The Alexander Technique and dance
Phyllis G. Richmond
Thanks to The Alexander Journal for the use of this article
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Some thoughts by an experienced dancer and teacher of dance on the relevance of the Alexander Technique to dance training.
Dancers tend to have short careers, often over by age forty, for the demands of traditional virtuoso technique are hard for an older body. Dancers suffer a high incidence of injury, which affects their ability to perform. One representative study showed that almost 90 per-cent of the professional dancers in the American company, Ballet West, at some time in their careers had had a dance related injury. About 62 per-cent of those dancers suffered temporary or permanent disability as a result of their injuries. A study of the New York City Ballet showed that during the season 17 per-cent of the dancers were not performing on any given day due to injury. Many of the dancers I interviewed for this paper, who perform with Ballet Rambert, English National Ballet, and the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, are also troubled by injury and sometimes by some level of chronic disability.
Many factors are recognized as contributing to dance injury, among them: physical demands of choreography, professional pressure, poor technique, poor condition, overwork, improper warm-up, muscle imbalances, anatomical structure predisposing the dancer to particular problems, poor performing conditions such as hard floor, inadequate diet, anorexia, psychological stress. I shall deal here with training and technique, factors over which the dancer has some control.
Dancers often sense something is wrong with what they are doing, but they do not know exactly what it is or how to correct it. When they suffer injury or chronic problems, they tend to utilize specific remedies, such as chiropractic, osteopathy, massage, drugs, physiotherapy, acupuncture, and so forth. These treatments can alleviate symptoms, but, in my opinion, they do not get at the underlying cause, the dancer's habitual use of his own instrument, which is himself. The dancer should focus on prevention instead of cure. The Alexander Technique offers a frame work to understand the problem and an effective means to bring about change, not by someone doing something to the dancer but by facilitating the dancer's learning to control his way of working. Over the past year I have had the opportunity to experiment with the Alexander Technique in the context of professional dance training and performance. This paper records the current stage in the evolution of my thoughts on the subject, based on my experiences.
My interest stems from necessity: in 1973 I injured my sacro-iliac when I fell while dancing. After a year of pain, frustration, and enforced rest, I gradually began to learn to dance again, but with movement limitation and chronic pain. I knew something was fundamentally wrong, but I did not know what or how to deal with it. The doctors did not help. Fortunately I discovered and began to explore methods of neuro-muscular re-education, including Bartenieff Fundaments, Body/Mind Centering, Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement, Ideokinesis, and the Alexander Technique. I was well aware that I had to learn to dance correctly or I would not be able to dance at all. I continued teaching all throughout this period. My experiences forced me to re-evaluate my approach to teaching movement. Naturally concerned with injury prevention, I evolved a teaching method based on anatomy and Laban Movement Analysis, influenced by the neuro-muscluar re-education I had studied.
It was increasingly clear to me that traditional exercise and correction do not invariably correct technical problems. There exists a deeper level of co-ordination in the nervous system that cannot be reached in this way. This fundamental level of neuro-muscular organisation underlying all activity is the level of general co-ordination which Alexander called "use". He wrote that " satisfactory general use is essential to satisfactory specific use." If a dancer's general use is inadequate, he will be jumping, turning and lifting in an inefficient and possibly damaging way which may in the long run impede his progress and predispose him to injury. Improving use is essential in order fundamentally to improve technique. Yet there is not, to my knowledge, a commonly accepted concept of use in the dance world. Dance training is traditionally concerned with technique not use.
" Dance students too often concern themselves single-mindedly with results...with producing what they understand to be the desired shape of a movement. They tend to lack both inclination and the knowledge to involve themselves meaningfully in the process by which the movement is achieved. As a result, they are prone to fall into movement patterns that are both inefficient and damaging; they substitute idiosyncratic body mechanics to accomplish movements because those that should be used are not available to them. Somewhere down the road of their training, these substitutions come back to haunt them in the form of injuries or simply inefficient or inhibited movement." (A.J.G Howse)
Commenting on this over-riding focus on results, or ends, as more important than means Alexander wrote:
"Our real difficulties arise from that almost universal adoption in practical life of the lowly evolved 'end gaining' principle… the result being that we cultivate within ourselves a condition of stress and strain."
