Over soup lunch in Hackberry’s Restaurant, upstairs from the bustling La Crosse food cooperative, Ellen Moore darts her vibrant eyes from one loving student to another. Ten of us have gathered for an afternoon of conversation and lunch with the retired dance instructor. This is my first time meeting her, though I have been a student of hers for years in the sense that I take the classes she established forty years ago
From 1976 until 2005, Moore taught modern dance through the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Continuing Studies. Her improvisational dance class, open to those who first studied modern technique with her, was a place for those (like me) who fell away but wanted to return to dance in a gentle, welcoming atmosphere as adults. The participants always were, and still are, for the most part not dance majors on a track to become professionals. Some aren’t necessarily accustomed to dance at all. Yet they all share a loyalty to and love for Moore and her method of instruction.
During our conversation it becomes clear that the 90-year-old Moore has a fascination with movement, and a desire to express herself through the medium like no one I have ever met. As Moore describes tap dance classes from childhood—“They weren’t my favorite thing, but still kind of fun”—her legs start to move of their own accord. “My feet still remember one of the steps we used to do that was my favorite.” She winks at me and sips her soup, the table jiggling slightly under our hands as her feet move upon the floor.
“I danced as a kid, as soon as I could walk,” Moore says. “My father had a good beat, but he was a two-step dancer. My mom was a … ballroom dancer in the local theater in our small town. So undoubtedly I got some of her genes.”
In addition to dance, Moore was very interested in science early on. As a child, she spent hours with the chicken her mother was attempting to prepare for dinner, fascinated by the interconnected bones, flesh, and muscle.
Today anyone can find modern—or any kinds of dance, really—performed on television shows like So You Think You Can Dance or on the Internet. This all started in the 1930s, when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers hit the golden screen. The joy in their open expression and freedom really inspired young Moore.
“After that I danced on the furniture a lot, whether music was playing or not. I took ballet, I took acrobatics, and I took tap. They put me in toe shoes and I said ‘No way. This hurts! Why would I do this?’ And they gave up on me very quickly, thank goodness.”
In “giving up” on Moore, her ballet teachers and even her mother validated something that she and much of her family already knew: Moore was going to choose her own way.
“I found the modern dance teacher in college boring. I dropped it and joined the choir instead,” says Moore noting how the angular and expressive movements of modern dance—arms held just so, legs held just so—seemed awkward and contrived. She did go on to take some dance classes during her undergraduate studies at Wellesley College, but gravitated toward a major in Zoology.
Yet her fascination with movement lingered even after she received her degree and moved to New York City. “As soon as I got [there], I went to the first modern dance studio that was anywhere near where I was living. It happened to be Martha Graham’s school. It was a glove that fit.”
She threw herself into the modern dance movement, studying with many modern dance greats, including José Limón, Doris Humphrey, and Martha Graham. It is from Graham that Moore was first introduced to the importance of grounding oneself as a dancer, working with a modern dance structure called “ground primitive,” in which dancers start from, and end on, the ground. In between, dancers work with gestures that are both a part of modern dance vocabulary and structure, while also taking inspiration from the earth and intuition.
As she refined her craft, Moore began to consider what a future in modern dance would hold for her. “I didn’t want to be a professional dancer. I knew I wanted to have a family. I was very clear that I wanted that. I came from Iowa. We have families.”
The next best option was to teach dance, preferably in a college situation, though that was still a rare offering. Based on a conversation she had with another dancer, Moore came to Madison in 1949 in search of a kind of dance that differed from what she learned during her time with the East Coast modernists.
“My friend told me [about] this strange dance teacher at UW–Madison who didn’t teach dance like anybody else. That was Margaret H’Doubler. So, I went over to Lathrop Hall and sat in on a lecture of hers, and then I talked to her in the hall. … She said ‘I think you’re in the right place! This is made for you.’ And she was right.”
Many would say H’Doubler approach was strange, but it was the kind of strange that Moore craved. The first thing they did in class was to lie on the ground blindfolded and crawl around according to H’Doubler’s instructions:
We’ll begin on the floor, relieve the body of the pull of gravity and explore movement in a basic way. We’ll rediscover the body’s structural limitations and possibilities; we’ll attend to movement sensation. We’ll create movement out of our knowledge of body structure, no imitation. We’ll study movement as movement first. We may never arrive at dance, but we’ll make an honest beginning.
Margaret H’Doubler taught the very first modern dance class at UW–Madison in 1926. Over the next ten years, she refined her carefully structured class, using the basis of the body’s relationship to the ground to help students connect their own movement to experiences rather than using typical visual reference points.
“We had to be really clear about having a kinesthetic sense and she didn’t want us to see anything, just follow directions through feeling,” recalls Moore. “So we were very clear on the fact that this is sidewards, down, up—something tells us this without using eyes—our proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses, our muscle fibers and joints.”
H’Doubler used a skeleton in every class to explain the mechanics of dance. She was insistent about the importance of physics and biology to being a great dancer.
“Long before the phrase body-mind was invented, H’Doubler had invented a process that integrated body, mind, and psyche,” muses Moore. “She regularly reminded us of the ‘integrity’ of our organisms. Summarizing at the end of class, as was her habit, she often diagrammed this whole picture with a few deft strokes [on a chalkboard]: the willowy lines of the voluntary nervous system, the lima bean brain at the top and floating next to it an enlivened face.”
