The Alexander Technique and Dance Training
Phyllis G. Richmond, MA
From "Impulse", The International Journal of Dance Science, Medicine, and Education - Jan 1994
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This paper introduces the Alexander Technique and examines its special relevance to the specific needs of dancers. Dancers depend on the high level functioning of the physical and mental instrument in order to perform. Habitual interference in functioning can be a critical problem. The individual's "use," or fundamental habits of neuromuscular organization in activity, precede and either support or interfere with the capacity for coordination. A dancer with poor use is not only performing the activity but is also expending unnecessary energy and misdirected attention in muscular bracing which interferes with the performance of the activity. As a result, dancing becomes unnecessarily complicated, difficult, and stressful. The Alexander Technique teaches the individual the skill to prevent inappropriate habits of use in order to facilitate the capacity for coordination, focus, and clarity in performance.
It is important for all of us to use our bodies and minds in the best way possible in order to make the most of our talents and skills. However, because of long-established habits both mental and physical, we may find ourselves unable to function optimally. Dancers depend on the high performance of the physical and mental instrument in order to fulfil their calling, so interference with functioning can be a critical problem. The Alexander Technique can be extremely helpful in educating dancers to use the psychophysical instrument well. In this paper we shall briefly introduce the Alexander Technique and note its general applicability. Then, we shall examine the special relevance of the Alexander Technique to the specific needs of dancers.
The Alexander Technique deals specifically with use, teaching the individual a means to prevent inappropriate habits of use and to encourage good use. It is an indirect approach to neuromuscular re-education: the Alexander Technique does not treat specific problems, such as lower back pain or tight hips, but instead re-educates individuals so that their general habits of use come under their conscious control. If general use improves, specific skills inevitably tend to improve in due course.
What do I mean by use? Our fundamental habits of neuromuscular organization in all our activities either support or interfere with our capacity for coordination. However, this critical concept of use as a precondition for developing technical skills is not sufficiently understood or incorporated in dance training. A dancer with poor use is not only performing the choreography but is also expending additional unnecessary energy in muscular bracing that interferes with the performance of the choreography. This misdirection of muscular effort and of attention gets in the way of what the dancer is trying to achieve. As a result, dancing becomes unnecessarily complicated, difficult, and stressful.
Often dancers will perceive that something is wrong with what they are doing, but do not know what it is or how to fix it. They may attempt to "do" something to fix the problem: technical classes, therapeutic exercises, chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, and so forth. While these modalities do alleviate symptoms to get the dancer back into the studio quickly, they do not reach the underlying cause of many functional problems: habitual poor use. Whatever remedial activity the dancer engages in will utilise the same familiar use, for rearranging habits does not change them. Without actually making a basic change in neuromuscular patterning, nothing has changed.
The Alexander Technique was developed by F. Matthias Alexander, whose own functional problems as an actor and recitalist 100 years ago empirically led him to the discoveries that resulted in the Alexander Technique. In the 1800's the young Australian actor was beginning to forge a reputation as a recitalist, but he had a serious problem: recurrent vocal hoarseness and a loss of voice in performance. The doctor could find nothing wrong with him. With rest his voice would recover, but the hoarseness would reoccur during the next performance. As there was nothing medically wrong, Alexander finally concluded that something he was doing while reciting was the cause of his hoarseness. This was an important discovery: the way we do something can cause a functional problem. In other words, use affects functioning.
Alexander began to study the problem using three-way mirrors to observe himself in the act of reciting. Over a period of 9 years he observed, experimented, and gradually came to the understanding of the problem. Alexander described this process of observation and analysis in his book The Use of the Self (1932/1988). He observed that when he recited, he tended to pull back his head, depress his larynx, and gasp in breath audibly...this was the specific misuse causing his problem. However, when he tried to correct these specific tendencies toward vocal misuse, he could not do so. This led Alexander to realize that his vocal misuse involved not only the vocal organs but also a pattern of inappropriate tension throughout the body.
