The martial athletics of Diana Watts

Even before Edith Garrud began teaching jiujitsu classes for the women and children of London, Emily Diana Watts was pioneering the way for female martial arts instructors in the Western world. This post looks at her extraordinary career as a martial athlete and physical culture innovator.

Born into a wealthy family in the year 1867, Watts developed an early enthusiasm for the “strenuous life” and in 1903 she began studying jiujitsu with former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi and his associate, Akitaro Ono. By 1906 she was teaching basic classes herself at Prince’s Skating Rink in Knightsbridge. That was also the year in which she published “The Fine Art of Jujutsu“, a handsomely produced manual that was notable as being the first book in the English language to detail a number of Kodokan judo techniques.

Watts continued to study and teach jiujitsu but also found herself drawn to physical culture in the broader sense. By the beginning of the First World War she had become passionately engaged in the task of reviving classical Greek exercises via the close study of ancient statuary and artwork.

In 1914 she presented her new system in a book entitled “The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal“, writing as “Diana Watts”. Although academics criticised her fashionably romantic view of classical Greece, pointing out that many of the translations she used to illustrate her points were themselves inaccurate, the book was generally very well received. On its strength, Watts was invited to join both the French Institut Marey and the American Institute of Archeology.

Her presentations put a new spin on both the fad for “Grecian” dance (exemplified by Isadora Duncan) and the traditional Victorian poses plastique. In displays of the latter type, athletes, often almost nude with their faces and bodies powdered with white makeup, would assume postures evocative of famous works of classical statuary. This form of visual theatre had been popularised by the famous strongman Eugen Sandow at the turn of the 20th century.

Rather than holding frozen postures, however, Diana Watts would demonstrate her interpretations of the athletic techniques portrayed by the statues. These included actions such as drawing a bow, hurling a discus or throwing an opponent in wrestling.

Here is a video montage of some of the exercises from “Renaissance of the Greek Ideal”, re-animated from the cinematographic photographs that illustrated the original book:

Diana Watts physical culture from Tony Wolf on Vimeo.

Several critics noted the “suspicious” resemblance between Watts’ “ancient Greek” exercises and those of the Japanese martial arts. In her own words:

In selecting and systematising different series of sequential movements which shall be perfectly natural, one turns instinctively to those needed in imaginary attack and defence, not only on account of the great variety of these positions, but because of the rapidity with which they must be performed. The origin, then, of all physical training is war. Among primitive peoples, it was necessary to be always on guard against sudden attacks. For this reason, during times of peace, they practised at first a sort of mimic war, which gradually developed into a sport. The Greeks ascribed the invention of wrestling to mythical persons such as Palaestra, the daughter of Hermes, and to Theseus is given the honour of having been the first to reduce the sport to a game, with well-defined rules, and thus to have made an art of wrestling; whereas before his time it consisted of the most brutal fighting, in which the strength and weight of the adversary alone decided the victory.

In the mimic battles of the Spartans, they frequently lost eyes and ears, which tortures they accepted as the necessary sacrifice in return for the indomitable fortitude which they acquired.

At a later date, the system adopted by the Athenians had for aim beauty of form and line, and grace of movement, and no competitor was awarded a prize unless his performance had been gracefully as well as effectively achieved. Contest by wrestling was divided into two branches by the ancient Greeks. The first was the “Pale Orthe,” the upright wrestling. The second was called “Halendesis” or “Kylisis,” in which the athlete wrestled with his adversary on the ground. The “Pale Orthe” was the only kind of wrestling practised in Homeric times, and also later on in the National Games of the Greeks. The rules provided that on the fall of an athlete his adversary should allow him to rise and resume the contest if he wished, but if he fell three times, the victory was decided in favour of the other. There were also preparatory exercises called “Analeinemata,” exercises which were looked upon as of the greatest importance, since through them alone could the athlete acquire that tense elasticity of muscle necessary for the extreme rapidity required in actual wrestling.

It is, then, natural to suppose that the preparatory movements represented as nearly as possible the actual positions taken in wrestling, so that by continued practice the pupil might arrive at the unhesitating certainty and precision needed in the varied changes of position of real contest.

