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Mind your body: Alexander Technique: get in gear.

WHEN MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV first performed with Twyla Tharp, many were amazed at how easily he moved between classical and contemporary styles. These days, professional dancers regularly leap from a Mark Morris work on Saturday night into La Bayadere for the Sunday matinee. But looking natural and moving safely in vastly different styles is difficult. Some dancers have found that The Alexander Technique is a tool that can help.

Robert Britton, a San Francisco-based Alexander teacher who works with dancers, began studying the technique because an injured knee made it difficult for him to sit cross-legged when he meditated. "Our bodies have histories," he says. Past injuries and the places we hold tension affect our ways of moving. "Dancers bring these habits of use to class," says Britton, "and dance instruction gets layered on top." Alexander sessions make a student aware of the specific habits that impede his or her movement and help change those tendencies.

The movement practice is itself adaptable. The approach was developed around a century ago by F.M. Alexander, a Shakespearean actor who frequently lost his voice. Through years of self-observation, he learned to orient his head, neck, and spine in a way that solved his vocal problem. He spent the rest of his life expanding on his discoveries and teaching them to others.

ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE sessions involve gentle hands-on work and simple movements like standing, walking, and sitting. The teacher encourages students to lengthen their spines, balance their beads, and widen their backs in a way that creates the ease of movement that Alexander discovered. "Touch is very important," says Sara Hook, a choreographer and associate professor of dance at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a student of the technique. "The teacher's hands give you an immediate sense of what's going on in your body."

Alexander work requires dancers to release tensions that they've used as crutches--perhaps since they began training. For example, a ballet dancer may tighten her glutes to tuck her sacrum under and turn her legs out. Alexander work would teach her to release that held position and replace it with a lengthened spine and more inner muscular strength. The result is a body that moves with greater ease and shifts styles with less effort and danger of injury.

"If you're holding yourself in a ballet way when you go to an African dance class, you're likely to get injured," says Britton. "Alexander helps you find your body's neutral. Then you can let different styles express themselves out of that place."

IT TEACHES you that you have choices," says Nic Petry, an MFA student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has worked with many choreographers, including David Parker and Sara Hook. "You learn to stop, observe, think about how you do a movement, and then decide if you want to do it differently."

Mary Cochran, a professor of dance at Barnard College, studied Alexander Technique during the years that she danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and found it crucial to her development. "I had probably the worst posture of any dancer," she says. "I was knock-kneed, had no turnout. But Alexander taught me to create an image of my skeleton working in a correct, easy way. It gave me tangible evidence that imagination has an actual, physical result." And she says the technique also helped her pick up movement quickly. "You don't try to approach someone's way of moving by using the pathways they've gone down before," she says. "You're not relying on patterns, but looking freshly."

"Alexander gives dancers freedom," says Elizabeth Garren, an Alexander practitioner in Minneapolis who has danced in the Trisha Brown Company. "The more you can remove obstacles, the more you can fly."


Janet Weeks is a dance writer based in San Francisco.
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Author:Weeks, Janet
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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