I’m no dancer, as my old primary school dance partners will attest. But I’ve sat through thousands of ballet classes over the past 28 years, seated behind a piano. And for the past nineteen of those years I’ve watched with the principles of the Alexander Technique in mind. I’m certainly not the first to consider dance from an Alexander Technique point of view. Much has been written on this already and there is a very good DVD available by Jane Kosminsky (“For Dancers – The Alexander Technique”).
Three points I think worth considering are:
1. Our feelings can’t be trusted
I have written about this before (I Know You’re Debauched and I’ll Tell You Why): “We get used to the position we’re usually in, and this comes to register as normal. If you spend a lot of time slumping, for instance, it will come to feel normal. So if you look in the mirror you will see what is actually going on, thanks to your vision” but you may be feeling something quite different.
So in the ballet class, the teacher asks the student not to stick their bottom out when bending. If this has been the student’s habit for a while, they won’t feel themselves doing it. They may be able to see it in a mirror, but without the mirror their feelings will guide them to where they feel right, and they’ll stick their bottom out again when bending. Alexander realised this, it’s a fundamental part of learning his technique. As he said: “Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to think that their idea of right is right.”
2. The importance of maintaining a good relationship between the head, neck and back
This is often clear when jumping or turning. If the student feels a lot of effort is required, they may tense and brace in preparation, which tightens them in front and shortens them slightly. They have then lost the good head-neck-back relationship which gives them power, and balance. They have replaced it with misguided effort. And in time, this effort will come to feel familiar, which brings us back to point 1 again.
3. The need to stop the wrong thing happening
When a dancer recognises these unnecessary habits and learns to prevent them, they then maintain poise, length and lightness through their movements. Preventing wrong habits from engaging is a skill to learn. It takes practice to be in a good shape and then keep it when turning, jumping, or leaping. And it takes practice not to stiffen and tighten when preparing for these movements. If we think something will be effortful, it’s easy to make that effort in the wrong way, and compromise the body’s shape. To keep the good head-neck-back relationship means poise and power are maximised. Or as Alexander put it: “When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.”
Alexander Technique, like dance, is something you learn through practice. You learn how to achieve a good use of the body whatever you’re doing – it may be dancing, or teaching, or sitting behind a piano watching the dance. You learn to not damage yourself in the process of doing something you love.
“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practising dancing or to learn to live by practising living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” ― Martha Graham