Innovations In Dance

Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.

~ Winston Churchill


Innovation. It’s a buzz word we hear a lot. Every new product seems to claim it’s “innovative”, indeed sometimes “revolutionary” as a short hand to assist time-poor potential consumers to understand that this latest must-have item will ensure their lives are better; that it will keep them on the cutting edge and ahead of the pack.

And while the word innovation abounds in mainstream media and social media advertising, it’s little heard of in our dance community. How often do we hear the word “innovative” used to talk about training methods or training equipment in dance? It might lead us to believe that dance is a desert for innovation. Yet of course that’s not true. It’s simply that the innovation seems typically the exclusive domain of elite choreographers.

Apart from those adventurous choreographers, associated theatre creatives and dancers exploring new thresholds in movement to challenge audiences, what have been some of the leading product and training innovations that have shaped and changed the world of dance? Below is the short list I was able to compile. I’m sure I’ve missed some, just as I’m certain some of these will be contentious as to whether they truly are innovations.

And to be clear, these are innovations that in the main are dance specific. That is, they were specifically designed for dance or were popularised due to dance. For there have been many innovations, particularly in the last 100 years or so that, while non-dance specific in origin, have significantly shaped dance.

The first recording devices meant that the floating, flowing movements of Isadora Duncan could be captured and shared in cinemas houses around the world. Likewise, recording meant that dance productions could be filmed and shown to dancers in order for them to better understand the original choreographer’s vision. And syllabus could be laid down to ensure a more precise understanding of the technical nuances, or as a reminder to those that had learnt it face to face yet required a refresher. The advent of VHS allowed dancers to take home and watch their favourite dance routines over and over until the tape stretched and warped beyond recognition. More recently iTunes, MP4 players and Blue Tooth have all had a significant impact on the way studios operate. And Youtube combined with Social Media and Smart Phones has meant access to literally a world of dance and a deeper connection to dance and dancers than ever dreamed possible. And this short list doesn’t account for the many apps available, some dance specific and others not, that dancers and teachers etc. use on a daily basis to enhance or disseminate their practice. And so, while I’m not disregarding these important innovations and the impact they’ve had on shaping our dance practice and culture, for the purpose of this article I’ve attempted to contain the list to those that are dance specific.

Please note: the list below has been compiled in a loose chronological order and not in any kind of ascending or descending menu based on perceived merit.

Dreamers are mocked as impractical. The truth is they are the most practical; their innovations lead to progress and a better way of life for all of us.

~ Robin S Sharma

The Ballet Flat

As with most innovations in early dance, much is speculative and not known for certain. Indeed, as we consider innovations in early classical dance it is perhaps more appropriate to understand them as slow collaborations inching over time and across companies, creatives, cities, and Nations.

With that said, Marie-Anne de Cupis de Carmargo, known simply asLa Carmargo, a French dancer with the Paris Opera in the early 18th century is widely credited with being the first dancer to remove the heel of what was then the standard ballet shoe to develop footwear more like the ballet flats as we perceive them today. La Carmargo did so in her quest to promote faster foot work and better ballon, which was difficult in the heeled shoes of the period and led to dancers being prone to injury.

By the end of the French Revolution (1799), King Louis XVI standardised this innovation, which soon led to the ballet flat sans heel becoming the new norm throughout the ballet world.

The Pointe Shoe

In 1795 Charles Didelot lifted dancers onto their toes with an invention involving wires. Known as the “flying machine” this led to other dancers and choreographers seeking ways to emulate this ethereal experience for the audience.

While it’s again likely there were many small variations and tweaks in the process by many creatives, it was the celebrated dancer from the Romantic era, Marie Taglioni, Comtesse de Voisins who is widely credited with being the first ballerina to, ‘truly dance en pointe’ in La Sylphide in 1892. Marie’s pointe shoes however were little more than satin slippers with a few modifications, ‘the sides and toes were darned to help the shoes hold their shapes’. Yet these shoes offered little to no support. The next significant change came in Italy as dancers such as Pierina Legnani wore shoes with an area around the toes that was starting to resemble the toe box, with a flattened platform at the toes, in contrast to the more tapered design of earlier models.

By the early 20th Century Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, in her attempt to mitigate against injury due to her ‘high, arched insteps’ and ‘slender, tapered feet’ inserted ‘toughened leather soles into her shoes for extra support and flattened and hardened the toe area to form a box’. And so, it was the desire for injury prevention as much as technical virtuosity that led to one of the most formative innovations in classical dance that every female dancer on pointe now takes for granted.

While there have been many small cosmetic and comfort innovations in the intervening time, arguably the next – and last – significant innovation in pointe shoe design wasn’t until 1993 when Gaynor Minden opened their doors in New York City and released their patented, flexible polymer pointe shoes designed by Eliza Minden.

Note: please stand by for the release of the MDM pointe shoe!

The Leotard

Jules Leotard was a French acrobatic performer of the mid-to-late 19th Century. He is widely credited both with developing the art of trapeze and the one-piece garment that bears his name. He developed the leotard, “to suit the safety and agility concerns of trapeze performance. It also showed off his physique”, which is said to have “impressed women”.

 Again, like the ballet flat and pointe shoe innovations, the leotard was inspired by the desire to move better, to add to the technical virtuosity possible and to mitigate against potential injury. And again, it was a high-level exponent of the craft that first saw this need and developed this innovation.

