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Dance Generation | Joanne Emmons


My life's work is dedicated to expanding awareness of the principles of Miss Barbara Clark through the training and education of dancers. Miss Clark taught me for more than 25 years, from 1949 to 1976. She was instrumental in the success of my dance career as well as my career as a dance teacher.

I was born on February 3, 1927, in Trenton, New Jersey. At the age of 12, I was stricken with polio, which affected my right lower back and leg and my ability to swallow. Although I was eventually able to walk, my body never fully recovered. By the age of 14, I was able to take ballet classes and study modern dance at Trenton Central High School. After school, I took the train to New York City and studied at the American School of Ballet with Muriel Stuart.

After I graduated from high school, I studied with Jose Limon and the New Dance Group in New York from 1945 through 1949. I went to the first American Dance Festival in Connecticut and trained in Graham technique, Eurythmics and Choreography for a summer. Because I received scholarships to study dance and dance notation in New York, I only had to work part time to make ends meet. My time was flexible and I could easily meet the rehearsal and performance schedules for Doris Humphrey's Repertory Group, when she started it in late 1948, and other dance performances.

It was in 1949 that I began to experience a lot of back pain and some dance movements were so excruciating that I could not attempt them anymore. Pauline Lawrence (Limon's wife) took me to Dr. Sweigard with whom I studied for about five months. She took me out of all dance and explained that the muscles that compensated for the nerve damage in my bout with polio were giving out from all the work I was doing in dance.

Miss Clark came to New York about this time and Dr. Sweigard recommended her as she had done some successful work with polio patients. I was so glad to have found Miss Clark. Her imagery worked well for me and her treatment of me as a person with deep feelings helped me so much. At first I had a table lesson with her once a week. Later, we met about once a month for my lessons and discussions of her latest ideas for her teaching and writing. She also began to show me her technique for conducting the table lessons.

Because of my work with Miss Clark, I was able to return to studying dance. I started with the Wigman technique. Jose Limon was no longer teaching at his studio, so I studied with Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham. Later, I studied Hanya Holm's technique with Mimi Kagan and became a member of her company in Princeton. After experiencing Miss Clark's lessons, my process of work was very different than when I had first studied dance. I had so much more sensory awareness and the movements were much easier to perform. The pain of movement was replaced with the joy of it.

During this period, I became interested in incorporating Miss Clark's work into the teaching of dance. In 1952, Miss Clark, Andre Bernard (we always called him Andy) and I opened the Technique for Movement Studio in New York City. Miss Clark gave table lessons there and taught Andy to give the table work. I taught dance classes for actors and injured dancers from Juilliard who were studying with Miss Clark.

Miss Clark and I worked intensively together on my classes. We went over dance movements that I had been taught and picked out those that would best work with her alignment principles. We also conferred on what body image to use for a particular lesson as I changed the imagery from class to class. In this way my dance classes supported what Miss Clark was teaching in the table lessons. I began to refer to my approach as a "pre-dance" technique.

Although we experimented throughout the development of the pre-dance classes, there was a typical structure. I would start the class with the pupils lying on the floor and on their breath they would begin to picture the image for the class -- the image of lengthening the spine, for example. While on the floor, we did some of Erick Hawkins leg exercises and beginning Graham contractions. In the sitting position we did simple exercises to help lengthen the hamstrings. The students would be reminded to think of the image while doing these movements. We did some body swings in the standing position and walks and runs across the floor. At the end there was always an improvisation using the image for the class as an impetus for their movement.

Miss Clark would often watch me teach and sometimes object to my putting in too much challenging movement for the pupils. I felt that her way would hold them back too much. I had found that that I needed the challenge of more and more difficult movements in my dancing. Building sensory awareness of improved movement does take a lot of time but I believe that a physical challenge presented with knowledge of how the body works can be very helpful to the dancer's learning process.

In 1967, my husband and I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque, although beautiful in many ways, was not the best choice for me. I investigated the dance schools in Albuquerque at the time, but only one was interested in modern dance. I rented the school for adult classes and started children's classes in a church. I desperately wanted to present my pre-dance technique, but when I tried to do this in my dance classes in the 1970's, I lost all my pupils. So, I continued to teach traditional modern dance for adults and taught children's classes using Miss Clark's principles.

After more than ten years of a very heavy teaching schedule, I began to show signs of collapse. Again, I had strained my muscles with too much work. One doctor said my muscles would never recover. I had to close down my dance classes because I did not have the energy to keep them going. By now my children had grown and left home. I was alone and it was extremely difficult to motivate myself to go back to the beginning and retrain my body to move. However, by working diligently with Miss Clark's principles and making sure to get sufficient rest, I was able to recover the use of my muscles and go back to teaching six years later. I have since learned such occurrences are not uncommon for polio victims.

When I returned to teaching I became acquainted with an exquisite dancer who was having trouble with injuries. I began to see that this dancer and some of her fellow dancers might be helped by the table lessons that I learned from Miss Clark during our 25-year association. I was very pleased to find that these dancers benefited greatly from the table teaching and began to bring it to the attention of other dancers. Some of my students also became interested in learning to teach the table lessons and so I began a small teacher-training program. I am now in the process of finalizing a book of instructions for the table teaching called The Book of Lessons.

The results of my work in table teaching for dancers convinced me that the Albuquerque dance community might be ready for dance classes based on Miss Clark's principles. I began by sneaking some of the material into my regular dance classes. I would show them one of Clark's images and then I would remind them of the image as they did some of the simple movements. By the late 80's the better students started to demand more of the teaching and say that they wished they had been exposed to it sooner. Over the next several years I developed a beginning level workshop of eight to ten classes; in the 90's I created an intermediate workshop for the more advanced students. I began to call my teaching method, "Emmons Dance in Depth."

Students found that by repeating the workshops, their experience of the material deepened. They very much appreciated the opportunity to work at a slow pace. Some of them became quiet to the degree that I don't think they had ever experienced in their lives. My success with this form of teaching has inspired me to start a book of Emmons Dance in Depth Lessons which progress from the ideas taught in the table lessons, to beginning floor work and into modern dance movement.

In 2003, the National Dance Education Organization gave me an award for "many years of meritorious service to Dance Education in New Mexico." Although recognition for my teaching in Albuquerque was slow in coming, it was very gratifying to receive this award. I firmly believe that Miss Clark's principles incorporated into teaching dance movement will be the method of dance teaching in the future. This work has allowed me to continue to take dance classes and perform in dance concerts well into my 70's. I should like all people to have available to them the enjoyment of their bodies that I have learned to have from mine. I am constantly grateful for the wonderful teaching I received from Miss Clark and her understanding of body movement.

Joanne Emmons

Joanne Emmons passed away in 2011. Contact information is temporarily unavailable.

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