How the Alexander Technique can help Dancers

From BodyLearning: “Ariel Weiss, an Alexander Technique teacher in Philadelphia, talks with Robert Rickover about the usefulness of the Alexander Technique for dancers. Ariel’s website: alexandertechniquephiladelphia.com Robert teaches in Toronto and Nebraska: alexandertechniquenebraska.com. For more information about the Alexander Technique: alexandertechnique.com.”

Ariel: “We’ve passed down misuse to many generations of dancers.

“Dancers need to understand their own habitual patterns so that when a teacher makes a correction, they’re not stuck in a trap of constantly over-correcting and over-efforting but understand their own best use and function.

“There’s a great deal in dancing technique about keeping the shoulders down. We don’t like to see shoulders rising toward to the ears. One habit of misuse that gets adopted is that dancers often pull their scapulae down their backs in a way that immobilizes them and restricts movement, restricts a graceful line, and puts a great strain on their neck and shoulders.”

Robert: “So they’re trying to correct one problem by introducing a correcting movement to fight it.”

Ariel: “They’ve added a push to a pull.”

Robert: “The Alexander approach is if your primary habit is to lift your shoulders, why not let go of that instead of fighting it.”

“I sometimes find it difficult working with dancers. There tend to be some ideas about how they present themselves on stage, a little arching of the lower back, etc… With a musician who has back pain while playing in an orchestra and you can show the musician an easier way to sit and play, most of the time they’re going to be fine with that. They don’t have a lot invested. Oh, this is an easier way to sit and I’m playing the violin better, I’m down with that. With a dancer…”

Ariel: “It’s a lot more threatening.”

Robert: “You’re tampering.”

Ariel: “The dancer has much more invested in what those movement patterns feel like and if you take away that feeling, even if that feeling is causing them to be injured, which happens commonly… There’s been a commitment to that feeling because they believe it is helping them achieve what they’re after.”

“If you can show a dancer that by attending to their best use and functioning, they can achieve their goals more readily, then you have their attention and they might be willing to relinquish that commitment to faulty sensory perception.”

“This is one instance of where teaching in a group is helpful. Dancers most often study in groups. They’re used to watching each other and learning from others. If somebody can suspend their belief system for a moment and dare to do something non-habitual, and everyone in the room can see that their leg went up higher, then that is going to make a larger impression than anything else.”

Robert: “More than anything you can say to them.”

Ariel: “I like to tell my students, please don’t believe me.”

Robert: “Independently verify.”

Glenna Batson writes: Dance is a performing art built upon the ebb and flow of muscular tension. Through muscular tension, dancers express their aesthetic sensibilities. The word “dance,” in fact, stems from the Old High German “danson,” meaning to stretch, and from the earlier Sanskrit root “tan,” meaning tension. The building and resolution of tensions we experience in performance touches us deeply — kinesthetically, emotionally, and spiritually. At the heart of a dancer’s training lies the cultivation of muscular effort – its degree, sensibility, precision, refinement. Although dancers train their bodies in many ways, the cornerstone is technique. Dancers would be hard pressed, however, to come up with one succinct phrase that adequately defines technique. Returning the the dictionary, the word technique simply means the “manner and ability with which we pursue a particular endeavor.” What is the “manner and ability” needed to dance?

Traditionally, various dance techniques have evolved out of the stylistic (muscular effort) preferences of their inventors — the “Vaganova” technique, after the famous ballerina Agippa Vaganova, the “Graham” technique, after modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, and so forth. Ideally, the dancer’s training goes beyond attempts to mold the dancer to a certain style or set of neuromuscular patterns. Instead of simply looking “right” or doing the movement “correctly,” the dancer learns to move from an embodied source — fully receptive and responsive to the moment of movement. Such training frees the dancer from rigid holding patterns or other constraints that bind thought, feeling, and action. The emergence of somatic approaches and “release” techniques, and their incorporation into dance training supports the trend toward finding more free, autonomous ways of moving.

Many artists – actors, musicians, as well as dancers – have found the Alexander Technique to be a powerful way to enhance performance. Aficionados say that the Alexander Technique is “the technique under all techniques,” because it is a process of embodied thinking, sensing, and acting. Through studying the Alexander Technique, dancers can move with greater ease, poise, and accomplishment, regardless of the movement style.

The Technique involves three pivotal arms of training coordination developed by F.M. Alexander: the “Means-Whereby,” “Inhibition,” and”Direction.” The Means-Whereby helps dancers pay attention to their whole Self as they are moving. By paying attention to how you are moving — as you move — process takes precedence over product. The process of learning or performing movement becomes more important than the goal. Movement becomes freer when dancers focus on sensing the changing relationships of the moving body, not just on positions or steps.

Inhibition is F.M. Alexander’s term for a process that facilitates effortless, natural movement. By using inhibition, dancers learn to recognize habitual, unembodied movements and to choose not to do them. Habitual tensions leave anyone with a paucity of body relationships and movement options — the scourge of the dancer. Using the Alexander process of Inhibition, a dancer can pay exquisite attention to the moving Self without interfering with the inherent laws of coordination. Inhibition further affords the dancer a means of refreshing their kinesthetic sense which may have been diminished from the fatigue of hours of rehearsal.

Ariel: “Excessive work misdirected is strain. Dancing requires work. It’s glorious work. When we direct that work in a direction that helps us succeed helps us enjoy what we’re doing. We’re helping to prevent injury. We’re increasing our skill, our expressiveness and our own enjoyment.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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