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Dance Generation | Karen Barracuda


I was born in 1939 in Dundee, Michigan, graduating from Dundee High School in 1956. My younger sister and I took piano and dancing lessons, starting from ages seven and five respectively, from teachers who traveled from town to town. At age 13, I began teaching dance in my hometown for such a traveling teacher.

I continued teaching dance (mostly tap) all through high school and through my two years at Albion College, a small, church-related, liberal arts college in Michigan. It was there that I learned about the existence of the Juilliard School of Music where one could major in dance. Not having the slightest interest in any major being offered at Albion and loving to dance, I persuaded my parents to let me audition for Juilliard and was accepted in 1958. At the audition, Dr. Sweigard had us all get into what she called "the fold-up position" (a sitting kneel with the head on the floor in front - or as close to the floor as one could get.) She identified me as one who should be assigned to posture lab, and that is where I was introduced to the method of neuromuscular re-coordination later termed Ideokinesis.

I attended Wednesday posture labs throughout my four years at Juilliard and, in my senior year, took Dr. Sweigard's anatomy course. Since her background was in Physical Education and not in dance, she neither referred to specific dance movements nor made any direct reference to dance technique in her classes. Rather, she emphasized good body mechanics in everyday movement, believing that this would inevitably carry over into the specialized movement of dance and, more immediately, would counteract the day-to-day stresses of the dancer's rigorous training. Nevertheless, whenever I would ask her for help with some technique exercise, she would give it her full attention. First, she would ask me to demonstrate the exercise; then she would ask what criticism my teacher had made. After careful observation, she would give me an imagined movement - something to begin picturing in my mind's eye before initiating and to continue imagining during performance of the actual movement. Other students would do the same, and during our casual conversations, an informal sharing of images for technique exercises occurred among us students. The most appealing aspect of this new approach was that, at a time when the prevailing practice in dance technique was to identify where in the body it should hurt if you were doing it properly, Sweigard taught that, not only did it not have to hurt, but that if it did hurt, something was wrong.

In my senior year at Juilliard, one of my teachers assigned a term paper on an aspect of dance that interested us. I chose to write "Anatomy and Dance: Their Relationship." I consulted closely with Dr. Sweigard on this paper because I felt that it was important to understand how to apply her concepts to dance instruction. Betty Jones, a member of the Jose Limon dance company and a dance teacher at Juilliard, had already been working with Sweigard and applying her principles in her technique classes, and I could feel the benefits in my body. Sweigard and I discussed methods of introducing imagery, where to place the imagery for specific exercises, and other such applications.

After graduating (1962), I packed all my school notes, papers, etc. in a box, put them away and began to look for work. After several years of performing here, teaching there and holding secretarial jobs, I was hired as an instructor in the dance program at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Each semester I taught three or four sections of "Introduction to Dance," a course used by many students to satisfy a college requirement. One day, while cleaning out my closet at home, I came across the paper I had written at Juilliard and decided to try applying some of the ideas I had written about. At first, I incorporated only a few of her suggestions, but I was amazed at the results. By midterm, my students had achieved a level of competency I had not expected until the end of the term; I had to begin introducing material from the Dance 2 syllabus. I repeated the procedure the next term to make sure I had not merely had some unusually talented groups of students. The second semester students did as well, if not better, than the first. Each term, as I gradually tried more of Sweigard's suggestions and became more comfortable with those I had already tried, my students became increasingly proficient in less time. Over the years I continued to apply this approach in my teaching - ballet, modern, tap, movement for actors, choreography, and theatre productions.

During this time, our college was changing its structure, and dance was to be moved from the Physical Education department to become a department of its own, offering a BFA as well as a BA degree. I felt strongly that such a program should require a course in anatomy for dancers. I learned that Sweigard's health was failing and that she had chosen three or four Juilliard dance majors to whom to impart her wisdom and to train in her palpation biofeedback technique. So I called her to find out whom she would recommend to teach our anatomy course for us. Her first choice was Irene Dowd and that is how I met Irene. She had taken medical anatomy courses, was studying the neuromuscular system and making her own applications to dance. So I arranged to study privately with her to learn what she had learned from Sweigard (where to palpate and what to notice through the sense of touch, how to direct the student's imagined movement through my hands, and how to give verbal biofeedback) as well as Dowd's own ideas of how to apply neuromuscular re-coordination to dance. When she began teaching classes in her studio, I was the first to sign up, and after the first time she taught a course, she would allow me to sit in on subsequent offerings of that course, ostensibly as her assistant. I did this with every course she designed for several years.

With Irene as our leader, a group of us who had been studying with her and were applying the material in various ways (massage therapy, dance, singing, alignment analysis, etc.) began meeting regularly to do hands-on work with each other and to experiment with new methods that were being published. It was very exciting and rewarding, and even though I have been out of the loop for some time, I continue to use the nine lines-of-movement and the re-coordination exercises I learned from Sweigard and Dowd.

The applications of Ideokinesis to teaching dance technique I have used are covered in detail in four articles I wrote for American Dance: A Journal of the American Dance Guild. The first two of these were published, the third was prepared for publication, and the fourth was at the editing stage when the journal ceased publication. The first of these articles is based heavily on the term paper I had written in consultation with Dr. Sweigard for my senior course at Juilliard. The series was called "Teaching Dance to Promote a Better Instrument for Movement." Part 1 was "Clarifying Our Instructions," Part 2: "Anatomical Facts a Dancer Should Know," Part 3: "Toward More Efficient Movement Habits," and Part 4: "Movement Education: Teaching versus Giving Class."

I wanted to pursue an advanced degree in movement analysis, but at the time, there was no accredited institution offering such a program. So I continued pursuing my interests where and with whom I could. In addition to Ideokinesis, this included another form of movement analysis begun at Juilliard - Labanotation. I wanted to devise a way of notating the mental (ideokinetic) preparation for a movement as well as the actual joint movement. I began a project, "to adapt the Labanotation system of movement notation so as to record the appropriate mental preparation for movement (in terms of Sweigard's nine lines-of-movement) along with the usual notation of skeletal displacement in space." I devised a Labanotation symbol for each of the nine lines-of-movement and arranged them on a staff connected to the left of the standard Labanotation staff so that they would show the timing and location of the imagined movement in relation to the timing of the actual movement. I notated several dance exercises, which I planned to present to the International Council of Kinetography Laban for its approval, but personal complications arose, and I never got further than the preliminary stage of that project.

Currently, I am not active in the field of dance except to stage fight scenes and dances for stage plays and musicals directed by my husband. I do continue to use Ideokinesis myself to fend off the aging process as much as I can. It definitely does help.

Karen Barracuda

Karen Barracuda has a Doctoral equivalency in Movement Analysis, an MA in Dance Education (NYU) and a BS in Dance (Juilliard). She is a Professor Emeritus in Dance and Theatre (Brooklyn College-CUNY). Joanne can be reached by writing:

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