A BACK TO BASICS
Photographs by Angela Taylor
First published in Dancing Times, July 2003.
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(Photographs posed and captioned by Madeleine Samuelson White, at Arts Educational School, Tring, by permission of Rachel Rist, Head of Dance.)
Paola Corteen, who qualified as a teacher of the Alexander Technique 16 years ago, was introduced to it in 1982 whilst she was attending a dance school in Italy. “Having come to dance at the age of l9, which was relatively late, I had mostly been involved with contemporary dance until that time. An Alexander teacher came from London, giving individual lessons for one week. During those lessons I felt that there was something I had been looking for without knowing.
“I have taught a number of dancers and also run introductory group classes for them. The problems and stresses facing dancers are emotional as well as physical; this pressure can result in injury in the long term. Usually a dancer will approach an Alexander Technique teacher with a specific injury or psychological problem resulting from tenseness. The technique is very good for dancers as it is about the acquisition of more awareness of the back (core stability), which is central with movement changes and gives a greater sense of movement. Also it helps build up self-confidence; through developing more awareness of the body a performer will be able to make sure it is not just luck or chance that has enabled them to perform well on any one occasion.
“Usually dancers are quite receptive and responsive to Alexander work from the beginning. With a dancer it is possible to start with the application of the technique to basic ordinary movements, and then move fluidly into the application of it in a more specific way: this might apply either to dance movements or warming-up exercises, which can be every bit as important to the overall picture.
“Motivation is the most important aspect for any dancer learning the technique. Generally, those with a long-term injury or problem tend to be in their thirties or forties and will be more motivated to try the approach. Of course, they could be younger, but to some extent this will depend upon the attitude of their dance teacher. When you are younger you tend to follow the institution you are involved with – there does tend to be a difference between classic and contemporary dance schools in this; on the whole, I feel there is a lot of ground yet to be explored within the Alexander Technique-dance relationship.
“For young dancers within schools it probably works best if you give a combination of lessons as a group, with dance movements which will be applicable to everyone, and individually, as individual work is necessary; it is also important that the groups should not be too big. Further to this, co-operation between an Alexander teacher and a dance teacher during a dance class would be extremely useful. Ideally, dance teachers should have an appreciation and understanding of the technique, as it would enrich the quality of their teaching.
“Many people enjoy sport activities or dancing; some have an innate sense of how to move but it does not mean they are aware of their bodies. I see the Alexander Technique to be very fundamental, like an invisible piece of ground upon which the dancer can work. When I had my first lessons I became very much aware that I had a back and also noticed how I was moving; the technique helped create a sense of connection. It was a great discovery for me!
“You can apply the Alexander principle at any moment during your daily life, you do not need any extra equipment beyond yourself. It is about creating awareness from within, awareness of unnecessary tensions and how they can be released. It is applied instantly to one’s movements whatever that movement might be, even when I am doing the washing-up! Just as important for dancers they can apply the technique when they are on stage or in class. Eventually it becomes part of oneself; being a psycho-physical re-education it involves becoming aware of thought patterns which create physical tension; mind and body are connected together enabling one to be more calm and focused.
“When the body is poorly co-ordinated, there will be constant downward pressure on spine, hips, knees and feet. Also, unnecessary muscular tension can result in the body trying hard to remain upright. This is a situation of misuse. It is necessary to reconsider the way in which every part relates to the back in order to allow a re-alignment of the whole body to take place by reflex activity. In my view, all dance teachers should experience and understand Alexander work, for their own benefit, and to provide constructive guidance to young dancers, in order to avoid a form of criticism which puts the dancer under psychological pressure and physical tension which, ultimately, can lead to injury. At times, a repetitive injury can even cause the end of a career.
“Although the technique is not suitable in an emergency, when an injury occurs, it is, however, helpful for chronic conditions. Furthermore, provided a dancer has initially sought treatment, depending on the gravity of the injury, from either their doctor or physiotherapist, Alexander Technique can help towards a full recovery, in the prevention of injuries in general, and in the prevention of repetitive injuries”.
Madeleine Samuelson White has taught the Alexander Technique to children who attend the Arts Educational School at Tring for the last three years. She had been invited by the school to give a lecture on the benefits of the technique; the talk proved to be so successful, however, that Rachel Rist, the school’s Director of Dance, asked Madeleine if she would teach the technique to the children on a regular basis.
Originally a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, Madeleine had gone on to train as a ballet teacher and later ran her own ballet school for 20 years. She then took the decision to undertake the three year training course required to qualify in the Alexander Technique which she has been teaching for the last ten years. In addition to her teaching work she regularly travels widely, in this country and abroad, giving demonstrations and lecturing on the technique. “I am so passionate about it. The technique is a tool which enables dancers to have less tension and more time to express themselves artistically.
“Although I teach musicians, actors and horse-riders as well, I do feel that by having that little bit of extra knowledge, albeit dance or music, it does help. However, any Alexander Technique teacher will get through to a dancer; I was taught by a teacher who did not have any experience with dancers, but that did not cause problems.
“When I first graduated as a teacher of the technique most of my friends who I persuaded to try it were older dancers, in a way they were almost ‘too set in their ways’ to gain maximum benefit. From that point of view it is good to be teaching the little ones, even the ten year olds, as at that age they are so open to learning everything – as one of my pupils put it, ‘the mind is like a parachute, it always works better when it is open’. The children absorb the technique when young. Dancers really are a tribe apart and the children are very competitive, but sometimes all that energy and tension is too much and is put into the wrong places.
“By teaching the children at such an early stage, they learn kinaesthetic awareness. It is a tool they can use for themselves, which helps with balance, breathing and freedom of joints. Alexander works with the head, back and neck relationship. When the neck is free and not held tightly it gives the freedom to find better balance – since the main balance system is sited between the ears – it also releases the spine and ribcage so the breathing becomes easier.
“I teach the children on a one-to-one basis, I do not feel it to be such a good idea to teach them in a group, although Alexander can certainly be introduced in that way. Sometimes, I will bring two of the pupils in together so one can watch while the other is treated. With the individual approach everyone responds differently.
(Nicky Bowden giving the direction "forward and up")
“The technique gives the children a good base from which to do anything. They are taught how to think about the way they clean their teeth, sit on a seat or write with their pen – all of this is important in everyday activities as it will have an effect on their particular skill. I do teach some of the older students as well as a number of other dancers outside the school. They are taught how, by using Alexander, they can get more out of their physiotherapy or Pilates.
“Alexander is a psychophysical technique which, ultimately, puts the person doing it in control, they have a tool they can use. The technique is not an instant fix, it has to be filtered in and is a slow learning process. Alexander Technique is starting to be noticed more now. I believe it should be taught in all schools. We teach English, Maths and French, why not how to use our bodies correctly?
(Samantha finds the correct eye-line and looks ahead. The use of the eyes is important to the use of the whole self)
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