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.”
“Ready, dancers,” says Denise Jefferson in a soothing voice, prompting the 9 am modern class at The Ailey School to begin a series of floor exercises. As the 17 students contract and elongate their muscular bodies to the steady beat of a drum, Jefferson circles the room gracefully: chin lifted, hands on her hips and eyes focused intently on the dancers. Dressed in a pale bluish-green leotard and a navy blue knit jumpsuit folded at the waist, Jefferson’s lean yet sculpted figure resembles those of students less than half her age.
Though her physique seemingly hasn’t changed with the years, Jefferson’s teaching style has. “When I was younger, I would scream and yell more—not necessarily negatively—but I was more personal and high-energy,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started believing in creating an artist by creating a safe environment. You don’t have to intimidate—that’s old school. You support the students.”
It is as the director of The Ailey School that “Ms. J” guides the approximately 4,000 students who attend classes annually. The legendary Alvin Ailey himself selected Jefferson for the esteemed position in 1984. In collaboration with Judith Jamison, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Ailey School, Jefferson perpetuates Ailey’s mission to make dance accessible to all.
Yet, with wisdom and sophistication Jefferson has exceeded this original goal. Though Jefferson is most recently regarded for breaking new ground with the development of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, for the past 18 years she has helped establish the foundation for the school’s preeminence.
A diverse course curriculum, including Horton- and Graham-based techniques, ballet, jazz and Western African dance, allows students to become well-rounded dancers capable of performing AAADT repertory, in ballet or modern dance companies or on Broadway. In keeping with Ailey’s belief that dance instruction should be for everyone, students can also choose from a range of training levels, including First Steps (ages 3-6); the Junior Division (ages 3-17); the Fellowship Program (ages 15-21); the Ailey/Fordham BFA in Dance; and open-to-the-public classes.
Respect for the educational process, however, is non-negotiable. Pre-professional students must abide by dress codes and rules, respect the faculty and attend classes regularly. “I believe very much in rules and traditions,” says Jefferson. If a student is acting out, Jefferson persists in discovering the root of the problem. On staff is a mix of female and male faculty advisors as well as a psychologist and a nutritionist. “I don’t want to just tell kids to lose weight,” says Jefferson. “It’s about giving them tools so they can make informed, good judgments, not beating your own ideas into their heads.”
Whether students feed into the renowned AAADT or its second company, Alvin Ailey II, join professional dance troupes in the United States and abroad or just become fervent supporters of the arts, they leave the school with invaluable tools for the future. “Through the arts your own voice is validated, your uniqueness is appreciated, your communication skills are developed, you learn discipline, time management and a respect for authority—all wonderful things that can go beyond dancing,” says Jefferson.
Though she directs a school associated with one of the leading NYC modern dance troupes, Jefferson grew up in Chicago training for a career in ballet with a strict teacher named Edna L. McRae. “It didn’t really touch my heart,” says Jefferson of ballet. “I liked moving, but I didn’t really enjoy pointe work.” It was as an undergraduate at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, that Jefferson was first exposed to a modern class, which she had enrolled in to fulfill a college gym requirement: “I thought, ‘Why am I sitting on the floor? Where are my pink tights? What is this improv?’”
Her resistance toward modern dance diminished when she took a class with dancer and choreographer Donald McKayle at the New England Conservatory in Boston. “The power, the passion, the classicism and the intelligence behind [modern technique] excited me tremendously,” she says.
After receiving a BA in French at Wheaton, Jefferson decided to pursue a career in dance. She traveled to New York City and began taking classes at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, and four months later, received a scholarship. Two years later, Jefferson was discovered in class by former Graham dancer Pearl Lang and asked to join the Pearl Lang Dance Company. Meanwhile she was earning an MA in French at New York University. In 1969, her daughter Francesca Harper was born—the first among the many professional dancers that Jefferson would later create. (Harper, a former member of the Frankfurt Ballet, is currently on tour with Fosse and has been recently commissioned by Jamison to create a new work for AAADT.)
A severe knee injury turned Jefferson’s focus from performing to teaching. She fell in love slowly with her new occupation. “I would see my friends dancing, or a piece that I really wanted to do, and it was kind of painful,” she says. “It took about a year for me to get past that longing.” Jefferson started teaching at New York University as well as at The Ailey School, where she joined the faculty in 1974. “My teaching really accelerated,” she says. “I was given more classes because the students were enthusiastic and I was getting results from them.”
Jefferson’s next career shift—from educator to director of The Ailey School—yet again proved successful. Noticing more high school students opting to go on to college dance programs instead of moving into professional companies, Jefferson, along with the program’s co-director Edward Bristow, created the Ailey/Fordham BFA in Dance in 1998. The four-year, full-time program enables students to develop as both artists and academics through the completion of 140 credits in a balance of dance and liberal arts courses.
This year, the first class of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program will graduate. “Our students have really been able to eat at this academic feast at Fordham,” says Jefferson. “Dancers are fabulous students. They are some of the most committed, disciplined, focused people, with good time management and critical and analytical skills.” Currently Jefferson is assisting two students in the program with a proposal to Fordham for a dual degree—a BA and a BFA. She is also looking to develop an MFA program with a concentration in performance and pedagogy in the future.
Jefferson’s eclectic background prepares her for the many situations that arise at The Ailey School. Fully aware of the benefits of a well-rounded education, she is able to help BFA students bridge the gap between academics and the arts. Sharing the discoveries of her own life’s path enables Jefferson to guide students into their own bright futures. DT
Photo by Eduardo Patino
I was at a party this weekend, and of course the question came up: “What do you do?" The moment I said, “I’m an editor at a magazine for dance educators,” I found myself waiting for the typical, non-cultured response. I’m sure you’ve experienced it: The person before you rises on his toes, knees bent and arms awkwardly posed overhead, as he blurts out, “Oh, like this!” But this time, to my delight, the person I was talking to responded with an enthusiastic account of his addiction to “Dancing with the Stars,” and his sister's fondness for “So You Think You Dance.”
This exchange got me thinking about a phrase I’ve been hearing a lot: the democratization of dance. With the deluge of dance-inspired television shows and performances broadcast on YouTube and the like, there’s no question that there’s been a cultural shift when it comes to dance’s role in popular culture. But as I watch these shows, I can’t help but wonder: How far are we from democratizing ballet? And does ballet want to be democratized? Its sheer ethereal and regal nature—plus the fact that a good dancer makes it look easy despite the muscular prowess, control and balance required—makes this particular dance form even more difficult for the average person to fully appreciate.
Certainly this debate is not a new one: Danny Tidwell’s participation in last season’s “So You Think You Dance” sparked a New York Times article that debated ballet’s place in the mainstream. Some believed that Tidwell was selling out, and that ballet and pop culture should remain distinct; others deemed it smart publicity.
While I’m not quite convinced that it’s so black and white, there’s one thing I know for sure: The lessons taught in ballet—namely the value of hard work, discipline and grace—are ones we could all stand to benefit from.