“The rudiments of genteel behavior”. The Alexander Technique and teaching contemporary dancers to perform eighteenth century dance style.
Phyllis G. Richmond
From "Proceedings", Society of Dance History Scholars - Feb 1994
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“The head must be upright, without being stiff; the Shoulders falling back, which extends the Breast, and gives a greater Grace to the Body; the Arms hanging by the Side, the Hands neither quite open or shut, the Waste steady, the Legs extended, and the Feet turned outward… I hope after all these Precautions, no one will be so ridiculous to be stiff or formal, which ought to be avoided as much as Affectation; a just Carriage requiring nothing more than a natural, free, and easy Air, which is to be only gained by Dancing.” (Rameau, The dancing Master, 1725, trans, Essex, 1728)
This is Rameau’s description of proper carriage for 18th century style. It is clear from a study of 18th century dance and deportment manuals that carriage and postural behaviour, especially of the upper body and particularly of the head was an extremely important aspect of “genteel behaviour” in the 18th century. There is a quietness and poise, a lack of affection, a grace and simplicity in carriage and gesture, so that the formalities of dance technique should seem perfectly natural and full of ease.
As a Certified teacher of the Alexander Technique and a teacher/performer and student of Historical dance, I have become interested in the parallels between what these early dancing masters described a s an ideal carriage and the discoveries of F.M. Alexander, which stress the importance of the head/neck/ back relationship to an organisation of the body marked by poise and ease. It seems to me that these eighteenth century dancing masters are touching on critical issues with regard to the importance of the relationship of the head, neck, and back to the coordination of the whole body. Here is a particularly telling quote from Nivelon, 1737:
“The Head, being the principle Part of the human Figure, must be first consider’d, because it entirely governs all the Rest, and when properly situated, erect and free, the Neck will appear in its true Proportion, the Shoulders will retain their proper Places, the Chest will grow broad and full and the Breast round; the Back will be straight and light, and assistant to the Motion of the Hipps, they to the Motion of the Knees, and the Knees, in like Manner, to the Feet.
“And as a person, whose Head is rightly placed, is capable of Standing, Walking, Dancing, or performing any genteel Exercise, the person whose Head is wrong placed is wholly incapable of Standing, Walking, Dancing, or performing any Exercise but with Difficulty, and in a Manner very awkward and unbecoming.” (Nivelon, The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour, 1737)
Nivelon’s statement that the carriage of the Head governs all the Rest can be understood in the framework of the Alexander Technique, as I hope to show. The Alexander Technique is a method of neuromuscular re-education which deals with the individual’s self-organisation, with the way we use the instrument of the whole self in order to dance (or to perform any activity). The Alexander Technique deals specifically with the way the individual organizes the use of the instrument of the self, teaching the individual a means to prevent inappropriate habits of use and to encourage good use.
What do I mean by use? Our fundamental habits of neuromuscular organisation precede and either support or interfere with our capacity for coordination and skill. Use is a critical precondition for developing technical skill and appropriate style. A dancer with poor use...with poor choices of fundamental organisation and coordination...is not only performing the choreography but is also expending misdirected energy in dysfunctional muscular bracing which interferes with the performance of the choreography. This misdirection of muscular effort gets in the way of what the dancer is trying to achieve.
Alexander identified a general misuse pattern of shortening and narrowing, of compressing the stature, a tendency toward undue muscular bracing in activity. This overall pattern of misuse interferes with any specific coordination for dancing. In short, general use affects specific functioning. Misuse habits which are present in normal functioning will tend to be heightened under the stress of performance. The key to this pattern of misuse is the relationship of the head, neck, and back.
Alexander found that:
"a certain use of the head in relation to the neck and of the head and neck in relation to the torso and the other parts of the organism, if consciously and continuously employed, ensures…the establishment of a manner of use of self as a whole, which provides the best conditions for raising the standard of the functioning of the various mechanisms, organs, and systems. I found that in practice this use of the parts, beginning with the use of the head in relation to the neck, constituted a primary control of the mechanisms as a whole involving control in process right through the organism". (Alexander, 1941, 1986.)