Alexander identified an overall pattern of shortening and narrowing, of compressing the stature, a tendency toward undue muscular bracing in activity. This overall pattern of misuse was responsible for his problem. His basic general habits of neuromuscular organization seriously interfered with his specific coordination for reciting, in short, his general use affected his specific functioning. While the pattern of misuse was also present in normal functioning, the tendency toward misuse was heightened under the pressure of performance.
Instead of trying to fix his vocal mechanism by doing something, Alexander focused on preventing the habits that were causing the problem, that is, on not doing something. This concept of preventing, or not doing, habits of misuse is, a key concept in the Alexander Technique...Alexander called inhibition. Muscles can only contract, rest, or lengthen. They can perform only one of these functions at a time. In order to change habits of misuse, it is essential first to stop doing the wrong thing before you can do something else that might be more appropriate. This is a basic principle of the Alexander Technique: to inhibit what is going wrong.
Alexander found that he could not directly prevent the depressing of the larynx or the gasping, but that "when [he] succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of the breath and the depressing of the larynx" (Alexander, 1932/1988). When he was able to prevent the pulling back of the head, his overall conditions of use improved, and the condition of his vocal cords improved as well. He had found that the relationship of the head to the neck is key in controlling their organization of use, 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 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 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).
Alexander discovered that not interfering with the head/neck/back relationship stimulates and encourages the coordinated expansion and springiness of the whole organism. These conditions facilitate the integration of natural reflexes and voluntary movement in activity. Alexander called this dynamic head/neck/back relationship the "primary control". It is another corner stone of the Alexander Technique.
Human structural integrity depends on integrating involuntary reflexes and voluntary movement in response to gravity and other forces by balancing opposing pulls of muscles and connective tissue. There are innate processes that 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 relation to each other. The force of gravity activates neuromuscular reflexes that 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 up thrust and expansion in response to gravity happen below conscious level and provide the support for posture and movement.
When we brace and constrict ourselves in activity, we interfere with the innate tendency to expand upward by interfering with the organization of muscular use. We will then need to overcome the faulty effort by stronger muscular 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 are superimposing extra work on ourselves, when all we need to do is get out of the way of the innate organization of support and 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 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 upright and coordinated.
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. If she is interfering with her innate postural mechanisms, then she will need to compensate by taking care of those functions through dysfunctional tension somewhere else in the body, making efficient coordination more difficult. It is a bit like trying to travel a crowded expressway at rush hour. If the expressway is clogged with traffic, we cannot get through. When the streets are clear we race along without obstruction. Similarly, when there is too much extra noise going on in our neuromuscular system, the appropriate signals cannot get through simply. We need to quiet down the neuromuscular system, eliminate the dysfunctional tensions interfering with good use so that voluntary movement can happen more easily.
This is a simple concept. All we have to do is not interfere with the functioning of our innate postural mechanisms. It sounds like we ought to be able to do this by just wanting to do it. However, Alexander found that it was extremely difficult to inhibit his ingrained habits of use. Although he intended not to pull his head back and thought that he was not pulling it back, observing himself in the mirrors he found that he was actually doing the opposite of what he thought he was doing! He learned, much to his surprise, that he could not tell with accuracy what he was doing! The problem is that our kinesthetic mechanisms are calibrated to the standard of the familiar. We call familiar sensations "right", even though they may be very inefficient and harmful. Alexander called this universal phenomenon "untrustworthy sensory appreciation". Nobel Prize winner Nikolaas Tindergen explains that…
"the correct performance of many movements is continuously checked by the brain. It does this by comparing a feedback report that says "orders carried out" with the feedback expectation for which the brain has been alerted. Only when the expected feedback and the actual feedback match does the brain stop sending out commands for corrective action…what Alexander has discovered is that a lifelong misuse of the body muscles…can make the entire system go wrong. As a consequence, reports that "all is correct" are received by the brain (or perhaps interpreted as correct) when in fact all is very wrong. A person can feel at ease, for example, when slouching in front of a television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body". (Tinbergen, 1974)
The calibration of sensory awareness to the standard of the familiar means that we cannot depend on our kinesthetic sensations to tell us what we are really doing. We have a belief in a certain degree of muscle tension being necessary to perform an activity. We wait until we experience that feeling before we go ahead and perform that activity. We need to feel that feeling in order to know "al is correct." Unfamiliar use and unfamiliar degree of muscle tension will feel strange, even wrong. Therefore, there is a strong unconscious pull to revert to familiar sensations of misuse that feel right.
