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A Whole New World

Teaching has been my life for over three decades. The cycle of planning, preparing, tweaking the management system, and setting up concerts was pretty predictable. Thinking on my feet was a given, and planning on the fly was inevitable as we improvised our way to a performance.

As I transition into my new teaching role, I’m struck by the new expectations. The University of Illinois’ Dance Department has two professors who are Alexander Technique (AT) teachers. One offers a fall class based on the book Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the Missing Link by Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and Luc Vanier. I’m privileged to assist this year, and though I read the chapter every week, I’m never quite prepared for what happens in class. My job is to guide students into efficient body positions so they can better experience the goal of the activity. The last two weeks’ topic: spirals in the body and how to use them for easier movement. I’m expected to use my knowledge of how the body works to lend my hands to their efforts. Sometimes I'm beautifully helpful! But it’s humbling work.

My private lesson experience is similar. I’m working with an instrumentalist who is having issues with hands. We’re beginning to notice how muscles hold tension when they don’t need to be involved in an activity and how to isolate movements and let go of excess tension. It’s an interesting process, and while there is a general direction for the learning (and principles to teach and apply), it’s mostly about using my knowledge of how the body works to help this student experience a better way to function. Hopefully something carries over into the week.

One obvious part of a teacher's job is giving instructions, but it’s a tricky business, because what’s clear in my mind isn’t always clear for the listener. When the outcome is a movement, the process gets very murky. Fortunately, it’s common practice for AT teachers to supplement verbal directions with gentle hands-on directions for clarification and help with tension release.

To complicate the concept of directions, AT teachers have students give directions to parts of the body—a thinking process rather than an activity. F.M. Alexander called these “orders”, and their purpose is to create length, width, and opposition between parts that bring about better balance in the body. This in turn allows more mechanical advantage and less tension in the way the body is used. It’s a bit like the “think system” from the musical The Music Man, though Professor Hill wasn’t nearly as specific as F.M. Alexander. Scientists who study the Technique have measured the effect of these thoughts on the muscles with Electromyography (EMG) and found them to be quite effective. Basic directions are

  • Let the neck be free so the head can rotate forward and float up

  • Let the head and tailbone move away from each other (in opposition, but not pulled)

  • Let the back widen

  • Let the front lengthen from the hip to the back of the skull

  • Let the arms and legs lengthen away from the torso

And while all this thinking in action is happening, I also need to pay attention to how I use my own body as a teacher. It’s my mechanical advantage that makes productive things happen for a student. And that’s a story in itself! It really is a whole new world!

photo by John Panning 2022

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