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Dance Generation | Drid Williams


I will preface these remarks by saying that I learned and taught Sweigardian Ideokinesis. Having never studied with Mabel Todd or Barbara Clark, the only "Ideokinesis" I know about was developed by Dr. Lulu Sweigard, and at the time I studied with her, it was not called "Ideokinesis," but "neuromuscular reeducation." This was not a popular name in the dance world in the late 'fifties and early 'sixties, because it implied that something was not quite right — something had to be "re-educated."


Dr. Sweigard said I could begin lessons with her only after completing a private course in bone anatomy with Dr. C.A. de Vere in New York City. I enrolled with him in 1957 and worked with him for six months. I started with Dr. Sweigard the end of 1957, and continued with her for approximately one and a half to two years. At the time, she did not want to conduct private lessons at Julliard for those not connected with the school, therefore, I had to travel to her home north of New York City (Tomkins Cove) on the Hudson River. I had lessons with her approximately once a week for the first six months, and after that, roughly twice a month (every other week) for a year.

She visited my studio to watch me teach a dance class sometime during the first month I was with her, and that visit produced a lecture on the imagery I used in ballet and modern dance classes. She was scathingly critical of nearly everything I said in those classes, justifying her criticisms by saying that the images I used were anatomically incorrect, or, they focused on the aesthetics of the dance form I taught, not the body itself.

Two Kinds of Imagery

This was where I first got the idea of separating two types of imagery -- "anatomical" and "aesthetic." She was not prepared to tell me anything about what I call "dance imagery" (the aesthetic type) because, she said, she knew nothing about dancing and was, frankly, not interested in it, except for working with dancers on their postural and other problems. Any anatomically-based imagery I did use that alluded to bodily parts; that is, "keep your spine straight," "point your toes," and such, she destroyed by pointing out, for example, that what I meant by "keep your spine straight," was "keep your axis of gravity straight," and, she pointed out that the "toes" themselves did not "point." The correct image pertained to the ankle joint (to achieve plantar flexion of the foot).

External vs. Internal Imagery

To her, the problem with most teachers of dancing (even those who had studied anatomy, as I had) was that they didn't use their knowledge appropriately in classes. She said that the basic problem with most dance teachers, dancers and dance students consisted in the fact that they had no idea where movements really come from in the body. Teachers and students tend to think in terms of generalities such as "hip," "thigh," "shoulder," back," and such. They think of the external shapes of bodily parts instead of thinking internally of "thigh joints," for instance, locating the origin of many of the movements of the legs, or the "gleno-humeral joint," which locates the origin of nearly all arm movements. In other words, most teachers of dancing use "received" imagery in classes, passing on what they learned from whomever taught the classes in which they were students. Any prevailing usage of distorted bodily imagery is thus transmitted from teacher to student. The imagery is taken for granted and unexamined.

Habitual Postural Patterns and Neuro-Muscular Coordination

Sweigard didn't think much of how ballet and modern concert dancing were taught. Her entire focus was on the habitual posture of individuals dealt with in the constructive rest position, in a sitting position and in an ordinary standing position. The habitual posture of each individual was of paramount importance to her, not the moves that were made in dance classes. In her book (1975) she says,

...posture in the standing position is a dynamic phenomenon in which the amount and extent of muscle work, and the wear and tear on the skeletal framework and its joints and ligaments, depend largely on the efficiency of the neuromuscular coordination engaged habitually in maintaining upright balance (1975: 174).

The posture with which an aspiring dancer started was the all-important factor to her. Many dance students and teachers found (and for all I know, still find) this principle unacceptable. In general, Sweigard was against any system of physical training, including military drill, that proceeded from a "held" posture, a hyper-extended chest or the "holding" of any set of muscles.

I had no argument with what she said, for I agreed that improvement of the initial postural pattern of each individual student was the only way ultimately to improve his or her dancing. However, I wanted to know what one taught with regard to teaching idioms of dancing, the nature of which often requires "holding" the body in various positions as part of the aesthetics of the dance form.

Imagery and Sub-Cortical Planning

She refused to discuss that kind of thing with me, thus I had to work out how to handle the problems on my own. I always thought it was a pity that she didn't work more with dance teachers as much as she did with individual dancers who were having problems, because it is the teachers who need to know that,

To illustrate the ideokinetic power of imagination on subcortical planning of muscle action, visualize yourself growing tall and, in so doing, stand upright with greater ease. If you forcefully stretch up to make yourself taller, however, you will find your body taut and unyielding. In the former procedure, your muscles responded to subcortical directions, without interference of conditioned neuromuscular reflexes which may be inefficient. In the latter case, your consciously directed movement used established neuromuscular habit patterns which eliminated to a marked degree the possible influence of subcortical planning (Sweigard 1975: 170, emphasis added).

