Kuklick on the Tarmac

One summer afternoon in 1958, two young girls stood on the hot tarmac at Idlewild  (later JFK) airport, awaiting the arrival of the famous German choreographer Albrecht Knust. Knust was in America to promote Labanotation, a technique for capturing dance on paper developed in the 1920s by his mentor, Rudolf Laban. In Knust’s honor, the girls had emblazoned the edges of their wide, white skirts with Labanotation’s characteristic symbols, and as he disembarked, they eagerly extended their arms to display their creations.

Version 2I came across this image in 2013 while conducting research for my dissertation, an exploration of Labanotation’s stealthy twentieth-century spread in places ranging from management consulting to robotics to twentieth century cultural anthropology. Struck by its composition (and the distinctly nonplussed pilot lurking in the background), I snapped a photograph and planned to return to the image later. It was several years before I did—and thus several years before I realized that the girl on the left was the sixteen-year-old future historian and sociologist, Henrika Kuklick (née Takiff).

It should have been no surprise that Riki had learned Labanotation. Her mind seemed infinitely capacious, and during my first years in the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, she never hesitated to regale me with her bottomless knowledge of—and endless opinions about—dance, as well as the history of anthropology. Notators like Knust, moreover, were engaged in a project that, at base, was not far from Kuklick’s own ambit: they too sought a tool to make sense of the seemingly ineffable, to decipher the tangled codes that governed both physical and social life.

Nevertheless, in our many conversations about my project, Riki never once mentioned her own encounters with Labanotation. This photograph—which appeared in an old “Junior Dansnotator” newsletter tucked in a box at the New York Public Library—still provides my only clue to her rich personal history with one of the key recording technologies of the twentieth century. My delight in stumbling across it is only enhanced by the mystery of her silence: above all, Riki was never ordinary, and I’m grateful for this one last, lovely surprise.


Whitney Laemmli: contributions / laemmli@sas.upenn.edu


  1. Thanks so much for this. I am assuming from the names that Riki is on the left, but I am willing to be corrected. I do hope you have shared this with Riki’s daughter! I still reach out and dial her old number and only then realize I won’t get the answer I want. Again, thank you.

  2. Rikki studied modern dance with my mother, Malvena Taiz. Her father was my mother’s lawyer during her divorce. I was also a student in the dance class, and Rikki and I were good friends for many years as children, and I knew her parents as well. I last saw Rikki during my freshman year at Penn, where my mother taught dance and dance history for many years. I was on the verge of dropping out of school at the time. I remember having a pleasant conversation about our lives while strolling through campus together. As always, she combined brilliance and a sparkling wit with a warm, self-deprecating manner.

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