Michio Ito dressed for his 1927 piece "Tango"

In 1927, Japanese artist Michio Ito presented his solo work Tango to a New York City audience. Though he dressed the part of a tango dancer, it was not a strict representation of the form. An abstract piece, it was crafted with powerful, sweeping gestures with rhythmic footing. This was not Ito’s debut performance—he had been creating work and teaching class in New York for over 10 years and would remain a major dance figure in the U.S. until 1943.

In fact, Ito may be the most important modern dance pioneer you’ve never heard of. A prolific performer of the 1920s, he was also one of the first choreographers to develop a formal modern dance pedagogy. He set up a codified way to teach his aesthetic a decade before Martha Graham had systemized an approach to her style. Young dancers flocked to study with Ito on both American coasts, and his technique influenced dance legends, including Lester Horton and Luigi. But because of anti-Japanese sentiment after World War II, his accomplishments were buried and his contributions are often overlooked.

Born in Tokyo, Ito (1893–1961) came from an artistic family. At 19, he traveled to Paris to study opera. He was inspired to dance after seeing Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky perform, ignited by the idea that movement could forge a symbiotic relationship with music. So in 1912, Ito studied at the Dalcroze Institute in Dresden, Germany. (Initially a training ground for musicians, Dalcroze Eurhythmics teaches students to learn rhythms through movement.)

At the outbreak of World War I, Ito moved from Germany to London. He started performing informally in private salons, and those occasions quickly landed him more professional engagements in larger theaters.

A pivotal event was when he created the role of the Hawk in William Butler Yeats’ play At the Hawk’s Well. Inspired by Japanese Noh drama, Ito developed his abstract, elegant style, and following this performance, he received a contract to work in a large musical in New York. For the next 13 years, Ito taught in New York, gave recitals and worked on revues and musicals, such as The Mikado and Madame Butterfly.

Unlike later modern dance pioneers, like Graham, who stressed that their work was absolutely unique, Ito acknowledged the influence of the Dalcroze method. He also acknowledged that his style was a mix of ballet, acrobatic dancing and “Oriental dancing,” which he said trains the arms. In his method, Ito formulated two sets of 10 arm movements. He characterized them as masculine and feminine and students learned both versions while walking at a controlled pace depending on musical phrasing. One can see the influence of this arm series in Horton technique and the work of jazz teacher Luigi.

Ito advocated versatile training with a holistic approach nearly a century before his time. His method incorporated both somatic practices (emphasizing breath-initiated movement), as well as the more typical replication approach, where students mirror the actions of the instructor (like in a ballet class).

“Students trained in the Ito gestures learn specific movements that embody his personal aesthetic,” writes Mary-Jean Cowell, an Ito scholar and associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis. She notes that his pedagogy had evolved from the Denishawn eclectic and Duncan freeform style of training, though it wasn’t as comprehensive as Graham’s. "It didn’t deal with the legs and feet as much as the upper body,” says Cowell. “But I see it as a transition to the pedagogy techniques later developed by Graham and Horton."

In 1929, Ito’s company embarked on a cross-country tour, ending in Los Angeles, where he continued to teach leagues of dancers. While there, he worked on six films, including No, No, Nanette and Madame Butterfly. Though he was often cast as the primitive or the untrustworthy Asian, he withstood the disparaging cultural stereotype because the commercial work provided him with the means to develop his own choreography.

Despite rising anti-Japanese sentiment, his work was respected in California. Even so, when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Ito, along with thousands of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans, was interned in New Mexico. In 1943, he chose to repatriate to Japan as part of a prisoner exchange. There, he was hired as the director of the Ernie Pyle Theater, producing revues for U.S. occupation troops. He established a dance school in Tokyo and began organizing the 1964 Olympic ceremonies. But his plans for the ceremonies were never carried out. He died suddenly in 1961. Ito’s Tokyo studio remained open for 15 years after his death, but closed when his family lost the lease. The Michio Ito Foundation (www.michioito.org) grew in its place.

Though Ito’s achievements are often unexplored in dance history overviews, his artistry is slowly gaining national attention. His work was first restaged in the late 1970s in New York by Japanese dancer Satoru Shimazaki, and students at the University of Washington and Washington University in St. Louis study his technique. In 2010, Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre devoted an entire program, called Mystique, to Ito. (RDT first acquired some of his pieces in the 1990s, has since expanded its Ito repertory and often leads workshops in his style.)

"RDT makes a commitment to dance preservation, and Ito is a truly necessary component to early modern dance," says artistic director Linda Smith. “It’s tricky to place a historic work alongside a contemporary piece, but because it’s so different than what’s current, it almost looks new—there’s a freshness to it. His work is beautifully complemented by classical music, it’s lyrical—sometimes with a bite—and it’s short. Ito has real audience appeal.” DT

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Books/Articles:

Caldwell, Helen. “Michio Ito.” International Encyclopedia of Dance.

Caldwell, Helen. Michio Ito: The Dancer and His Dances. University of California Press, 1977

Cowell, Mary-Jean and Satoru Shimazaki. “East and West in the Work of Michio Ito.” Dance Research Journal. Autumn 1994: 11-23

Cowell, Mary-Jean. “Michio Ito in Hollywood: Modes and Ironies of Ethnicity.” Dance Chronicle, 2001.

Prevots, Naima. Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers, 1915-1937. 1987

Wong, Yutian. “Artistic Utopias: Michio Ito and the Trope of the International.” Worlding Dance. Ed. Susan Leigh Foster, 2009. 

Films:

Booloo (1938). Directed by Clyde E. Elliott. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (Ito dances as the Sakai chief)

Michio Ito Repertory Dance Theater on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/14008278

Facing West: Dance and Film (2005). A Kennedy Center presentation

 

Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.

Photo courtesy of the Michio Ito Foundation.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox