Widening the Field:

Expanding the Range of Approaches in Contemporary Dance Training

This paper intends to add to a developing discourse concerning themes, materials and methods for guiding learning and research situations in the field of contemporary dance. It also wishes to extend

“It’s not about releasing, it’s about re-directing” -- Trude Cone, former director of the School for New Dance Development

What’s the matter with contemporary dance technique?


Many of us have had the experience of taking class, or teaching class, and feeling: There must be an approach to dance that feels more natural, more accessible, a way of approaching teaching which promotes people feeling graceful and enlivened, while still enhancing the range of their movement invention and their basic creative impulses.  This paper, and the focus of my work in the past years, has been in service to this questioning.  The pathway of my interest moves increasingly towards a movement approach and style that is accessible to anyone and that engages the intrinsic curiosity and motivation of the participant.

How these thoughts came to be on paper


Although the ideas presented here have occupied my work for some time, the opportunity to lead the two workshops mentioned above provided a context to frame these concepts succinctly in a meaningful setting.  The ideas gained clarity while working with three categories of teachers, all seeking to develop their own work further:  pedagogy students studying in a Sports Science degree program who wish to teach contemporary dance technique; teachers of Contact Improvisation who have something to offer in the training of contemporary dancers; and teachers of some form or style of dance – whether Ballet or modern dance – who want to make a shift in their approach.


In these workshops we worked towards defining a practical blueprint for re-considering the physical basis of movement -- and the language we use to describe it -- in a contemporary dance training.  To this end, we addressed specific principles in movement research experiments, and also considered a variety of approaches to the teaching situation.  These workshops did not present a training as such, but rather a platform for questioning the fundamental building blocks that constitute dance training.  Grouping these practices and thoughts into sequences that could have a lasting impact for these developing teachers gave the impulse for this writing.


General thoughts about guiding sessions

Re-patterning teaching?  


This paper assumes the viewpoint that learning dance is not so much about filling in an empty vessel – pouring ideas and movement patterns into an uninformed student – but rather, about approaches to unlearning habits, reflecting about the source, intention and meaning of movement, and redirecting our actions.  This same point of view is here applied to the development of one’s work as a teacher.  In working on methods of guiding, the work is also not about adding, but rather about reconsidering:  deconstructing, examining and recomposing the materials of dance and the ways in which we learn.  Additionally, in the field of teaching, there remains great potential for growth in terms of developing a capacity for responding spontaneously to situations, atmospheres and difficult moments that arise while guiding a session.  This skill set, perhaps more than any other, can help shape the experience that participants have in a learning environment.  Our ability as teachers to adapt to an actual, moment to moment, ability level in students by providing a corresponding task or activity can make all the difference as to whether a lesson flows and a positive learning experience is achieved for students.


Release Technique?  What does release technique refer to?  What does it mean?  Is it a useful descriptive term for  contemporary technique? 


In surveying the field of offerings of contemporary dance technique, the expression release technique often appears.  One of the intentions for these workshops was to address the questions above, and discuss why release technique has become a primary training orientation for a new generation of choreographers.  The thinking and research that gave rise to release technique expressed the emancipation of a generation of dancers in response to old training techniques and methods during the 1960’s when a similar liberation from historical forms was happening in the other artistic disciplines.  After decades of variation to the release approach, and the widespread acceptance of these theories and practices in schools and institutions, there is now appearing a new generation of teachers that sees it more as a technique, missing its original intention and purpose – that it serve as a tool, as a way of investigating and exploring ideas and conventions.  Personally, I feel that we may begin to think of other ways of languaging or framing contemporary approaches to training, than by using this term release that has become so diversified in it’s associations.  Additionally, because release technique has now attained a sort of brand identification, the continued use of this label is at least partially driven by economic concerns: teachers understand that this word draws an audience, and so wish to associate with it.


Definitions and language. 


I would like to propose here a functional working definition of release technique that could stimulate further discussion and debate:  Release Technique refers to a variety of approaches to contemporary dance which are informed by mechanical, biological and physiological realities, and supported by informed communication and the use of ideokinetic imagery.


There is not, and has never been, a codified technique, or an agreement about this form of movement and choreographic research.  To the contrary, the nature of the investigation has consistently sought to avoid norms and conventions.  In a description of his work and approach to technique, Keith Hennessy illustrates in a playful and powerful way the quandary that faces the contemporary teacher today in terms of his self-definition, or the definition of his or her technique:


Dancing is pedagogy is theory is action is dancing. Supporting experimentation with technique, and developing technique through experimentation and play. I will work with technique that might be idiosyncratic, personalized, hybrid, contradictory or not-yet articulate. I am not a specialist in correct posture, somatic health, Release technique, Action Theatre, Body Mind Centering, Laban Movement Analysis, Ballet, Modern Dance, Alexander, Feldenkrais or Reichian bodywork. I am rigorously interested in the body becoming more aware of itself and its surroundings, more aware of its representations and ideologies.[1]


Directing rather than collapsing.  


