Notes on her progress with the Alexander Technique
Madeleine Samuelson White
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Kimberley was nearly 15 years old when she came to me for her first Alexander Technique lesson on June 9th 1998. She was a serious dance student and was having, amongst other problems, pain in her lower back. If you look at the first photograph, taken on her second lesson, you will see her in her habitual “resting” state....the typical stance of an eager, hard-working ballet student. From the top down, her head was held tucked in back and down, her upper chest was pushed forward, her back was over-arched, her legs were braced backwards, (she had hyper-extended legs,) and her weight was too far forward over her toes. I must stress here that she was not unusual for a ballet student in having this posture, and I was not surprised that she had pain in her lower back.
Unfortunately Kimberley had been told to work/ dance regardless of pain, and again I was not surprised as this treatment is very common. Dancers must be tough…. they have to push themselves…. they have to dance even when their bodies tell them to stop! Thank goodness there are some enlightened teachers around, for instance at the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire. Her back was so stuck in its’ overarched position that when she lay in semi- supine (that is, on her back, knees bent, feet flat, head on some soft books to keep her head in alignment with her spine,) there was a big space between her back and the table.
Kimberley was most responsive to the Technique, and even by her second lesson her back was less arched, and she was beginning to release down onto the table in semi- supine. She had such a tight time- table of work that she couldn’t have any more lessons until the summer holidays. Then she came for five lessons one day after the other, and she really began to lose a lot of the held tension. She worked very intelligently on the “un- doing”, gradually being able to release her head on her neck, and to let the weight release more towards her heels…. “taking the brakes off,” I call it. Her arms, which you will notice, were held a little bent in front of her body, began to loosen up and hang more to her sides, so enabling the easy widening of her torso…. though the widening of her torso may have enabled her arms to lengthen! This is a “chicken and egg” situation. Her toes, which had had to curl and grip the floor because of the weight being too forward, were able to release and lengthen. The floor was her friend…. it supported her.
The “whispered ah” was a useful procedure that she learnt. In this you exhale all the stale air in your lungs, whispering “ah” steadily, close the mouth, letting the vacuum you’ve created fill with new, fresh air. This needs to be taught by a teacher of the Alexander Technique. Like many ballet dancers her breathing was done mainly in the upper chest. Look at the photo again and this is evident. Once she realised that there was a lot of ribcage and lung power in the back and sides being wasted, she was able to think constructively about using the back and sides more and the upper chest less.
Kimberly wasn’t able to come to regular lessons due to all her other commitments, so I encouraged her to lie down in semi- supine for at least ten minutes after her busy day and before she got into bed. I didn’t see her until the end of October, but I noticed that her head/ neck/ back relationship was less held. Her ballet teacher had told her to “tighten her bum.” Oh dear! The ballet turn- out is a most unnatural position, but if performed with the thought that the leg is turning out from the hip joint, and the gracillus muscle is holding the turn- out, along with some around it, the gluteus maximus will be involved, but not overworking. Because of all the connections of the muscles, over- use of the “gluts” prevents easy breathing, just as “pulling in the tummy” does. This is an instruction often given to young dancers. In my opinion there is far too much “holding” and “pulling in” in ballet training. It gets in the way of easy breathing and a good performance.
The next time I saw Kimberley was in February 1999. She had injured a ligament in her left ankle, and she was being made to dance on it because she was entered into a competition! She was so keen to dance that she was dancing in pain again. Obviously I advised her to rest when she was in pain. I saw her a week later and she was less tense and held. I encouraged her to think of the floor supporting her again and not to roll her feet outwards, as she had a tendency to do this .I think that this was the result of a typical dancer’s over- correction of “not to roll the feet inwards.”
Her ankle ligament healed but then Kimberley injured her back in a modern dance class…. it’s a dangerous activity, dancing! Another lesson followed and her back was improving…. more lying in semi- supine was most helpful.
She came to me again in April, and this time there was pain behind the knee when she stretched her right leg. Hyper-extended legs can look beautiful on a ballet dancer, but they can cause problems sometimes. I was pleased with Kimberley’s thoughtfulness and progress in her “un- doing.” Another lesson in April showed her with pain behind the same knee, but this time it was when she bent it. She was still growing but still working extremely hard. I thought maybe she was having these latest problems because the bones were growing faster than her ligaments and muscles. It had all resolved itself by the time she came for her next lesson in May, and she had changed a lot….so much less held and so much more balanced. That was when I took the second photograph.
Since then Kimberley went from strength to strength, but sadly had a setback when she incurred a bad injury to her ankle while playing netball. Determined to dance again she found a surgeon, Mr. Moyes, who understands dancers and is experienced in the particular operation she required. She had the operation, and is now dancing at an excellent dance school and loving every moment of it.
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