Bodies swooping into arcing releases, arms swinging effortlessly, a flow of windy S-shapes mixed with angular, percussive pauses. This style of dance is the Simonson Technique, and the high-energy classes associated with it are gentle on your body and rejuvenating for your soul. A mix of modern and jazz techniques, inspired by ballet, contemporary, jazz and Broadway dance styles, Simonson focuses on body alignment and awareness of anatomy. Put it all together and you get a sweeping fluidity mixed with spine and rib articulations that can make your body feel relaxed and invigorated simultaneously.
Emily Herrold, a freshman in the dance program at the State University of New York at Purchase, began taking Simonson classes regularly after a teacher at The Spence School in New York City recommended the style to her. After just one session, she was hooked. “Simonson teaches so much awareness, how to move in a safe way, and it engages your core,” she says. “All of it’s so helpful because all of these elements are important in so many other styles.”
Blending a whole history of modern techniques, as well as yoga and Pilates moves, Simonson encompasses a wide-range of movement. But what makes it different from any other modern or jazz class? For one thing, many other modern techniques—Limón, Graham, Cunningham—were constructed to further one choreographer’s personal style. In contrast, Simonson stands out as a technique by dancers for dancers. Since classes are structured carefully to fully warm up the entire body with an awareness and respect for anatomy, they help performers align their bodies, feel healthy and steady, and even heal from injuries.
Elisa Clark, a former ballerina and now a dancer with Mark Morris Dance Group, started taking Simonson Technique classes 13 years ago for these reasons. “I like that the class is simple but thorough at the same time,” she says. “Everything happens in the right order and you feel like you’re warming up from the inside out.”
Diane McCarthy, a Simonson teacher for 21 years who trained in ballet, Limón, and Graham, adds, “With Graham, there’s a movement shape vocabulary. Limón has a dynamic energy or flow. Cunningham is very linear. But with Simonson, there’s not a vocabulary in that sense. It’s more of an awareness. It’s such a good preparation for other techniques.”
Once learned, this style can help students in other classes, too. Lynn Simonson, founder of the Simonson technique, says students should ask themselves questions like, “Is this right for me or is this harmful for me?” and “Can I adapt it in any way?” in all classes. “You learn to recognize not only the mechanics but how the mechanics feel,” she says. “So many dancers learn from the outside, externally. But once you learn from the inside, you can understand dance in a deeper and more personal way.”
The Roots of Simonson Technique
Simonson grew up studying ballet in Seattle, WA, and by 16, she was performing in summer musicals. At 18, she moved to the Big Apple to pursue both ballet and musical theater. There she studied with the American Ballet Theatre and took jazz dance classes. During her second year in NYC, she injured her knee in a class. “That was a turning point in my life,” she says. But the downturn opened up a new world for Simonson. Her physical therapy inspired her to seek new training methods. “I started to study anatomy, and I was taken over by the idea.”
She put that idea of creating a technique ruled by anatomy instead of just style into practice when she was invited to teach in Holland. Later, in the 1970s, Simonson moved back to NYC. “I started to teach and my classes grew so quickly that I began to train people to teach my ideas.” Some of these first teachers, including Lori Devito, Charles Wright, Danny Pepitone and Michael Geiger, formed Dance Space Center in 1984 with Simonson. More than two decades later in 2006, Dance Space became Dance New Amsterdam and is now a thriving branch of the NYC dance community. Simonson has since moved out of the area, but she’s left a lasting impression that’s being passed along through her technique at DNA, where the majority of Simonson Technique classes are taught.
So What Is Simonson?
Though the Simonson classes are labeled Modern/Jazz on DNA’s schedule, don’t expect Martha Graham’s modern or Fosse-style jazz. Joint stability, core strength and spinal articulation are at the center of the technique, says McCarthy. “We try to get dancers out of bad habits like hyperextension.” So, in many Simonson classes some dancers have to re-learn the basics, like standing in a true neutral position.
In addition to standing, if you choose to take a Simonson class, you can expect to begin with a one-hour warm up. In every class, beginner through advanced, dancers start with standing exercises that are ultra-pointed and slow. First, half head rolls to each side cover four counts; then, through a series of contractions, the entire back is warmed up and stretched. Gentle leg stretches, pliés, tendus and développés are incorporated into the rest of the warm-up, which continually alternates between exploring deep contractions, working in stretched arches and finding a neutral spine position. “I appreciate how long the warmups are,” Emily says. “I have time to work on everything from extension to balancing to connecting with my body because it’s very slow and careful. Nothing feels rushed. It’s very precise so it forces you to be aware of every single body part.”
The second hour of the class is spent moving across the floor in turning or jumping exercises and then learning a short combination incorporating the swooping movements and controlled posture built from the warmup. Although the classes are structured similarly, every Simonson teacher has a different style, often expressed through musical choices and stylistic vibe. Simonson uses music connected to jazz in some way (classical jazz, blues, gospel, etc.). But she says, “Choreographically, because so many people are teaching Simonson, a student is able to move from class to class and feel comfortable in the base but still experience different movement qualities.”
It seems like McCarthy—and the Simonson Technique—are fulfilling that very quality: “There’s something about Simonson that if I have a week off of work, that’s when I always sneak down into Diane’s Simonson class,” Clark says. “I get to move around. It feels balancing to my body—warm and lengthened.”
Emily Macel, former associate editor of Dance Magazine, lives and writes in Washington, D.C.