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Pioneers | Mabel Elsworth Todd


The approach that would be known as Ideokinesis emerged in the early 1900's, a turbulent period of extraordinary creativity in dance, physical education and body culture. This was the time of Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, pioneers of earlyMabel Elsworth Todd modern dance. In physical education, the new "rhythmic gymnastics" challenged the traditional practice of calisthenics. Delsarte's system of "expression" found wide acceptance in schools of oratory and theatre. F. Matthias Alexander championed a radical method of body re-education and Laban's theories of human motion were applied in fields as diverse as physical therapy, industrial engineering, dance choreography and sports. Nurturing all these systems was a progressive intellectual climate that honored movement as a complex phenomenon, questioned Cartesian conceptions of mind/body separation and rejected physical training practices rooted in mindless, repetitive drill.

Mabel Elsworth Todd's early development of the principles and practices of Ideokinesis was born of personal necessity. Raised in Syracuse, New York in the late 1800's, a childhood illness weakened Mabel's kidneys so severely that the doctors prepared her family for the possibility of lifelong invalidism. Fortunately, Mabel made enough of a recovery to enter a private secondary school for girls and complete her education relatively unhampered by her health problems. At the Keble School, Mabel developed a keen interest in science, which was unusual for a girl in those times. An exceptional relationship with her science teacher provided opportunities for special projects and encouraged her passion for the field.

Soon after her graduation from the Keble School, Mabel suffered a back injury in a terrible fall from which it was feared she might never recover. For months, she struggled with pain and debilitating weakness until she found a way to take charge of her own recovery. Her high school study of physics served as the foundation for a rudimentary understanding of body mechanics that she expanded through further reading. Then, concentrating on specific aspects of anatomy and kinesiology as she attempted simple movements, Mabel gradually strengthened her body and improved her walking gait.

Todd's fall and self-directed recovery delayed her pursuit of higher education for several years. When she finally enrolled in the Emerson College of Oratory in Boston at the age of 26, she was eager to explore their courses in movement and the proper use of the voice. Todd was fascinated by the vocal difficulties of the very worst students and their concurrent problems with posture and basic coordination. When Todd and a few colleagues began teaching in Boston at the start of World War I, she added techniques discovered in her own rehabilitation to the methods she learned for the voice. She called her teaching method, Natural Posture.

Some of Boston's most prominent society matrons frequented Mabel Todd's studio when their work in makeshift factories supporting the war effort took a physical toll. Todd's lessons helped them to restore themselves and learn to use their bodies in a more efficient manner. Doctors in the area were very impressed by the results of Todd's techniques and sent her more of their patients. Todd's longtime pupils became assistant teachers when her clientele grew. Often with backgrounds in physical education or nursing, almost all Todd's studio teachers suffered from serious health challenges that her work relieved and gradually improved. Although most of them incorporated their own backgrounds into her technique, training the studio teachers brought greater order and clarity to Todd's teaching method.

Todd's approach was conducted in private lessons and focused on a procedure called the "table work." For a typical lesson, the pupil dressed in loose-fitting underwear and a robe. At the beginning of a lesson, a feature of the skeleton or a picture from an anatomy book was shown to illustrate a specific aspect of ideal body balance; an image was then suggested as a metaphor for the alignment concept. The pupil then reclined on a padded table and concentrated upon the image as the teacher provided precise information on its location and the direction of its action through her touch. The pupil was cautioned only to picture the image without directing the body toward some sort of voluntary muscular response. The new image and previously learned imagery were also practiced while performing basic movements like walking, rolling or crawling, crawling practice in Todd's Boston studioor while resting in various positions. Between lessons, the student was expected to review the imagery while resting or performing simple pedestrian movements.

Around 1920, Todd established a second studio at the Essex House in New York City. There, Todd's reputation attracted a different clientele of students from theater, dance, opera, music and professional sports. Encouraged by doctors who were impressed with her work, Todd also began writing about her approach during this period. Her first articles, written for the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, explained her new "principles of posture." Much of this writing described the nature of ideal alignment from a mechanical standpoint in contrast to the popular conceptions of posture that were influenced by military training practices or the fashions of the day. drawing showing military posture and balanced postureShe also explained the function of neuromuscular habits in maintaining poor posture and how "thinking" of image goals could be used to break old habits and establish better body balance.

Todd also made her work known to physical education departments in nearby colleges and universities. Columbia University was particularly interested in her ideas. Dr. Jesse Feiring Williams, head of the Department of Physical Education at the time, was spearheading a new approach to physical education that challenged the pervasive dualistic paradigm separating persons into two irreconcilable parts: a material body and an immaterial mind. His landmark work, Principles of Physical Education, promoted movement as a "laboratory" for learning in all the subject areas as well as enhancing social responsibility and moral values. The curriculum he developed was a progressive one, even including "Natural Dancing" as an integral component. Todd's approach to improving body mechanics by thinking of imagery fit right into Williams' vision of a new form of "education through the physical." He offered Todd the opportunity to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education for a fraction of the number of courses ordinarily required. After graduating in 1927, Todd became a Lecturer at Columbia, teaching "Basic Principles of Posture" for the next four years. During that period, Todd garnered scientific background for her theories and wrote The Balance of Forces in the Human Being as a syllabus for her students.

Health problems and the desire to devote more time to her writing motivated Todd to resign from the faculty of Columbia University in 1931. She lectured for another year at the New School for Social Research and then limited her teaching to a few private students in order to expand her Columbia syllabus into a book. Published in 1937, The Thinking Body: A Study of the Balancing Forces of Dynamic Man, promoted an understanding of body alignment as a function of mechanical principles. Although substantive from a kinesiological standpoint, the work was also rich with examples of body engineering simplified into imagery. the bridge that walks and the bridge you walk overThe process by which sustained concentration upon images could effect change in habits of posture and movement was also a central theme.

The publication of The Thinking Body brought a new wave of recognition for Todd's ideas that sustained her teaching studios through the early 1940's. But gradually, the colleagues in physical education and medicine that had been so supportive of Todd's early work faded from prominence. At the end of the decade, a new generation of the New York City medical establishment voiced concern regarding some of Todd's assertions about her approach and threatened a lawsuit against her. Lacking the energy and funding to mount a legal defense, Todd agreed to terminate her work in the state of New York as part of an out-of-court settlement.

In the early 1950's, Todd left the east coast for California hoping that a milder climate might ease some of her ongoing health problems. Todd established a small teaching practice in the Los Angeles area where she cultivated an upscale Hollywood clientele and continued to work on her writing. The book Todd developed during this period, The Hidden You, expanded upon many of the themes she discussed in The Thinking Body. Her unconventional writing style, freely juxtaposing mechanical facts with fanciful imagery, became even more complex in this work, suggesting psychological, even spiritual, implications for her work in posture and movement. For the critics this mix of ideas was a bit bewildering. For Todd, it was only reasonable to expect that the process of exploring dynamic body balance would eventually inform all dimensions of one's being.

Soon after the publication of The Hidden You in 1953, Mabel Todd suffered a series of heart attacks; she died in California three years later. Without their daily affiliation at the studios, Todd's cadre of studio teachers gradually lost contact with each other. Interest in posture and body mechanics also waned in academia as concern about new issues in physical education gained momentum. Fortunately, two of Todd's students remained dedicated to advancing Todd's ideas. Lulu Sweigard focused on the scientific verification and organization of the method and Barbara Clark developed a series of simple educational manuals for the public at large.

Pamela Matt

Bibliography for Mabel Elsworth Todd

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