Joan Skinner has a lifetime of achievement in the worlds of dance performance and pedagogical innovation.
Early influences included studying dance from the age of six with Cora Belle Hunter, formerly a graduate student of Mabel Ellsworth Todd, author of the groundbreaking “The Thinking Body” in 1937.
Shortly after graduating from Bennington College, Vermont, in 1946, Martha Graham personally invited Joan to join her company, having noticed her in several student performances. Soon Joan was performing major works alongside Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and others, and teaching at the Graham school. During this time she was also studying ballet at the School of American Ballet and was particularly impressed with the teaching of Anatole Oboufhoff, a former partner of Pavlova.
In 1951, having left the Graham company, Joan began working with Merce Cunningham at his studio. She performed in the revolutionary “Sixteen Dances” and “Suite by Chance”, and was one of the Cunningham soloists for the American Dance festival on Broadway in April 1953.
In the following four years, her performing career flourished, including through lengthy and gruelling cross-country tours. During one of them, she sustained a ruptured disc, a serious injury threatening her future in dance. It led her to Alexander Technique teacher Judith Liebowitz in New York in 1955. The principles she learned there would prove very influential in her later exploration of movement technique. After a period of study, Joan was able to resume a rigorous, challenging dancing career without further injury.
Following 1957, Joan increasingly focused on teaching, primarily at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois, where she received her Master’s in dance in 1964; as well as at the Walker Art Center and the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. She also taught experimental classes, in which she began to evolve her own distinctive approach to movement training.
As a dance faculty member at the University of Illinois in the early 1960’s, Joan was encouraged by her friend and mentor Margaret Erlanger to experiment with graduate students in refining her own approach to technique. It was these students who coined the term “releasing”, to describe their feeling-state throughout Joan’s experimental classes. Among these students were Mary Fulkerson and a handful of other notables who continued practising, developing and communicating these principles following graduation.
Joan eventually became head of the modern dance program at the University of Washington in 1967, where her experimentation continued. What we now know as Skinner Releasing Technique took shape from the early 1970s, as she refined and codified the material and approaches she was developing. A formal teacher training programme first appeared in the mid-1980’s. Since that time over 120 teachers have been trained to pass on Joan’s gentle, rigorous and poetic approach to movement, which remains as distinctive and radical as ever.
Now retired, Joan Skinner lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, jazz composer Jim Knapp.