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Pioneers | Barbara Clark


Barbara Clark began lessons at Todd's Boston studio with strong personal interest in body movement. Born in Vermont in 1889, Barbara considered herself to be the weakest of the seven children in her family. She did not crawl as a baby and then a serious illness impaired her physical development and confidence in movement. Unable to keep up with her siblings in their work on the family farm, Barbara explored her own physicality in solitary play inspired by the observation of nature. The adults Nurse Barbarain the family limited Barbara's work to sedentary household tasks and encouraged her scholarly interests. After graduating from high school, Barbara reasoned that college studies focused on movement would help her to get to the bottom of her difficulties. She enrolled in the Physical Education program at Oberlin College but despite her best efforts, she made very little progress. The faculty advised her to take up another major and limit her exercise to a daily walk. Barbara tried other college majors but none proved satisfying and she returned to her family life in Vermont.

In 1919, at the age of 30, Clark entered a two-year nurse's training course at Faulkner Hospital in Boston. She liked the balance between the mental and physical work that nursing offered although the required lifting of patients often strained her back. To avoid recurring injuries, Clark focused on pediatrics and found great satisfaction in this aspect of nursing. Upon her graduation as a Registered Nurse, Clark established a reputation as a highly qualified "baby nurse," assisting families with the care of their infants.

Clark learned of Mabel Todd's work in 1923 and became convinced that Todd's approach was the answer to her long-standing problems. But the teachers working in the Boston Studio were less enthusiastic, concerned that Clark was," so in need of help and it will take so long to get results that she won't have the courage, patience and money to stay with us." Far from being dissuaded, Clark relished every lesson and gradually began to improve.

In exchange for the fees for some of her lessons, Clark took charge of the children who came to the studio for help with posture and movement. Todd welcomed this arrangement recognizing that most children would not understand the basis of her imagery. Clark explored ideas for making Todd's material simpler, using objects that embodied key aspects of ideal posture as imagery. Showing a small round sponge as an image of the relaxation desirable in the rib cage or tiny seahorse demonstrating the alignment of the neck and jaw facilitated the child's grasp of the concepts. Clark would then make use of the playful images during the child's table work sessions.

Clark also found ways to apply Todd's ideas in her nursing practice. Some of the babies she worked with exhibited developmental delays and poor coordination. The sensory experience of Clark's touch in modified table work procedures often helped them to improve. Clark also devised simple games and rhymes to encourage the practice of rolling, crawling and other movements supporting the development of good posture. In order to encourage more practice between lessons, Clark taught parents her strategies for improved coordination through movement play.

In 1929, Clark published a small pamphlet entitled Structural Hygiene for the Preschool Child: Steps in the Baby's Procedure for Balance and Movement. She also began to spread her knowledge of posture education and developmental movement to prospective preschool teachers through her work as a nurse at the Ruggles Street Nursery School. Ruggles Street was the first nursery "teacher training" school in the United States and Clark's views were prominent in their teacher education seminars. At Ruggles Street, Clark also designed and modified play equipment to encourage optimum physical development. Her best-known design was the Tunnel Toy, Tunnel Toya small tunnel that youngsters could crawl through, straddle, or play inside of. Clark patented the design in 1933 and sold this equipment to nursery school facilities throughout the United States.

Throughout this period, Clark gained teaching experience at the Boston studio and created a unique identity for herself as a practitioner of Todd's method. Her success in reaching children through very simple imagery also motivated Clark to pare down Todd's ideas in her work with adults. With relatively little attention to kinesiological principles, Clark taught elements of anatomy and their implications for postural balance as matters of practicality and common sense. Clark also conserved her own energy and avoided strains by doing less for her clients in the table procedures. She could see that if an image was sufficiently clear and engaging, only a light touch was needed to direct the pupil's learning process.

Clark developed these ideas about teaching at the same time that Todd was concentrating more of her attention on writing. As Todd closed her east coast studios and explored the possibilities in California, Clark realized it was also time to strike out on her own. In 1949 at the age of 60, Barbara Clark left the Boston area for New York City. There, she planned to study drawing at the Art Student's League with the goal of creating visual imagery that would become the centerpiece of a more accessible approach to Todd's teaching. Her hope was to write body alignment "manuals" in a practical style that could assist anyone to become, as she put it, "physically educated."

