Postmodern dance is a phenomenon that originated in the United States in the 1960s from a variety of interdisciplinary artistic methods and a questioning of the norms of performance and presentation. In England, the development that continued in the 1970s and 1980s was called New Dance. It was originally a magazine and umbrella term of the same name and used to describe experimental dance more broadly.[1]

One starting point for characterising European and American experimental dance and its aesthetic features in the 1970s and 1980s is to describe the techniques and approaches to dance practice. Many of the dance techniques and the main features of training developed at that time have since become a permanent part of the various training methods used in contemporary dance. Typical of New Dance training was the use of images in training methods such as release, alignment, contact improvisation and improvisation, in addition to many other techniques.

Other similarities between postmodernism of the 1960s and New Dance of the 1970s include an attempt to break away from the dancer’s habitus as defined by ballet and early modern dance, an attempt to create a non-hierarchical working situation, to make dance more accessible and to use movements from everyday activities or sports in dance.[2]

Alignment and Release Methods in Dance Practice

The principles of alignment are based on the research and ideas of the US American Mabel Elseworth Todd. According to Todd, the laws of mechanics in nature affect living and non-living objects in the same way. The principles of mechanics and their application to the movements of the body are the theoretical starting point for alignment work. In practice, this work is based on the use of anatomical images.[3]

Humans are not machines, so it is impossible to achieve perfect mechanical equilibrium. Nevertheless, the laws of equilibrium on a non-living object can be used as a mental image to correct the position of the body and its structure, the skeleton, to make it more functional and body-friendly, and to free the musculature to use energy in the most economical way.

Mary Fulkerson’s Release-class in Dartington College of Arts, circa 1977. Brian Haslam. Published with the permission of the Dartington Trust and the Elmgrant Trust.

Mary Fulkerson, the developer of the release method, divides the tools for working with imagery into anatomical imagery and imagery arising from kinesthetic sensations such as balance, height and body weight.[4] Among Todd’s students, Barbara Clark refines the notion of good form in movement. In this context, good form means the movement produced by an anatomically correct body position, which appears in increased skill and ease of movement. Clark finds imagery work particularly important; the aim is to achieve movement that starts out from the spine and is expressed from that orientation. Spinal orientation requires belief in the image of a vertical gravity line passing through the centre of the body, thus providing the basis for movement.[5]


According to John Rolland, Mabel Elseworth Todd was talking about the whole psychophysical person at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1974, Lulu Sweigard, a student of Todd, introduced the term ideokinesia to correspond to the concept of ideokinesia that Todd had already created: “Ideokinesia is the term now used to describe this process in which imagery acts as a stimulus for developing kinesthetic awareness and producing bodily change.”[6]

According to Sweigard, movement is a sequence of events involving the nerves, muscles and skeleton, which can be described as follows: the nervous system initiates the movement and controls its modelling. The musculature is seen as the workhorse, stimulated by the nervous system, which sets the spine and skeleton, the “locomotor system,” in motion.[7] The elaboration of mental images starts with conscious thought. The thoughts then descend to the unconscious part of the brain, where the movement is generated. The nervous system is the coordinator of all movement. Some of what happens is something we can consciously control, and some of the control of movement is controlled by automatic tacit wisdom built into our internal system. Given the opportunity, the mover can respond appropriately.[8]

In Rolland’s words, the same idea implies that the process of change must start from within. If the training is primarily aimed at changing only the external form of the movement, the musculo-neuro-spinal-skeletal event will not take place and no change will occur. Rolland calls the process a personal journey into the inner world of the body: through imagination and intuition, the body awakens an inner wisdom that acts as a guide through physical and psychological obstacles.[9]

Ideokinesthetic thinking is included in practical alignment and release training, where the effect is two-way: the mental image produces movement and the feeling of movement, and the movement produces mental images. The alignment method approaches organic events within the body through a series of images based on anatomy and physiology. In the release method, working with images produces different qualities of movement and improvisation proceeds towards roughly broken down into choreography or improvised performance. The two methods can be seen as holistic training: the alignment phase is a prerequisite for the release training, and neither exists without the other. This also forms the basis for improvisation-based practice.