Discussing contemporary approaches to technique, former director of the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam Trude Cone, expresses her concern with how the term release can often be misunderstood.  “It’s not about a letting go of energy, it is not about releasing, it’s about re-directing the energy.”[2]  It is this sort of misunderstanding -- and the sort of language it generates -- that leads to low tone, imprecise movement quality, collapsing and an artificial, unnatural hostility towards physicality.


When considering this issue from a wider frame of reference, it is also frustrating to observe that when young dancers are exposed to classes based on faulty mechanical fundamentals, students have difficulties integrating the work with other dance studies, may be polarized into one extreme or the other, or in worse scenarios may sustain injury.  This only serves to widen the schism between contemporary dance and other prevalent dance forms today.  An approach to re-directing and re-patterning seems likely to produce a more positive, organic and vital form of dance training, and one that is more apt to harmonize with other dance forms and techniques.


Personal movement research. 


I would propose that one component to developing an interesting, effective contemporary training entails getting the students/dancers involved in doing their own research, developing their own curiosity and interest in movement.  To this end, it is also a necessity that teacher/guides maintain their own process of personal movement research and continually strive to use their discoveries as metaphor and inspiration, finding their own evocative language to describe and language their work.


The right problems to solve.  


In order to guide dancers in the direction of developing their own physical ability and creative intelligence, we must feed their motivational mechanism with tasks of that are in accordance with natural laws and of sufficient complexity to keep them fully engaged and building a trust in themselves.  Principles that are mechanically flawed or overly simplified may frustrate organic growth, lead to students focusing on irrelevant physical qualities, or produce stylistic habits that are difficult to change.  Let us now shift our focus to the physical material of our work for some examples.

A non-comprehensive list of important movement principles for contemporary dance


I would like to offer a few principles that illustrate how one can work from a mechanical, technical perspective to guide movement research.  These principles can also be used to build instructive sequences of given movement[3].  The descriptive title of each principle is given first, followed by examples or illustrations as to it’s application and use.


Articulation before momentum.  


We spoke above about the need for giving dancers the right problems to solve.  In my experience, the principle of articulation before momentum is a fundamental principle, one that can be applied in nearly every situation, supporting the learning and development of the student throughout a variety of skill sets.  This principle alone helps many dancers to solve difficult movement problems by themselves.  For example, if a student is having difficulty with a dynamic transition from standing to the ground, continually colliding, bumping and burning themselves on the dance floor, the teacher is not likely to assist their development by using a standard expression such as, “you must soften more into the floor.”  This over simplification will neither help, nor produce a more aesthetic result.  When, however, they are guided to understand and practice the articulations involved, such as, determining what intermediate positions and supports can be employed, how the power can be effectively transferred from the gravity line to horizontal momentum, and what particular parts of the body can absorb the impact and the friction of sliding, they may be able to re-pattern their technique and quickly gain proficiency. 


This approach has proven to be so effective it has become the core of my technique class, titled, Basic Transitions.  In this approach we focus on the basic compositional unit of stable position, into movement, and resolving with stillness again.  We employ strategies, such as, to focus on every little adjustment they make as they transition between positions. To master a difficult sequence that transitions to the floor we will first focus on identifying and making conscious the positions of relative stability that pass through in the sequence. During this research we consciously remove the dynamics and explore the transitions – shifts of weight and changes in the supports – they  use as they move to the next island of structural security. This active balance between stability and mobility gives the dancers not only a wider range of choices to bring into play and a greater buffer of safety, but also more possibilities for phrasing as they add dynamic, impulse and attack to the sequence.

[1] Biography of Kieth Hennessy from workshop flyer of Contact Festival Freiburg 2009.

[2] Excerpted from discussions with Trude Cone during her methodology courses for the Masters program in contemporary dance pedagogy program at the HfMDK, Frankfurt am Main, 2009.  Cone currently teaches freelance and is on the core faculty team of the MAztp/HfMDK.

[3] Given Sequenceshere refers to a series of positions and movement transitions given to students through which they can practice and discover various principles and increase skill levels.  This practice can complement movement research or exploration sections of a class, wherein students are guided by task and imagery to work individually to make discoveries by sourcing and inventing their own movements.


If you look at the photo above you can see how the dancer in the upper/center part of the image is passing through a position of relative stability, grace and balanced tone during this dynamic rolling movement, and how she appears to be safe and in control, capable of performing the sequence with power and dynamic.