We have to learn when and how to stop. Striving to achieve an ideal of technical perfection without making allowances for your imperfect body is end-gaining. The classic example is turnout, the outward rotation of the leg at the hip. The balletic ideal of 180° turnout is only possible for certain kinds of anatomical structure of the legs and pelvis. Yet there is the ubiquitous phenomenon of young dancers screwing foot and lower leg out more than the knees, which creates harmful stress at the knees, with potentially serious consequences.
Stretching can easily become a misapplication of energy through end-gaining. For example, even if the hamstring muscles lengthen in stretch, if the dancer uses these muscles in a shortened way in activity, the stretch will be negated as soon as she moves. Since her use has not changed, the length of the muscles in activity has not changed, no matter how much she continues stretching. It is possible to stretch the ligaments too much, affecting the structural integrity of the joints. Then the muscles must compensate for the permanently loosened ligaments, which means using them more tightly, which necessitates more stretching… Stretching exercises are not the answer to chronically shortened muscles. First we need to pay attention to use. If the system is functioning so that the muscles are not used in a shortened way, the muscles will be able to respond with greater range as appropriate. Therefore, less stretching will be necessary.
Dancers training without an understanding of use means that on some level they do not know what they are doing. Traditionally dancers are not taught to understand how movement works, but to imitate and repeat. What are they imitating? They may not have the understanding to see the movement accurately. In fact, they may imitate the peculiarities or defects of their teachers because those peculiarities are what they notice. Dancers depend on kinesthetic awareness to re-create and repeat movement. Since our vision and kinesthetic sense function according to use, if our use is inadequate, we will be seeing and repeating poor use and feeling it as correct. Alexander's phrases "untrustworthy sensory appreciation", "perverted sensory awareness" and "Debauched kinesthesia" are wonderfully descriptive of this universal problem. "Debauched kinesthesia" traps us in a vicious circle, for if we cannot depend on sensory awareness to tell us what we are doing, we cannot really know what we are doing, so we cannot change out habits, because in order to change them we have to know what we are doing.
If you ask several dancers to stand in a neutral upright posture, there will be many different responses, each feeling "right" to the individual. One dancer's posture which I have observed so often it seems a common response to the demands of training, involves some variation of head held high, lifted or tight chest, narrowed back, pulled-in-belly and exaggerated lumbar curve. This configuration of the body is not neutral; it is a use pattern which negates the way the body is designed to function.
The desire for a certain appearance is a powerful motive for misuse. The dancer may want simply a sleek aesthetic line...he does not intend to harm himself...so with the best of intentions he pulls in his abdominal muscles, lifts his chest, arches his back, and fixes his head. Now, the head is not free, the back cannot lengthen and widen, the suspensory system cannot function. The dancer will need to move by overpowering one set of muscular habits with another set of muscular habits. We tend to think we know how to move better than our bodies do, so with all good intentions, we interfere with our use. Repetitions of the interference strengthens the misuse. Technical correction does not work because it does not affect fundamental use. It is not possible to “do” good use. We cannot make it happen: good use happens by itself when we do not interfere with it. Our most effective policy is to get out of the way of the body and allow it to function as it was designed to function. In Alexander’s words…
“a certain use of the head in relation to the neck and of the head and neck in relation to the torso and other parts of the organism, if consciously and continuously employed, ensures…the establishment of a manner of use of the 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 practise, this use of parts, beginning with the use of the head in relation to the neck, constituted a primary control of the mechanism as a whole, involving control in process right through the organism.”