The use of release and alignment methods can be based on different anatomical and physiological images, movement paths and the resulting sensations of movement. The distinction between the two methods is that alignment focuses first on the body’s alignment, while the release method develops either the given or self-produced movement material further, for example when working on choreography.

Ideokinetic thinking, where the image produces the movement and the movement produces the image, works all the time: it is like a circle that spirals from its starting position, returning to it, but a little further away. The awareness of this circularity is typical of the thinking phase of release work. The concepts and movement vocabulary used in the work also serve as warm-up and basic training exercises, as well as methods of producing the movement material and structures that are part of the choreography.

One of the key influencers on the development of new dance techniques is the Dutch Pauline de Groot. She studied in the United States from 1957 to 1965 with Andre Bernard, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins, and danced in Hawkins, Pearl Lang and José Limón dance companies. Pauline de Groot’s movement thinking and her own teaching were particularly influenced by the movement theory of Mabel Todd and the alignment principles of Andre Bernard.[10] In her teaching, Pauline de Groot does not emphasise any particular style, but stresses the influence of anatomical alignment and the earth’s gravity on movement and movement form. By learning to listen to the body’s own sensations and experiences of internal, organic events, each person can find their own way of moving.

A common feature of release and alignment training is that it explores the body’s sense of weight and looks for the gravitational force acting through the body’s midline and the counterforce of the earth as a supporting element. The dancer should combine breathing with these elements to find a balance between them. The aim is to free the movement from excessive tension so that the force and energy of the movement is primarily visible. With practice, the body becomes sensitive to the ways other bodies move. It is not the form but the ability, the skill, to allow energy to flow through the movement into the space. In developing this skill, each dancer can achieve virtuosity in their own body. The key is the realisation that progress is not about “winding things up” but about going inwards through stillness and understanding.

The process of alignment and release training may include the following steps: 1) focusing on mental images; 2) moving based on perception; 3) developing movement based on own your goal; 4) recording thoughts immediately; 5) reflecting on what has happened.

1. Focus on images

  • Start moving by focusing on different bodily and anatomical images, such as the connection and movement between the tailbone and the atlas axis, theupper twin vertebrae of the spine. What are the sensations of movement and the movements based on them?
  • You can also use an event or emotion based on recollection as a mental image.
  • Focus on listening to your feelings about what kind of movement the image takes you to and what new images the movements bring you. This ideokinetic cycle is constantly in motion, and the aim of the training is to learn to become aware of it.
  • You can start practising by slowing down and focusing on your breathing or by shifting your thoughts to a part of your body that you want to work on during the exercise. The exercise can be done alone or in a group, guided or self-directed, with music or in silence.

2. Move based on observations

  • Let go of the conscious image that you worked on in the first phase, and try to move based on sensations and perceptions that you found – and let them lead to a new movement.

3. Develop a movement based on your own goal

  • Now you can start to develop the movements according to your own goals and to refine them. Your goal may be linked to the identification of a skill: as you move, observe how this mental image is embodied in experience. Once you are aware of the message of the experience, you can conceptualise it and put it into words.
  • The exercise is based on the idea of the thoughtfulness of movement and the embodiment of thought; that there is first movement and then thoughts and concepts. Finally, movement and thought and mood are intertwined into an inseparable whole. The emotions and interpretations of life that have grown into the movement reveal a present moment that builds on the experience that time has brought.

4. Record of thoughts immediately

  • Let the ideas flow and immediately record them in writing and drawing or painting without editing. In the verbal or pictorial reflection associated with the exercise, write down all the thoughts that come up on paper without stopping, so that your hand does not leave the paper. For example, Natalie Goldberg has used the method of immediate writing. She has combined free writing and Zen Buddhist meditation to create a writing practice. This technique releases and warms up your thinking, encouraging creative awareness throughout the process.[11]
  • The purpose of this phase is not to edit your experiences and thoughts beforehand, but to verbalise the sensations, feelings and experiences of the movement on paper immediately after the exercise. Editing is done later.

