Helping Kids Discover Balance Through Duncan Dance

July 7, 2007    BY Susan Piperato

“Oh, for a day to come when the dancers are the music—it will be glistening in their souls!” This is what MaryBeth Hraniotis tells her students as their dance class begins at the Meadow Studio in Montgomery, N.Y. Hraniotis is paraphrasing Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, whose methods she uses to teach children from nursery school to high school not only how to dance, but by extension, how to exist within the world. As Duncan wrote in her long out-of-print book The Art of the Dance (1928), “To dance is to live. What I want is a school of life, for man’s greatest riches are in his soul, in his imagination.”

“Oh, for a day to come when the dancers are the music—it will be glistening in their souls!”

The children—both boys and girls, aged 7 through 12, members of the Meadow Children’s Dance Company—stand in a small circle around Hraniotis, passing a long, golden silk rope hand to hand. When the rope reaches the last dancer it completes a figure-eight shape—symbolizing, Hraniotis points out, “the web of life.” And suddenly, the children find themselves engaged in a struggle to hold the rope in place as they take turns whirling into and out of the shape.

“Keep the shape! Keep dancing!” Hraniotis calls out brightly as a Chopin mazurka plays on the studio sound system. The rope dips and pulls, sometimes sending the dancers reeling. “This isn’t a tug-of-war—no,” Hraniotis says to them. “We must make the rope safe to hold the dancers, to let the dancers pass through.” With a few shrieks and giggles, Hraniotis’s students—each wearing a long, richly colored Duncan-inspired silken tunic with matching loose pants—try to relax the rope enough to maintain the figure eight while still creating a space for one another’s strikingly different improvisations.

“Sometimes we get tangled in the web of life,” Hraniotis says, as the music builds to a crescendo. “But the web of life is made of entanglements, of intrigues, of happenstance. We’re all part of the web of life. Each one of us is important—and we must all hold onto our part of the rope!” The children exchange knowing looks. As the music softens and slows, Hraniotis’s voice turns tender: “No more ‘Oh, what can we do?’ ‘How can we be?’ ‘She said this’ and ‘He did that.’ Let us untangle ourselves gently,” she continues. “Let us free ourselves now from these intrigues—the dance is life!”

Learning to Live Together

As a Duncan dance teacher, Hraniotis says she enters each classroom as “an empty cup,” taking cues from her students as to what they are ready to learn. “I didn’t plan to use the rope,” she says after this class. “But I went for it because that’s what happened in the moment. At school, children are taught; here, we learn how to live together,” she explains. “Sometimes part of harmony is disharmony—it’s important to know how to work through it. With the rope, they learn how we all hold our part to support the whole.”

As a Duncan dance teacher, Hraniotis says she enters each classroom as “an empty cup,” taking cues from her students as to what they are ready to learn.

Having trained in ballet and modern dance at the State University of New York at Brockport and the University of South Florida, as well as in the Alexander Technique, which she has taught since 1993, Hraniotis became certified to teach Duncan’s dance methods to children in 2003 by the Isadora Duncan International Institute (IDII) in New York City.

Yet like Duncan, she believes she was “called to the dance” as a young child through her experience of nature. “I would go out into the meadows and listen to nature and just move,” she says. “I thought that everyone did that; later, I found out they didn’t.” Because Hraniotis’s father was a military pilot, the family relocated often, which allowed her to dance through fields in places as disparate as Hamilton, N.Y., Newfoundland, and even Greece, among the ruins of the Parthenon, as her family picnicked. “I grew up a child of the world,” she says, “with a broad, clear view.”

Isadora’s Legacy

Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Isadora Duncan was a free spirit who claimed to have begun dancing in her mother’s womb. “From the first, I have only danced my life,” she wrote in her autobiography, My Life. Duncan devoted her life to advancing dance as the physical expression of the soul and as a means to develop the spirit and heal the world. Despite enduring much poverty and personal tragedy (including the accidental deaths of her two children), Duncan founded several dance schools for children in Europe and Russia, established dance as a creative art form and mode of political protest, performed to benefit many war charities, and influenced many modern dance pioneers like Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. But all too often, says Hraniotis, “people latch on to the fact that Isadora lived large—very large—while here on this earth.” So Duncan is remembered not for her accomplishments but for her controversial practice of free love and use of filmy, revealing costumes, as well as her tragic death in Nice, France, in 1927, when her shawl caught in the wheel of a sports car and instantly strangled her.

Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Isadora Duncan was a free spirit who claimed to have begun dancing in her mother’s womb.

