Dance History

Moshé Feldenkrais

Moshé Feldenkrais always taught next to a model skeleton. Photo courtesy of Feldenkrais Institute, Tel Aviv, Israel

Although never a dancer, Moshé Feldenkrais (1904–1984) influenced many dancers and teachers around the world. The slow, luxurious movements of his Method help dancers understand their habits and better access their full expressive powers. Artists like Anna Halprin, Merrill Ashley and, more recently, Tom Rawe (formerly of Twyla Tharp) and Jimena Paz (formerly of Stephen Petronio Company) have been drawn to his work for its impact on creativity and injury prevention.

Perhaps no one somatic teacher has created as accessible a format for experiencing the mind-body connection. The Feldenkrais Method is now practiced worldwide by as many as 8,000 physical therapists, dancers of all disciplines, actors and the general public, and its inclusion in academic curricula is on the rise. John Graham, one of the first dancers to study with Feldenkrais, once wrote, “Dance was always there for me. Moshé made it more round, essential of itself."

Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais was born on May 6, 1904, in Slavuta, in what is now Ukraine. At age 14, he left home on a six-month journey to Palestine as part of a youth movement. There he worked as a day laborer until returning to high school in 1923. To support himself he tutored math students, and after graduation he became a cartographer for the British survey office. In his 20s, Feldenkrais grew more interested in sports and martial arts. It wasn't until he suffered a critical knee injury during a soccer match in 1929 that he began his lifelong inquiry into the body-mind connection. These early experiments, wondering how he could improve the rest of his body to better support his knee, became the seeds for his now famous Method.

In 1930, Feldenkrais moved to Paris to study mechanical and electrical engineering, and he later earned a Doctor of Science in physics from the Collège de Sorbonne. While there, he worked closely with Nobel Prize–winner Irène Joliot-Curie in the early stages of nuclear research. Movement was never far from his thoughts, though. After meeting judo founder Jigoro Kano, Feldenkrais immersed himself in the technique, becoming one of the first Europeans to earn a black belt. During the 1940s, he relocated to London, where he continued to study judo, taught self-defense classes and worked as an inventor. He published his first book, Body and Mature Behavior, in 1949, following it with Higher Judo.

By this time, Feldenkrais had also begun teaching experimental classes and giving lectures on his innovative ideas. He eventually codified his method into two parts: Awareness Through Movement (ATM), a group movement experience, which consists of gentle movements designed to improve efficiency and function, and Functional Integration (FI), where practitioners work hands-on in a one-on-one setting. Both emphasize comfort, learning and ease, and they are done while the student is lying down, to reduce the work of the habitual postural muscles.

By 1954, Feldenkrais was making a living solely by teaching the Method in Tel Aviv. He held ATM classes in a studio on Alexander Yanai Street and taught FI lessons in an apartment occupied by his mother and brother. In 1967, he published his now widely read book, Awareness Through Movement. A year later, he held his first teacher-training program in Tel Aviv. These 12 students are now the senior teachers of his Method. By 1978, a groundswell of interest resulted in the first American training in San Francisco, but after falling ill during his second 235-student training at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1981, he stopped teaching. Feldenkrais died on July 1, 1984.

Dancers discovered the benefits of Feldenkrais' work when he toured the country teaching workshops during the early 1970s. The work's internally based sensing posed a radical way to think about movement. It countered the “learning by imitation" ingrained in most dance education. He was the first to use a roller, initially crafted in wood and later in foam, which can now be found in dance studios everywhere. His most famous lesson, The Pelvic Clock, has been incorporated into Pilates, yoga and dance classes to emphasize the fluidity of the lower back and pelvis.

Frank Wildman, a former Halprin dancer and now the director and founder of The Feldenkrais Movement Institute, remembers Feldenkrais' unique teaching approach. “His style was inventive and provocative, and it required that you sense what movement you were doing rather than simply moving," he says. “All teaching was performed next to a skeleton. I think any dancer who studied with him could sense the internal logic of the movement they were performing and would feel as if light had been cast inside their body. Feldenkrais really understood effortless movement in a way I never did."

Today, Feldenkrais' influence on the dance field is still present but evolving with each new generation of teachers. Dancer, choreographer and Feldenkrais teacher Daniel Burkholder says: “There is finally a critical mass of practitioners where we can start a real conversation in a deeper and deeper manner. Not just doing an ATM at the beginning of a class, or using some of the movement sequences from ATM lessons as part of the warm-up, but how to integrate the concepts into the philosophy and structure of the class." Although Feldenkrais never expected his method to become a household name among dancers and dance institutions, it speaks volumes to the groundbreaking nature of his genius understanding of the mind-body connection.

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