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November 10, 2010

By popular request: A DVD about anatomy for dancers

When Dance Professor Jennifer Salk gave presentations at conferences, people often asked her if they could record her performance so they could look at it later for reference. Eventually Salk decided to save them the trouble and produced a DVD, Experiential Anatomy in Dance Technique, which just came out this fall.

Anatomy for Dancers is usually a required course in dance programs, Salk explained, but when a dancer moves into technique class for a specific type of dance — ballet or modern dance, for example — anatomy is often no longer discussed and easily forgotten.

“Anatomy is like a language — if you don’t use it you lose it,” Salk said. “In dance, sadly, the body parts you’re expert on are the things you’ve injured. I started to look at my students and think, how can I keep anatomy happening in the classroom without taking away from the dance experience?”

What she ended up doing was formulating mini-lessons to use in her technique classes. She’d roll in her plastic skeleton and show the students the spine, for example. Then she’d demonstrate the various movements the spine was capable of, and she’d have students do partner exercises in which they felt each other’s spines as they moved. Then, whatever dance moves the students were doing that day, they’d be asked to pay attention to their spines as they did them.

The results were remarkable. Salk’s beginners became “much more aware of where movement initiates from,” she said. By the end of a quarter they had a cohesive idea about their body and how everything functions together. They became what she calls “clearer” dancers.

As for the advanced students, they learned “to self-correct really fast.” And they improved what Salk called their dynamic range. “The range is kind of like the spices in the stew,” she said. “The dancer asks, ‘What are the nuances of a phrase?’ and ‘What are the flavors I can use to accent a phrase?’ They make some really different choices with this awareness of anatomy.”

Before long, Salk began taking her methods to conferences and getting rave reviews. She was asked to give workshops that took her all over the world, and the people who attended began wanting to record what she was doing. Finally she received a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Discretionary Fund to make a DVD.

The DVD contains eight lessons, one each on the spine, the rib cage, the scapula, the shoulder joint, the hip joint, the knee joint, the tibia and fibula and the ankle, tarsus and toes. Each lesson consists of a demonstration by Salk using her plastic skeleton, followed by partner exercises performed by Challe Livingston and Kesa Huey, former students in dance. There are also “phrases” — short series of movements performed by the dancers, which can be viewed from more than one camera angle. And the DVD includes commentary by Salk and suggested reading. The whole thing was shot and edited by another former graduate student, Jeff Curtis.

“I recorded a prototype first and sent it out to people in the field to get feedback,” Salk said. “Then we did another version.” The publisher, Human Kinetics, asked for a few more changes before the DVD was finalized.

Gail Dykstra from the UW’s Center for Commercialization helped Salk all along the way with legal matters such as getting signed releases from the dancers involved and registering the DVD for copyright. A portion of the $39.95 selling price will go back to the center to support its activities and to the publisher, and Salk has set up a fund to pay for updates to the DVD. Additional revenue may eventually trickle back to the Dance Program.

“I’m not expecting to make a lot of money on this,” Salk said. “Mostly I wanted to get the technique out there for people to use.”

Among UW students, Salk said her methods have not only helped make for more skilled dancers, but also healthier ones.

“Learning anatomy along with technique empowers dance students to make choices for themselves about what their body does or doesn’t do,” she said. “Your hip sockets rotate this far and mine rotate that far. This teaches dancers their own individual differences and strengths.”

Such an attitude hasn’t always been common in dance, Salk explained. In the past, teachers often “pushed and pushed.” And students did what they were told, regardless if it hurt, regardless if it “felt wrong,” because they wanted to please their role models.

“What I like about this department is that we all believe everybody works with the body they have,” Salk said. “We hear from students who go to New York and say they were glad they had been in a climate like this. It teaches them that they can say no when they need to.

“What we’ve learned,” she concluded “is that you can dance a lot longer and more beautifully if you understand and can work within your own body.”

Salk’s DVD is available from Human Kinetics Publishing.