What the Alexander Technique can offer to dancers
Rosalie Segal

Thanks to Rosalie for the use of her article

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The Alexander Technique has much to offer dancers both in improving their performance and helping them with prevention of injuries. It is an underused resource in the dance world and could significantly help dancers make the most of their instrument: themselves. In this article I will firstly introduce to the Alexander Technique, and then show how it can apply to dance. Do bear in mind that the technique is taught one to one, with hands on guidance, and that this practical experience is essential in gaining a good understanding of how it works.

Who was Alexander?

Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in 1869 in Tasmania. As a young man he was a professional actor who specialised in solo recitals of Shakespeare. Imagine his dismay when he started losing his voice during performances. Doctors suggested rest, but as soon as he performed in public the problem returned, culminating in his losing his voice completely during a performance. He decided that he must be doing something that caused the problem, and for the next 7 years undertook painstaking experiments observing himself in front of mirrors. Briefly, he discovered that when he went to speak, whether normally or in a performance, he interfered with the integration of his head, neck and back, by stiffening his neck, retracting his head, and shortening and narrowing his back. In his case this lead to pressure on the larynx, and when he was able to stop this habitual pattern his vocal problems cleared up.

He discovered that he wasn't alone with his habits of misuse and when he taught other people his technique, it had a profound effect on their general well-being as well as on the specific problems. In 1904 he emigrated to England and armed with recommendations from leading doctors in Australia, began teaching the Technique. Many eminent stars of the stage like Sir Henry Irving were pupils as well as leading literary figures like George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley. In 1930 he started a teacher training school and today there are training schools all over the world.

What happens in a lesson?

The pupil learns through a combination of gentle manual guidance and verbal instruction from the teacher. Pupils come with very different problems e.g. work-related problems like Repetitive Strain Injury, stress, poor posture, general discomfort, backache, breathing disorders and so on. Some come for general prevention of future problems and because it gives then a sense of well-being.

In all cases, whatever the very different manifestations, the teacher explores with the student their fundamental habits of how their head, neck and back work together. This primary relationship needs to be functioning well before going on to look at specific applications. A new way of thinking is encouraged where they consciously direct themselves to move in a more harmonious and coordinated way. Even after a first lesson, a pupil can feel dramatically different - lighter and freer, and moving more easily, but a course of 20 to 30 lessons is recommended to build on the new experiences.

The benefits for dancers

Through working individually with the Alexander Technique teacher, you gain a much more subtle and reliable understanding of your kinaesthetic sense: the sense which tells you what you are doing with your body, where you are in space and what amount of effort is required to make muscular movement. For most of us this sense is largely unconscious and we assume it is accurate. Unfortunately this is often not the case owing to the distorting effects of our habits. This applies to dancers as much as anyone else: even though they are highly skilled and trained in the use of their bodies, they might nevertheless be dancing with faulty kinaesthetic appreciation. This can cause them to use more effort and tension than necessary, and hinder their dance technique and expression.

One of the key principles of the technique I discussed earlier in the article is the concept of an integrating central core of the head, neck and back, which affects all the body's general functions like breathing and digestion, as well as the way the limbs move and integrate with the core. When the dancer is able to use her head, neck and back in an integrated and dynamic way, she can also allow the limbs to connect to and be part of this integration. More efficient and easier patterns of movement follow throughout the whole body. An Alexander Technique teacher would help the dancer understand where unconscious patterns of poor body use are stopping effective use of their dance technique.

Alexander Technique is something that applies to everyday life as much as to specific skills, so the teacher would be looking at how a dancer is using herself in everyday activities as well as in her dancing. The same patterns usually run through both and it is very useful to be aware of what is happening in order to prevent injuries and stop strain and overuse.

Maintenance and Prevention

In terms of prevention of injuries, the need for a reliable kinaesthetic appreciation of what one is doing is, once again, invaluable. It can help the dancer avoid unnecessary effort and tension, and also know when they need to stop, not to overuse their bodies. Their warning system becomes much more finely tuned, so they can avoid the pitfalls of dancing on through pain and injury. They are much more likely to notice and take heed of early warnings of strain and overuse.

One of the key benefits of the Alexander Technique is coming back to a balanced resting state after activity. Often, when one places demands on one's body, it is difficult to come back to balanced rest afterwards. Besides teaching a specific resting position the dancer can use in general, the Alexander Technique encourages the dancer to monitor how they are using their bodies in between performances and practice, to prevent unnecessary effort and strain. (An example of this is the turning out of the dancers feet: a reliable sense of what a neutral balanced state involves is necessary to avoid holding onto positions they adopt while dancing). They will be encouraged to take better care of themselves throughout their daily lives, which in turn feed in to looking after themselves better during dancing.

How to find a teacher

The society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique is the largest representative body of teachers and all teachers as members (MSTAT) have to have completed a recognised 3 year full time training course. There are overů members of STAT in the UK and affiliated bodies all over the world. For enquiries, phone 0207 482 5159 E-mail: [email protected]. Website: www.stat.org.uk

The British Performing Arts Medicine Trust (BPAMT) was formed to help musicians, actors, singers and dancers back to fitness and health. This help comes in various ways: through advice from the helpline, assessment clinics, and information about interested and experienced practitioners both in medicine and associated clinical practice.

The assessment clinics have recently been re-formed and extended to include complimentary health practitioners. Alexander Technique is now being taught at the clinic. If you are a teacher who knows someone who could benefit from Alexander Technique, or are a dancer in need of help, contact the helpline on 0207 240 3335

About the author

Rosalie Segal is a qualified Alexander Technique teacher and professional musician, with a successful Alexander Technique teaching practice in North West London. She is also part of the assessment clinic at BPAMT, where she conducts clinincs in the Alexander Technique. She can be contacted on 0207 328 2435 (E-mail: [email protected]).

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