Antique Art gives many examples of this extraordinarily rapid form of wrestling by tripping. It appeared many centuries later among the Chinese, brought back probably through their intercourse with the Persians. The form of wrestling called Jujutsu, practised by the Japanese of the present day, is, I am convinced, a survival of the “Pale Orthe” of the Greeks. The collection of tracings on page 39, taken from Professor Krause’s book “Hellenika Gymnastik und Agonistik,” show the close resemblance of some of the Japanese throws used in Jujutsu, to those of the Greeks.


No. 1, especially, is identical with the Koshinage shoulder throw, in which the thrower drops on his knees after having hoisted his opponent upon his shoulder. This throw can be given standing or kneeling, but the latter position is much more disastrous to the victim. No. 2 is obviously the Koshinage hip-throw, as used in Jujutsu at the present day, and No. 4 has a very close resemblance to the Japanese “Shimoku,” the position of the attacker’s left hand being the only essential difference, while he is practically erect, instead of crouching on bent knees.

The “Pale Orthe” was introduced into Japan by a Chinaman about the third or fourth century, under the name of “Jujutsu,” and remained a jealously-guarded secret known to and practised by the Samurai nobles alone, until comparatively a few years ago—in 1860, I think—when the general public were allowed to learn. With the strange liking of the Chinese for all that represents the grotesque in movement, they neglected, and eventually completely lost, all the grace and beauty esteemed by the Greeks as indispensable, and retained only the dramatic and practical sides of wrestling, the genuine self-defence, which, among the Greeks, was subordinated to beauty.

It is, then, upon the preparatory movements that I place such immense importance, and it was during the study of all the rapid changes of position in this “Pale Orthe,” which demand such exquisite balance, that I found for myself the Law of Balance in movement, the application of which allows of the greatest rapidity and force with the least expenditure of energy. This law, as I have said, requires the centre of gravity of a moving body to be kept exactly and continuously over its base, an impossible achievement except under the condition of Tension already described.

As explained in “The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal”, her training system went well beyond simple public performance, comprising a detailed method of physical, mental and even spiritual development based on the principles of balance and dynamic tension. It was also promoted as an aid to longevity, turning the tide of middle age and restoring youthful poise and energy.

Diana Watts spent many years touring on the international lecture circuit, sometimes in collaboration with other artists and researchers inspired by classical antiquity. Her personal wealth allowed her to fund these tours and to lecture free of charge, and by the 1940s she had circled the world five times, meeting Mahatma Gandhi and befriending George Bernard Shaw among other notables. She had homes in England, Italy and in Canada and was famous enough to have been written in to several novels and short stories as a sort of archetype of the eccentric physical culture enthusiast.

Watts’ system evidently worked for her, as she lived until 1968, passing away at the age of 101. Perhaps her training system is due for a revival.

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7 thoughts on “The martial athletics of Diana Watts”

  1. Thank you for keeping her memory alive. Her work was exemplary. Academics deal with ever changing facts but lack true in depth knowledge and insight. There is an area where academic facts come to a dead end; rational thought and observation coupled with intuition take over. The most amazing part of her book is where she describes the proper development of the foot. It took another 100 years before “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall changed the way we think about running and the type of shoes we need, completely affirming her observations… she was way ahead of her time.

  2. My compliments on providing a presence on the web of Diana Watts almost forgotten work…A Renaissance of the Greek Ideal indeed.

    The film is great!

    I first heard of the book in the 1980’s through a reference on a great, but obscure, book on the Alexander Technique, By G.C. Bowden called F.M. Alexander and the Creative Advance of the Individual.

    I will quote the relevant passage-

    Years ago, Diana Watts, in a fascinating book amply illustrated entitled, The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal, enlarged on the conserving aspect of inhibition, demonstrating it specifically in feats of archery probably unequalled in modern times. In a brief moment of verbal exchange during a luncheon party, I found that she knew nothing of Alexander. So I mentioned that his technique of the central control and hers of diaphragmatic control were both based on inhibition. (The later dramatized in the crouch and spring of all feline creatures, and by her own remarkable feat in the reproduction of Herakles in the Aegina Pediment.) Her one succinct comment was:
    “And Spirit!” At 93 years of age this lady seemed as gracefully poised and erect as ever, and still swam a mile or so out to sea daily.”

    Well I did eventually track down a copy of Diana Watts book at the University of Pennsylvania Library which was a treat to try and do some of the exercises in the library.

    Now it is a treat to see the short film, from the stills of her etudes.

    There were other novel figures in the book that came from tracings of the movements with light that should be noted in any further appreciations of her work.

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