“Yet her legacy was in the education of the human being and in honoring the soul, the light within each child,” says Hraniotis, who established The Meadow Studio in 2004 in Montgomery, N.Y., as “a place where people can explore the deeper underpinnings of what drives the dance of life.” The studio offers classes in yoga; Alexander Technique; geospatial movement—“a one-hour moving meditation in the form of geometric forms and shapes” based on Hraniotis’s studies of Duncan, Alexander, and Leonardo da Vinci; and Duncan- and mythological-based dance for women. 

A Pebble Into a Lake

But it is the teaching of Duncan’s methods to children that Hraniotis is most passionate about. “That’s my dropping a pebble into a lake and watching the ripples flow outward,” she says. “Dance moves everyone who sees it, whether they are young, old and wise, or hardened by life. It allows children to learn to be the balm that soothes what’s going on in the world—whether it’s war or strife or violence or growing tension between cultures.”

The Meadow Children’s Dance Company performs at several local venues, including Montgomery’s annual, free-of-charge, public arts festivals—Artist on the Green and Winter Starlight—both of which Hraniotis founded. An active dancer as well as teacher, Hraniotis has performed at Oxford University and danced two of Duncan’s best-known dances—“Ave Maria” and “The Bacchanal”—for the IDII’s 30th anniversary celebration.

Hraniotis says that she finds Duncan’s methods especially relevant today because in a culture that only values thin, beautiful young women, “Isadora welcomed everyone to the dance.” In other forms of dance, and in contemporary culture in general, she says, “Oftentimes we don’t fit within the body type or the form. Then the heart and soul is left out. That is a real shame because with all our differences, with all our different abilities and body types and temperaments, we create a beautiful cornucopia of experience that enlivens both the dancers and the audience.”

Hraniotis says that she finds Duncan’s methods especially relevant today because in a culture that only values thin, beautiful young women, “Isadora welcomed everyone to the dance.”

Hraniotis finds that women tend to study Duncan-based dance because they “can walk through the door and leave their stress behind and engage in beauty, dance, and archetypal truth in an environment that’s very safe and supportive and nonjudgmental.” Children like studying Duncan because it allows them the freedom to be children. “We standardize our kids to death, and our culture encourages early sexualization and what I call ‘sit-com speak.’ This is the antidote,” Hraniotis says. “Dance means meeting oneself in a place of awe and wonder. Children should never be compromised or made to feel uncomfortable or left out. They are allowed to be wherever they are in their stage of development and maturity, just as Isadora says in The Art of the Dance—that is sacred doctrine and I do not divert from that.”

Awakening the Creative Spirit

Hraniotis finds Duncan’s methods extremely adaptable. She has taught “Natural Forces,” a one-day workshop in Duncan technique for 7-to-12-year-olds, at Skidmore College’s annual Dance Plus Festival, as well as a two-week “Festival of Joy” program at a local nursery school. But her most dramatic experience in teaching Duncan’s methods came at a public middle school, where she ran a two-week program during the girls’ gym classes that explored the mythology of the Amazon women.

“I asked myself, ‘What would middle school girls fight most about?’ and the answer is boys,” she says. “My program took place while the kids were taking standardized tests. They had a lot of bottled-up anger in their bodies. They came in with their arms and legs crossed and sat against the wall. I told them about the Amazon sisterhood, how they never fought with one another, only against their invaders. I told them, ‘Let’s create a dance that allows us to take the dogma of those standardized tests and throw it into a fire, and use flaming swords to light that fire.’ Well, everybody stood up and danced. The teachers were watching through the doors. Girls were asking to come out of study hall and dance. Why? Because art—moving art, especially—creates balance.

“Today children are told what to think instead of how to think. They’re asked to repeat and regurgitate, not to consider and be inspired and create. I think that’s what makes Isadora so beautifully relevant. She said, ‘To be still is to die a little bit.’ We want to live—and so we move!”

“We don’t just dance for ourselves,” she reminds them as she does at each performance. “We dance to honor the earth, nature, the world, and all its inhabitants.”

At the Meadow Studio, as the children change from their tunics back into their jeans and walk softly toward their parents waiting to take them home, Hraniotis thanks them for “playing in [their] wildness” and asks them to come back again next week. “We don’t just dance for ourselves,” she reminds them as she does at each performance. “We dance to honor the earth, nature, the world, and all its inhabitants.” The children wave good-bye and scatter, their eyes bright, talking of homework and what’s for dinner. One more pebble has been dropped into the lake. 

Susan Piperato
Susan Piperato, managing editor of New York House magazine, writes on culture and sustainable living from New York’s Hudson Valley.

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