"Since our particular way of reacting to stimuli is in accordance with our familiar habits of use, the incentive to try to gain any given end is inextricably bound up with this familiar use…As long as the conditions of use and the associated feeling are wrong in a person, the incentive to gain a given end by the familiar wrong use appears to be almost irresistible". (Alexander, 1932/1988).
This is a powerful obstacle to change. If feeling right leads to poor use, we must learn to risk feeling wrong. Only when we develop the ability to interpret reliably and accurately the sensory data we receive will we know when and how we are misusing ourselves.
Although Alexander's personal difficulties were in his voice, his general problem of misuse is shared with many dancers who are not using themselves well and as a result are interfering with their own coordination by poor neuromuscular habits. The problem of "untrustworthy sensory awareness" is fundamental, since dance training encourages a reliance on feeling. Traditionally dancers are taught to imitate and repeat what they see. What are they imitating? They may not have the understanding to see the movement accurately. Students often imitate the peculiarities or defects of their teachers because they cannot separate those peculiarities from what is essential in the movement. Dancers depend on verbal instructions or corrections as well. But what do words mean? The dancer translates from the verbal to the kinesthetic through the filter of use. A particular configuration of the limbs or sequence of coordination is equated with a particular kinesthetic feeling, which the dancer wishes to feel when she repeats the movement. Since kinesthetic sense functions according to use, if the dancer's use is inadequate, she will be repeating and reinforcing misuse when she practises, and feeling it as correct.
I shall describe a dancer as an example. This dancer wants to create a particular aesthetic line and therefore pulls in the abdominal muscles, before pulling in any muscles at all. 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 pull down in front, the dancer draws the head back and lifts the chest up by pulling with the muscles along the back. This narrows and shortens the back, arching the lumbar spine and retracting the head. Now, this configuration of the body is not neutral: it is a use pattern that negates the way the body is designed to function by interfering with the natural upthrust against gravity. This very common pattern of tightening of the abdominals, ribcage, and back works against the bodies innate suspensory system.
Every move this dancer makes is against the considerable resistance of the superimposed tension in the body. This dancer will be jumping, turning and lifting in an inefficient and possibly damaging way, which may in the end impede progress and predispose to injury. When practising or making a correction, an individual will be employing familiar habits of misuse, thereby reinforcing the misuse. 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" (1923/1987). Improving general use is fundamentally essential in order to improve specific technique.
If the dance student described above were to organize him/herself so that the extensor muscles of the back and the flexor muscles of the front providid appropriate balanced support for upright postural behavior, the stiffening and inappropriate muscle contraction characteristic of this postural behavior would not come into play. The muscles crossing the hip that previously pulled the torso onto the legs could release once they were no longer used 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 line without the tension and strain...and a free hip joint as well. Movement is easier if all you have to do is move, not overcome resistance in order to move.
A good manner of use of the self exerts an influence for good upon general functioning which is not only conscious, but also grows stronger as time goes on, becoming, that is, a constant influence tending always to raise the standard of functioning and improve the manner of reaction. A bad manner of use, on the other hand, continuously exerts an influence for ill, tending to lower the standard of general functioning activity arising from our response to stimuli from within and without self, and harmfully affecting the manner of every reaction. (Alexander, (1941/1986).