Alexander discovered that not interfering with the head-neck-back relationship by inhibiting our habits of misuse was an essential step in learning to control use. It is a difficult concept for dancers to assimilate since it is contrary to the way we are taught to behave. We learn to do, to want, to control, to make happen. We do not practise non-doing. We make the body perform, we push ourselves to try harder. In the highly competitive dance world end-gaining is the rule and the idea of non-doing is so remote as to be almost inconceivable.
In my experience a common response to competition and the pressure to perform is to “try to get it right”. But trying” is not “dancing” or “learning to dance”. “Trying” is a state with its own set of psycho-physical manifestations, related to a narrowing of attention as the student focuses intensely in order to “get it right”. Alexander described the symptoms:
“The strained expression of the eyes, an expression of anxiety and uneasiness, denoting unduly excited fear reflexes…there is an undue and harmful degree of tension throughout the whole organism."
This state interferes with learning. When I put my hands on dancers in class, I can feel this happen to a student facing what she perceives as incomprehensible or insurmountable challenges. The neuromuscular system becomes disorganised and fragmented, and the dancer braces the body for lack of internal support and is unable to achieve what, without interference, would be easily within her grasp.
Alexander wrote that when we respond to stress with “unduly excited fear reflexes” like this we cannot think clearly and fall back on trial-and-error methodology: I try A, A does not work, so I try A again harder. Maybe A is not the appropriate answer. We want to be able to try B, try C, try D…But this kind of unreasoned fixing precludes trying B, so we go on trying to “get” it in the same way, which goes on not working. The crux of the matter is to inhibit the immediate response of “trying to get it right” so that we have a chance to make a reasoned change. Though the process sounds simple, it is not easy to learn. Seriously engaging in the process of change requires commitment, practice, and an ability to tolerate the unknown, for non-habitual use will feel wrong at first and since “the desire to feel right in gaining (our) ends is (our) primary desire”, there is a strong unconscious pull to revert to familiar sensations of misuse which feel right.
Going through the process of change can be confusing and disturbing. As the old use breaks down, the new use feels weird...there is a period when the system is disorientated while the new use is unsure and unsettled. I found myself for a time uncharacteristically uncoordinated, bumping into things, misjudging distance, cutting myself, and so forth. I could no longer do things in the old way, but I could not yet do them in the new way either. I do not think there is any way to ease this transition. Like babies learning to walk, we need to allow ourselves to fall, even to fail. We need to be patient, to give ourselves time to adjust to change. The dance teacher can assist by establishing classroom conditions which encourage and allow for change. We can take particular care with our verbal cues in class so that we do not cultivate end-gaining by being judgmental. Dancers tend to be hypercritical of themselves anyway, as well as sensitive to the criticism of the teacher, choreographer, company director. A non-judgmental, playful, and patient approach can create conditions where it is all right to experiment, to take a risk, to fail to “get it right”.
However, most situations in the real world of dance are not set up to allow for change in the individual. In most classes the individual studies the Alexander Technique privately. I am interested in helping dancers to bridge that gap between the Alexander Technique as an isolated phenomenon and the real world of dance. To that purpose, I think the Alexander Technique can be incorporated into dance training in several ways.
First, we need to reassess the dance technique class, looking at what needs to be taught and how. Reconsideration of dance technique is not a new idea...it goes on all the time...it is after all what led to modern dance, which is constantly evolving. Today there are a growing number of teachers concerned with issues of injury and appropriate technique and who base their work on anatomy, basic movement patterns, and the “body therapies” such as Bartenieff Fundaments and Laban Movement Analysis, Body/Mind Centering, Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement, and so forth. These teachers find that traditional exercises are not the most effective ways to develop and improve technique. Such classes include as warm-up a movement content which is not traditional dance, movement which is designed to improve neuromuscular co-ordination and integration. I think this kind of training is an improvement over the traditional make-or-break approach. However, enlightened movement content alone does not address the core issue of conscious control over use. The Alexander Technique does address this issue. Since the Alexander Technique has no exercises to teach, the challenge is to teach movement from an Alexander viewpoint. While appropriate visual and verbal instructions are important, I do not believe that the essence of the Alexander Technique can be transmitted effectively without communication through the hands of the teacher.
