Teacher's Wisdom: Irene Dowd

June 20, 2007

Irene Dowd, author of Taking Root to Fly: Articles on Functional Anatomy for Dancers, has developed a unique approach to injury prevention using neuromuscular reeducation, which she teaches in her private practice in New York City. She is on the dance faculty of The Juilliard School and The National Ballet School of Canada. Dowd discussed with Feldenkrais practitioner Barbara Forbes how she works with dancers to embody whatever movement they choose to perform.

How is anatomy valuable for dancers?

Anatomy doesn’t tell us what to do, but how we’re doing it. It is a way of describing what we’re doing in great detail. My original interest as a choreographer was to create ways of moving beyond what I knew. Anatomy allows me to step outside my own aesthetic preferences, to figure out how I could warm up with a balance of muscle action around my joints. That means I have to use all of my muscles equally.

Doesn’t dance training teach that?

Dance forms don’t explore the full movement potential of the anatomy. For example, we traditionally do battements en croix: front, side, back, and side. We use hip flexors to go front and, no matter how turned out we are, to battement side we still use hip flexors. We use hip extensor muscles to go back and then flexors again to the side. So we have three flexions to every extension. That’s three times as much use of our flexors as of our extensors. Immediately that creates an imbalance. I decided to do a warm-up that would involve as many extensions as flexions.

So, you choreographed warm-up sequences like “Spirals”?

Yes. They’re designed to take our joints through all their possible motions and our muscles through all their possible length ranges, a sort of “equal rights” for all movement choices. I call it a warm-up because it’s a starting place in which my mind and body are one. As a unified dancer, I have the facility to make any movement choices that my particular dance art requires of me. If we get attached to any one way of doing something, we’re going to get into trouble. Dancing is about a constantly changing relationship with gravity. If we counter gravity too much we have no freedom, and if we give in to gravity too much we have no freedom. If I am too loose instead of engaged, I will have a certain type of injury; if I counter gravity too strongly instead of giving in to it, I’ll have another injury.

What signs can alert us before we get to the point of injury?

Sometimes before we’re injured we are already showing some technical insufficiency; we can feel that. We may have created an imbalance so that, for example, our hip is a little bit flexed all the time, even when we’re taking our leg to the back. If I feel some pinching in my lower back as I go into arabesque, my mind goes to the pain because my back is telling me something important. If we listen, we can change what’s happening in those lowermost vertebrae and take the movement more throughout the spine, or spiral our upper spine in counter-rotation to the lower spine. Then it’s physically pleasing to the performer and aesthetically pleasing to the audience because the line of the arabesque is unbroken.

How does visualization help?

We all use visualization. We have to have an idea of the movement we are going to perform in order to perform it. One of my friends and colleagues, Peggy Baker, has said, “When I’m performing, my mind is always a millisecond ahead of what I’m doing now.” Our brain talks to our muscles constantly, so if they’re not getting the message, our concept is blurry; maybe we’re not thinking about our knee or our hip or our upper spine. We can never get bored with dancing, even if we do the same movements every day, because the clarity with which we enter into the movement and the richness of our visualization will be constantly growing throughout our lives.

Do our habits help us as well as hinder us?

I think it’s much more functional to think of them as strategies than as “good” or “bad” habits. Our body is our instrument. A guitar is tuned in different ways to serve different music. It’s not that one tuning is wrong and the other is right—there are many possible tunings. Dancers always seek to go beyond what they can do. If a strategy achieves certain goals effectively, that’s magnificent! However, a particular strategy that worked so well for one goal may not be the best strategy for another goal. So, let’s just add to our strategies.

Do we get into trouble by having a “right” idea of how to move?

“Right” varies according to the movement goal. We are artists first, and our goal is to serve our art. “Right” is constantly changing. Mabel Todd used to say, “The mind is an instrument of thought, not a museum.” We are constantly learning. Every dancer, every choreographer, every teacher—all of them have a rich inner knowledge that comes from their experience. They’re all scientists, really, because they’re testing ideas and bringing them into physical reality. If I don’t have anatomy, then I’ll have some other information that I will use just as effectively. Rather than asking if I am doing it “right” or “wrong,” I can nurture an appetite for all of it. All the muscles are equally popular with me! I love all the muscles, I love all the joints, I love all the spatial dimensions, I love all the possible relationships. I must if I want to serve dance in its fullest potential.