Debbie Malina

Photographs by Angela Taylor

First published in Dancing Times, June 2003.

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Part I

(Charlotte learning the meaning of "let the neck be free so the head can direct forward and up" - Madeleine uses the combination of touch and words)

(Charlotte learning to lengthen and release on the table. Oliver is watching.)

Generations of performing artists have appreciated the benefits of learning how to use the Alexander Technique. Today, as its overall popularity increases, dancers in particular can gain much from this sympathetic approach to understanding movement.

Most dancers would probably accept they need to be relatively selective when choosing a mind/body technique or therapy suited to their requirements, which can often be very specific. In considering the vast range of options currently available, it would certainly be worth their while to look into the benefits of using the Alexander Technique, which has a well-established track record so far as the performing arts are concerned.

The Technique was originally developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century by an actor, who was seeking to deal with his own health problems, and has provided generations of performers with a very practical form of support and encouragement helping in many areas of their work. With its sympathetic and holistic approach the Alexander Technique is suitable for almost anyone who wishes to use it. Performers, however, have found it to be particularly useful and it is as beneficial for musicians and actors as it is for dancers and acrobats.

Frederick Matthias Alexander, the son of a farmer, was born at Wynyard, Tasmania, in l869. Although weak and often sickly as a child, he later became an actor. Difficulties with his vocal chords, however, frequently hindered his career. On some occasions he lost his voice altogether and was obliged to take long breaks in order to recover. Alexander’s doctors could find nothing physiologically wrong with his throat or vocal chords, consequently, through sheer frustration, he was motivated to seek an answer through his own investigations.

From the outset he realised the problems he was experiencing were due to something he was doing with himself. By carefully watching himself in the mirror he noticed that whenever he spoke his lines he pushed his head back and his chest out, as well as tensing his arms and legs, all of which contributed to placing pressure on his vocal chords, creating tension and tightening his breathing. Through regular and careful self-study he was able to relax into more natural positions, his breathing improved and so did his voice.

The beneficial results of this work became obvious to others, and although the technique took Alexander ten years to complete, he was soon teaching a steady stream of actors how to use his approach, as well as continuing with his own career. A number of doctors also came to absorb his work which proved beneficial for their patients. He travelled to London in l904, where his work proved equally successful, attracting the attention of such personalities as George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley. During the two World Wars he moved to the US, later he returned to London and continued to work until his death in l955.

Alexander’s technique was unusual for its time given its very holistic approach. One of the most important aspects of his work was his belief that individuals should take responsibility for their own health through self-help rather than leaving it entirely in the hands of others. Equally important was his view that mind and body are closely interlinked, he believed “where the mind leads, the body will follow”. Habitual poor posture, he believed, can affect the way both mind and body function. The Alexander Technique’s aim is to improve posture so the body can operate with maximum efficiency with minimum strain or tension. Children possess a natural fluidity of movement which tends to be lost as they grow older; stress patterns are developed through years of sitting, standing or moving awkwardly, lifting incorrectly or simply tensing the body through anxiety or self-consciousness.

(Sitting and standing is something we do all the time. Lydia learns to be at ease.)

Pupils of the Alexander Technique are taught to re-educate themselves by relearning such basic movements as how to sit or stand. There are no set exercises, rather the individual is encouraged to concentrate on learning how to undo habitual “patterns of misuse”. Particular attention is paid to the way in which the head is poised on top of the spine, the body can then be realigned so the pupil becomes better balanced, ultimately learning how to move in a more relaxed and easier manner.

Most teachers of the Alexander Technique prefer to see their pupils on an individual basis with each session taking between 30 – 45 minutes, on average, although some lessons may last for longer; the number of sessions given will depend upon need. Alexander teachers stress the importance of the fact that the approach is very individual given that each person has a unique pattern of co-ordination. In general it is considered more useful for pupils initially to undertake a concentrated run of lessons which will enable them to absorb the basic principles; they may then return less frequently for ‘refresher’ sessions.

Where group classes are held the pupils will often work in pairs to give maximum opportunity for observation and experimentation. Nevertheless, the teacher will usually endeavour to give as much individual attention to each student as possible, either separately from the group or in front of it to enable the others to benefit through watching. It is also possible to take part in Alexander Workshops as a form of introduction, these can range in duration from a few hours to a couple of days.

At an initial lesson the teacher will wish to see how the pupil moves or uses their body, either sitting or standing, and will place his hands on their neck, shoulders and back to do this. Some teachers will physically guide the pupil through the process without words whilst others prefer a combination of speaking and using physical guidance. Although the teacher will guide and use touch through the movements, Alexander Technique is non-manipulative.