Use is the key to coordination and performance. 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 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 the 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 demanding: 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 as inefficient or inhibited movement". (Micheli & Solomon, 1987).
They pay too much attention to the end of dance technique without enough consideration of the means whereby they will achieve this. The overriding focus on results, or ends, cultivates stress and causes difficulties rather than solving them. In the competitive atmosphere of the dance studio it is easy for an individual to become so obsessed with the end of technique that he or she cannot think rationally about the consequences of particular ways of working. Alexander called this attitude "end-gaining."
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 even though we know this still 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. In class, rehearsal, and performance, I have observed inumerable instances of dancers heedlessly and needlessly hurting themselves in an effort to excel.
And as the pressure to perform well increases, often the dancer's end-gaining response to stress results in the deterioration of coordination so that performance suffers. The dancer facing what he or she perceives as a difficult challenge braces the body in anticipation of the effort. This misapplied tension obstructs the innate support system which can only function efficiently when the body is free to respond to the demands put on it. "Trying to get it right" is not dancing or learning to dance, but instead a physical state with its own set of psychophysical manifestations:
"observe 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…How could it be otherwise when the subject, instead of consciously reasoning out the cause (or causes) which has tended to develop his defect, is making a subconscious effort…to overpower one set of imperfect so-called "mental" projections and "physical" tensions by a still more powerful set?" (Alexander, 1923/1987).
The thought of an action alone elicits the anticipatory preset for that action in the neuromuscular system. When the subconscious response to the thought of dancing creates conditions of bracing and anxiety, the dancer must work harder to overcome the self-created disadvantage. The preparation is the seed of the problem; we work too hard because we interfere with ourselves before we even begin. We learn to superimpose an extra muscular and mental doing in response to stress, instead of simply performing.
When we respond to stress like this, we cannot think clearly: we try "A," "A" does not work so we 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 irrational mindset precludes trying B. So we go on "trying to get it" in the same way, which goes on not working. A dancer trying to do a triple pirouette falls off balance. The second time, she braces her ribs and holds her breath and falls again. Once she has engaged this pattern, she goes on bracing herself and holding her breath and falling and frustrating herself. The reaction to the stimulus to do a triple pirouette is entangled with the desire to succeed and with the misapplied tension of trying too hard. In order to eliminate misuse, she needs to change the mental attitude of end-gaining, of trying to achieve her ends at any cost, without paying appropriate attention to the means she is using. End-gaining, trying too hard, obsessively concentrating on getting it right, lead directly to the familiar ruts of habitual neuromuscular patterns.
How can the Alexander Technique help this dancer change a deeply in-grained habit when the urge to feel right in gaining her ends is so strong and, because of untrustworthy sensory awareness, she cannot tell that what feels right is actually misuse? If a habit is a stereotyped response to a particular stimulus, then inhibiting the customary response to the stimulus is the essential first step. In other words, to receive the stimulus and refuse to indulge in the habitual response...or to do nothing in response to the stimulus...creates conditions whereby 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 neuromuscular messages from firing along the familiar wrong pathways before we can send them down the right ones. The neuropsychological term Alexander used for stopping neuromuscular messages from following their habitual present paths was "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 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. Alexander's direction is is a process of directed thinking or intending, of projecting orders to the whole system that organize conditions simulating good use. The classic Alexander Technique formulation of the directions stimulating good use is as follows: neck free, head forward and up, back lengthen and widen. These are the conditions that allow the primary control to function most freely and efficiently as a presupport for voluntary movement. Direction is not a doing, not a pushing, willing, forcing, or making something happen, but a mental intending that encourages appropriate neuromuscular patterns to replace the inappropriate habits that 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 practical terms, the Alexander Technique focuses on the head, neck and back relationship as the primary control for reinstating the natural coordination's effecting greater ease and economy of movement. 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 that interfere with functioning, and direction, the conscious choice of conditions stimulating good use.