5. Reflect on what happened

  • Summarise points 1–4 by reflecting on the experiences, feelings and thoughts that the exercise has evoked so far: immerse yourself in them by moving with your eyes closed, then record your observations again. Moving with closed eyes is based on working with the Authentic Movement method: when you move with your eyes closed, you are observing the experience within the movement. Working with Authentic Movement has many similarities with the ideokinetic approach, alignment and release methods. In it, the mover (the artist) is the inner witness of their own experience, and the other, following the movement (the creative actor) is the observer, the witness. According to Kirsi Monni, “In the Authentic Movement method, the term ‘authentic’ refers to the exploration of unprecedented movement in its relations to the lived world and observed through body awareness. It is always about a personal, cultural and historical world context that is explored through the experience of bodily movement.”[12]
  • You can do endless rounds of this “write yourself out” exercise. Steps 1 to 5 in one round can be the starting point for the next round and the one after that. The progression takes place in a spiral, following the pattern of a hermeneutic circle, moving away from the starting point but keeping to it all the time, so that one is aware of one’s own starting point as a basis for reflection. Jack Mezirow summarises the description of the hermeneutic circle, following Bernstein, as a kind of path on which we constantly move back and forth between the parts and the whole of the object we are trying to understand.[13]


1 Adair 1994, 191

2 Adair 1994, 186–187, 194

3 Rolland 1984, 10–14. See also Sweigard 1974, Clark 1963; 1975; Fulkerson 1977–1978.

4 Fulkerson 1981–1982, 9.

5 Clark 1963, 2.

6 Rolland, 1984/1996, 2.

7 Sweigard 1974, 39.

8 Sweigard 1974, 3–4.

9 Rolland, 1984/1996, 18–19.

10 Merkx 1985, 49.

11 Goldberg 1986, 3–4.

12 Monni 2004, 44.

13 Mezirow 1995, 25–26.

Key Sources

Adair, Christy. 1994. Women and Dance. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Clark, Barbara. 1963. Let’s Enjoy Sitting – Standing – Walking. Self published. Urbana, IL: Clark Manuals.

Clark, Barbara. 1975. Body Proportion Needs Depth. Self published. Urbana, IL: Clark Manuals.

Fulkerson, Mary. 1977–1978. The Move to Stillness. Theatre Papers, Theatre Department, Dartington College of Arts, First series, no 12. Collection of Personal Papers.

Goldberg, Natalie. 1986. Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Merkx, Moniek. 1985. Moderne dans in ontwikkeling. Een beschrijving van de Opleiding Moderne Dans Amsterdam tegen de achtergrond van historische en international moderndansontwikkelingen. Amsterdam, New Dance Publications.

Mezirow, Jack. 1995. Uudistava oppiminen: Kriittinen reflektio aikuiskoulutuksessa. Helsingin yliopiston Lahden tutkimus- ja koulutuskeskus.

Monni, K. 2004. Alexander-tekniikka ja Autenttinen liike -työskentely. Kaksi kehontietoisuuden harjoittamisen metodia. Kinesis 1. Helsinki: Teatterikorkeakoulu.

Pasanen-Willberg, Riitta. 2000. Vanhenevan tanssijan problematiikasta dialogisuuteen – koreografin näkökulma. Teatterikorkeakoulun julkaisusarja. Helsinki. Yliopistopaino.

Rolland, John. 1984/1996. Inside Motion: An Ideokinetic Basis for Movement Education. Urbana, IL: Rolland String Research Associates

Sweigard, Lulu E. 1974. Human Movement Potential – Its Ideokinetic Facilitation. New York, NY: Harper & Row.


Riitta Pasanen-Willberg

Riitta Pasanen-Willberg (PhD in dance) is a long-standing dance artist and one of the developers of new dance in Finland. She has created dozens of choreographies and worked as a teacher of dance improvisation and choreography at various educational institutions.