The Alexander Technique – Good Dancers Make it Look Easy

An example of Somatic Movement Education in Dance Education

by Greg Holdaway © 1994

Good dancers don’t make it look easy – they make it easy; ease in movement and postural alignment is an underlying factor in the development of good dance practise and a long lived practical enjoyment of dancing.

This paper discusses the way we use our bodies. It considers the role of muscle tension and proprioception, or body awareness, in dancers alignment and movement quality from the perspective of the Alexander Technique. It then discusses the Alexander Technique as a method for facilitating ease of movement while dancing.

It benefits both teachers and students to ‘make it easy’ for themselves.

Alignment, Tension and Proprioception

Bodily alignment plays a very important part in ease of movement and coordination. Movement looks better and feels better, when a dancer or student has a well balanced alignment.

We all have a characteristic alignment, which is usually thought of as the arrangement or ‘stacking’ of our bones on top of each other. Alignment involves more than this however, it forms the dynamic series of inter-relationships between the various parts and structures of our bodies. It is changing constantly, and yet always changes within a characteristic pattern, reflecting your personality. Your alignment reflects the way you ‘use’ your body , the way in which you integrate all of your parts together, how they interact and relate in movement.

It is by their characteristic alignment that we recognise our friends from a distance, yet our own alignment resides almost completely out of our conscious awareness. We have grown used to it or trained ourselves into it, and like background noise or static we often only become truly aware of it when it changes. Our alignment affects all our movement, no matter what the context.

Most teachers take care to direct their students to have good alignment, what is not so often understood is how to create good alignment. The relationship between muscular tension, proprioception and alignment needs to be considered. Alignment distortion or poor alignment is usually a consequence of unbalanced and inappropriate muscular tension in the body.

We have an “anti-gravity reflex”, which “integrates [our] other reflex systems”,  keeping us upright and balanced without any conscious attention or effort. When this is over-ridden by habitual muscular tension our alignment is disturbed (Jones, 1976). Our bodies become ‘pulled-down’ against our natural tendance to balance upright.

It is this pulling down which becomes habitual, residing out of conscious awareness. Yet it is actual muscular activity being carried out in the body – you are actively pulling yourself out of balance.

The conventional method of alignment correction, “pulling-up”, succeeds in altering, sometimes drastically, the alignment of dance students. Specific corrections, for example; “drop your shoulders”, “tuck your pelvis under”, “knees over feet” etc, while often representing accurate and necessary improvements in alignment, all tend to generate extra and compensatory muscle tension throughout the body. (Can you tighten your fist without tightening your neck or lower back?).

What actually happens is more accurately described as “pulling-down” – the student strives to correct by adding more surface muscle tension and, rather than returning to a natural easy balance and coordination, succeeds only in further disturbance and distortion of their system.

As senior Alexander teacher, Marjorie Barstow states; “You can’t get rid of tension by adding tension“.

As the student applies conscious effort to alter their movement pattern or alignment, they gradually become accustomed to the effort involved – the correction of the habit becomes a habit itself, holding the moving body together with muscle tension. They eventually lose the feeling of doing anything and cannot feel the effort nor the alignment other than in terms of this is what feels right.

The unfortunate result is a taught, ‘held’ looking mover who, as a consequence of fatigue and a loss of ease, flow and lightness, loses also their natural joy in movement – without knowing why.

This is exactly the problem. It feels right to move in an habitual manner, it feels right to correct faulty alignment using the same habitual tension pattern. We become accustomed to a certain level of tension, a certain style of alignment and it just feels right to work that way. Even when poor movement quality, restriction and injury are present it can be very difficult to assist a trained or training dancer to give up the old habitual way of moving. For them it often does not feel possible to move at all without this characteristic tension.

This is what Alexander referred to as ‘faulty sensory appreciation’; it feels to us as if we are ‘aligned’ and applying appropriate effort, when if fact, seen from the outside, we are not.

A graphic example of faulty sensory appreciation is provided in the following anecdote: Alexander was working with a young girl who had been unable to walk properly for some years. Her body was twisted and distorted. After Alexander had worked with her, and she was “comparatively straightened out … the little girl looked across at her mother and said to her in an indescribable tone: ‘Oh! Mummy, he’s pulled me out of shape.'”! Alexander goes on to say; “In accordance with this poor little child’s judgment, her crookedness was straightness, her sensory appreciation of her ‘out-of-shape’ condition was that it was ‘in shape’ … Small wonder that all attempts to teach her had resulted in failure!” (Alexander, 1923:91)

The principle of faulty sensory appreciation operates on a very subtle level: when a student holds his or her arms to the sides behind the line of their body, the teacher may offer the correction of bringing the arms further forward, in line with the body (depending on the style of dance being taught). If asked now what this feels like, the student will reply that the arms feel too far forward. Often, the student will very shortly return to what feels right, i.e. moving the arms back again. Similarly, a person with a posture which leans backward in the upper back, when assisted to stand easily in a balanced upright position, will usually report that this feels like they are leaning forward. A quick check in the mirror shows the inaccuracy of the feeling.

Alignment can thus be seen as only one side of the coin. Tension habits are the other, and both must be addressed if the student is to regain the accuracy in proprioception which will allow improvement in movement quality.

