On This Day … 24 February

People (Births)

  • 1900 – Irmgard Bartenieff, German-American dancer and physical therapist, leading pioneer of dance therapy (d. 1981).

Irmgard Bartenieff

Irmgard Bartenieff (1900 to 1981) was a dance theorist, dancer, choreographer, physical therapist, and a leading pioneer of dance therapy. A student of Rudolf Laban, she pursued cross-cultural dance analysis, and generated a new vision of possibilities for human movement and movement training. From her experiences applying Laban’s concepts of dynamism, three-dimensional movement and mobilization to the rehabilitation of people affected by polio in the 1940s, she went on to develop her own set of movement methods and exercises, known as Bartenieff Fundamentals.

Bartenieff incorporated Laban’s spatial concepts into the mechanical anatomical activity of physical therapy, in order to enhance maximal functioning. In physical therapy, that meant thinking in terms of movement in space, rather than by strengthening muscle groups alone. The introduction of spatial concepts required an awareness of intent on the part of the patient as well, that activated the patient’s will and thus connected the patient’s independent participation to his or her own recovery. “There is no such thing as pure “physical therapy” or pure “mental” therapy. They are continuously interrelated.”

Bartenieff’s presentation of herself was quiet and, according to herself, she did not feel comfortable marketing her skills and knowledge. Not until June 1981, a few months before she died, did her name appear in the institute’s title: Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS), a change initiated by the Board of Directors in her honour.

Dance Therapy

She held a position of dance therapy research assistant (1957-1967) to Dr. Israel Zwerling at the Day Hospital Unit of Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Zwerling, a psychiatrist […] was very receptive to further exploration of dance as a therapeutic tool for defusing aggression and anxiety. What particularly reinforced his interest in her was that she had a vocabulary and a notation for recording observations of movement. This became a vital factor in daily observations through the one-way screen, especially of family and therapeutic groups.

Dance therapy was then an emerging field of adjunctive therapy. Bartenieff’s special contribution was in bringing Laban’s work to a field very much in need of movement documentation: [It] provided a method of movement analysis and a system of notation which placed dance therapists on their own professional ground, giving them a language for describing patients’ movements, and eliminating the need to rely on less accurate jargon borrowed from other disciplines.

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