If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.

~ Peter F Drucker

Syllabus

In Australia alone there are currently 18 dance syllabi operating, with many more specific to each country. Some have rich and deep histories such as, the Cecchetti Method, the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and the Vaganova Method. While many others are new, such as Australian Teachers of Dancing (ATOD), Classical Dance Australia (CDA) and Australian Dance Vision (ADV). And though the latter may be relative juniors in the field compared to the more well-known syllabi, many have already established strong bonds and a deep loyalty in our dance community. 

No doubt every one of these organisations would argue they were founded as innovations on the existing syllabi; that they heralded at least some small, yet significant training development, be it technical, artistic and/or cultural that improved on that which had come before. Some syllabi have been developed for all dance genres sometimes based on a guiding philosophy, while others are more specific, coming into existence like as the Acrobatic Arts syllabus, to expressly advance a particular dance genre that may have been missing focused attention in the other syllabi.

And while it might be easy to argue that there are far too many dance syllabi, an endless web of slight training variations, minor modifications to rules and guidelines and cultural norms; on the flip side the argument will be that, there is no one method that suits all bodies, minds, temperaments and talent and thus the more syllabi offered creates more possibilities for young, aspiring dancers to find those teachers and that individual pathway to fulfil their artistic and technical potential. 

Modern Dance

Any attempts to write about the history of Modern Dance will take more time than this article allows, so forgive me for brushing over important steps in my aim to address the key innovation that is the genre itself. Modern dance is a broad genre, developed primarily in Germany and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Emerging as a push back against the perceived strict movement vocabulary of the classical dance tradition, the early Modern Dance period sought a more liberated dance aesthetic, embodied by early pioneers such as Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan and Loie Fuller. These artists put aside what they saw as ballet’s strict vocabulary, corsets and pointe shoes in their desire to explore a greater ease and freedom of movement. By the central Modern period (1923-1946), choreographers such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton were seeking to develop their own clear and recognisable movement styles, vocabularies and dance training systems.

By the late Modern period (1946-1957) choreographers of the time were exploring concepts such as, abstractionism and avant-garde movement, which became the stepping stone to postmodern dance.

No artist is ahead of his time. He is the time. It is just that others are behind the time.

~ Martha Graham

Pilates

Not strictly speaking a dance innovation, German born Joseph Pilates was initially introduced to body building, martial arts and gymnastics to assist his sickly body when he was young.

During the First World War Joseph, then living in the UK, was interned in a British camp due to being a German alien. During this time he worked as a nurse and this provided him with the opportunity to experiment by attaching springs to hospital beds, so that patients could tone their muscles even while they were bed-bound. Such was the origin of the first Pilates machine, now known as the Pilates reformer.

He later came to develop a method of training the mind, breath and core postural muscles called, “Contrology”. Yet it was only after he and his wife moved to America around 1925, when his method became popular among dancers in New York City, after which society women followed, that his Pilates gym on 8th Avenue took off. 

The Pilates Method is now engaged all over the world by amateur, pre-professional and professional dancers alike, as a training aid for developing muscular strength to improve technique, prevent injuries and as an adjunct in their rehabilitation post-injury

Movement Notation

Movement Notation systems were devised and used – and to a lesser degree continue to be used – to record choreography as a way to remember and learn movements.

Originally conceived by Rudolf Laban and his colleagues, Labanotation was developed in the 1920’s to be a system to, “precisely and accurately portray temporal patterns, actions, floor plans, body parts and a three-dimensional use of space”.

Benesh Notation, developed in the late 1940’s was first published by Joan and Rudolf Benesh in 1956. The movement notation system uses a five-line staff, much like music, to notate figuratively using symbols, the movements of the human body. Rudolf Benesh defined the system as the, “aesthetic and scientific study of all forms of human movement by movement notation”. In 1997 the Benesh Institute merged with the Royal Academy of Dance.

IADMS

The International Association for Dance, Medicine and Science was founded in 1990 by an international group of dance medicine practitioners, dance educators, dance scientists, and dancers. Membership is drawn equally from the medical and dance professions and has grown from an initial 48 members to over 900 world-wide representing 35 countries. The goal of the organisation is stated as follows:

IADMS enhances health, well-being, training and performance in dance by cultivating medical, scientific, and educational excellence. IADMS has always striven to promote an international network of communication between dance and medicine.

MDM is proud to have attended and shared our innovations to this esteemed group of dance educators, researchers and company physiotherapists etc. for the last three consecutive IADMS international conferences in Montreal, Houston and Helsinki, as well as supporting local IADMS events in Sydney and Melbourne.

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.

~ Albert Einstein

MDM FOUNDER | CEO, TIM HEATHCOTE WITH DANCE TEACHER, ANDIE DASHWOOD.

At MDM we’re excited by innovation.

It’s what our footwear is all about, the energy that underpins the culture of the company, and what we’d like to see and inspire more of across our shared dance community. 

Founded in 2012, we can’t yet know for certain how MDM will be perceived by the long arc of dance history. Yet we suspect that as dance history continues to be written, MDM and the patented Dance Base Support conceived by Founder and CEO Timothy Heathcote, will be understood and valued for the game-changing innovation that we, and increasingly many others around the world, know it to be. 

MDM – Engineered for Expression


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