Michio Ito

Michio Ito was part of a boundary-crossing generation that brought about the literary, musical, and artistic breakthroughs of modernism and the eclectic beginnings of American modern dance.

In the early years of the 20th century, Japanese choreographer Michio Ito devised a movement vocabulary that included ten symbolic gestures of the arms which he compared to the 12 notes on a piano. He used these positions with variations of plane, angle, context, and rhythm to present an endless variety of dances. His emphasis was on the distillation of emotion, inner concentration, and incisive gesture.

Preserving and honoring the work of the founders and pioneers of early 20th century modern dance has been central to the mission of Repertory Dance Theatre. We are proud to help preserve the method and the choreography of Michio Ito. His work is a cherished part of RDT’s dance archive.

Performance of these works was authorized by the Michio Ito Foundation directed by Michelle Ito, granddaughter of Michio Ito who has given permission for RDT to be the U.S. repository for the Ito technique and repertory.

Works by Michio Ito

Lesson Plans for Michio Ito

Repertory Dance Theatre is proud to be the US repository for the works of Michio Ito (1892 – 1961). Twice, RDT has worked with Ito master teachers from Japan learning Ito’s technique, style, and choreography.

Below, you will find a 20-minute documentary that introduces this lost modern dance pioneer.

Following the video are some discussion questions. More Ito lesson plans are being developed and will be offered once they have been created.

Discussion Questions
  • What are the ways Michio Ito fused ideas from Eastern & Western cultures?
  • Can you think of any artists working today who fuse artistic ideas from various cultures, movement styles, and backgrounds? Who?
  • How do the movement and dance styles we study today differ from the movement Ito used in his choreography?
  • From the few clips of his choreography, what lines, shapes, and forms do you see used again and again? How would describe his movement style and choices?


A & B Gestures

Repertory Dance Theatre is proud to be the US repository for the works of Michio Ito (1892 – 1961). Twice, RDT has worked with Ito master teachers from Japan learning Ito’s technique, style, and choreography.


Mary Jean Cowell is an Ito scholar who received an MA in Dance from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in Japanese Literature and Theatre from Columbia University.  She is the author of East and West in the Work of Michio Ito and Michio Ito in Hollywood:  Modes and Ironies of Ethnicity.


The following information about the Ito Gesture Series is taken from documents and writing provided by Ms. Cowell.


The Ito Gesture Series

Michio Ito began teaching in New York City in 1919, at least six years before Martha Graham began to develop and teach her own technique.


The central component of Ito’s method is two sequences of ten arm gestures called A and B, masculine and feminine.  This is not about defining restrictive gender-appropriate movement but about the idea of balance.  The two sequences relate to yin-yang, the East Asian concept of a balance of contrasting elements in the universe and in each individual.  Ito expected his students, whether male or female, to master both the A and B sequences and he freely combined gestures from both sequences in his choreography.  Ito characterized the A sequence as strong, sharp, assertive, direct, with breathing integrated so that the dancer inhales on 1, 3, 5 and so on, while exhaling on 2, 4, 6, 8, 10.  All positions were defined more softly in the B series, in keeping with its assumed feminine character, and the dancer reverses the breathing, exhaling on the odd numbers, inhaling on the even.  Beginning students also learn a specific style of walking which is the same for both A and B.


In studying the Ito method, the dancer first learns the gestures in their basic order at an even, slow pace, one gesture and one step to every four beats.  The required slow transfer of weight through the feet and the sustained arm gestures are Ito’s approach to developing continuity of movement and control of energy.  Just as beginning ballet students go from simple steps and rhythms at the barre to more difficult variations, the Ito student progresses from the basics to more complex exercises.  For example, the gestures may be done in different rhythmic patterns, may be done in backward sequence, may be done with the sequence reordered 1,3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 8, 6, etc.  More advanced exercises also develop coordination, as when the right arm moves through the sequence 4 counts ahead of the left, or when R arm moves through the A sequence while the L arm simultaneously executes the B sequence.


In his choreography, Ito freely combined gestures from both sequences.  And of course, other movements were added to these gestures, depending upon the specific musical accompaniment and expressive intent of a dance.  But like ballet training, the Ito method prepares the dancer for the style and carriage typical of the choreography to be performed.

Click HERE for A Gestures
Click HERE for B Gestures

Watch the gestures in action in select Michio Ito works HERE


So you’ve learned the Ito Gestures?


Now let’s see if we can move from one set to another! Let’s connect the A & B types together into one sequence.


Going from the masculine to feminine gestures is actually how the piece Pavane begins so we are going to do it to that music.


What makes this tricky is how we count the gestures. We are going to vary the time we take to complete each gesture. This is very common in the Ito training as students learn to do the gestures with various rhythm and counting structures.


For this exercise, we will move through that type A, masculine gestures twice. That’s moving from 10 to 1 the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, up to 10 again, twice. The first time is given 4 counts. The second time they will only be given 2 counts each. Then we will move through the 2 rounds of the feminine gestures. Again, starting in gesture 10, moving to gesture 1 and then up to gesture 10. The first time each gesture is only given 2 counts. The second time they will only be given 1 count each. It’ll be tricky but follow along until you get it.


You may also notice that Elle’s right heel is slightly lifted. This is true for when we do the masculine gestures. However, you will notice her feet will do a small exchange when she is switching to the feminine gestures. That is because anytime we are doing the feminine gestures it is the left heel that is lifted. It’s a small detail, but see if you can catch it!


Create Your Own Gestures

So you’ve learned the Ito Gestures?


But what is a gesture? How did Ito use gestures as the basis for choreography?


A gesture is a way that we communicate an idea without speaking.


Think about how you would say “hello” to someone without using your voice. Let’s say you wave to them with your hand and arm, well that would be considered a gesture for greeting someone. How else might you greet someone? What are some other gestures you see in your everyday life? Check out the 7 gestures Elle created that relate to the COVID-19 outbreak. Can you guess what each gesture means?

How would you use Elle’s 7 gestures to make a dance?


What gestures could you create on your own?


Could you create 7 new gestures that reference the COVID outbreak? How could you use the elements of dance (time space and energy) to change the gestures into an entirely different dance?


Share any and all of these creations on social media and tag us @rdtutah. We can’t wait to see what you make!


RDT appreciates the generous funding provided by the Utah Legislature and the Utah Board of Education that help make our Arts-in-Education Programs possible in Utah's Public Schools.

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