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Before You Leap: A Dancer Discovers Ease of Movement

Alexander relaxation and awareness techniques changed a professional dancer's approach.

"Movement never lies....Dance should illuminate the landscape of the soul." As Martha Graham said, everything is there in a dancer's movement: her thoughts, feelings, dreams, and doubts. Her entire life history is expressed when she moves. Patterns and groupings on a stage, the architectural design of bodies, phrasing, and movement invention are all essential ingredients in the choreographic process. However, the vehicle of communication for this process is always the dancer.

Dance is the language of the soul spoken through movement. In the absence of words, a simple and mysterious communication is possible. Dance is movement poetry, which the audience receives visually and feels in their body.

A dancer trains for years to become versed in this language by becoming strong, agile, and accomplished. She engages in a rigorous discipline to improve coordination and articulation. Her warm-ups are designed to build strength and range of movement, and her goal is to perform the most difficult movements with ease, grace, and passion. As her training progresses, a simultaneous process is under way that will both direct and limit her future development. She is cultivating habits during her training that are, in large part, unintended and have great physical and psychic impact. In addition, these habits are being conveyed to the audience through her movement, thus altering the nature and meaning of her communication.

Imagine an actor who wants to convey anxiety without words. She will deliberately become more rigid and may move quickly and abruptly. Conversely, a dancer who is habitually rigid in the chest and shoulders, and who is generally tense, unwittingly will convey similar anxiety to the audience either visually or viscerally.

To plumb the depths of the soul, we need to make conscious the habits we cultivate in and out of the studio. If we inquire into our daily warm-up--the foundation for our dance training--we can ask what these exercises are inviting. Are they encouraging the building of brute strength, isolation of one body part from another, static positions, and the defiance of gravity? Or do they facilitate integration of the whole body through breathing, suppleness of muscular tone, minimizing of effort, and the use of gravity and momentum? Each particular regimen represents a point of view. For example, what belief do I cultivate when I stand on a leg that is hardened at the thigh, clenched in the buttock, and tightened at the ankle with toes grabbing the floor for support? What values do I encourage by leaving the ankle free, letting the sole of the foot remain open with long toes, allowing the legs to be unbraced and leaving the hip joint mobile and the pelvic floor soft and open?

The point is that you are creating your own instrument as you dance and train. What do you want that instrument to look like? What do you want it to be able to do? How will the type of practice you choose shape your instrument--your tool of expression?

As a young dancer, I trained in a variety of dance techniques in which I unconsciously cultivated attitudes and habits that later impeded my progress and, in some cases, led to injury. These attitudes, such as striving, fighting to get it right, and pushing through pain, flow from our western urban culture. Some of the neuromuscular patterns that accompany these mental states involve bracing in various muscle groups, raising the chest, holding on in the thighs and ankles, restricting the breathing, stiffening in the neck, and clenching in the gut.

In my early twenties, I had achieved a degree of mastery as a dancer, but I sensed I was nearing a ceiling in regard to my technical abilities. My body, while toned and strong, was also tight, uncomfortable, and continually plagued with knots, aches, and pains. This is not at all unusual. In fact, most dancers take pain for granted. We think that a rigorous workout is evidenced by the discomfort or pain that emerges later. Nevertheless, it started to dawn on me that these continual signs of strain might be unnecessary, if not harmful.

I also sensed some philosophical dissonance between the values I held in my intellectual and political life and the attitudes I was cultivating toward my inner self. I considered myself an ardent feminist. At the heart of my feminism was a belief in integration rather than divisiveness, both within a person and among people. Yet, in the studio I was tyrannical--trying to force my body into positions, cultivating an aggressive, competitive attitude toward myself.

As Erick Hawkins (a choreographer and dancer whose maverick approach to modern dance derives from the science of kinesiology and a philosophy of simplicity, purity, and non-doing) said, "The way of tight muscles, tension, strain, violence, force and aggressiveness in the body, registers the analogous state of the soul."