The traditional format for this kind of work is the private lesson. A traditional one-on-one Alexander lesson includes practising the ”means whereby” working with a chair while repeatedly moving between sitting and standing. But the Alexander Technique is not chairwork or tablework or any other exercise position. It is simply a means, which can be applied in any activity. While chairwork has proved an extraordinarily effective way of learning about use, nevertheless one justifiably can choose dance movement as the context for a dance in which to practise awareness, inhibition, and direction in order to help the dancer make the transition from a private lesson to the dance studio. Therefore, I think it is appropriate to work with dance movement in a private lesson once the student is ready to do so.
I also believe it is useful to give hands-on experience during dance class. As a dance teacher, I have always used my hands to give corrections. The kinesthetic mode of communication has always seemed natural to me in a kinesthetic art. When I touched students I gave them information about placement, position, connection, flow, initiation, and sequencing of movement. This is valuable information to have and to know how to give. However, I was frustrated because I could not communicate with the deeper level of use which I knew existed. There were co-ordination problems I could perceive but which I could not reach with the means I had in that time.
Training as an Alexander Technique teacher has changed my understanding of touch. Now I am developing a means to communicate at a more fundamental level. While I still give hands-on correction when teaching a dance class, as I always have, now the message my hands give is different. However, I find it difficult to pay adequate attention to this process while responsible for the movement content and overall pacing of an energetic group. Therefore I have been experimenting with co-teaching dance classes. In a co-taught class, one teacher is responsible for the movement content, and the other puts hands on the dancers while they are in activity. I have worked in this way most frequently with modern dance teachers Scott Clark, and Gill Clarke. We all agree that this format is valuable, successful, and worth developing. Dancers in these classes ranged from intermediate-level students to well-known professionals, in most cases with no previous experiences of the Alexander Technique. Dancers have commented that the hands-on contact helped them become aware of unnecessary habitual tension patterns and of basic functional corrections. In part, the positioning of the hands brings awareness to the area being touched. For instance, touching the head and sacrum underlined the connection through the length of the spine while touching the right shoulder and left hip brought out the spiral connection through the torso. More important, the particular “non-doing” quality of touch helped them notice movement habits such as fixed head, narrow back, and constricted rib cage. In some cases they were able to inhibit the habit while they were working, once they became consistently aware of it.
I worked with the dancers while lying or sitting on the floor, at the barre, or dancing across the floor, sometimes dancing along beside them. Because they were moving and there were so many of them, there was little opportunity for extended contact. Brief contact served as a reminder, a stream of memory-jogs. My presence reminded them to be attentive to the whole body, the whole use, not just the parts with the most difficult choreographic tasks. In addition, if a dancer has studied the Alexander Technique previously (or concurrently) and therefore understood something in the means, he could use my presence to remind himself specifically to inhibit and direct. One such dancer remarked that once he started to apply the means in class, he felt he had more time to think while moving; he began to give himself space to reason and not to be pressured. In addition to putting hands on dancers during class, I had the opportunity to experiment privately with individuals during rehearsal breaks. In balance, a combination of private and class work seemed the most effective way for them to learn and apply what they had learned with immediacy. The dancers responded favourably to experimenting with the Alexander Technique. No one was negative, many were positive, some were wildly enthusiastic. Comments that were often repeated included that they were more aware of their habits, that they felt more relaxed, more stable, softer. Some said dance technique was easier and less effortful. Some said they felt less pain or more in control of pain. We found that hands-on work in class was good practice in attending to internal and external stimuli at the same time. It is common (and perhaps inevitable) to want to narrow the field of consciousness to pay attention to only one stimulus at a time, in this case either the class as a whole or me. But life is about juggling many different and demanding stimuli at once.