A dancer’s habitual alignment and tension habits underlie and dominate all of their movement, both those developed before dance training and those developed in training.

An untrained dancer may look like they are “falling apart”, “slumping”, “dis-integrating” or “poorly balanced” with a lack of precise technique. In this state they are in danger of acute injury through accident or chronic pain problems due to poor alignment.

A trained dancer however, is working on their alignment by “pulling-up” and using conscious effort to specifically “get it right”. By doing so they are increasing muscular tension throughout their body, and eventually develop a tension/alignment habit sometimes referred to as “the dancers grip” (Conable, 1991:114). The dancer looks “held-together” and lacks the flow, extension and ease of movement coordination of less tense colleagues.

Both of these situations rely upon the dancers feel of what is right to do, their proprioceptive sense, and in both situations this feeling is inaccurate and leads to problems.

The muscular tension and faulty alignment associated with habit and faulty sensory appreciation both before and after training, interferes with movement quality, fine movement sensitivity and enjoyment of dancing. It leads to greater risk of injury – stress related and accidental injury. Coordination and movement learning processes are disrupted and greater effort is required to balance.

A means to improvement

Alexander said “if it is possible for feeling to become untrustworthy as a means of direction, it should be possible to make it trustworthy again” (Alexander, 1932:36).

It is possible to re-educate our sensory appreciation, making the proprioceptive sense an accurate and sensitive guide to ease and coordination – this amounts to a training in body-feeling analogous to specialised training in visual skills (painter) or aural skills (musician). It is indeed possible to ‘make it easy’ for yourself and your students.

F.M. Alexander discovered an integrating principle of whole body functioning; he found that the moving relationship of his head, neck and torso was the major factor influencing his coordination. Directing the movement of this relationship and other moving relationships in your body with your thinking, has the effect of allowing your body to coordinate itself, using the effort necessary for the activity, while easily balanced and aligned. The movement looks and feels natural, flowing and dynamic.

The faulty appreciation of ourselves in movement makes it very difficult to assist a person to improve their coordination through the use of words and demonstrations alone. You may well have discovered something similar yourself. Alexander developed a particular use of his hands to guide the movement of the student’s body, and this skill, refined over many years of practise, is the foundation of the training of the Alexander teachers of today.

The basic characteristic of this approach is that the student learns to un-do patterns of habitual tension, thereby allowing the body to re-establish a natural easy coordination. The student does not learn any ‘new’ movement, or do any Alexander ‘exercises’- rather they learn how to facilitate current movement skills and assist the learning of new movement skills. This means that the Technique, once learnt, can be practised during ordinary dance classes.

The Alexander Technique in dance class

The Alexander Technique incorporates easily into dance classes of any style.

The experience of the Technique is unique and unusual and the first consideration is for the dance teacher to have personal experience of this. The Technique can only be really appreciated with the delicate guidance of a qualified Alexander teacher’s hands.

Then the students are given both class and personal instruction in the Technique by a qualified instructor. As this occurs, the dance teacher finds it possible to use the insights, concepts and sometimes even the terminology of the Technique directly during classes and rehearsals.

In particular, the dance teacher learns how to see movement quality differently, and to assess the movement organisation of each student. It becomes easy to identify those students who are tensing unnecessarily in the attempt to succeed, and assist them to regain their balanced alignment in movement. In particular, the learners attention is drawn to unnecessary tension in the attempt to copy or learn a movement – and care is taken to prevent or inhibit this tension.

For the students, this approach can feel less ‘dramatic’, than just ‘going for it’, but the clarity of their understanding of each movement is enhanced, ensuring clean integrated movement skill development, especially in energetic and strenuous movement sequences.

The dance teacher’s use of language and instruction in class becomes attuned to easy, flowing released movement. Accurate functional information is given during classes, allowing the students to think accurately about the way they move to assist their development of more accurate and easier movement skills.

Conclusions

Simply correcting alignment in dancers is not enough – tension and movement integration need to be addressed in the process of correction, to ensure movement is as easy and coordinated as possible.

Our responsibility as dance teachers is to ensure that our students move with a minimum of unnecessary muscle tension and an integrated dynamic alignment from the start – easing the long process of refinement in mastering their skill, and avoiding the need for later retraining, or worse, having to give up dancing due to tension, pain and injury.

The Alexander Technique is a method which addresses the sophistication of the moving person. Using a trained body awareness and accurate knowledge of the way your body functions, movement becomes comparatively effortless and you may experience a reawakening of a joy in the freedom of movement not experienced since early childhood.

Bibliography

  • Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (1923). Gollancz Paperbacks: London.
  • Alexander, F.M. The Use of the Self (1932). Gollancz Paperbacks: London.
  • Conable, B & W (1991). How to Learn the Alexander Technique, A Manual for Students. Andover Road Press: Columbus, Ohio.
  • Garlick, D (1990). The Lost Sixth Sense, A Medical Scientist looks at the Alexander Technique. School of Physiology and Pharmacology, The University of N.S.W.: Sydney.
  • Jones, F.P., Body Awareness in Action, A study of the Alexander Technique, Schocken Books: New York, 1976
  • Sacks, O., The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Pan Books: London, 1986