Clark enjoyed her classes at the Art Students' League and found many parallels between Todd's work and the approach to anatomical drawing that she learned there. Abstracting the forms of the joints, bones and muscles into simple designs became a new avenue of kinesthetic discovery for Clark. Although Todd was supportive of her student's creative efforts, she was much too preoccupied with her own writing to be much help to Clark with the development of the manuals. Most of the other studio teachers had retired or were pursuing new professional interests.

Clark did form a relationship with Dr. Lulu Sweigard, a student of Todd at Columbia who had investigated Todd's work scientifically. Clark observed Sweigard's classes at New York University and briefly became her assistant. Clark also relieved Sweigard of an overload of private pupils who came primarily from the world of dance. Clark was delighted to work with these dancers, sensing their affinity for the simplified approach to Todd's work that she was developing. When students indicated an interest, Clark went beyond their table lessons to share her latest ideas for the body alignment manuals. Eventually, Clark groomed a few of the students as teachers of her version of Todd's approach, which she began to refer to as "mind-body integration."

In 1963, Clark published her first body alignment manual. Let's Enjoy Sitting, Standing and Walking focused on imagery for the axial skeleton. The imagery was to be practiced in simple activities of daily life such as sitting down and getting up, walking or tying one's shoes, as well as the developmental movements of rolling and squatting. With the insistence of her dance students, Clark somewhat reluctantly included imagery for the practice of the plie. The informal, conversational style of the writing was intended to engage the reader in an enjoyable learning experience.

Clark's next manual, How to Live in Your Axis - Your Vertical Line (1968), published in 1968, was designed to supplement classes taught by her students. The imagery was more abstract and the instructions for practice assumed the readers were familiar with basic dance movement. Imagery for the alignment of the arms and shoulders was presented in this manual as well as ideas for integrating Body Cyclemovement with breathing. The centerpiece of the work was a visual image that captured one of Todd's mechanical concepts -- the balance of compression forces conveying weights "down the back" of the body, with tensile forces suspending weights "up the front."

In the late 1960's, Clark was attracting a new generation of students who were also exploring "post-modern" dance. Her work enhanced their fascination with pedestrian movement and helped them to perfect its performance from the inside, out. Some of the dancers began to infuse Clark's imagery into their own teaching. Clark was only remotely aware of the direction these dancers were taking with her work, however. Her sessions with students centered on the issues that were uppermost in her own thinking-- the lessons and imagery she was creating for her third manual. By the early 1970's, Clark was becoming increasingly concerned about the prospects of continuing her work in New York. Clark left the city before finishing the third manual and settled in Urbana-Champaign, home of the University of Illinois.

Earlier developments paved the way for Clark's influence on a small group of graduate students studying dance at the university. Dr. Laura Huelster, a former New York University doctoral student and friend of Lulu Sweigard, was directing the graduate program in Physical Education, after serving as department chair from 1949 to 1966. Huelster maintained close ties with University of Illinois dance faculty and was very supportive when Joan Skinner and Marsha Paludan began to develop an image-based dance technique for the dance majors in the late 1960's. Thus, when Barbara Clark landed on the Urbana-Champaign campus, several of the students were primed for exposure to her work. Although she worked with these students only on a private basis, two of them made Clark's ideas the focus of their thesis projects; Barbara Clarkothers were influenced by her work in the development of their choreography.

Although pleased that dance graduate students were studying her work as part of their studies at a major university, Clark's attention remained riveted on the development of her manuals. With the help of her Illinois proteges, Clark's third manual, Body Proportion Needs Depth -- Front to Back was published in 1973. The students also acted as Clark's sounding board in the development of her fourth manual, The Body is Round Use all the Radii, which was published posthumously.

As Clark grew older she had less energy for teaching and writing. But she remained absorbed in the invention of anatomical imagery until her death in 1982 at the age of ninety-three. Clark's biography and writings are documented in the book, A Kinesthetic Legacy: The Life and Works of Barbara Clark written by Pamela Matt in 1993.

Pamela Matt

Bibliography for Barbara Clark

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