STAT, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique which was established in l958 and is the largest regulatory body for the Alexander Technique in the UK, comments that dancers interested in the technique need not be overly concerned as to whether the teacher they use has direct experience in working with the dance community. All pupils are approached in exactly the same way and are given guidance suited to them as individuals rather than for their profession.

“You do not need a dance-orientated teacher for the Alexander Technique,” comments Marjorie Hodge, Press Spokesperson for STAT. “Many teachers are also musicians or actors, for instance, who will understand issues around the stress of performing. Although lessons are strongly tailored to the individual, the approach is consistent because you are learning basic principles. You learn the basis of good co-ordination for any activity. It is really about looking at how you think about what you do; eventually the pupil can apply the principles to any specific activity. It is very practical.”

Marjorie also stresses the value of one-to-one tuition with the Alexander Technique. “Individual hands-on tuition is important as every person has a unique “signature” pattern of habitual co-ordination. You could call this their personal body language. This pattern underlies their concept of themselves and of any act they carry out. To understand this habitual pattern the individual needs an experience which is outside of it, and this is what teachers of the technique are trained to communicate with their hands. With that new experience, they get a glimpse of a greater potential”.

There are, however, a number of Alexander Technique teachers who do have a background in dance or have gained some experience of working within the dance community and may be particularly interested in helping dancers.

Susanne Lahusen qualified as a teacher of the technique in l995, having also taught both yoga and Pilates, the latter since 1982. Initially, Susanne trained in acrobatics and physical education, later she became involved with Contemporary Dance and went on to take an MA at Laban. Her growing interest in somatics led her to take Pilates classes. “I had suffered from injury which motivated me further. Many people with an interest in this area tend to have injury as a starting point”. Whilst taking a year out during which she studied Contemporary Dance in New York, she was introduced to the Alexander Technique. “I found the technique got a little deeper than Pilates, whereas the latter may have looked fine on the outside I felt, at the time, it never completely went to the core or changed how I moved. However, I found that Yoga or Pilates, combined with Alexander, gave me an even better tool to stay more aware, more physical, and I could then work much more easily with myself and others.”

Whilst enthusiastic about the benefits for dancers of using the Alexander Technique, Susanne also fully understands some of the problems that may face young dancers wanting to study the technique. She regularly teaches the technique to dance students at Laban and also the London Contemporary Dance School at The Place as well as to acrobats at Circus Space. “One-to-one sessions are not always practical for dancers, often groups are the only option, although this can be dry by itself which is why I use it with other techniques. I have given a lot of mixed workshops using Alexander Technique, Pilates and Yoga, resulting in a form of cross-fertilisation. It should be said that Alexander is not always very easily accessible to first year students who, often, will not have experienced injury. Most of my students are l8 or l9 year-old contemporary dance students, although it can be introduced at an earlier stage. It is certainly useful to have Alexander within a teaching situation, there should be a link between the technique and the classroom. Financially it is difficult for dancers to study the technique in one or two lessons, particularly with current commercial rates which are simply too high for most of them. When possible, I give dancers three or four individual sessions where they would receive the benefits of hands-on work, then they continue with group work. Undoubtedly, the biggest frustration for dancers with the technique does tend to be price.

“Certainly, it does help for a dancer to be taught by somebody who has an appreciation of, or experience with, the dance world; it is useful for a teacher to have that knowledge. When looking for a teacher, find somebody you feel confident with. If you feel a teacher is not being reasonable in their approach look for somebody else. This could arise, for example, where a teacher takes the view, held by some, that no other form of exercise should be undertaken whilst learning the technique. This would obviously not be an option for a dancer!

“There are some differences in teaching dancers compared to other people; with dancers there needs to be a differentiation between dance movement situations as against everyday movements. The weight of a dancer is more upon the ball of the foot rather than the heel. In the same way an acrobat needs a different approach – how do you find the main weight-bearing area of somebody who works upside down!

“The technique is not just about recognition of muscle and bone, but the nervous system, too. Increasingly the treatment of pain is being focused on this area, with the orthodox medical world looking more at the nervous system and its interaction with the rest of the body. A while back, when people suffered injury, they were told to go and rest for much longer. This is no longer the case unless there is inflammation; now it is recognised that mostly the injury should be kept moving, opinions have changed. There needs to be better awareness for this to be effective, which is where a knowledge of the Alexander Technique really helps. By using the Alexander Technique we can learn to be less dependent on doctors, rather than passively waiting to receive treatment the technique teaches us how to become more self-reliant.”

(Francesca Greenoak helps Oliver on the table while Madeleine encourages Lydia to be a human "being" not a human "doing".)

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