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.

Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

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

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: We always seem to lose the most students after our recitals. How do I prevent post-show fallout?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox