The Journey WIthin

Posted on March 15, 2008 by

On an unusually warm day in January, Irene Dowd, a full-time faculty member and the resident anatomy expert at The Juilliard School, was busy discussing the finer points of alignment with two students taking part in the Dance Teacher cover shoot. Although the lens was ostensibly focused on her, Dowd was simply unable to step out of her role as educator. Before, after and with each click of the camera, she talked to the dancers, giving them glimpses of the innumerable capabilities of the human body. Her dedication and passion were contagious. At one point, the photographer even asked her to speak up so he, too, could be privy to her vast knowledge.

“She doesn’t want to make us learn,” says third-year Juilliard student Rachelle Rafailedes, who participated in the shoot. “She wants us to want to learn, and she does that by always being excited and teaching us to make sense of things in our own bodies.”

Known for her keen eye, Dowd has an uncanny ability to watch a student perform a movement and pinpoint how he or she can execute it more efficiently, a skill she has been finetuning for 49 years. “It definitely takes some practice,” she says. “I can rotate the three-dimensional structure of bones, joints and muscles in my mind, so I can visualize and say, ‘Okay, this joint is moving like this so these muscles are shortening and those muscles are lengthening.’ I can sometimes provide just the right detail so I don’t have to teach them all of anatomy.”

In turn, her students have learned to better understand the workings of their own bodies. “When I danced before,” Rafailedes says, “I wouldn’t analyze things. Now I can think, ‘Why doesn’t this movement work for me?’ and with my knowledge of anatomy, I can examine and see what I need to do to make something easier—whether it’s strengthening or stretching a certain muscle.”

A faculty member at Juilliard since 1995 and the author of Taking Root to Fly (1981), Dowd has been guiding students to become their own teachers, providing them with a veritable anatomical toolkit that she hopes will become richer over time. “I hope that they will go out with a lot more anatomical knowledge and go forward to research tools that become available in the future,” Dowd says. “I want them to become their own best teachers, so if they run into difficulties later, they will be able to figure out what to do on their own.”

Dowd’s first experience with anatomy was at age 12, when she took a life-drawing course at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Her father was an artist and historian and her mother, a pianist. Art, music and dance were integral parts of her childhood, as was the idea that nothing is impossible. “My parents never exerted pressure,” Dowd says, “but they encouraged me to go as far as I was capable of and then just to keep working until I went beyond that.”

Though her true love was ballet, Dowd soon realized that her body was better suited for modern dance. At age 16, she attended a lecture demonstration by Merce Cunningham and John Cage at the University of Florida, where her father taught history. “Merce Cunningham continues to remain a huge influence on me,” Dowd explains. “He introduced me to the idea then—and again and again throughout the years—that there is always so much more that the human body and mind are capable of.”

Dowd continued to test those capabilities, both at Vassar College, where she completed her undergraduate thesis on the relationship between body image and movement, and at the Dance Division at Juilliard, studying with the likes of Lucas Hoving, Antony Tudor, José Limón and Viola Farber. It was at Juilliard that she studied anatomy with and later assisted Lulu E. Sweigard, PhD, a pioneer in ideokinesis, which uses imagery as a means of changing length, tension and patterns in the muscles.

On Sweigard’s advice, Dowd went on to take anatomy and neuroanatomy classes at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical School and neurosciences at Teachers College, Columbia University. (At the time, the coursework was open to nonmedical students.)

After Sweigard’s death in 1974, Dowd took over her classes at Juilliard for a year, before leaving for 20 years to teach dance, composition, functional and kinesthetic anatomy and neuromuscular re-education in many institutions throughout the U.S. and Canada. She has been on the faculty of Canada’s National Ballet School since 1991, and still teaches in the MFA program in dance studies at Hollins University Graduate Center in Roanoke, Virginia, in conjunction with the American Dance Festival at Duke University. In addition to holding countless teacher training workshops throughout the U.S. and Canada, she has her own New York City practice in neuromuscular training and kinesthetic anatomy. To this day, at age 61, Dowd continues to study, taking dissection classes at various universities to further her understanding of the human body.

This constant quest for knowledge informs her teaching and brings profound depth to her work. Dowd believes that all great artists—dancers, teachers and choreographers—are scientists in the sense that they continually investigate, analyze and test theories. Take a turned-out fifth position, for example. “If it’s not working exactly how it should, then dancers need to change their strategy,” Dowd explains. “They have to use every instrument they can. Not just how it feels or looks in the mirror, but how it looks to the choreographer, to the audience, to their colleagues or on film.”

Perhaps some of Dowd’s most important work lies in helping dancers learn how to prevent overuse injuries, which she says account for more than 50 percent of all dance injuries. “I introduce them to other movement potentials and muscle coordinations so the ones they are overworking can get a little rest,” she explains. “Sometimes doing something a little bit differently in a more varied way can solve an injury. It’s not going to look dramatically different from the third balcony, but the body will work better, the performance will work better and dancers will be able to have greater integrity.”

