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For Seniors : This 90-Year-Old Dances to Her Own Tune of Creative Self-Expression

October 16, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

Alma Hawkins has always made all the right moves. And at 90, she can still pack a room with admirers and the curious who come to hear her speak about dance. She's contemplative, refined, modest--and has great legs.

From her childhood in Missouri through the Depression in New York to her long, pioneering tenure at UCLA, Hawkins was drawn to dance. But rather than merely master and teach old techniques, she became an innovator who encouraged her students to explore new realms--and themselves--through dance.

"Dance is one of man's oldest and most basic means of expression," she wrote in one of her four books. "Through the body, man senses and perceives the tensions and rhythms of the universe around him, and then using the body as an instrument, he expresses his feeling responses to the universe. From the fabric of his perceptions and feelings, he creates his dance. Through his dance he relates to his fellow man and to his world."

Hawkins was born to a family of Missouri dairy farmers and grew up in a town with a population of 2,000. She had a comfortable childhood, but from the beginning she knew there was something else out there for her.

"In my senior year of high school I was offered a job teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. I was pleased for the offer, but something didn't ring right," she said from her home in Santa Monica.

Hawkins, who also played team basketball, went to her coach and told her about the job. The coach suggested she go to the University of Missouri instead, but Hawkins couldn't afford it. The coach was determined to see Hawkins get a college education.

"She helped me get a job and a place to live," Hawkins said.

A girl born at the turn of the century seldom traveled more than the distance from her father's house to her husband's. For most young women, that was the end of the line. Once Hawkins left Rolla, Mo., though, her journey never ended.

First, she earned her bachelor's degree in physical education and went on to Columbia University for her master's. It was at Columbia in the 1930s that she first experienced modern dance movement.

"It was a new form--a statement about an artist's own experience. It felt right from the beginning because it allowed artists to be free to make their own statement rather than imitate," she said.

According to Hawkins, modern dance started with Isadora Duncan in the 1890s, and Ruth St. Denis became the transition from the classical to what Martha Graham would eventually transform into modern dance. And New York was where it was all happening.

But it was also the Depression, and New York, like the rest of the country, had few jobs to offer. Hawkins took a string of part-time jobs teaching dance and exploring her newfound philosophy of dance as a form of self-expression--a process of discovery about ourselves as the source of creativity. She viewed dance as part of a larger process rather than in terms of its isolated parts emphasizing movement and neglecting creativity.

Although she didn't want to leave New York, she went back to the Midwest to work and spent the next 15 years teaching dance in colleges and high school. From the beginning she didn't want to be a performer, but a teacher. In 1953, UCLA asked that she come to California not only to teach, but to develop its undergraduate and graduate dance departments--the first in the country.

Hawkins believes we all have a creative process within, a freeness to be yourself that expresses itself through creativity.

"I think it's in the brain to be creative, but we don't make much use of it because we're too busy educating the other part and we leave the intuitive on its own," she said.

Recently, Hawkins experienced a surge of creativity when she sat down to write an article and suddenly began to write her autobiography. "It just poured out," she said.

She also stays fit, reads and keeps connected intellectually. When she retired in 1977 from UCLA, she taught at Santa Monica College for another 10 years, and now she's back with a short lecture series that has drawn standing-room-only attendance.

Hawkins' next lecture, "Dance and Education," is scheduled for Nov. 7. For information, call Santa Monica College, (310) 450 5150, Ext. 9590.

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