In my experience, when an objective visibility of the problem and a tangible grasp of the mechanics are revealed to dancers, their innate intelligence solves the problem quickly and effectively.  Conversely, the situation is often made worse when a teacher oversimplifies the problem and encourages with a standardized expression.  A simple strategy: stop speaking, pull back from the situation (perhaps to a corner of the room that is a safe island for you) look attentively, reflect on the difficulty, and consider an effective formulation of language that can be useful and engaging.  In teaching laboratory situations like the workshops in Marburg and München, one of the aims is to provide continual opportunities for participants to express their perceptions in language that nurtures the student’s empirical sensing and heightens the functioning of their motivational or value-striving mechanism.


Extend your landing gear.  


If we look again at the image above, we can observe that the middle dancer is not only well balanced where she is, but is also extending a poised, aligned leg out in the direction of the momentum, and that this landing gear has a muscle tone that is not too soft or too stiff, it appears ready for the impact of the weight it will soon absorb.


Recall the image of a two-year old toddler taking his or her first steps.  When they fall down, the arms and hands are already reaching for the ground and absorbing some of the impact of the fall.  Their memory of being a 4-legged creature is still very present in their moment patterning.  Their arms and legs function harmoniously and effectively as they dialogue with gravity.   At some stage during the codification of the languages of dance, it was engrained in subconscious thinking and aesthetic predilection that it is aesthetically flawed to show the actual effort of a movement.  It also became an unspoken agreement about what is beautiful to insist that it is not skillful or aesthetically pleasing to use the arms to assist while falling, or in a transition from standing to the floor.  This is easily observed when asking a mixed group of pedestrians and dancers to go to the floor.  The non-trained dancers will use their hands and arms to assist them.  Many of the dancers will not.  Such faulty aesthetic and mechanical preconceptions must be challenged by contemporary teachers in search of an aesthetic of organic human movement, one that is based on the innate body intelligence and patterns of developmental growth.


The conscious modulation of tone.  


Since the 1960’s and the first rebellions against Ballet and classical modern dance forms, many models about effective use of the body have been integrated into dance training.  As we discussed earlier, examining misunderstandings about concepts such as release, faulty imagery can lead to a lack of tone, articulation and vitality in dancers.  While addressing groups of dancers in which the occurrence of low tone had reached epidemic proportions, an alternative conception emerged, one that offers a replacement for the polarized releasing or holding paradigm.  The idea is to get dancers to think rather in terms of a controlled or graded tone, or energy level, in the muscles from center to periphery, in stabile positions or while performing movements of various difficulty.  It is easy for students to observe in a research situation that some positions require less energy and can be sustained with less tone, while other positions require greater muscular force. 

It can also be useful to employ images or get students to describe, or make associations, with situations at either end of the spectrum of energy.  For example, a position that only requires moderate muscle tone like a simple bench position with the extended arms just below the shoulders and the long femur bone perpendicular under the pelvis, may be associated to an elephant position.  Much of the weight is carried directly along the line of gravity and supported with an easy, gentle balance.  If we think of a high tone position, such as a runner getting ready to spring out of the blocks for the 100-meter footrace, we see a much higher tone, the position is dynamically balanced, and the ligaments and muscles are at a higher pitch of tone.  What images can you think of for this state?


Working with complex structures rather than simple ones to promote ease. 


Exploring further along this line of logic, we can investigate ways to have the dancer experience how to find the tone of greatest mechanical advantage not only in simple positions (think laying prone or the bench position described above), but also in complex positions requiring greater muscular force.  The first time I can remember encountering this principle consciously was with Danny McGowan, a remarkable Alexander teacher living in Berlin.  Previously, in the more than 100 Alexander lessons I’d taken, every teacher had only worked with me in positions of relative ease.  Lying on the table, simply standing in a neutral, parallel balance, sitting, or in a movement between one of these positions.  Danny was the first to use the concept of working towards easeful alignment in positions requiring more force.  He guided me to a deep knee bend, as if reaching my sit-bones for a chair, and then instead of letting me sit, he brought the chair in front of me, and told me to hold the back of the chair with only two fingers of each hand.  Then he asked me to stay in this position while he went out to make a telephone call!  After a minute my thighs and back were trembling and screaming for release from the demanding position.  However, after another minute or so, my ligaments and muscles had, by necessity, found a way to organize themselves with more ease.  You may have seen or experienced this way of working with teachers of Chi Gong or Tai Chi as well.  As teachers of contemporary dance, we might employ this principle in a great range of applications.  In my own experience, it has been easier to find the way to easeful alignment by working with complex positions and structures.  Although I find guided movement research valuable in resting positions, I believe it is through diversity and movement that the learning becomes integrated.  We might also remember the seemingly untold logic of various Feldenkrais sequences as another case in point.  In these sequences, although one begins in an easeful position, the increasingly complex demands of movement instruction facilitate a re-patterning of ease and efficiency.