Her teaching philosophy meshes well with the overall goal at Juilliard, which, according to Dance Division Director Lawrence Rhodes, is “to give students information they can use for the rest of their lives.” Dowd works with freshmen in their first six weeks, teaching a course entitled “Dynamic Trunk Stabilization,” in which she guides them through a series of warmups that use gravity. “In exerting muscles against gravity, students become aware of the ways they can utilize their muscles to produce movement in space or counterbalance movement of the limbs,” explains Dowd. “It’s a very efficient way of warming up muscles, releasing muscles, coordinating the whole body with a specific movement intention and also mobilizing the joints.” According to third-year student Denys Drozdyuk, who studied in Berlin, Germany, before coming to Juilliard, the best part is that “it doesn’t require full-out concentration, so it even works when I’m tired.”

As a member of the audition team, Dowd gets a glimpse of the incoming Juilliard freshmen and then structures her classes to fit their exact needs. “I get to know who they are and see the areas where they might be challenged. Then I create new material that will bring them further along in terms of their ability to withstand the rigors of Juilliard and the kind of choreography they are going to be asked to perform.” For instance, last fall, Dowd collaborated with Juilliard ballet faculty member Stephen Pier, who teaches partnering, to develop upper-body exercises using the same principles of Dynamic Trunk Stabilization.

“Dance is so very demanding in so many ways that there isn’t just one thing you can do to completely prepare,” Dowd continues. “So I created a variety of choreographies with different aspects of dance in mind. She began choreographing these warm-up segments out of necessity in the late 1980s while teaching in the graduate program at Teachers College. “I had students from China, Korea, Africa and India who had trained as professional dancers in completely different forms—ballet, modern, Kathakali,” Dowd explains. The choreographies provided “a common movement language, taking the joints through all their possible motions and the muscles through all their possible length ranges.”

Since that time, Dowd has created approximately 90 minutes of movement. Her first long piece, “Spirals,” as well as “Volutes,” “Warming up the Hip: Turnout Dance & Orbits,” “Preparation for Jumping,” “Preparation for Performance” and others have been videotaped by Canada’s National Ballet School. According to Joanna Gertler, director of marketing and communications, the school is currently working with its IT department to transfer her choreographies to DVD format, which will be available by late spring through its website and e-commerce store.

In July 2002, when Rhodes took over as director, Dowd’s anatomy course was an elective. But he quickly made it a requirement. “I said, ‘We have Irene Dowd here and everyone is going to take anatomy,’” he recalls. Part of this decision was based on Rhodes’ own experience as a student: “I came to New York when I was 17 and it was very much survival of the fittest. No one said a word about your body—what the spine does or how the hips rotate. The landscape has changed in the last 40 years. If you understand how to take care of the instrument, it’s going to last a lot longer.”

Two days per week, third-year students take Dowd’s yearlong anatomy course. A combination of lecture and lab, the classwork is not for the faint of heart. “Her class is very scientific and a lot of hard work,” adds Rhodes. Although it’s rigorous, Dowd insists, “at least someone in that class needs that information right now, and many of them will need it within the year.” For many, the toughest part is mastering the vocabulary, which is largely based on Latin words. According to Dowd, the field itself also conjures misconceptions. “People think that a knowledge of anatomy is going to narrow what they are allowed to do. Anatomy does not tell us what to do; it just tells us what we’re doing. There’s no right or wrong way; there’s just, ‘Oh. What you did was flex at your hip joint.’”

Every year, she writes a new textbook, with approximately 300 pages that include her own anatomical line drawings, for her incoming class. When asked how long it takes, Dowd says laughing, “You don’t want to know.” Then she adds, “It seems that one can always do better. My students teach me all the time, which is why I always endeavor to improve myself.”

Dowd is as precise as she is modest. The lecture portion of her course starts off with a quiz testing the information students learned in the previous class. Using the same three-dimensional human skeleton that she learned from in Sweigard’s class, Dowd methodically takes dancers through the intricacies of the human body. Quick to point out the shortcomings of verbal language (“I talk too much because I don’t trust any of the words I use”), Dowd integrates visual and kinesthetic learning into her classroom.

“She helps us to understand the anatomy, not just memorize which muscles and bones are where,” Rafailedes explains. “We see the muscles or bones on the skeleton, we touch them on our bodies and find out how they work. Later, we come in for lab and test our strength or range of motion. Everything starts to make sense because you’re doing it on your own body.”

According to Dowd, she has no plans to stop sharing her knowledge: “Dancers are very generous people. I want to keep giving everything I have away to people if they want it. I want to teach as much as I can and make my material available to anyone who finds it valuable. That’s my wish.”

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