While in college, I had the good fortune to fall into the hands of a teacher who was a Sufi and a former dancer with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company. She embodied an aesthetic I had never imagined. She performed extraordinary technical movements with a beautiful quality of grace and ease. It was clear that she was genuinely at ease while executing even the most strenuous movements.

Under her instruction, I totally reconfigured my understanding of my own body as well as my approach to dance training. I acquired practical experience with the principle of "non-doing" in an activity. I discovered that when I was engaged in the most athletic feat, there could be, in my core, a still, calm place from which the movement could emanate. When such an open, quiet center was operating, I was more awake and able to observe as I moved. Furthermore, I was able to determine the effort that was actually necessary to accomplish the movement.

For the first time, I realized that the effort I was putting into my dancing was the main impediment to my improvement. Through this new insight, a flood of changes ensued. I learned how to work on my dancing by a process that required less effort, which meant I had a lot more energy at my disposal. In addition, the less I did in a muscular way, the more I felt; it was as though with each "letting go" of habitual grabbing, there was an explosion of sensation. These changes affected my whole relationship with the floor. Gravity became something to work with and be supported by rather than to lift out of or defy. Instead of relying on fixed positions and holding, I started dancing with poise, flow and grace. Gradually my fear diminished while my sense of confidence and vulnerability grew. I began to feel that I was no longer making dance happen but allowing movement to flow through me.

As I was beginning to teach dance during this time, I had a question for my teacher about how to approach a specific movement: "Should we be using our abdominals as we curve the torso forward in the sitting warm-up or just let the body fall and recover itself?" Her reply: "That depends on what is important to you in life." Her answer, simple as it seemed, shattered my preconceptions about teaching and learning dance technique. She helped me realize that the values I hold dear in my life are the same ones that shape my training. In fact, they act on each other reciprocally. All the minute choices we make, can and do shape our beliefs. They are not themselves fixed, but become part of a process of discovery.

This sense of dance training as a process of discovery will emerge once we are able to observe the choices we are making--even the subtle ones that affect the amount of muscular effort made. Then we can begin to question, investigate and consciously guide our own training. For example, I may ask: Can I do this movement with less constriction of breath? With less grabbing in my muscles? What do I wish to communicate? Can I display aggression or power without harming myself? What impact will holding my abdominals for several hours a day have on my physical and mental well being? Is there a way of achieving technical excellence through less effort?

Over time, however, I found that even a technique of less effort and sounder kinesiological principles was not sufficient. My dancing was still limited by the deep neuromuscular patterns and unconscious habits that underlay all of my activities in and out of the studio.

As dancers train and develop--perhaps this is true in other activities as well, but I find it particularly true of dance--it is very easy to become dependent on guidance from the outside. We rely on the teacher and the mirror to determine success, correctness, and degree of progress. We are not taught to observe our internal sensory activities. Consequently, we are surprised to find the aches, pains, and moods that arise after rigorous work, and we may feel alarmed and puzzled by an injury of unknown origin.

In my investigation into these issues I came across the Alexander Technique, which has become the basis of my approach to movement, the body, teaching, and my understanding of the nature of habit and thought. The Technique is in essence a training in "wakeful doing." That is, we learn to observe ourselves in stillness and carry that attention into activity. Additionally, from that base of stillness and attention, we learn to consciously direct our actions or movements not by doing but by holding an intention in mind. Attention with intention is the cornerstone of Alexander's work.

On a purely mechanical level it is easy to point out how habits interfere with carrying out an intention: An actor who is in the habit of constricting the throat muscles during speech will usually find his pitch rising when, in fact, he means to increase his volume. Consider the dancer who is in the habit of raising her shoulders during an effortful movement. If she attempts a double pirouette, she is likely to fall backwards as the increased effort to turn takes her off-balance--rather than taking her up and around her central axis.

