A Tribute to Irmgard Bartenieff

by | Oct 7, 2015 | Body Awareness, Posture, Alignment, Personal Stories | 8 comments

Irmgard Bartenieff

Few people have even heard of her.

But of all the teachers, mentors and inspirational people I’ve been exposed to, Irmgard Bartenieff has had the biggest influence on the way I understand human movement and health.

She was born in Berlin in 1900, studied with Rudolf Laban and other notables of German Expressionistic modern dance, fled the Nazi regime for New York, studied physical therapy, and was a pioneer in polio treatment, dance therapy, and dance ethnography. She was the founder of the Laban Institute of Movement Studies (later renamed the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies), one of the world’s foremost training programs for scholars, teachers, choreographers, practitioners, analysts, non-verbal communication specialists, ethnographers, and all those who work in the movement field.

Here’s her bio page on Wikipedia

Though she died in 1981, she’s still decades ahead of her time in her views of movement.

For example, she grasped that movement is adaptive, that it forms the interface between the human being and the environment. Particularly the social environment.

Movement systems that emphasize “efficiency” or “ease” in motion are missing at least part of the point.  Movement isn’t designed to be “efficient.” It’s designed to be expressive, communicative, socially meaningful, adaptive, and (to some degree) efficient, all at the same time.

She also developed a keen understanding of the “three-dimensionality” of movement, particularly through her pioneering work during the polio epidemic of the 1950’s.  These children suffered from muscle contractures; the treatment of the day consisted in trying to stretch their muscles to maintain their length.

Irmgard discovered that a more effective approach involved mobilizing her patients’ limbs and trunk through all their possible ranges of motion while at the same time fostering “verticality.”

These and similar insights led to the development of “Bartenieff Fundamentals,” an evolving group of therapeutic and body awareness exercises that embody core movement principles. I use them every day in my practice.

One of these exercises – the lateral shift – has had significant influence on my treatment of low back, pelvis, and hip pain.  Through her insight, I’ve learned to appreciate how the hip joint rotates with lateral weight shift (every time you take a step.) And the relationships between this effect and sacroiliac joint shear stress, iliotibial band tightness, piriformis syndrome, and related issues.

Irmgard Bartenieff was also my Bindegewebsmassage instructor in a workshop back in the 1970’s.  It’s been a cornerstone of my practice ever since.

I value the contributions she’s made to my work and that of many others.

Get a copy of Irmgard’s book – Body Movement, Coping with the Environment.

body movement, coping with the environment





  1. tara stepenberg

    hi ron – i used to be francia mc clellan (then tara mc clellan and – well never mind!! ha ha) even thought of you today telling someone about the time i injured by shoulder and you saved me and my NYC performance in l977,
    loved your tribute to irmgard –
    then i saw your spondy book – have a question — i DO have
    spondylolothesis – took about 40 years, beginning when is was 15 with a cheerleading incident – anyway – i do not have any pain – but i have given up arabesques etc. can i actually do spine extension? i stay away from that – have been a pilates instructor for 20 years – with only one incident (that arose from taking fosomex i think – that didn’t last long!!) – i ex. almost every day and am in decent shape. (72 now and not counting – ha ha) later this week, i will purchase your material. be well – big smile for you and yours. cheers tara (francia)

    • Ronald Lavine, D.C.

      Hi Tara!

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’ve been hearing from lots of old friends since I posted that Irmgard article. As for your spondylolisthesis and potential issues with spinal extension – it all depends! I don’t know what grade you have – grade I spondylolisthesis usually isn’t that big of a deal. And a second issue is how well-supported the spinal extension movement is. Most people just “sag” into their low back, as you know. But you wouldn’t do that.

      So give it a gentle, measured try. Let me know how it goes.

  2. Dianne Woodruff

    Dear Dr. Levine,
    It’s gratifying to learn of your practice using Bartenieff Fundamentals. And how fortunate that you had that workshop with IB AND got the idea. Not only that, you have a point of view about the movement. I’ll save your post and share it with my colleagues.
    Sweigard made the point that when we as practitioners make a manual change, it must be integrated with movement or the change may be lost. I use BF with every manual procedure, for just this reason. BF is also the basis of my conditioning system, 3-D Workout. What a legacy we have! Dianne Woodruff, CMA, PhD

    • Ronald Lavine, D.C.

      Thanks Dianne – I love the concept of 3-D workout – I’ll have to check it out.

  3. Regina Miranda

    Dear Dr. Levine,

    We are happy and proud that you value and honor your learning from the Laban/Bartenieff Institute’s founder, Irmgard Bartenieff, and how your practice has been influence by “Barte­ni­eff Fun­da­men­tals”.

    We shared your post with our students, friends and colleagues at the LIMS Facebook page, and in the new LIMS’ Movement News Blog.

    When you come to NY, please come visit us at the Institute! If you have time, we will be happy to have you as a guest teacher/lecturer in one of our Open House events!

    Regina Miranda, Executive Director/Director of Arts & Culture
    Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies

    • Ronald Lavine, D.C.

      Thanks – I’m glad I could write something of general interest. Irmgard’s work is still revealing itself after more than 30 years. Be happy to offer a guest lecture – when would that be?

  4. Idrienne Steiman

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a CMA 1985. I also have the memory of Bartenieff having had the opportunity to take classes from her while working at LIMS in 1978. It’s a profound system for broad applications. I’m very interested in the Neuro technique you use originally German as well. Please email me more info. Would like to know if anyone practices that here in Indianapolis.

    • Ronald Lavine, D.C.

      Thanks for your response Idrienne. Irmgard has been an inspiration to so many of us and now, more than 30 years after her death, we’re still learning more of the subtle implications of her work.

      Unfortunately, Bindegewebsmassage is still a little-known technique in this country. I don’t know of anyone in Indianapolis who practices it, though you might find someone if you do a diligent internet search.

      Here’s a link to one of the articles I wrote about it : https://askdrlavine.com/neurotactile-therapy/

      If you read the article and follow the links on it, you can find out quite a bit about the method. Thanks for your interest.



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