Ballet and the Alexander Technique
Madeleine Samuelson White
Thanks to the Royal Academy of Dancing for permission to use this article first printed in the R.A.D Gazette June 1993
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Madeleine Samuelson White explains how the technique created by F. M. Alexander at the beginning of the century can help today's student of ballet.
Etched on my memory is the sight of Madame Tamara Karsavina demonstrating the ballet "waddle" to her little London Scholars at the Royal Academy of Dancing in 1947. She told us to forget our turnout when we left the classroom and to walk normally. Easier said than done - but this is one of the things we can learn through the Alexander Technique.
We all have to admit that classical ballet does not use the body "normally". The excessive turnout and muscular strength required to hold it can damage the executants unless they use their bodies with knowledge and care. The turnout may create aesthetic lines, but if used badly it can be a beautiful evil. Incorrect use can cause many injuries and even illness.
Rachel Anne Rist in her article "Ballet Technique versus anatomy" (Dance Gazette, February 1993), points out that "..most dance trainers would agree that many over-use injuries owe some history to unequal or insufficient turnout" Justin Howse of the Remedial Dance Clinic is quoted as saying that " all dance injuries are caused by faulty technique" and blames teachers for these injuries. There is no doubt that some teachers, have little anatomical understanding, and many have bad habits which are copied by their pupils.
The Alexander Technique can help overcome many of the problems caused unwittingly by dancers striving to achieve a classical ballet technique. Equally, it can help the teachers, who also have responsibilities and physical demands put upon them. The tensions created in the classroom environment can be carried into everyday activities and likewise, bad habits acquired in everyday activities, such as poor posture while sitting and standing, can be carried through into the studio or onto the stage. It can become a cross-pollination of bad habits. Alexander devised a way of making us aware of these bad habits and a method of stopping them, which benefits us both mentally and physically.
Born in 1869, Alexander was an Australian Shakespearian recitalist who started to lose his voice while performing. As no medical reason could be found to account for this, he concluded that the problem must be caused by something he was doing. After spending a long time studying himself through three-way mirrors, he discovered that he was pulling his head back and down as he spoke, thus creating pressure on his vocal cords. He realised that the habit was exaggerated during performance, resulting in the loss of his voice. When he managed to release the muscles, which were pulling back his head, he found that his back lengthened and his torso widened, helping him feel better mentally as well as physically.
"THE BREATHING MAN"
It took Alexander several years of patient self-observation to discover how to prevent himself reverting to his old habits...but he eventually succeeded and so impressed his colleagues, they asked for his help with their own physical problems. Indeed, Alexander became so accomplished, he gave up acting to concentrate on "the work", as he called it. With introductions to doctors he went to London in 1904, where he soon became know as "the breathing man", since his technique helped to free the breathing mechanism. While the technique is very logical, bad habits are not easy to eradicate...they feel right, whereas initially, the new "use" feels wrong. New habits have to be formed and this takes commitment and a willingness to change.
The technique teaches "inhibition": the ability to stop and think before commencing a new activity, say "no" to the old way of doing it, give new "directions", then proceed with the activity using these "directions". The principal directions are: "to release the muscles holding the head on the neck, so that the head is balanced freely forward and up, which allows the back and front to lengthen and the torso to widen".
Alexander described the way in which people deal with their bodies, both in movement and at rest, as "the use of the self". Learning a better "use of the self" requires a teacher of the Alexander Technique who gently guides with hands and voice to help release "the 20th Century Neck Syndrome": tension in the neck.
"The poise of a person's head in its dynamic relationship with his or her body in movement is the key to freedom and ease of motion" wrote Donald Weed, teacher and writer on the Alexander Technique. "Poise" is not a fixed position, but a constant re-adjustment of the weight of the head on the neck. The head is a heavy, unstable mass weighing approximately 12-15lbs. If it is malaligned on the point of pivot, the rest of the body will also become malaligned and the resultant tension can, for example, cause the balance mechanisms of the ears to work inaccurately.
Ballet is taught in a competitive environment where the participants tend to be "trying to get it right" rather than thinking of the "means whereby", leading, in the words of Alexander to "the strained expression of the eyes, an expression of anxiety and uneasiness denoting unduly excited fear reflexes" and resulting in "an undue and harmful degree of tension throughout the whole organism."
"It is important to understand that any activity that is learned with excessive tension always will be carried out with excessive tension, and that any change predicated on tension can only lead to more tension" points out Judith Leibowitz in her paper 'For the victims of our culture'. Hanging onto the barre like a parrot on a perch doesn't allow the balance mechanism to function effectively. Tension goes through the hand and arm to the neck and head, so that when you go on to perform the same exercise in the centre which you have been practising at the barre, you find you have no idea where your balance is. Adage, for example, is so much easier once you can release the muscles that hold the head, so that just the minimum effort is used.
FAULTY BREATHING AND DEPRESSION
Something that I have noticed as student, performer and ballet teacher, is how dancers tend to suffer from depression. How many times have we seen students flee emotionally from a class? Anxiety and depression can result from faulty breathing. Because the midriff muscles are "held in", the dancer breathes mainly in the upper chest and tension around the vertebrae on which the ribs articulate prevents ease of breathing. The balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood is disturbed by upper chest breathing, leading to feelings of anxiety, which cause depression. This creates more tension and a vicious circle is set up which the Alexander Technique can help to break.
Freedom in the ribcage allows the breath to be let out of the lungs so that the reflex action of breathing in can be allowed to happen. By starting with the main principle of releasing the neck so that the head will be free, the back and front lengthened and the torso widened , you actually help to free the rest of the "self".
Preparing for and landing from a jump requires release around the front of the ankles, behind the knees and in front of the hips so the students can go through the demi-plie or fondu smoothly. Tension jars the joints, holds the joints and grates the cartilage and bone together...a horrifying picture. No wonder so many dancers suffer from arthritis in later years! It must also be remembered that during puberty, bones and muscles grow at an uneven rate. More careful and thoughtful "use", therefore could prevent the young student from damaging him or herself and ending up in an orthopaedic hospital.
Justin Howse and Shirley Hancock in their book "Dance Technique and Injury Prevention" claim that "correct use of these various groups (of muscles) starts at the head and shoulder girdle and encompasses all groups down through the trunk and legs to the feet. It is only when all groups are working correctly and in balance with each other that correct stance and weight placement will be obtained and the dancer will be completely stable in all the many and varied positions required during the execution of ballet technique". Teachers of the Alexander Technique are very much in tune with these observations.
Working with other dancers, in pas de deux for example, needs rapport between partners. They can feel the balance and flow of movement between and through each other so much better if they are not over-tense. Being able to release muscles, however, does not mean relaxing them. You would simply fall over if you relaxed! The Alexander Technique teaches you to keep your muscles toned so that you use the correct balance of contraction and release for particular movements. There is more time than you think to perform a movement...to hear the melody and rhythms of the music clearly, to express emotions, and even more importantly, to enjoy dancing.
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