Week 2: Irene Dowd’s ‘Spirals’

For the next two weeks we will explore the work of Irene Dowd. This week we will look at Spirals. Here are some links to Irene’s background and information about her work. If you have not yet read her book Taking Root To Fly, I highly encourage you to do so. Also this will be a good week to bring a mat if you feel you will need some sort of padding since most of this sequence will be practiced on the floor.

Spirals was choreographed in 1991 by Dowd for Canada’s National Ballet School. She continues to allow the specifics of the work to evolve as dancers become more proficient and technical demands on them continually increase. We will watch a video of an original version in class and discuss the various versions that we know and how it could be modified, expanded and applied to specific techniques and styles.



Spiral staircase


27 thoughts on “Week 2: Irene Dowd’s ‘Spirals’

  1. Hello Friends,
    It has been a little minute since I spiraled in the Irene Dowd manner – and I found it so informative today! I felt very integrated and prepared to stand on one foot after our explorations in the floor spiral series. I appreciate the clarity of the designs and recognize that this work is especially good for a fundamentally dis-integrated dancer like myself.
    Or maybe it just takes a week to get your modern mojo on.
    Either way, it was really fun to spiral with you all today!

  2. Though I can’t perform all of the prone exercises in class, I am still finding the sequence to really warm-up my body. I love all the circular movement. I feel that it allows me to find a large range of motion in all of my joints. I also love the extremes of internal and external rotation in my arms. I have a total sense of the front and back of my body when I finally come to standing.

  3. It has been a number of years since I did Irene Dowd’s Spirals and recalled how fluid my body felt as a younger woman. The first day was a bit harsh for me but upon revisiting it today, I found much more ease and suppleness in my joints, primarily my lumbar spine. I also felt more stability in my pelvis and freedom in spiraling actions while standing. I enjoyed the swings and under curves since that is the style I am accustomed to and love to let gravity inform my exploration of weight. When Gerald asked the loaded question about style vs. technique, it is a question that has been asked often pertaining to the Limon training because Limon is considered a style and is not codified, but I realized that Gerald was speaking about one’s own style infiltrating the clarity of the given movement. In other words, it is important to let go of mannerisms or habits to find the most effective way to move the body within a specific technique (I hope that what you were getting at). Another concept that stood out pertained to floor work as a link to standing movements by training the nervous system to recall those same connections while performing standing movements, where your relation to gravity has changed.

  4. I was very excited to start spirals this week! I have always loved thinking of dance in spirals. It allows the entire body to be connected from the feet, up through the body and out the top of the skull in a very organic manner. It is nice to study Irene Dowd’s spirals. She has broken down the mechanics and created such an intelligent process of body connectivity.

    Because I am not able to do all the floor work, I don’t really feel the spiral through my whole body until I stand up. Then it becomes quite clear. Especially when I am thinking about spiraling in opposition. For example, as the right side of my body spirals up and out, the left leg spirals downward. I felt this connection today as Gerald cued this in the first standing exercise.

    I am also enjoying the three words Gerald used on Tuesday. Narrow, hollow, and lift to stabilize the pelvis. The are lovely words to engage the pelvic floor and transversus abdominis without gripping or forcing the muscles into action.

  5. After class I felt like there were neurons firing all over my body. My body, joints, muscles, and skin are alive and awake by the end of class. I really enjoy that we move every part of the body and not just certain muscle groups. I have been trying to find moments of stability and mobility, while constantly thinking about the head, spine, and pelvis.
    Also, I struggle to find a place between doing and not-doing. If I get nervous or stressed, I get so tense. But, if I just go with the flow, I lose my stability. How much effort do I really need to do a certain movement? Where can I let my body do it on its own? Finding these moments, while being precise in the movement is a challenge!

    • I completely agree Marquita. Finding that balance is a struggle. I find myself falling into old patterns of holding to much tension when I get frustrated with myself or am “trying” to hard.

      • Ladies I am definitely in the same boat. My glutes really like to kick in at very random times and, I’ll be honest, all of my muscles were screaming Wednesday morning.

        I also am finding that balance between doing and not-doing a struggle. Today in class, I really was trying to allow my body to flow and move without my typical “gripping.” The outcome felt very stable in certain places and completely off at others.

  6. Spirals seem to completely warm-up my body within the first 10 minutes of class! Although I feel tension in my lower back at first, by the time we are standing I feel every joint, muscle and cell in my body open, moving and engaging. It’s wonderful to feel so agile so quickly (especially in the a.m.).

    I can see that there are a lot of similarities between Spirals and Barteneiff (head/tail, cross lateral, homolateral) but I feel like Dowd’s spirals takes my body a little bit further. Or maybe, its just that we are at the end of week two, and I am starting to get the swing of things.