“What distinguishes the Alexander Technique from all other methods of self-improvement that I know anything about is the character of the thinking involved…To me it is an expansion of the field of consciousness (or of “attention” if you object to the term “consciousness”) in space and time so that you are taking in both yourself and your environment, both the present moment and the next. It is a unified field organised around the self as a center. At the beginning it has a very simple system of organisation but it always takes in both the self (including the relation of the head to the trunk) and something in the environment. In addition to the head relation you can take in the pressure of the floor against your feet; you can take in both your eyes and the object you are looking at; your ears and the sounds you are hearing. You can take in what you are doing now and what you are going to do next, without getting tangled up in the process." (F.P.Jones)
Giving up control of perception as we know it by not narrowing our field of consciousness means perception will differ from the usual: we receive a succession of sensations without categorizing them in the usual way. We are being in the moment. This is the very stuff of the creative process. If the Alexander Technique offers a means for being in the moment by choice, it is extremely valuable for creative artists.
Dancers tend to give themselves generously in performance. They want to make sure they reach the audience. Sometimes they help out the choreography by underlining the movement, putting it in italics as it were, reaching out towards the public by pushing forward with the chest and losing the back. This over zealous approach interferes with the efficient performance by interfering with use. We found that the hands-on work could help the dancers become aware of this tendency. As they felt more stable and centered, there was less tendency to over-do and brace, and they felt freer within the movement. A few dancers found it possible to play: that is to give up a preconceived idea of how the movement should be done, but instead to pay attention to their use. In this situation it is possible for the system to organise itself appropriately around the intention with less effort than may seem necessary. These are recent explorations but I am excited by the potential for thinking differently while dancing. It has been my experience that dancing with good use is judged to be better dancing than dancing with poor use. In effect, improvement in use frees the performer to be more expressive with technique.
I believe that dancing with good use will tend to reduce the prevalence of dance-related injury and/or chronic pain. I cannot prove this: I have not done a statistical study. But it is my experience and the experience of other dancers involved with The Alexander Technique. Of course, this depends on the cause of the injury or pain. Obviously improved use will not alter inhospitable performing spaces, rehearsal and performance schedules, nutritional deficiencies, professional pressures, or problems which require medical treatment. But I do think that improved use can affect technique by changing the predisposing conditions of use which lead to injury and pain and by giving the individual better means to deal with overwork, fatigue, stress, and injury or pain which do occur. I have seen the co-ordination of talented natural dancers fall apart when they were in pain from injury. Yet they continued to dance despite pain, which is dangerous. I think that commanding the means to control their use would change their understanding of what they do habitually and enable them to manage themselves constructively when they are in pain or injured. The difficulty is that maintaining good use requires continuous conscious involvement. You cannot turn on the mechanism and go on automatic pilot. If you are not fully present or if you forget to use the means, the process stops. It is up to the individual actually to engage in the process for it to work.
When I began this project I believed the Alexander Technique to be relevant to dance because it deals with the basic stuff dance is made of. I found that the belief confirmed over and over again this year. It has been very exciting for me to collaborate with so many good dancers and dance teachers to try and figure out how I can help them apply the Alexander Technique to their own work. I am grateful to them for allowing me to experiment. I would particularly like to thank Siobhan Davies for her indispensable support. These are a few of my thoughts at present on the relevance and application of the Alexander Technique to dance training. I am sure my ideas will change as I learn more, for there are many unresolved questions and exciting possibilities raised by the research I have done this tear. There is so much to learn.
“Our psycho-physical plan of development must be fundamentally one of continuous growth and of new experiences, and consequently we never reach the point where we may be said to finish our learning”. (F.M.Alexander)
My work with dancers is just beginning.
Phyllis Richmond teaches at Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
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