The Pioneers
Dance Generation
New Contributors
About This Site

Dance Generation | Erick Hawkins


Raised in Colorado and educated at Harvard University, Erick Hawkins began his professional study of dance at the age of 25. First as a student of George Balanchine and then as principal dancer in the Martha Graham Company, Hawkins mastered the skills of dance performing and choreography. But then, in his late thirties, serious injuries to his knee and spine caused Hawkins to question traditional training methods and seek a new direction.

In the late 1940's when Hawkins left Graham's company to recover from his injuries, he discovered Mabel Todd and became engrossed in her book, The Thinking Body. Much of the literature about the artist states that Hawkins undertook serious anatomical/kinesiological study of the body during this period. It is probably less well understood that by working with Todd and her students Barbara Clark and Lulu Sweigard, Hawkins was not just taking an intellectual sojourn into this material, but absorbing the information kinesthetically as well.

Hawkins' lessons in the ideokinetic approach provided him with a crucial link between intellectualized academic kinesiology and kinesthetic awareness. His regular private table lessons offered a methodology for undertaking the extremely challenging process of relearning fundamental patterns of alignment and movement. Concentrating upon carefully selected imagery based on kinesiological concepts, and guided by the teacher's touch, Hawkins gradually re-educated his neuromuscular system. Inefficient movement habits underlying the basic coordinations he used as a performer were discarded as he acquired new knowledge of the location of his joints and the organization of his musculature. As Hawkins constructed a more accurate body image and improved his neuromuscular patterning, his injuries healed.

Hawkins' personal transformation through the ideokinetic approach promptly influenced his views about dance training. As he recognized how dancing had damaged his body, he became determined to remedy the injurious training practices that were so prevalent during this period. His solution was to incorporate scientific truths about movement into dance education. About this he wrote:

It seems inconceivable to ordinary folk, to the naive realistic mind, that men know how to send millions of people across oceans, 30,000 feet above the water and yet that the principal professionals of the art of dance have not been introduced to the most simple correct knowledge of how the human body functions in moving; that still the professionals do not realize that only through scientific knowledge, through obeying the laws of nature in human movement, can one avoid ineptness, limitation, dysfunction and injury to the organism.

Hawkins recognized that basing dance technique in one's personal stylistic preferences, as was the practice among modern dance choreographers, did not expose students to movement experiences that were basic enough. He felt that well before the study of a particular style of dancing was undertaken, students needed a more generic and basic approach to cultivating the mind/body's fundamental sensitivities and powers. Hawkins created such an approach and called it, "a normative theory of body movement." This theory became the centerpiece of the training practices that he taught in the school he established in 1951 and promoted through his dance company.

At least two authors, Beverly Brown and Renata Celichowska, have written extensively about Hawkins' approach to modern dance technique and its roots in the ideas and practices of Todd, Clark and Sweigard. It should be emphasized that although Hawkins' personal education in the ideokinetic approach was extensive, he did not learn to teach table work lessons nor did he pass on the content of Todd's work in the way he had learned it. He felt that if dancers were not encumbered by a long history of poor training they would not need extensive neuromuscular reeducation before learning to dance. Thus, Hawkins transposed the values he gained through his ideokinetic learning experiences into a generic dance technique that focused on a few discrete areas.

From his personal exploration of the ideokinetic approach, Hawkins learned his body could move with less muscular tension. This realization caused him to criticize practices in dance techniques that encouraged forcing the body beyond its physical capacities and ignoring the resultant discomfort. In contrast, Hawkins' approach emphasized the importance of cultivating kinesthetic awareness and using it to recognize and avoid movement patterns that might cause injury. Gaining kinesthetic awareness or learning to "think-feel," as he often referred to it, was also a boon to the development of the dancer's technique, facilitating greater precision and attention to detail in dance performance.

Hawkins' normative theory also placed emphasis on proper body alignment. To expedite learning for the dancer's purposes, Hawkins focused on the pelvis as the anatomical center of the body. It was probably quite startling for dancers of that era to be discouraged from controlling pelvic alignment through such common strategies as "sucking in" the front of the body or "tucking under" in the back. Instead Hawkins encouraged "de-contracting" muscles that dancers characteristically held tightly in order to discover a more restful balance on the thighbones. Other common errors of placement through the spine, feet and knees were also addressed to help dancers cultivate a sense of ease rather than a state of holding as their preparation for movement.

The iliopsoas muscle complex, deep within the lower trunk, was considered a major source of stability in Hawkins' approach. After basic awareness of the mechanical function of the muscle group was established through the practice of thigh flexions, Hawkins taught more complex exercises and movement sequences designed to strengthen and accentuate awareness of the muscles. In order to establish the centrality of iliopsoas complex in the initiation and control of movement, it was also helpful to release tensions from the limbs by thinking of them as "tassels." Renata Celichowska explained the significance of the tassel imagery in Hawkins' work in this way:

When responding like tassels, legs and arms unwrap from the initiation of the pelvis and spine much like the unwrapping of a tether ball and rope from around a center pole. Tassel images evoke a quality of fluidity and ease that is very different from putting the arm or leg into one fixed position either to the front, side or back. It is not that one form is right or wrong. However, a tassel leg is governed by principles different from a "placed" leg.

Todd's emphasis upon optimizing posture through the thinking of goals and then "letting the movement happen," complimented Hawkins' dedication to Zen philosophy. Todd's table procedures cultivated the discipline of abstaining from voluntary movement while thinking of an image in order to allow the sub-cortical neuromuscular system to reorganize in accordance with its own innate intelligence. Only in this way of "not doing" could an individual free himself from the domination of old habits. Although not in the business of neuromuscular reeducation as such, Hawkins used the same themes to relieve dancers of the tendency to approach the body with an attitude of willfulness, to encourage them to fully experience new movement possibilities and to discover greater spontaneity in the performance of movement.

As Hawkins artistry matured, the sensuous, flowing quality of the movement in his choreography became its signature. His more than fifty fully-produced dances explored many themes but always demonstrated an aesthetic of simplicity and a fascination with the beauty of the moving human form. That Hawkins' artistic interests commingled with his absorption in the scientific dimensions of human movement was constantly in evidence in his published writing, commentary on his creative work and the impromptu advice he shared with students. Throughout his career, Hawkins encouraged students to study Ideokinesis and often renewed his own acquaintance with the material through table lessons and conversations with his colleague, Andre Bernard. Like many others who have become involved in the approach, Hawkins found that his ideokinetic learning experiences revealed a more "natural" way to move. Hawkins endeavored to explain this in many of his writings but was perhaps most articulate when he spoke in the simplest of terms: the light of scientific knowledge...we dancers can do more without strain, liability and without injuries. I think the ancient metaphysical saying can be kept in mind in the training of dancers. 'Only when you obey nature, nature will obey you.'

Pamela Matt

Bibliography for Erick Hawkins

(c) 2014 All rights reserved. Reprint with permission only.