To the extent that these are gross muscular distortions, any teacher can point out the visible movement error and ask for a correction. However, the typical suggestion involves doing: "Bring your shoulders down." Or, "Hold onto your alignment as you turn." One is not likely to hear, "Observe the clenching in your neck and shoulders at the moment you begin to move." Or, "See if you can refrain from raising the shoulders, and keep that intention to remain quiet in the shoulder girdle as you move." These requests would indicate both non-doing as a corrective tool and internal observation as a guiding principle.

After examining what one's training entails from a formal point of view, we can look at the internal process, i.e., the internal landscape you build along with your technical prowess. The direction of non-doing first involves the incorporation of an observing self in the practice of dance. Developing powers of observation requires a continual inquiry into the workings of the mind, the heart, and the body: What thoughts, feelings and sensations arise as a part of, and in dialogue with, your daily practice? What level of neuromuscular effort are you employing as you rehearse?

This approach guarantees that as a dancer continues her daily practice, she is strengthening not only her muscles, but her ability to observe in activity and to maintain equilibrium in the midst of dancing. When a movement is attempted that causes strain, she will likely notice it and be able to make a conscious choice regarding that strain. Self-observation also allows her increasing insight into her own behavior.

With non-doing, observation, and conscious intention as the basis for training and practice, underlying habits of thought and action are more accessible. We can observe the bracing and rigidity that cause unwanted responses or movements, or that limit our capacity for improvement. These patterns weaken the integrity of our organism, create the conditions for injury, and communicate to an audience our anxiety and disconnectedness.

I may discover that in the moment prior to a jump, I am bearing down in the chest and gut as a preparation. After examining this pattern, I'm likely to discover that not only is this bearing down unnecessary, it is actually counterproductive; I will certainly not get as much height as I would were I to leave the torso quiet and buoyant. In addition, this kind of preparing causes a tugging on the lower back which weakens the structure and often leads to muscle pulls and spasms. Of course, the other unwanted effect is that such a preparation telegraphs to an audience that something difficult is about to happen--the magic of leaping effortlessly is lost.

This approach to one's self and one's training requires a radical shift in attitude. Instead of seeing the body as a static set of conditions to be positioned, corrected, tamed, and polished, we become a continually changing process of events, responses, and choices that may be observed, quieted, redirected, or left alone.

The first rule of this approach to one's self and one's dancing is to stop fighting. In fact, it is to stop entirely. To observe, one first has to stop doing. Once the observing self is active, one's job is to remain attentive as one proceeds into activity.

Poise, integrity, and coordination will not be achieved by force. The body's integrity reveals itself when we refrain from interfering with that very balance. Our work is to observe how we interfere, and how we address ourselves in a tyrannical tone--dividing one part from another. We can then begin to learn a new kind of "control."

When a dancer cultivates this kind of attentiveness during training, the result is an artist who is not only more "awake," but also more conscious of how she is executing her movement and what she is communicating through it. The dancer is less limited by her unconscious habits and is therefore freer to say what she intends. Her movement reveals an inner landscape that is more essential, whole and universal. This movement speaks not from the personality of the dancer to that of the audience, but from the depth of one soul to another.

Excerpted from: Curiosity Recaptured: Exploring Ways We Think and Move published by Mornum Time Press--www.mtpress.com--$16.00 paperback, 0-9644352-2-5; available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and all independent booksellers.

Anne Bluethenthal is founder and artistic director of Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers, a company she established in 1984 in San Francisco. She is originally from North Carolina, holds a B.A. in Dance from Oberlin College, and is certified by the North American and London Societies for Teachers of the Alexander Technique (NASTAT, STAT). Anne has performed her own and others' work throughout the U.S. She performs as a guest artist with various dance and theater ensembles, has been an artistic consultant and director for many Bay Area choreographers, and travels as a solo artist and teacher. As well as her work as a choreographer and performer, she has developed an innovative approach to teaching dance and training dancers. Anne has had a private practice in the F.M. Alexander Technique since 1985, and teaches dance at the ODC Performance Gallery and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.


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