The principle of tensegrity, from Buckminster Fuller, and it’s application to bodily structure. 


In an advanced laboratory of movement research, we might well compliment the work with complex structures by discussing and working with the principle of tensegrity. Buckminster Fuller formulated this concept to describe the efficiency of complex structures that combine the opposing principles of tension and compression with integrity and synergy.  “It refers to the integrity of structures as being based in a synergy between balanced tension and compression components.”[1]  In other words, the weight of the body is not supported merely from the bones channeling the weight into the floor; an open channel of balanced tone in the muscles and connective tissues is an important factor in putting together, through training, a body that is supple and responsive to the forces and shocks of the environment.  This concept has inspired creative research in the domains of architecture, sculpture and biomechanics.  For the dancer, research into this principle can lead to a new appreciation for the value of a dynamic relationship between pull and push within the body, and how strength and elasticity can be applied to create positions and movements of efficiency and grace.  Furthermore, there is a compositional learning that may also be derived.  Fuller explained that, “Tensegrity is a pair, like many co-existing pairs, of fundamental physical laws – push and pull – compression and tension – repulsion and attraction”.  This way of seeing bodily structure as an active cooperating of opposites can produce a mindset that leads to inspired improvisational solo and interactive dancing.


Moreover, working with complex concepts that have application beyond the form of dance, provide the thinking dancemaker with empirically based sources for generating movement material with the capacity to bring an organic, authentic richness to their movement invention.

Harvesting and planting new seeds


These ways of using physical principles of nature to generate movement, teaching approaches and compositional form are not new in the field of dance.  I do feel, however, that we can always encourage ourselves to pull back from our set practices and re-examine the range of our personal movement research as a basis for our teaching.  The time devoted to investigating new approaches to physicality can also provide us with rich new metaphors, language and imagery as we seek to communicate effectively while guiding others in their own search for an enlivened, resonant movement practice.


Finally, although at risk of stating the obvious, I’d like to add that it is possible to question the fundamental structure of a contemporary dance training.  It is appropriate to question the movement forms, the communication patterns and the learning structures that we use to train dancers.  I would encourage everyone wishing to develop their approach to teaching contemporary dance technique to go regularly to a studio, or just clear some space in a room, or outdoors, and experiment.  Play.  Get on the ground and see what feels good, what feels natural.  Take all kinds of other classes: try Yoga and Tai Chi and Feldenkrais, and Kung Fu, and Capoeira, Butoh, Salsa and Tango; go take lessons in Rock Climbing, Skiing or Acrobatics, get out running and play volleyball. And if at all possible, on your next outing or vacation, find a secluded place to play in the sand or a mossy grove or in the fallen leaves.  Movement comes from the basic human animal condition, and it is worthwhile to question the building blocks that constitute the movement forms we use in a dance class.





With the paper A Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Education in the Arts and Humanities, Kurt Koegel defended his self-designed degree program in Dance, Design and Communication at the University of Minnesota.  Since 1988 he has lived and worked in Europe, teaching for festivals, schools and dance companies including Ultima Vez, Rosas, PARTS, SNDO, EDDC, SEAD, and Korean Nat. Univ. of Arts. He currently directs and teaches in the Masters Program in Contemporary Dance Pedagogy (MAztp) at the HfMDK, Frankfurt.  “I am constantly seeking to expand my base of knowledge by research and practice.  My work synthesizes influences from the fields of Architecture, Yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, and Body-Mind Centering – and equally rock climbing, swimming, and running.  My enthusiasm is directed towards finding more effective ways of teaching performance-oriented, contemporary dance forms that are informed by understandings of the natural and social environment.”    kurtkoegel@mac.com

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tensegrity, and http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/Tensegrity/ on 17 March 2006  In mechanics and biomechanics, tensegrity or tensional integrity is a property of objects with components that use tension and compression in a combination that yields strength.  Tensegrity is the pattern that results when push and pull have a win-win relationship with each other.  The pull is continuous and the push is discontinuous.  The continuous pull is balanced by the discontinuous push producing an integrity of tension – compression.  Buckminster Fuller explained that these fundamental phenomena were not opposites, but complements that could always be found together. He further explained that push is divergent while pull is convergent.  Tensegrity is a pair, like many co-existing pairs, of fundamental physical laws – push and pull – compression and tension – repulsion and attraction.  


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