by Susan Cunningham
It has been said that if you stood every morning on the stairs between Studio 1 and Studio 3 at the London School of Contemporary Dance in the early 70s until the mid 90's, you could hear the shouts of, "faster, faster,.....harder, harder" from upstairs, and the calm instructions of, "slower, slower.....softer, softer", from downstairs.
Upstairs was Studio 1 where Jane Dudley taught Grahame technique; the other was home to Gerda Geddes' t'ai chi class.
At the book launch last weekend of the life of Gerda "Pytt" Geddes (1917-2006) by Frank Woods, I learned the story of how this remarkable lady came to be the first European woman to bring t'ai chi to Britain, influencing the lives of thousands, and of her impact on contemporary dance.
Gerda trained as a dancer and in psychoanalysis that came across t'ai chi in Hong Kong in the late 1940's. She persuaded an old master to teach this "crazy western woman' which was difficult as his beliefs forbade him to touch her. It was almost unheard of for a woman to practice the art and practically impossible in their culture due to the fact that foot binding was still commonplace.
At this time Gerda (aged 32) had been asking herself the timeless questions, "what's the meaning?....what is it all for?....what should I do with my life?". She was overwhelmed by the discovery of what she saw as the perfect meeting of mind, body and spirit.
She had seen that dance training was often punishing on the body so when she came to The Place she urged her pupils to listen to their bodies. Her most famous pupil, Richard Alston certainly did, making it compulsory for all his dancers to practise t'ai chi regularly.
Unfortunately for Jane Dudley, her loyalty to Martha Graham's tough technique gave her such severe arthritis she became wheelchair bound.
The book, 'Dancer in the Light' was so-called as Gerda, who was born in Norway (and was a member of the Norwegian Resistance, another thread to this woman's amazing life story) hankered after the high sun and long hours of Scandinavian light.
Hence why she chose to leave London in the 1990's and spend the last nine years of her life living quietly in the special light of the North East of Scotland.