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 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 kinesthetic experience, the experience of improved use in response to projected thought. The experience aids in educating trustworthy sensory awareness so that the student can interpret sensory information accurately. The student gradually develops the skill to recognize and inhibit habits of misuse and to direct for good use without the teachers presence.
In order to inhibit a customary habit of misuse, we must give up end-gaining. This is the wedge in the door. If we are so invested in results that we are striving with all our force towards results, then there is little possibility of risking change and jeopardizing those results. Alexander's radical idea means reordering priorities, placing the means of good use first and the ends of specific results second. It means giving up pushing for technique at all costs as the most important goal in order instead to be aware of what is happening within you while you are engaged in activity. It is a leap into the unknown to trust that if you simply pay attention to your use, your muscles will organize themselves around your intention to jump or turn without your superimposing an extra doing. However, that is in fact what happens. As Alexander wrote, if the means are satisfactory, the ends will be satisfactorily achieved.
The method Alexander evolved, and described in his books, is a simple way to introduce very complex processes. It is important to work with simple, fundamental movements while the student is gaining skill in consciously attending to use during activity. In a traditional private lesson the student will practice inhibition and direction, the basic principles of the Alexander Technique, while working with simple movements such as getting in and out of a chair. This may sound simple, but is in fact very challenging. Working with a chair is an extremely efficient way for the teacher to introduce the core elements of inhibition and direction and bring about improved conditions of use in the student at the same time. While getting in and out of a chair, the student is asked not to react immediately to the instruction to sit, but instead to prevent the habitual response of preparatory muscular activity and pay attention to the primary head/neck/back relationship that is the essential condition for improved use. In other words, the student receives a stimulus and does not respond in the usual way. Through inhibition the basic stimulus/response pattern of habit is broken.
Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus. But no one will see it that way. They will all see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do.
The Alexander Technique is not about getting in and out of a chair or about posture or relaxation; it is about learning to be conscious so we can choose how we use ourselves instead of being bound to habit. In practice, the student is asked to prevent habitual use and then to project the directions for improved use; letting the neck be free so the head releases forward, up and out, and so the back lengthens and widens and the limbs release out and away from the back. The teacher helps the student experience the improved use corresponding to these directions. To summerize, instead of sitting right away, the student prevents the habitual way of sitting, directs for improved use so that the postural reflexes are eliciting natural springiness in response to gravity, and then chooses to sit in a new way. This is thinking in activity. This is the means to good use developed by Alexander.
As with learning any complex skill, it takes time and patience to learn to inhibit and direct. Alexander himself recommended between 20 and 30 lessons, and that seems to be bourne out in the experience of many Alexander teachers over the years, though there is of course no strict rule for such an individualized process. As the student’s skill with the process of not doing his habit and consciously directing his own use improves, he is increasingly able to “think in activity”, that is, with little effort, to engage in inhibition and direction while performing other activities, such as dancing.
Alexander was emphatic about the importance of the student succeeding at what he or she is being asked to do so that he/she does not learn failure. That is, the challenge must be such that the student can succeed in inhibiting old habits and directing for good use. To me this means working with simple movement at first, such as getting in and out of the chair, not with the complexities of dance technique, until the student has developed enough skill with basic inhibition and direction to be able to succeed in dancing without reverting to old habits.
As a dancer I am particularly interested in helping dancers understand how they can apply the Alexander Technique to dance in a practical way. I came to the Alexander Technique myself through injury in 1973. I fell while dancing and injured my sacroiliac. After a terrible year of enforced rest, pain, and immense frustration, I began to learn to dance again, but with movement limitation and chronic pain. According to the doctor, I was now all right, but I knew something was fundamentally wrong. I was well aware that I had to learn to dance differently or I would not be able to dance at all, but I did not know what to do.