Here, Sweigard makes clear the difference between visualization, which allows the neuro-muscular mechanism appropriately to respond to an imagined action and the more common approach to achieving the desired effect by conscious muscular effort and "forcing." Really understanding the difference between sub-cortical planning and attempts at voluntary control means that teachers will eliminate directions such as "pull up," or "stretch up," causing immediate muscular efforts by students to do so in classes, which in turn tends to develop habits of muscular "holding."

In my case, however, I didn't try to apply anything I learned from Sweigard during the first year I studied with her apart from changing the general bodily imagery I used in classes, such as "keep your spine straight," or "turn out your knees" -- both of which are wrong -- and any other images that used direct anatomical or bodily referents. Sweigard was adamant that most neuromuscular reeducation had to take place on an individual level, and she warned that she didn't want to find out that I was teaching anything I learned from her that pertained to my individual postural patterns. She threatened to terminate classes with her if she got the idea that I was "cheating." Over and over, she stressed the fact that my bodily problems were mine, and mine alone. The same held true for every individual with whom she worked. Even after I had "passed the test" so to speak, I didn't incorporate any of what I learned from her as an individual into my classes. I will say that, apart from the generalized imagery regarding bodily parts described above, I devised a series of "techniques" that I used (usually at the beginning of a class) to get dancers to think about their bodies in more effective ways.


For example, I would have the class sit on the floor, legs straight out in front of them, then I would say, "Now, without moving your legs at all, turn out your feet." Of course this is impossible. Then I would say, "Turn out your knees." They couldn't do that either. Next, I would say, "Turn out your legs from your thigh joints." Of course they could do that, following which I would explain why this was anatomically true, hammering home the point that "turn-out" occurs only at the thigh joints. All the knees and feet are meant to do is to follow. As we all know, however, many dance teachers use the images of "turn out your feet" and "turn out your knees" in classes, but both images create misconceptions of how the body works and they reflect anatomical impossibilities. In other words, there are ways in which the body moves that aspiring dancers (even professionals) simply don't know about, starting with the fact that knees and ankles have comparatively limited movements on their own. That is, knee and ankle joints have limited rotational capacity. These joints are best treated as if they had no rotational capacity. Most danced movements in any idiom of dancing come from the thigh joints.

Mind you, none of this, (effective as it was and still is, by those who use it), strictly speaking, is Sweigard's imagery, or her use of images to change the neuromuscular habits of individual bodies. I cannot stress that point too much. The additional "body techniques" I taught in dance classes were my own, and I had such techniques for every part of the body. I would only give one or two at the beginning of each class because I discovered (a)that most students couldn't really absorb more than one or two at a time, and (b)they wanted to get on with the dancing -- as Sweigard so often said, "traditional concepts and loyalties die hard." (1975: 5)

Teach Students About Their Own Bodies

Using such procedures as I did, I could then refer to the students' thigh joints (or some other joint) during the dance class and they had some means of understanding what I meant for them to do. Realize, however, that these techniques were mainly about the locations of key skeletal parts of their anatomy (mainly the location of joints). Their ability to locate these points in their own bodies is crucial to any dancer's success. I explained to them that they had to know where important anatomical "points" were located in their own bodies. They learned to locate these (with their own fingers making pressure points) during work at the barre, or in floor work. I also told students what wrong imagery amounted to, and at those times, I did repeat Sweigard's own words, telling them, for example, that they could not "straighten their spines," "point their toes,"or "turn their knees out," or, if they did attempt to accomplish what these images suggest, they would be in serious trouble.

Teaching Dancers to Protect Themselves

Gradually, the dancers I trained came to realize that they were personally responsible for their own work in any kind of dance class they took. They soon began to recognize that many teachers knew little or nothing about what they were doing from this more "anatomical" point of view. However, they found they could compensate for lacks in other teachers' knowledge by substituting anatomically correct imagery for that which was incorrect. For example, if a teacher told them to "point their toes," they now knew what they REALLY had to do: extend their ankle to the maximum and stretch the foot, (including the toes) away from the ankle. In other words, they learned to protect themselves from poor body imagery in dance classes (see Sparger 1965: 44-45).

