The Pioneers
Dance Generation
New Contributors
About This Site

Pioneers | Lulu E. Sweigard


Lulu Edith Sweigard was born in Sharpsburg, Iowa on April 19, 1895. Comparatively little is known about her childhood. A year after graduating from high school in 1913 she began work on her Physical Education Diploma at Iowa State Teachers College; college records indicate that she was an outstanding scholar and student leader. As a teaching assistant, Sweigard worked closely Lulu Edith Swiegardwith faculty and was encouraged to continue her studies beyond the requirements for the teaching diploma to earn the Bachelor of Arts degree in Physical Education. Her work so impressed the college authorities that she was invited to join the faculty as an Instructor upon her graduation in 1918. A few years later she was promoted to the rank of Assistant Professor and in 1926 she was awarded a leave of absence to pursue graduate studies in physical education at Columbia University.

At Columbia, Sweigard met Mabel Todd who was teaching the course, "Basic Principles of Posture." Todd's view, that posture and body mechanics could be improved by thinking of imagery, was a radical departure from anything Sweigard had previously learned. In a talk delivered at a bi-national dance conference in 1971, she explained,

My background of formal education was in the field of physical education where I was well indoctrinated with the idea that exercises for various parts of the body were the means of improving (correcting?) body alignment, the supposition obviously being that poor posture is due to weakness of some of the muscles.

Study with Mabel Todd changed Sweigard's views and radically altered the direction of her academic career. She could see that Todd's approach produced better body alignment with greater ease than traditional exercise teaching. But she was also aware that for the physical education establishment to even begin to consider the merits of Todd's approach, proof of its effectiveness through experimental research would be required. Acknowledging that Todd's command of kinesiology provided sound scientific support for many of her ideas, Sweigard looked to neurology and the emerging field of motor learning for a better understanding of how concentration on imagery could facilitate physical change. Sweigard also recognized that Todd's approach needed organization and simplification to serve as a physical education curriculum. Thus, rather than returning to Iowa upon the completion of her Master's degree in 1927, Sweigard remained in New York and dedicated herself to resolving the issues inspired by her exposure to Todd's teaching. Although research, analysis and objectivity were essential to the task, Sweigard was also quite idealistic in her mission. In her preface to the 1972 reprint of The Thinking Body, she explained:

Two years of study with Miss Todd convinced me that . . . any teaching which could produce such unquestionably good results in body alignment with simultaneous increase in efficiency and ease should be available to all in the educational system and not be confined to private teaching.

Soon after she was awarded the Master's Degree in Physical Education, Sweigard accepted a teaching post at Columbia and between 1929 and 1931 she accomplished her first major research study. Her goal was to validate Todd's approach, to document changes in posture that occurred through the thinking of imagery without any voluntary muscular effort. The research involved 200 adult female students ranging in age from twenty to fifty years who received Todd's posture training in thirty-minute classes of six to eight students for fifteen weeks. Both before and after the period of training, Sweigard used a device called Posturimetera Posturimeter to measure the changes in skeletal alignment.

Sweigard's study demonstrated that Todd's teaching method of thinking rather than doing produced measurable changes in the relative position of skeletal parts and that the changes were quite consistent. An increase in overall height in both the sitting and standing positions, a decrease in the width and circumference of the rib cage and an increase in the length of the spine were a few of the improvements Sweigard noted. Reviewing the findings provided a clear picture of the most widespread postural faults and how bodies could change toward greater conformity with the principles of mechanics. Unfortunately, the study was not published due to the lack of a control group, questions about the reliability of surface measurements and the need for statistical analysis of the data. Although Sweigard was disappointed that her study did not have the impact in academic physical education that she anticipated, the research was invaluable from many other perspectives. Summarizing the documented changes in alignment into "nine lines of movement," Sweigard clarified the goals of the approach and began to standardize her own version of Todd's educational method.

The Nine Lines of Movement

The Nine Lines of Movement
1. Lengthen the spine downward.
2. Shorten distance between mid front pelvis and 12th thoracic vertebra.
3. From top of the sternum to top of the spine.
4. Narrow the rib case.
5. Widen the back of the pelvis.
6. Narrow the front of the pelvis.
7. From center of knee to center of femoral joint.
8. From big toe to heel.
9. Lengthen the central axis of the trunk upward.

Sweigard became an instructor for the School of Education at New York University in 1931 and began work on her doctorate. During that period she continued to refine her teaching method and embarked on another very ambitious research project. Dr. Jay B. Nash, the head of the department at the time, was instrumental in securing financial support from the General Electric Corporation to x-ray 500 subjects in the standing position. Sweigard's doctoral thesis titled "Bilateral Asymmetry in the Alignment of the Human Body," presented her analysis of the x-rays and other measurements and concluded that deviations in skeletal symmetry were consistent and predictive of differences in both the stability and range of motion of the legs. Since 400 of the 500 subjects were also in her posture classes at NYU, the study also furthered the development of Sweigard's tactile expertise in her teaching. Comparing felt differences in muscle tone to the skeletal x-rays of the students, Sweigard developed the "educated hands" that she considered an indispensable aid in the teaching of an approach she began to call, "neuromuscular reeducation."