Eventually I discovered and began to explore methods of neuromuscular re education including Bartenieff Fundamentals, Body, Mind Centering, Feldenkrais and Ideokinesis. I continued teaching throughout this period. My experiences forced me to re-evaluate my approach to teaching and performing movement. It was increasingly clear to me that traditional exercise and correction do not invariably correct technical problems, that critical deeper levels of coordination in the nervous system cannot be reached in this way. The fundamental level of habitual neuromuscular organization underlying technique is what Alexander referred to as use. While all the “body therapies” were helpful to me in my quest to figure out my movement problems, there was still something missing for me, some deep level of coordination I could not reach. I did not understand that I was looking for use until I began studying the Alexander Technique, nearly 10 years after my injury.
The Alexander Technique teaches the individual conscious control of the use of the self by projected thought. The Alexander student understanding the process of inhibition and direction, able to eliminate interference and activate the primary control, has a very practical means for monitoring and taking care of use at any time in any situation. This is extremely useful for dancers because it deals with the basic stuff dance is made of. The Alexander Technique enables dancers to be aware of what they are doing to themselves while they are dancing and to take care of themselves while they are dancing. Good use facilitates coordination by removing the habits that interfere with coordination, leading to greater ease, simplicity, and efficiency of technique.
I have worked with many dancers ever the past few years, particularly in London with the Siobhan Davies Dance Company and the Rambert Dance Company, in Boston with the Boston Ballet Summer School, and in Dallas with dancers from the Southern Methodist University Dance Program. Dancers I have worked with have commented that the Alexander Technique helped them become aware of unnecessary habitual tension patterns such as fixed head, narrow back, and constricted rib cage while they were in activity. The back in particular tends to be overcontracted among dancers, with the legs and arms pulling into the back...a common pattern of narrowing and contracting.
Many of the dancers found they were able to inhibit that habit while they were working, once they became aware of it. Allowing expansion through the head, neck, and back was a new experience. They found dancing easier and less effortful when they were “expanding in activity” instead of overworking. One individual commented that dancing this way felt “too easy” because he was used to feeling a lot of muscular tension when dancing, and he found it difficult to accept that dancing did not have to feel like a lot of work! Eliminating excess neuromuscular signaling reduces internal interference and stress, so the experience of dancing can be simpler and clearer. The body often actually feels lighter. Challenging physical skills are easier when basic uprightness is allowed to be a reflex activity, and our voluntary activity of “adagio” is not in conflict with our involuntary activity of equilibrium and balance (Fukuda, 1961).
In addition to the increased grounded support, lightness, simplification and ease of physical technique that dancers mentioned over and over again as effects of Alexander Technique lessons, and which I myself have experienced, there are other ramifications for performance. Performing involves juggling many different and demanding stimuli at once. We want to be able to attend to both internal and external stimuli at the same moment, to be with ourselves as well as our activity, our fellow performers, and the audience. Thinking in activity means developing the ability to be aware of yourself as well as what you are doing at the same time.
"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 organized around the self as center. At the beginning it has a very simple system of organization 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". (Jones 1976)
The dancer wants to be aware not only of herself, but of her partner, the music, the floor, the audience. Not closing down the focus of consciousness opens the performer to both the sensory actuality and the creative possibilities of each movement. Being present in the moment is the sine qua non of the creative process. I believe the Alexander Technique offers a simple means for choosing to be in the moment by paying attention to what is happening in the moment.
Performers can thwart being in the moment by trying too hard. Dancers tend to give themselves generously in performance, sometimes in a counter-productive way. Sometimes in an effort to connect with the audience, they italicise the choreography, as it were, reaching out toward the public by reaching forward with the chest and clenching the back, trying to push the performance. Often the performer is so “out there” performing that he loses himself in the process. This excess zeal interferes with efficient performance by interfering with use. It is important for performers to trust in their own capacity for coordination to see them through the performance without the extra push of trying too hard.