I'm happy to say that I never injured a dancer in any of my classes, and, because those I taught knew how to protect themselves, they didn't injure themselves in other teachers' classes either. I've only given a couple of examples of poor imagery here, but there are many: "tuck your butt (rear, derriere) under" is a common example, because, of course, with the buttocks clenched, no movement (even ordinary walking) is possible. I went through every image I used in dance classes that had any bodily imagery connected with it and I suggest that teachers who are serious about improving the teaching they do engage in this kind of exercise for themselves.

I retired from teaching dance classes in 1970 and became a social anthropologist after preparation at Oxford University (U.K.) for seven years. During the educational process in social anthropology, it became clear to me that the use of Sweigardian ideokinetic principles in the teaching of dancing represented "the last word" so to speak with regard to physical training (not only in dancing but sports, the martial arts or what-you-will), but there were severe limitations to Ideokinesis with reference to teaching dancing and doing research into any structured system of human movement. Because of this, my continuing interest in the linguistic, cultural and aesthetic aspects of the dance led to the development of semasiology, which is an anthropological theory of culturally and semantically laden actions, a theory of human body language postulating that human actions are learned and that inquiry into dances or dancing requires a different paradigm of explanation than kinesiology or anatomy provides. Elsewhere, I have said,

Great insights into the anatomical mechanisms of the human body have been achieved by Sweigard's kind of research, but insight into the nature of danced actions themselves are not achieved by anatomical, physiological, or kinesiological study. The reason is simple; these sciences are not concerned with the social identities of dancers...nor are they concerned with the meanings of dances, sign languages, rituals, and such, because "the meanings of perceivable actions involve complex intersections of personal and cultural values, beliefs and intentions, as well as numerous features of social organization." (Farnell 1999a: 148, cited in Williams 2004: 58, emphasis added).

The "short definition"; of the word semasiology is "the study of meanings." It interprets the study of signification as the study of meaning. For those interested in further discussion, see Williams (2004: 161-169 and Farnell 1999b: 356-359).

Two Theories of Human Action(s)

Semasiology uses methods, rules and procedures that locate human actions in terms of human socio-cultural life. It does not attempt to describe or explain "pure" movement bereft of meaning, nor does it attempt to explain how the body as an "organism" works. The difference between these two types of theorizing is explained by an example. Sentences 1a and 2a (below) are verbal descriptions of so-called "pure" physical movements in contrast to 1b and 2b, which describe meaning-laden actions:

1a. His arm extended straight out through the car window. [Description in terms of "pure" movement].
1b. He signaled a left turn. [Description in terms of semantically laden action].
2a.Her arm moved rapidly forward and made contact with his face. ["Pure" movement].
2b. She slapped him angrily. [Semantically laden action].

These examples, though trivial in themselves, make clear that when we describe actions in terms of [pure] movements, we lose the real significance of the action as a part of human social life. The legacy of behaviourism is such that [we] have failed to focus on human action [through] devising experimental studies and empirical investigations ... [We have] concentrated ... on the sounds or movements which are merely the vehicles of action (Harre and Secord 1972b: 39 - italics added).

The human body that Dr. Sweigard studied so deeply and so well is the vehicle of action, but it is not the action itself, any more than a piano or any other musical instrument is the music, or the vocal cords the speech utterances made by a person. Thus, we may say that broadly, Dr. Sweigard saw movement behavioristically. In contrast, the research I carried out (see Williams 1972 and 1975) developed new ways of seeing movement. That is,

In the early 1970s, Williams, like Kaeppler [1985, 1986] recognized that an anthropological approach to all forms of human movement required theoretical resources beyond those offered by kinesics and proxemics [and, by kinesiology and anatomy]. In addition to the need to combine bodily actions with the spatial contexts in which they appear, both aspects of action required reconceptualizing in ways that would make them available to analytical rigor. The problem was how to achieve this without compromising a focus on the agent centered articulation of nuanced cultural meanings to which, as a former dancer, Williams was deeply committed.

The first theoretical task semasiology undertook was to delineate those resources with which every human being is equipped, to identify structural universals of the body in space that are common to all human movement systems anywhere. This necessitated conceptualizing a way of making all possible movements of the signifying body finite, taking into account the anatomical possibilities and limitations provided by the structure of the human organism without resorting to the terminology of anatomy or biomechanics. The notion of a semasiological body with its specific degrees of freedom articulated at each joint provides this groundbreaking and essential resource (Williams 1979, 1982)....