Admittedly, the class seemed pretty weird to Moore, not at all the kind of thing she had done with Graham. Yet Moore loved it. H’Doubler’s philosophy of an integrated body, mind, and psyche satisfied Moore’s physical and intellectual curiosity.
Under H’Doubler’s tutelage, Moore graduated with a Masters in Education and Dance from UW–Madison in 1951. She taught at Michigan State for a while, before being invited back to UW–Madison to teach in the dance department H’Doubler had established the year before Moore was born. Moore had an idea that she could become a professor, teach dance, and raise her family.
However, Moore quickly realized that this dream wasn’t going to come true. She struggled with balancing the demands of academe and family. “I did not write a book, and therefore did not get tenure, because I was raising three small children,” Moore says bluntly, punctuating the assertion with a shrug.
Her situation in the 1960s is still a common one for many female academics. For Moore, this ending at the UW–Madison was actually a wonderful beginning: it allowed her to grow the dance philosophy she cultivated during her studies with H’Doubler and also support the domestic life she so craved.
Where both H’Doubler and Moore relied on gravity and the body’s physical relationship to the ground to support dance movements, and used an implicit and explicit knowledge of physics and biology as a base for their teaching, Moore explored improvisation and joy in a way unprecedented by her teachers.
A contemporary at UW–Madison named Arthur Leath encouraged Moore in this exploration of improvisation and joy. Originally a botanist, Leath (known to friends as A. A.) later in his career studied an unorthodox form of improvisational dance. Leath also taught Creative Behavior, a philosophy that incorporats all parts of the self as a foundation for creativity. Because of Leath, Moore threaded elements of Creative Behavior into her classes, asking her students to look at movement as a way of expressing feelings and respecting the self.
To Moore, movement is less about form and precision than honesty, and she encourages students to take credit for their creative expressions. In this way, Moore sees the whole teaching situation as less hierarchical than her teachers did, the class being less about a teacher imparting lessons and more about the interactive, co-learning experience of humans together in a dance.
Moore would always make time for conversation and feedback to shape the next class. She often drew from the elements, the seasons, and political climate for a particular class lesson, and worked with a wide range of jazz, classical, and modern pop records.
Moore went on to teach thirty years through UW Extension (now UW–Madison Continuing Studies), able to find a work-home balance that both satisfied her desire to parent and allowed her to fully express H’Doubler and Graham’s teachings on the importance of grounding oneself—physically, but also emotionally—in dance as a way of being.
“We all get to experience [a sense of ground] when the garden begins to come up in the spring. When I am down on my knees planting my impatiens, I feel like I am home again,” says Moore.
Today, Moore’s motion is much more limited, her aging ankles restricting her range. But each day, she and her dog Joe take a walk around the block. “I breathe now when I walk the dog around the block. I notice when I am working at it, … and then I let the movement happen rather than making it happen.” Even when it comes to breathing, the most basic physical action of being, Moore remains aware of how effort and self-consciousness can limit the possibilities of expression and living.
She describes everything as starting from the ground—all of our basic gestures, and our life itself. We start from earth, from the elements, and return to the earth in death. When asked why we start dance class on the ground, Moore has a simple and profound response that reflects the fundamentals of her teachings. Of course, it is about life as much as dancing:
[Because] it helps us find that stable, strong, powerful place. We talked about going down, going up, [relating to both] earth and sky—we see it in Native American culture, all kinds of respect for the ground. We see it everywhere. In Buddhism, they sit on the ground to start? Why not? Why would we start anything standing up? The body gets strength and energy from sitting on the ground.
Today, Marina Kelly continues the tradition of Moore’s improvisational course under the name Creating Dance through Structured Improvisation, using Moore’s philosophy of grounding: starting on the ground, in silence, slowly adding a wide range of music with a few gentle suggestions for movement. She weaves in the weather, bringing in leaves or branches, laying out supplies for drawing along with dancing.
Ten years after Moore stopped teaching in Madison, many students still tend to think of the class as hers. Kelly doesn’t mind. “There will never be another Ellen Moore,” says Kelly. “She is a true original and I can only say that I have been the lucky recipient of her teaching and guidance and that I do my part to keep the spirit of her teachings alive.”
Kelly found Ellen’s classes early in her twenties, and they were hugely influential in her own creative development and work as an arts administrator. Today she can still remember lying on the floor, hearing Moore’s voice as she offered up ideas for exploration of movement. “The language she used was so important in communicating the philosophy of the class,” notes Kelly, “with gentle instructions like, Notice if you’re willing to move your body towards standing or Might you consider rolling towards the middle of the room.”
Closing out our day with Moore in La Crosse, we are seated in Moore’s living room with her old black and white dog Joe and a handful of her students. Both long-term students and current participants in Kelly’s iteration of the class share their fondest memories. “Ellen created a community of dance,” is a refrain heard again and again from the group.
But one student in particular summed up Moore’s essential quality in a brief yet powerful statement: “You weren’t just teaching us movement, you were teaching us a way of moving through life.”
POSTSCRIPT: About these photos: Taken by Kim Keyes, these black and white photos of Ellen Moore and her final Movement Improvisation class in 2005 made their way into a short film by former students Marina Kelly and Jim Mathews called Taking a Bow. All photos are reprinted by permission of Kim Keyes.