    Your suggestion (to me) to try initiating from the core during the plie exercise was illuminating. When I originally did the exercise, I felt as though I was engaging the core throughout the exercise and it felt fine. But, when I simply placed my focus on initiating from the core, by entire body felt completely supported and engaged. It was a very different kind of energy. I felt stronger and lighter at the same time.

  7. I’ve noticed when doing the floor ‘bridge’ on our sides, with our bodies in one long line, that much is revealed about my body’s asymmetries in strength and flexibility. These asymmetries seem to directly translate to standing upright. My right side is weaker. I’ve found that the spirals work has helped me to find a more whole-bodied approach to negotiating a stronger or weaker side. I feel as though my energy is able to distribute more evenly (and dynamically!) throughout my whole body. This feels like it’s re-training the neural pathways from brain to body. Really revealing and exciting!

    Also – I noticed that when we were doing the spirals series on the floor this morning I did feel a little tight afterward, as though I had been pushing my range of motion slightly to create the shapes with my body. I’m glad we got to do the phrase several times because I began to notice a sense of connectivity that I couldn’t initially find. As my body got tired, I had no choice but to breathe, and then I found these spiral pathways very accessible, allowing me to suspend and balance for longer.

  8. Building off of the Bartenieff principles learned last week has helped me to have a better understanding of the spirals we are doing in class this week. The spirals usually executed in ballet don’t feel as full (as far as range of movement) as what we are doing in class. Sometimes in ballet when we have to spiral my body is not warm and I feel crunched in the spine (yoga too) and a tightness and this is not the case in this class. I also feel a strong sense of three dimensionality and an expansion of space in my joints.
    I noticed this week that I am internalizing my movement creating almost of marking quality and when I dance that way I lose clarity and intent of the movement. You had said one time in class today during the last combination about sticking to the principles and not to add or embellish as to how your are executing the movement. This is an extreme challenge for me, but it has been told to me before during my professional career working with Nacho Duato. He told me not to project the emotion just do the choreography and it will evoke the emotion that you are after. Less is more, right? At times I feel like it is not enough artistically. Is there a way to have both in moderation?

    • By ‘marking’ I believe the perception of qualitative change may shift but it is mostly compared to our own personal memory or evaluation of the same movement material. If I have never seen you before I wouldn’t consider what I’m seeing you do in class as marking because it has specificity, intention and clear directives – perhaps one could say it looks ‘authentic’. When practicing, it’s good to know when you are being clear with the intent of the material or when the embellishments hinder their delivery and distort specificity. This is not a bad thing to explore in class, but when performing choreography, the added ‘extra flair’ often gets in the way. Mr. Duato knows what is the essence of his work and therefore made that comment. Performers will undoubtedly add energy, adrenaline and the thrill of being watched to their execution, making their expressivity more enlivened. However, a careful rehearsal director will always be looking for the truth behind the delivery and whether or not it is aligned with the goal of the choreography. Less is more does not always work. Sometimes less is really less and it looks lethargic, misguided and lifeless. The real task, as you intuit here, is to have moderation – and yes, it is absolutely possible to have both clear intention and emotional weight. Just leave space for the witness to fill in their experience.

    • Tim, when I was working with Pilobolus, Alison Chase would always say it took a piece an entire year of performance to “find itself.” and I wonder if what she was saying was to allow the movement to find you.

  9. I am glad we are spending two weeks examining spirals. It is such an essential source of movement of life. I have a tight, closed chest and shoulder girdle area and this work is helping to open it up. I can feel it the next day in my upper body. The subtle movements can reveal so much such as tight hip flexors and shoulders but allows me to breathe and expand. It is great to feel the difference when we stand up from off the floor.
    I still struggle with frustration with myself for not understanding the movement sequences faster but do see an improvement as the week progresses. It is definitely out of my traditional modern technique aesthetic and I think it is great for me to learn to breathe and not hold tension in order to complete the sequence more successfully. It is often hard not to get in your own way and just allow it to happen.

  10. This week I had a specific goal to stay out of my head in order to truly listen to Gerald and enjoy taking class. Last week Gerald told us that this class was for us, and I found that I didn’t take that idea in until Friday. I discovered this week that I need to continually remind myself to breathe, stay present, and absorb. I tried to be less hard on myself, and enjoy the movement instead of stressing out about where my weight was shifting, or if I lost my balance during ton dues. I feel like I finally came alive this week.

    I found it interesting that our warm-up in class forced me to breathe, because if I wasn’t then my lower spine immediately gripped as soon as we stood up. This translated later in our combination at the end of class. If I wasn’t breathing, I couldn’t acknowledge the technique I had practiced not twenty minutes before. And if I’m not breathing, then I’m not being true to the movement.

