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Dance Generation | Nancy Topf


This summary is excerpted from Composing while Dancing: An Improviser's Companion published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2011.

Nancy Topf was born in 1942 in New York on Long Island into a family of four dancing sisters. The girls attended weekly classes in Dalcroze Eurythmics, which trains the body to respond to music as a rhythmic and expressive instrument. In high school Nancy studied dance technique at the Martha Graham School. Topf graduated from the University of Wisconsin where she studied with Margaret H'Doubler, who taught anatomy, kinesiology, improvisation and the value of creative process.

After college Topf moved back to New York City and began study at the Merce Cunningham School. In 1968 she was invited to teach Cunningham technique at the University of Illinois. While teaching her class she noticed that one of the students was doing some strange wobbling of his head during the exercises. The student explained that he was feeling his head balance on his spine. Dance educators Joan Skinner and Marsha Paludan had previously been teaching movement based on mental imagery at the university, and Topf's student, John Rolland, was experimenting with their work in Topf's technique class.

Topf was intrigued and befriended Rolland, who introduced Topf to Paludan and Mary Fulkerson, a fellow dancer. Topf and her new friends Rolland, Fulkerson and Paludan were drawn to investigate the possibilities of imagery as an avenue of developing their kinesthetic sense in dancing. Although not at the same time or place, between 1968 and 1972 Topf, Rolland, Fulkerson, and Paludan all began study with Barbara Clark, who in turn was carrying on the work developed by her teacher Mabel Elsworth Todd.

For a video on the legacy of Mabel Todd, Topf describes her first lesson with Clark:

Barbara placed the heel bone in my hand. I had been a student of dance for many years -- since I was 4 years old ...[through] my college years. This [meeting with Clark] was an amazing moment in my life because when I felt that heel bone Barbara asked me, how did I think it went in my body? I realized I had absolutely no idea. This made me aware of the deep sense of ignorance I was working with as I was struggling to become a dancer. That felt like a real injury to my psyche and my educational process. I was destined to improve and heal [that injury] through my work.

The four friends, although not close geographically, continued to correspond and share their investigations of Clark's work. Starting in 1972 Topf, Paludan, and Rolland began to work together in the summers. These gatherings turned into movement workshops taught principally in Vermont that continued until 1985. The Vermont Movement Workshop became a laboratory for Topf, Paludan, and Rolland to experiment with new approaches to dance technique and performance, as well as with the implications of Barbara Clark's work. Movement explorations including the developmental path (the stages the baby passes through as it learns to walk), set exercises, and improvisation were used to investigate imagery and shift habitual movement patterning. Through these explorations the kinesthetic sense was developed and the connection to creative process deepened. This work, known as Anatomical Release Technique, became distinct from the method of Joan Skinner (Skinner Releasing).

Over a period of thirty years Topf developed her own approach to anatomical release technique. Besides teaching in the U.S. at such venues as the Laban-Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies and Movement Research in New York City, Topf also taught internationally at the Dartington College in England, The School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico, in Geneva and in Stockholm. By the late 1980s Topf had established a practice in New York City where she taught her own workshops and classes (Dynamic Anatomy) and developed her private session therapeutic work (Topf Technique), which was also influenced by the ideas of Wilhelm Reich. In the late 1990s the International Somatics and Movement Education Therapy Association recognized Topf Technique, and Topf established a certification program.

Topf's methods included study of anatomical form, mostly skeletal but also key muscles of support, especially the psoas. This study involved some lecture but with lots of invitation to visually and tactilely appreciate the forms themselves. Topf often encouraged her students to draw to reinforce the dynamics of the anatomical imagery. Steeped in this information the work would begin with a simple theme. While the mind enjoys complex thinking Topf found that the body liked "to keep it simple," a principle that she had learned from Clark. Yawning was encouraged as an entry point into a dynamic dialogue with the sensation and space of the interior body. The still, listening hand was incorporated as an information giving and receiving tool, which brought focus to the location of the image and enhanced the kinesthetic experience.

The work consisted of a series of stretches, not done in the usual dance class sense of a purposeful often forceful lengthening of muscle, but instead following sensation. The stretches flowed from one to the next in an improvised timing based on individual need. The stretches were designed to elucidate and clarify the anatomical images and often incorporated the developmental path. The stretch process was further supported afterward by improvisation on the anatomical theme of the day, which allowed the individual time to integrate and experiment physically with the information gathered visually in lecture and through kinesthetic sensation in the stretches.

Topf observed that these movement explorations of the interior landscape of the body created a dance of quite a different quality than dance based on outside aesthetic, i.e. on the shapes and lines of an imitated movement vocabulary. Topf had been experimenting since the 1960s with improvisation structures for performance. As her work with anatomical release technique matured, she evolved a signature style in her dance making. In her dance works for performance, particulars of body design became the motif and recurring anatomical themes became the means of creating an overarching structure for the work. The connection to creative work through an individual's personal exploration of anatomical principles made Topf's classes very popular with dancers, who had been trained technically but often not in anatomy or creative process. In Topf's classes they found a means to improve technique and develop a connection with a creative source.

At the time of her death at age 55 in an airliner crash, Topf had just completed the first draft of an introduction to Topf Technique called The Anatomy of Center. The work, written in Platonic dialogue format, consists of conversations between Topf, an imaginary student, and a cast of anatomical images that lead the student through experiential exercises. Nancy Topf leaves behind a unique method with a special invitation for the individual to find his or her own expression in movement.

Melinda Buckwalter

More information about Topf Technique is available from or by writing:
Jon Gibson
8 Harrison Street
New York, NY 10013

Bibliography for Nancy Topf

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