even spent time as a substitute teacher in my hometown…but each experience taught me that I did not have the patience and the creativity that is necessary to teach kids. I found it really frustrating trying to get a 7 year-old to understand the implications of bad behavior and bad posture on their future life plans!!!! I found my niche in college teaching while I was still an undergrad. Teaching people with whom I could have a conversation beyond “Where’s Mommy?” put me in heaven.

But do not get me wrong…without elementary, middle, junior high, and high school teachers, I would never have had a job. I am truly, truly in awe of those teachers. Coming from my family, I know the time, the dedication, the education, the creativity and commitment that it takes to be a good teacher, to prepare children for THE REST OF THEIR LIVES!!! It is truly disgusting that teachers are not the highest paid people on the planet!

At my 20th high school reunion, a long-lost friend actually said to me that although he loved being a (non-university) teacher, he knew it was not as important as what I was doing at the university level. I was floored! I actually made him blush when, first, I told him that he was sadly mistaken about his importance and then, second, went on about how without all of the other teachers that kids have before they ever get to college, I would have nothing to work with! I considered my teaching to be an endeavor that relied most heavily on ALL of the teaching that came before. HE was most important, not me. What a way of thinking!

All good teachers, those who work with children ages 0 to 18…you are heroes. And I thank you.

So, back to my perspective on dance training…I did teach beginners on occasion, but that was not my forte because, quite simply, I would become bored. Not very noble, but there it is. What turned my crank was working with students who had the background and the wherewithal to chew something up with me. I was the perfect graduate professor…tell me what you got, let me rip it up, and then let’s put it all back together so that we are both the better for it. Grand stuff!

And that is what informs what I write here…my experience as a teacher of folks with dance backgrounds. We took things apart and put them back together. We were mechanics…the car was limping along, so we had to fix it.

So, do I think that children can be taught well and correctly from the very beginning? Most definitely YES! I think the real question is, do enough teachers exist who can teach well and correctly? I do not know.

By writing about it, my hope is that enough folks will start thinking about all of this and start to change things for the better so that one day the ignorant dance teacher in any form will be the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, it is still the rule when it does not have to be. The information is out there…those who train the human body should understand the human body. The responsibility lies with the teacher to educate her- or himself. If they do not do it, then it lies with the moms and the dads and the dancers themselves.

Does that answer your question Peggy? Sort of?

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology

My dance background

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As I peruse the Irish dance message boards, I inevitably run across questions that pertain to how the body works, how specific steps are performed, how to do toe stands, how to gain more turn-out, how to recover from injuries, etc, etc, etc… At the beginning of my involvement in this dance sub-culture, I would offer my opinion and try to pass on information that was correct, helpful, and above all would not add further injury or fuel to the rampant ignorance.

Ooohh, is this another rant? No, not really.

Brief resume: I was initially trained as a classical ballerina. At 16, I had to make a choice – quit school to pursue ballet or go to college. I was raised knowing that I was going to college, so when my choice was made, I was invisible in class. A sad time for me. Had a great guidance counselor who discovered I could get a degree in dance, so off I went to college to be a dancing doctor (I am not kidding). After a couple of years, I made a choice to pursue the dance only, get my Master’s degree and be a university dance professor. I got my first full-time university position when I was 25 in Memphis. Started my dance company there with my partner Judith Tribo Wombwell when I was 27.

I taught many things during my university career, but my loves were teaching modern dance and dance science/the science of movement. Each informed the other. What we learned in technique class, we took apart in kinesiology. The bio mechanics and physics of movement that we explored in kinesiology were put to use in technique class. Watching my students soar with this information was such a fantastic thing. I was always excited about class. I believe that I lived to teach.

I was on disability for a while after I got sick in 2000 and was unable to teach, but it never occurred to me that I would ever stop teaching. I just needed time to recover. I finally went back and continued doing what I had always done, but before long, I had to face the fact that my illness had made many changes at very fundamental levels. I retired.

I was still invited to be a master teacher at various workshops. I did a few, but there were obstacles to continuing even in that vein that I found insurmountable because of the particular way that I wanted to teach students. I could not perform that way any more, so I stopped accepting the invitations (except for the occasional one for my BIL’s Stage Combat workshops).

As I said above, I used to try to answer anatomy and technique questions posted on the various message boards, but I finally stopped doing that because for every correct answer given by me or someone else, there were 10 ridiculous ones. I retreated once it became clear to me that so many TCs did not actually know much about how the body works which meant that they and their students were responsible for the silliness that was (and still is) being posted on the boards as fact. I stopped really even reading the questions when I started reading “fairy tales” about how to do the many steps that have been borrowed from ballet.

Tonight on the main Voy board, a mother got on to ask for help in addressing her daughter’s hip rotation problem. I thought about it and decided not to tell her what to do but gave her a suggestion about where to go for help. So far, that seems to be the gist of the replies. But there were a couple that contained some “ideas” that brought on the twitching tics: “hip rotation with foot turnout” & “hips cannot achieve turn out so it has to come from ankles and knees.” Erg…

One poster was obviously well-educated in correct movement training and started her longish post by writing, “As far as I can tell, 10 years into it, ID teachers generally appear to know very little about anatomy, physiology, kinetics and how to move and train to avoid injury. As much as I respect my DDs current teacher, the general approach they mostly seem to have is based on what they learned from their teachers and is focused on the art and how it looks…not the science and how it is best done…” This is also how I see it. Yes, the art form is extremely important, but better awareness of the dancing instrument (the body) and how it actually works would only elevate the art.

When the teachers at my daughters’ first ID school found out about my background, they used me as a source of information. They went on to change some things and seemed to seek out workshops for themselves that furthered their education in these matters. And many times they sent students to me to talk about posture, jump elevation, turns, etc. They always told me what my kids needed help on and the lucky little monsters were always so appreciative when I would work with them at home!!!!

We are with a new school now, and the teacher is a very smart young woman. I have not asked her about her actual anatomy knowledge base, but I have also not heard or seen anything incorrect. She is a very good teacher. I have not told our new TC about my background. I am content to be the divas’ mom and the dressmaker. But I do watch and give the divas those lovely corrections they love so much.

I have thought about posting links to informative dance technique, anatomy and kinesiology sites…but I have not done it. Tonight, I thought about writing about the anatomy of the hip and the exercises that can be done to identify and strengthen the six deep external rotators. But that thought turned into this post.

Maybe I do not want to write about these things because I cannot see the people who ask these questions. There are so many, many factors that affect posture, incorrect muscle use, and injuries, and there is no way at all to take stock of these things fully without having the body in front of you. All who answer these questions on the boards as if they have the definitive answer should perhaps keep that in mind.

Susan has told me many times that I need to write about faulty dance postures that affect the way ID dresses fit, how incorrect alignment, over-developed muscles, and faulty notions of what good dance posture is can screw up the hang of the best made dress! She and I have discussed this at great length as we figure out fitting issues. But, although I am drawn to the idea of starting to write about these things, especially since we dressmakers have to deal with this all the time, I have yet to do it. I really am not sure why.

But after this thought process, maybe I will start working on it. It interests me because it is for a different audience. It is not for young movers who may misunderstand and incorrectly use what I write. I do not want to be responsible for dancers injuring themselves. But, we dressmakers are used to looking at dancers and making the dresses look right on each one. Maybe understanding what is causing a particular body lump will help us fit them that much better.

A bit more about my past dancer/teacher life here and here.

More kinesiology here: Dance Kinesiology