"The superiority of the virtuosi stems less from their exceptional faculties than from their discovery of an exceptionally simple means which allows them to use their faculties simply and naturally". (R. Thiberge, quoted in Taylor, 1987, p.82).
If you have a means to eliminate interference with dancing, you can just dance. As performers were able to prevent habits that interfered with use, they felt more present and more centered. There was less tendency to overdo or to brace in order to conquer a technical challenge. It proved possible to give up end-gaining for the movement, instead of allowing the system to organize itself appropriately around the intention, invariably with less effort than previously thought necessary. In effect, improvement in use frees the performer to trust in her own ability to organize herself for the task at hand. It is my own experience as a performer that when I am thinking in activity I am more self-possessed and calm, more present in performance because I am not caught in the throes of anxiety-provoking end-gaining. Good use frees the dancer to be spontaneous in the movement of performance...to be in the moment.
One important issue for dancers or for Alexander Technique teachers interested in following up on this idea of integrating Alexander with dance training is how to introduce the Technique to dancers, and how to help them bring the means to good use from the private lesson into the dance studio and onto the stage. I have found that a combination of private lessons and classes is a successful format for dancers. I give traditional one on-one private lessons, and in addition I come into dance classes and work with the dancers to remind them to prevent inappropriate habits and encourage improved use while taking class.
In my experience, dancers who had only traditional Alexander Technique lessons were slower to make the transition to application in the dance studio. Dancers who did not have private lessons, but who attended the dance class with the Alexander Technique teacher present, enjoyed the physical changes elicited by the teacher’s touch during dance class but did not have a means to bring about change on their own. We found the combination of private lessons and dance classes with the Alexander Technique teacher as an active participant to be invaluable, it serves as a transition for the dancer learning to inhibit and direct in activity and as a reminder for the advanced Alexander-trained dancer. It is important to combine forces with a dance technique teacher who is familiar with and in agreement with this released way of working, and who will encourage this kind of attention by choice of movement, verbal cues, and corrections. I have been fortunate to collaborate with several teachers whose understanding of movement greatly enriches the process, in particular Gill Clarke, Scott Clark, and Mark Borchelt.
In my work with the Alexander Technique and dance training, these effects of the lessons were mentioned repeatedly; that dancing was simpler, easier, less effortful; that individuals felt more present, more grounded, more centered, more calm, more free. If we consider injury and stress, there are benefits as well. Obviously improved use will not alter inhospitable performing spaces, challenging rehearsal and performance schedules, inconsiderate teachers, demanding choreography, nutritional deficiencies, medical conditions, professional pressures, careless partnering, or falling off the stage. But if some injuries are functionally caused by the repetition of poor use, then improved use will reduce the tendency to such injury.
In addition, improved use can change both the dancer’s neuromuscular conditions and attitude, giving her better ways to cope with the challenges and stresses of overwork, fatigue, and psychological pressure, and a better way to deal with injury if it should occur. If the individual can continue to use herself well despite injury, she will have a better conscious awareness of muscular compensations and a means for preventing them, so she will only have the injury to recover from, not the compensations as well. I have seen well-intentioned dancers practising rehabilitation exercises with excessive unnecessary tension and bracing in other parts of the body. In the long run, while they may be exercising and strengthening specific muscles, they are also exercising and strengthening habits of poor use that may lead to further injury. The dancer with a means for monitoring and correcting her use can retrain efficiently and accurately, without incurring other problems. Inhibition and direction work equally well, whether you are balancing in a cantilevered arabesque on half-point or learning to walk with crutches and your knee in a brace.
Alexander believed that conscious choice is our supreme inheritance and that it is available to anyone who cares to develop this skill. This simple means for taking conscious control of your decisions is not only about the head, neck, and back but also about the basic human endowment of a mind that can choose. This is what makes the Alexander Technique. It starts with lengthening and widening and it leads to an enhanced ability to make the most of your talents and skills.
Phyllis Richmond teaches at Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas
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