Teacher's Wisdom: Betty Jones

July 19, 2007
In 1947, Betty Jones became a founding member and principal dancer of the José Limón Dance Company, creating roles such as Desdemona opposite Limón’s Moor in his classic work, The Moor’s Pavane. She danced in the company for 20 years. And for another 20 she served on the faculties of the Juilliard School and the American Dance Festival. She is artistic co-director of Dances We Dance Company and has taught and restaged Humphrey/Limón repertoire throughout the U.S., Europe, Russia and Asia. When at home in Honolulu, she teaches at Moiliili Community Center. —Carol Egan
What were classes with José Limón like?
José was incredible for creating movement phrases, but often didn’t pay as much attention to their preparation. Pauline Lawrence, his wife, played the piano for class and would make asides, correcting the students. He would do pliés, tendus, and some swings, and then get on with movement combinations, which was his real interest. He worked with isolations, calling them the “voices of the body.” He talked about the body as an “orchestra.” He and Doris Humphrey, his mentor, spoke constantly about the contrast between Apollonian and Dionysian qualities.
Did you follow his style when you first started teaching?
For about 10 years I taught pretty much the same way because I was assisting him at Juilliard. But then I met Lulu Sweigard (a kinesiologist who also taught at Juilliard). At first I thought, what does anatomy have to do with dance? To me dancing was of the spirit. But I soon realized I was teaching very poorly and ended up becoming her assistant for 13 years.
What did you learn from her that you could apply to your teaching?
Sweigard’s comparison of the head, ribcage, and pelvis to three spools, using imagined movement to align and center them in relation to a center axis that extends downward through thigh and knee joints, seems very important to me. I don’t say hip joint as that immediately takes one’s thoughts to the outside. To locate the joint, do a small plié, sinking the fingers deep into the crease on the front of the pelvis. The joint, which lies directly in back and below the fingers, is a ball and socket joint, and the leg rotation originates from there. The understanding of that joint gives the body more freedom and efficiency. I “tucked” a lot in my early days, but was less bound and much freer after this work. When you tuck, the body has to be back while the head is usually forward. It’s a difficult problem Sweigard helped me to overcome.
Besides Limón and Sweigard, what other influences are reflected in your teaching?
Another influence comes from ballet, as I combine the pliés and tendus, etc. with principles of weight, breath, “voices of the body,” ideas rooted in José and Doris’ vocabulary. This is performed in the center without hanging onto a barre, and then I proceed to travel, using movement phrases. More and more, I encourage dancers to be off-balance, what Doris called “the arc between two deaths.” I want to dare them to be off-balance and then to regain their equilibrium. I think that off-balance is a way to get vigorous and organic movement out of the students.
How have your years of residency in Hawaii influenced your teaching?
Donny McKayle once told me that I had been influenced by living here in the way I used my hands and hips. I love hula and I’ve studied it, but the use of hands and hips is also very pronounced in José’s work. He worked on my hands a lot, getting me to use them in a natural way.
What bothers you as a teacher?
Rigidity in students that makes them hold onto previously learned instructions or be unwilling to change their habits. It is difficult to teach José’s work to dancers who are obsessed with high leg extensions and can’t see the difference between a kick and a Humphrey/Limón leg extension, which is a functional concept.
How do you get students to put weight into the leg swings?
Letting go is a technique to be learned. I start my class with successions, and then head swings, arm swings, and eventually leg swings. I encourage the feeling of gravity, and, of course, the suspension at the end, letting the fingers reach into space without tension and then having the feeling of weight come into the arm. The leg is the same, starting with an attitude, letting it fall, foot brushing the floor, and guiding the gravitational momentum where it experiences a moment of weightlessness before gravity claims it to fall anew.
What is your goal as a teacher?
I would like to prepare my students to be good dancers, able to “read” or see movement, analyze it, and do it. The students should retain their individuality but hold onto the “truth” of the movement. There are certain movements and positions I am careful with because I’m interested in teaching someone to dance forever. For instance, stretches on the floor that can twist the knee are to be avoided.
What do you mean by “truth?”
José wanted movement to be functional, as in pushing, cutting, pulling, etc. Here is where the truth comes in. The intent of the movement is what I mean by truth, and that can’t be imitated. It needs to come from thought—what you are saying with the gesture or movement.