After the completion of her doctoral thesis in 1939, articles about Sweigard's work appeared in the New York Times and Life Magazine. An article in the Physiotherapy Review explained the futility of common postural admonitions, like "pinch the buttocks" or "squeeze the shoulder blades," and gave high praise to Todd and Sweigard's innovative teaching. Sweigard was also invited to participate in a Symposium on Posture that assembled all the acknowledged experts in the field and resulted in a major publication. Yet, all the public attention to Sweigard's ideas failed to turn the tide of opinion in the physical education profession. With the exception of a few of her doctoral students at NYU, most academics continued to endorse physical education curricula that promoted the traditional curatives for poor posture and body mechanics.

As the disciplines of exercise physiology and fitness assessment assumed center stage in physical education in the 1940's and 50's, interest in body mechanics and posture gradually waned; at the same time, the modern dance world was beginning to take notice of Sweigard's teaching. Mabel Todd's work in New York had already exposed a few dancers to thinking one's way toward improved body alignment. Many other dancers became interested in Todd's ideas by reading The Thinking Body. When Todd closed her studio in New York, prospective dance students turned to Dr. Sweigard. Initially, many dancers sought her assistance when medical treatment for their injuries was unsuccessful. Sweigard could see Dr. Sweigard working with studentthat their poor neuromuscular habits were associated with muscular imbalances that could not withstand the new, very strenuous modern dance techniques.

Word of the effectiveness of Sweigard's approach spread rapidly and the numbers of dancers wanting lessons soon became overwhelming. To separate those who were serious about pursuing neuromuscular reeducation from those who were seeking a quick fix for their problems, Sweigard often required prospective students to study human anatomy as a preparation for their private lessons with her. After evaluating the unique difficulties of each dancer and tailoring a program to specifically meet those needs, she sometimes enlisted help from Todd's former assistant teachers to keep pace with the demand. The dancers who persisted in their studies with Sweigard gradually realized her work was clearly not an alternative to medical treatment but a means for optimizing the coordination of the healthy body, thus distinctly advantageous to anyone seriously pursuing the art of dance. Once beyond the intimidation almost all of them felt as they encountered the depth and breadth of Sweigard's knowledge, her students embodied the lessons of neuromuscular reeducation in their dancing and began to experiment with various ways of applying their new knowledge to dance teaching.

In 1956, Martha Hill invited Sweigard to join the faculty of the Dance Division of the Juilliard School of Music. Sweigard developed a curriculum for the school that included a course in "Anatomy for Dancers" and a "Posture Laboratory" for neuromuscular reeducation. She groomed several dance students as her assistants and many of them went on to make their own unique contributions to the field. Although Sweigard privately bemoaned the injurious effects the study of dance sometimes inflicted upon students, her work helped to bring Juilliard's dance training practices into better accord with kinesiological principles. Hill described the influence of Sweigard's teaching as follows:

More understanding of the instrument of the dance, the human body and the medium, movement; realistic self-evaluation by the student of his own potentials and limitations; greater freedom and skill in movement; increasingly fewer injuries; faster recovery from strains.

Juilliard's preeminence as a collegiate dance program also provided Sweigard a platform from which to speak to the dance profession. During her tenure at Juilliard, Sweigard published a number of articles and spoke at several prestigious dance conferences. When the field of dance science/medicine began to define itself during the 1960's, many connected Sweigard with the emerging discipline and considered her one of the fields' pioneers.

Sweigard's final scholarly achievement was the development of a book presenting important facets of kinesiology, a discussion of the operation of the nervous system in the control of posture and a complete description of her research and teaching practices. Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinetic Facilitation also presented the term "Ideokinesis" as the definitive title for her approach. The word was originally used by the pianist Luigi Bonpensiere to explain aspects of his piano teaching technique. Sweigard explained her use of the term as follows:

Kinesis is motion, here defined as physical movement induced by stimulation of muscles.... Ideo, the idea, the sole stimulator in the process, is defined as the concept developed through empirical mental processes. The idea, the concept of movement is the voluntary act and the sole voluntary component of all movement. Any further voluntary control only interferes with the process of movement and inhibits rather than promotes efficient performance.

With the assistance of her husband, research biologist Fritz Popken, Sweigard completed Human Movement Potential while battling a major illness. She died at her home in Tompkins Cove, New York just months before her book was published in 1974.

Pamela Matt

Bibliography for Lulu Sweigard

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