  11. I found many connections between the Yoga Readings in B.S.K Iyengar, “Light on Life,” and my experiences in class this week. Three passages that have resonated with me are…
    “The active side must become the guru for the inactive side to make it equally active.”
    “Extension and expansion bring space, and space brings freedom.”
    “Relaxation mean release of unnecessary muscular tension in your body, which also allows firmness of the inner body and serenity in the mind.”

    Gerald, the first quote reminded me of the comment you made on Tuesday about allowing your stronger side to teach and inform your weaker side. In my case I am talking about my right and left leg imbalances, but this kinder approach has allowed me to release the dread I feel towards practicing with my left leg and explore new range. However, I am certain this is going to be an ongoing practice because today I started to get really frustrated with my stanky left leg in the tandu combination.

  12. A note from the information from children department:
    Last night I was giving my daughter a bath and she spontaneously lifted her pelvis into a bridge – the very position I have found the most challenging. Granted, she had the water to assist, but it was informative to watch her float into the position. I found the memory of the floating image to be very helpful in today’s class.

  13. I’ve been sort of dragging my feet on commenting this week. I do adore “Taking Root to Fly” and use that text as a foundation for a lot of my teaching. I also really appreciate the images and ideas Irene has offered when I’ve taken with her. However, I’ve never really connected with her movement sequences. I feel like I have to work really hard to sense something useful happening in my body. I do so struggle with spinal extension – especially lumbar – and she seems quite drawn to it. Most of the time in the movement sequences, I’m concentrating quite intensely on not going into a twisted compensation pattern. On Friday, I thought I was getting it – like, really a breakthrough – but alas, when I stood up my back seemed to have jumped on the path to spasm. So, maybe I had figured something out… but it’s pretty delicate territory.

    I do trust that her work is useful, but I’m just not sure where it stands for me.

  14. The spiral work on the floor this week gave me a wonderful sense of relaxed timing that I found useful in much of the standing combination movement. I discovered that when I focused on a small section of the combination, I was able to breathe into the spirals and make connections. In particular, the “dive” after the second position jump felt glorious! I’m finding that through focusing on smaller sections of choreography, I am able to translate the floor work to standing with less focus on “doing it right.”

  15. I had a number of similar feelings about my body and the spirals as other people who have posted. But in addition to that I found myself thinking a lot about music in technique classes this week. Specifically I was thinking about the ways that I use it as a crutch (maybe that is too strong a word?) to provide me with answers about the tempo and dynamics of movement, and the ways that it can override the subtleties involved with dancing in a group. I wonder about the ways it can provide another external marker of ‘correct,’ or just a specific frame. I noticed it particularly when we were running the last phrase yesterday with music that provided a less specific structure. I experienced both a release to figure out my own dynamics but also the realization that I hadn’t been exploring/establishing some of that with the rest of the people I was dancing with, but more in relation to the music. Also, I really enjoy dancing to music, I find it seductive and energizing.

  16. I have found that after doing the spiral exercises on the floor, I feel taller and longer! I love to spiral. This is something that I would like to explore more and go deeper into my own body.

    One thing that I consistently struggle with is my balance. I have really been frustrated through the tendu section. Sadly, I think that my fear and anxiety toward these exercises is taking my focus away from the application of the floor work. Do I concentrate less on the “lifting” of the leg and concentrate more on the lengthening through my body and head tail connection? I have a difficult time with feeling like an amateur during these exercises. My ego is possibly getting in the way. However, when moving through the “chicken chop” phrase I feel much more connected and I am able to tune into these spiraling moments. I feel at ease and very fluid. Not bound, as if I am holding on for dear life.

    Any advice is accepted!

  17. I have never encountered Irene Dowd’s work before. I was very sore in my lower back and hamstrings after the first class. But just as the Fundamentals, I feel how these exercises evens my body half’s, lengthens my limbs and helps me find an inner balance. Turning in the limbs as a preparation to turning out, makes me feel stronger, more connected with my muscles and less aesthetically correct, which is refreshing!

    I appreciated you talking about eyes last Friday Gerald. You reminded us to keep our eyes active and being aware of where they have a tendency to go (most often downwards…). This is extra interesting after having read the article about “dancing eyes” in our improvisation class.

  18. Doing Irene’s work this last week was very exciting for me. I have never done this work and LOVED it! I love being able to feel the spirals and double helixes throughout my body. It feels as though I am actually being twisted up. I can’t wait to explore more this week!

  19. I have really enjoyed the way the class is structured! I feel that I find the transitions from the floor to standing to the combinations at the end to be familiar movements throughout but incredibly challenging at the same time. It’s a very stimulating and rewarding way to take class!

  20. While I really like Irene’s work and am very familiar with it from last year with Christina, I felt very sore in my lumbar spine right after class. Perhaps this is because it is weak, or maybe I am stuck in a secondary position. This is something I’ll have to pay more attention to. Irene always seemed to set me up for class so I am glad this is information that I have encountered before.

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