In other words, an appropriate head/neck/back relationship stimulates the appropriate coordination of the whole.
There are within us innate processes which provide mechanisms for upright support and balance in response to gravity. Our inner ears, eyes, and the sensory nerves in our neck and in our joints and muscles provide information about where we are in space with reference to vertical and where the parts of our body are in relationship to each other. The force of gravity activates neuromuscular reflexes which tone up our muscles to extend us upward away from gravity. The brain acts below conscious level to keep us balanced upright in space, and to organize our movement in response to our intention to move. It does this by balancing the contraction and release of opposing muscle forces as appropriate. In zero gravity the body rests in a semi-flexed state. (Tengwall, 1981). The body requires gravity acting on it to activate these neuromuscular responses in order to extend fully. These postural responses of upthrust and expansion in response to gravity happen below conscious level and provide the support for posture and movement. We stretch and expand as our muscles respond to gravity and activity, if we are organizing ourselves well.
When we brace and constrict ourselves in activity, we interfere with the innate tendency to expand upwards in response to gravity by interfering with the organization of muscular use. We will then need to overcome the faulty effort by stronger efforts to do by force what should happen naturally...to be upright, balanced, and poised. We must do this in addition to the activity we are engaged in. We superimpose extra work on ourselves, when all we need to do is get out of the way of the innate organization of support and movement. When we are trying to learn or perform Baroque dance technique, there are particular temptations to brace and stiffen in our attempts to support the arms in the proper form and to get the rise and fall of the steps just right. The continuous verticality and emphasis on footwork with arms always supported away from the body commonly lead to a stiffening and narrowing of the back to hold the form, a retraction and stiffening of the head on the neck, and a tightening of the ribcage. These attempts to “get it right” are what prevent ease and naturalness, because they interfere with the innate support system and with the freedom of movement.
Alexander found that the relationship of the head, neck, and back is the key to the functioning of this inherent support system. The combination of the release of the head and neck, the consequent lengthening and widening of the back, and the positive supporting responses activated by the pressure of the feet on the floor stimulate the expansion and extension of the whole body. The elastic tissues of the body adapt to support us easily in any position or activity as long as we do not interfere with the functioning of the innate response system designed to keep us easily upright and coordinated. This organisation encourages the expansion and springiness of the whole organism, facilitating “a natural, free, and easy Air”.
If the individual is using herself in a “expanding” way like this, so that she is not interfering with the innate mechanisms of upward thrust in the whole body, the resulting patterns of antagonistic pulls of the muscles and connective tissue will provide appropriate support for the upright posture. What we see physically as a result is: “The Head, …when properly situated, erect, and free, the Neck will appear in its true Proportion, the Shoulders will retain their proper Places, the Chest will grow broad and full and the Breast round; the Back will be straight and light, and assistant to the Motion of the Hipps, they to the Motion of the Knees, and the Knees, in like Manner, to the Feet.” We develop an open, free, expansive carriage as the result of improving our choices of neuromuscular organisation. The just carriage is a by product of good use.
If the dancer is interfering with innate postural mechanisms by bracing somewhere, then s/he will need to compensate by taking care of those postural functions through dysfunctional tension somewhere else in the body, making efficient coordination more difficult. The issue is how she uses the instrument that dances: how the dancer organises herself. If the dancer is not interfering with the functioning of the innate postural mechanisms, there is a resulting easy upright support and poise in response to gravity.
