Your Body: Under the Skin
Anneke Hansen mesmerized a Houston audience last summer with her incredibly dexterous feet in her piece we should call it many things (2009), part of The Big Range Dance Festival. Who would have guessed a foot could move with the fluidity of a hand? You wondered if she knew that there are 26 bones in the foot. Turns out Hansen, a self-confessed anatomy wonk, works with Irene Dowd (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” June 2005), the leading teacher of functional anatomy for dancers. “I’m fascinated by the slow use of the longitudinal arch of the foot and the way weight passes through the feet,” says Hansen, a New York choreographer and teacher.
It’s often said that a dancer’s body is her instrument, but dancers and teachers remain divided on just how much anatomy a dancer needs to know. Anatomical information can shape—and some feel even limit—a dancer. How can the hows and whys of the body be taught so that it leads to more expressive movement? And can too much information get in the way of the poetics of the body?
Hansen, a physician’s daughter, grew up surrounded by medical textbooks, which fostered a certain comfort with the body’s inner structure and workings. She has captured a way of using her body’s capacities that feels fresh. “When I go to the studio to make a dance, all that I know is with me and it’s all fair game. Understanding my inner architecture gives my work its texture,” says Hansen. “Yet the information needs to be in service to my choreography. It’s a problem-solving tool for me, and not the be all, end all. Anatomy practices need to point to a more sensual way of moving.”
If we know how the body works, could it inhibit us? Nancy Bielski, a renowned ballet teacher at Steps on Broadway and American Ballet Theatre, questions the value of anatomy for ballet dancers. “All knowledge is beneficial. However, knowing too much anatomy might prevent a dancer from fully performing the movement,” says Bielski. “Anatomy doesn’t want you to turn out. You are supposed to walk and run with your legs, not point your feet. It would be limiting to dance within the confines of anatomical knowledge, and ballet technique is limiting enough.” Although Bielski uses basic alignment terms in her teaching, she avoids anatomical terms. She remembers her own experience as a young ballet dancer with a teacher who used them. “I didn’t understand it or find it useful to my dancing,” she says. “Does a violinist need to know how the violin works to be a great player?”
Body science doesn’t have to be a drag on your artistic imagination, argues Lynn Simonson, who found her path to anatomy the hard way—through a debilitating knee injury as a young ballet dancer. She went on to create Simonson Technique, which emphasizes practical and functional body knowledge, taught succinctly within the fabric of the dance class. “Dancers need broad concepts,” she says. “Even more important is understanding your own body’s mechanics, and knowing your own range of motion.” A Simonson teacher might suggest to the class during a hamstring stretch to “relax the knees,” because when knees are slightly bent, the stretch goes into the belly of the muscles instead of the soft tissues at the back of the knee. “With an 8-count stretch there’s plenty of time to inject some usefully anatomical information,” Simonson says. “But it has to relate to the dancing body.”
Like Hansen, Andrea Miller thinks of anatomy as part of her ever-evolving dance-making toolbox. Miller, artistic director of Gallim Dance and a 2009 “25 to Watch,” creates dances of intense physicality. She also studied with Dowd while a student at Juilliard. As a member of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Ensemble, she studied Gaga and is currently immersed in Gyrotonics.
Miller likes to mine the capacities of the body, combining imagery and experimentation with the basic tenets of anatomy. She considers her understanding of anatomy when entering the studio but draws a line between what she feels the dancer in class might need and what a choreographer would find useful. “As dancers we work with the body. Thus its design, both anatomic and kinetic, are fundamental to the development of a sophisticated, virtuosic mover,” says Miller. But each dance artist, she notes, will approach knowledge of the body’s mechanics according to how much it contributes to their creative vision. For Miller, it’s an essential element. “I am interested in honoring the harmony of the body,” she says. “And in being able to expand its design.”
Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston.
Photo Courtesy Wikipedia