The second task was to delineate a conception of the structure of enacted spaces that also delineated the universal constraints in which humans operate. Williams adopted the notion of Euclidian space consisting of three dimensions of space and one dimension of time in which a person, as a dynamic agent, is centered. Rather than try to devise numerical means of measurement (the problem being where you measure from), she adopted set theory. Again working from the agentive perspective, the spatial directions and orientations of body parts in motion as well as whole body movement through space were delineated. In addition to the corporeal/personal space immediately encompassing a single human actor, theoretical resources were required to delineate interactions spaces and larger performance spaces. These are handled with the same basic three-dimensional structure (plus time) but viewed as a series of nested possibilities.

Semasiology also utilizes a number of Saussurian ideas, especially the edict that a sign takes its meaning from its place within a system of signs. This entails a Wittgensteinian "nonrepresentational" view of language and other signifying acts, thus avoiding the problematic assumption that a sign necessarily stands for something, which separates signifier from signified (see Williams 1982 and 1991: 178-243)....

Having identified these structural universals... The second frame of reference to be maintained in a semasiological point of view consists of "the particularities of the individual action sign system that is being studied, the forms of these particularities and their inclusion into a human value system" (Williams 1995: 49). Strategies for investigation include close attention to the local value (in the Saussurian sense of valeur, or relative weighting) attached to local taxonomies of the body, movement, spatial dimensions and space/time, as these can be observed, learned, and practiced, and as they are talked about in local discourses of personhood and self in the poetics and politics of lived experience. Close attention is also given to the indexical and performative functions of both action signs and spoken discourse, and to relationships between these two modalities. Although the theoretical resources provided by semasiology do not specifically deal with relationships between bodily practices and asymmetries of social power, this approach does provide the necessary analytic resources for examining exactly how such asymmetries emerge and are maintained and/or contested. The semiotic practices of talk and action are the corporeal means by which power and authority operate in social contexts.

A third frame of reference to be maintained in a semasiology of action involves the reciprocal comparison between participant-observer and the subjects of the action sign system under investigation, searching for correspondences and lack of fit between what I/we believe and what they acknowledge and understand (Williams 1995: 50). This reflexive stance is, of course, integral to new notions of objectivity in the social sciences (Pocock 1994; Varela 1994 and Williams 1994, cited in Farnell 1999b: 356-58).

Semasiological ways of seeing movement cannot rightly be grafted onto behavioristic thinking -- or vice-versa. There are too many discrepancies between them. Their aims and methods are incompatible, starting with definitions of what it is to be human:

Semasiology needed new terminology and modes of analysis that were of the misconception that the discourse of physiology or kinesiological measurements of muscles and kinetic energy is necessary in order to be "scientific" and achieve analytic rigor, as if the only "real" body is the biological or medical one. Conceptual confusion frequently arises when terms and concepts appropriate to a biological/physiological realm of discourse are employed in attempts to produce explanations that involve meaning in the social realm. Although more typical of studies in nonverbal communication, and of behaviorist approaches in psychology, such confusion has had its effects in sociocultural anthropology, as for example, in the functional-anatomical explanations by Birdwhistell (1970) of movement as a 'kinesic stream.' Williams (2004: 152-153) succinctly identifies the problem in this explanation of the hitchiker's action of thumbing a ride. "However, we are told that a 'macro-kinesic translation' of this state of affairs reads something like this: 'two members of the species HomoSapiens, standing with an intrafemoral index of approximately 45 degrees, right humeral appendages raised to an 80 degree angle to their torsos, in an antero-posterior sweep, using a double pivot at the scapular-clavicular joint, accomplish a communicative signal,' we are justified in saying 'no.' That is not what we see. We see persons thumbing a ride." (Farnell 1999b:360 - emphasis added).

It became clear to me that the theoretical paradigm in which Dr. Sweigard operated was not suitable for the teaching of dancing, or the research I (and others) wanted to do. When I teach theory in university graduate classes, I introduce students to the field by acquainting them with "patterns of discovery" in science and the social sciences (see Diesing 1981). Often, students are not aware of the fact that they have choices to make with regard to the way they handle movement systems at a scholarly level. Intelligent choices cannot be made if they are not fully aware of the many theories (and methods) that are available for their purpose(s).

Drid Williams

Drid Williams can be contacted through her e-mail address:

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