Misuse is often manifest as undue tension in the head and neck, and tightening in the chest, affecting the poise of the head, the ease of the ribs and back, the repose of the limbs, and the general readiness for activity. I shall describe one dancer as an example. This dancer desires to create a particular aesthetic line and therefore pulls in the abdominal muscles. Because the abdominal muscles connect to the ribs to the pubic bone, tightening these muscles pulls the ribs towards the pubic bone, tending to collapse the chest and draw the head forward and down. To counter this pulldown in front, the dancer draws the head back and lifts the chest up by pulling with muscles along the back. This narrows and shortens the back, arching the lumbar spine and retracting the head. This dancer braces the back to support the arms and pulls both legs and arms into the torso to control their movement, tightening the back to control this in-gathering of the limbs. Now, this organization of the body is not neutral: it is a use pattern which negates the way the body is designed to function by interfering with the natural upthrust against gravity and with freedom of movement. This very common pattern of tightening of the abdominals, ribcage, and back works against the body's innate suspensory system.
Every move this dancer makes is against the considerable resistance of the superimposed tension in the body. This dancer will be supporting the arms, bending, rising, stepping, jumping, and turning in an inefficient way which absolutely mitigates against ease and grace. It is so common for habits of tension to interfere with coordination and “an easy Air”! Furthermore, when practising or making a correction, an individual will employ those same familiar habits of self-organization, thereby reinforcing the habitual use pattern of superimposed excess tension. Making a technical correction without changing the underlying use pattern does not solve the problem. It is just a “different kind of wrong.” Alexander wrote: that “satisfactory general use is essential to satisfactory specific use“ (Alexander, The Use of the Self). Improving general use is fundamentally essential in order to improve specific technique.
If the dance student described above were to organise him/herself so that the poise of the head were leading the extensor muscles of the back and the flexor muscles of the front to provide appropriate balanced support for upright postural behaviour, the stiffening and inappropriate muscle contraction characteristic of this postural behaviour would not come into play. The arms would be supported by the stretchiness of the back instead of the stiffening of the back and arms. Only the necessary muscles for support would be recruited as needed. The muscles which previously pulled the legs and torso together, could release once they were no longer necessary to provide support. Instead of being clenched into the body, the legs could lengthen onto the ground. As a result, the upper body could extend up easily and naturally without effort, with the head poised lightly on top of the neck. The net result is the preferred aesthetic without the tension and strain...and a resulting freedom of movement. Movement is easier if all you have to do is move, not overcome resistance in order to move.
If the head and neck are in a situation of dynamic balance and poise and the back is expanding in length and width, there is a resulting poise of the head, freedom of the neck, openness of the chest, steadiness of the back...which are all described in Rameau, Nivelon, Tomlinson, et al. These conditions support coordination and skill. In other words by learning the skill to prevent inappropriate effort and consciously choose improved use by activating the head/neck/back relationship, the dancer in effect is facilitating “a graceful Attitude, an agreeable Motion, and easy Air” (Nivelon).
I have spoken a good deal about the manifestation of good use, but not at all about how you achieve it. I would like to address that briefly. The Alexander Technique is not a therapy or a form of manipulation. It is education. It is about learning to consciously choose your own self-organisation. How can the Alexander Technique help the dancer change a deeply ingrained habit of poor organisation? If a habit is a stereotyped response to a particular stimulus, for example, to support the arms in a particular attitude, then preventing the customary response to the stimulus is the essential first step to breaking the habit. In other words, to receive the stimulus and refuse to respond in the habitual manner creates conditions where change can occur.
A nerve can either transmit a signal (excitation) or not transmit a signal (inhibition). It cannot do both at the same time. We must first stop the neuromuscular system from firing messages along the familiar wrong pathways before we can send them down the right ones. The neurophysiological term Alexander used for stopping neuromuscular messages from following their habitual pre-set paths is “inhibition”. Alexander’s “inhibition” means preventing the automatic customary response to a stimulus, freeing us to choose an appropriate response instead of a habitual one.
