Teacher's Wisdom: Lori Belilove

January 17, 2011

Lori Belilove is a thoroughly modern dance artist. Beneath her garlanded hair and silk tunic moves a hard-working professional who teaches, tours, performs, and lectures. As artistic director of the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, Belilove seeks to expand public awareness and understanding of Duncan’s legacy.

Like Isadora, Belilove grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She trained with second- and third-generation Duncan teachers, among them Irma and Anna Duncan, Julia Levien, Hortense Kooluris, and Mignon Garland. She also trained intensively in the Doris Humphrey technique. Belilove has given workshops at Harvard University, Juilliard, and NYU, among other institutions in the U.S. and abroad. Based in NYC, she teaches company classes in the Duncan technique at City Center Studios and directs a performing ensemble for young dancers ages 9 to 17. Belilove is the leading dancer in the PBS documentary Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul. Linda Tarnay observed one of her classes and spoke with her afterward.

How did you learn about Isadora and her work?
I was 12 years old, traveling through Europe with my family. In Athens we met an elderly gentleman, Mr. Vassos Kanellos, who had studied with Isadora when she made her first pilgrimage to Greece in 1903. He still carried a lock of her hair with him. When he met me he proclaimed, “Come study with me. You are the next Isadora.” Never having heard of Duncan, I rushed home to Berkeley and read her autobiography, My Life. The book inspired me to look for a teacher who could match the vision of dance that I held inside myself. After high school I went back to Greece and studied for two years with Kanellos. Then, returning to Berkeley, I was contacted by Mignon Garland, and I began studying privately with her.

What first appealed to you about the Duncan work?
The passion, the connection of the earth, the heart, the universe. The dances spoke to my whole self. These feelings came directly from the movement and the music, not something superimposed on it. We danced to such wonderful music! Beethoven, Bach, Scriabin, Gluck, Schubert.

How would you characterize Duncan dancing?
What movement qualities do you try to develop in your students? Flowing, full-bodied, having a dramatic sensibility. The dance speaks for itself. Don’t over-perform it. Gather the power in and let it stream out. “Embody your body,” I tell my students. “A skip isn’t just a skip. It has to feed the whole body.”

What are some of the technical challenges?
Every part of the body is sensitized. Our feet are trained to be pliable and expressive, from deeply grounded pressure into the floor in plié to what we call “butter runs”—similar to a fast bourrée—leading to big skips and jumps. We learn to be on the beat without killing it. Duncan turns revolve around a moving axis, creating a spiraling action. The head acts as another limb which we release as we turn. We let the movement originate in the solar plexus, with free arms, head, and neck, allowing the flow of the turn to fulfill itself. Our motto is “Body first, limbs follow.”

Despite the lyricism of the movement, it must be intensely aerobic to do.
Definitely! Highly trained dancers trying Duncan for the first time are often surprised by how strenuous it is. And how detailed. For instance, most dancers don’t give much thought to the facing of the palm, but we consider it very important. Everything is deliberate. We like to say we’re learning “the art of spontaneity.”

Imagery seems to feed the work. I particularly noticed nature images: undulating like seaweed, swaying like weeping willows, arms like smoke. It’s as if Isadora created a natural environment for herself onstage.
Absolutely. She could people the stage with spirits, or lovers, or peasants on the march.

Are these “real” Duncan dances, or “in her style”? How do we know?
There are said to be about 70 Duncan dances extant today. She regarded teaching as part of her life’s mission. Her students went on to teach, as did their students. Today there are Duncan schools all over the world, even in Brazil! Most of them have direct lineage to Isadora or her students. In fact, the National Endowment for the Arts recently awarded our company, the Isadora Duncan Dance Company, a grant to reconstruct two solos and two group dances of Duncan’s.

What does this work have to offer today’s young dancers?
With early Duncan dancing you can go anywhere. It gives you musicality, drama, powerful jumps, locomotive movement, the gift of transitioning from one thing to another.

What’s the hardest part?
To back up and simplify.

What do you think accounts for the continuing fascination with Duncan?
She lived large. She embraced all the arts, becoming an icon for freedom—especially for women. We cherish her example. The world needs to know there’s still a wild spirit out there.