Once the automatic responses of misuse are mentally inhibited, we can mentally direct the neuromuscular system to lengthen, widen and expand so that the postural reflexes are eliciting natural springiness in response to gravity. Direction is a process of directed thinking or intending, of projecting orders to the whole system which organise conditions stimulating good use. The classic formulation of the directions stimulating good use is: neck free, head forward and up, back lengthen and widen. Note the similarity to Nivelon. These are the conditions which allow the primary control to function most freely and efficiently as a pre-support for voluntary movement. Direction is not a doing, not a pushing, willing, forcing, or making something happen, but a mental intending which encourages appropriate neuromuscular patterns to replace the inappropriate habits which have been inhibited. Direction and Inhibition are the key skills learned by the student of the Alexander Technique.
Alexander developed a specific methodology for changing habits of use through Inhibition and Direction. In a course of 20-30 private lessons, the Alexander Technique teacher helps the student become aware of misuse, and facilitates learning both Inhibition, the refusal to indulge in old habits which interfere with functioning and Direction, the conscious choice of conditions stimulating good use. In practical terms, the Alexander Technique focuses on the head, neck, and back relationship as the primary control for reinstating the natural coordinates effecting greater ease and economy of movement.
Alexander found that neither words nor exercises were sufficient to stimulate change. His method involves individualized hands-on work, with the teacher guiding the student in the direction of improved psychophysical use through the integration of the primary head-neck-back relationship. The student mentally prevents the old habits and mentally projects the directions for the new use...neck free, head forward and up, back lengthen and widen...while the teacher through hands-on guidance, helps bring about the conditions associated with those directions. In this way the teacher helps the student experience a new kinesthtic experience, the experience of improved use in response to projected thought. The student gradually develops the skill to recognize and inhibit habits of misuse and to direct for good use without the teacher's presence.
You will note that I am talking about private Alexander Technique lessons not group lessons. I am prescribing a course of individualised study outside of dance class as a foundation for technique. I feel that good use is an essential precondition for improving coordination and poise. I believe it is necessary first to understand the principles of good use in pure form and then go about applying them to a skill such as dance. As a historical dancer and Alexander Technique teacher I am particularly interested in helping dancers develop the skill to apply the principles of the Alexander Technique to dancing. I have found that a combination of one-on-one private lessons in the Alexander Technique and dance classes works well for dancers. I teach individual lessons for dancers. As the students progress in their skills with improving use, we begin to work with dance movement. In addition, I come into dance classes and assist them to prevent inappropriate habits and encourage goon use while they are taking classes.
The Alexander Technique is not about posture or position or relaxation, but about choice, about freeing yourself from the domination of fixed habits and taking responsibility for how you use your self. The beneficial by-products for the dancer include greater ease and simplicity in movement, as well as the carriage and poise so well described by the 18th century dancing masters. In my experience as a teacher and dancer, dancers find dancing easier and less effortful when they are “expanding in activity” instead of contracting in activity and overworking. One individual commented that dancing this way felt “too easy” because he was used to a lot of muscular tension when dancing, and he found it “disappointing“ that dancing did not have to feel like a lot of work!
Eliminating excess neuromuscular signalling reduces internal interference and stress, so the experience of dancing can be simpler and clearer. The body often actually feels lighter. Dancers have commented that they tire less easily. Challenging physical skills are easier when basic uprightness and coordination are allowed to be reflex activities and when our organization of voluntary activity is not in conflict with our involuntary activity of equilibrium and balance (Fukuda, 1961). If you have a means to eliminate interference with dancing, you can just dance.
I consider the study of the Alexander Technique so beneficial to the development of 18th century skill and style in part because good fundamental neuromuscular organization is crucial to the development of any skill. But in particular the outward manifestation of good use is the physiological correlate of what the dancing masters described as ideal comportment. In other words, according to Nivelon “…a Person, whose Head is rightly placed is capable of Standing, Walking, Dancing, or performing any genteel Exercise in a graceful, easy and becoming Manner.” And that is exactly what the Alexander Technique facilitates.
Phyllis Richmond teaches at Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
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