Head First

April 27, 2009

Once when Kirstie Simson was rehearsing, she twisted her left knee so severely that her knee cap slid to the back of her knee. After extensive rehab, Simson, a contact improvisation performer, returned to dancing. Yet her knee remained weak, which led to pain in her left hip and shoulder. Then she became an assistant dance professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and began studying Alexander Technique. Soon her left-side pain vanished. “I honestly believe my injury wouldn’t have happened if I had known Alexander before,” she says.

Alexander practitioners have long seen a connection between the technique and injury recovery. In the dance world, injuries are often treated as an isolated event. Alexander instructors help students recognize patterns that they fall into automatically which interfere with their freedom of movement. Over time, they learn to replace them. “They come back more quickly from injury because they don’t fall back on old habits,” says longtime Juilliard Alexander teacher Jane Kosminsky. “The technique becomes a tool for ongoing prevention.”

Ann Rodiger, Alexander teacher and director of BalanceArts Center in New York City, works with injured dancers to see whether a habit has contributed to the injury. She also notes how the dancer is compensating for the injury. When this kind of problem gets pointed out early, it can speed recovery.  

Learning to See

Alexander Technique relies on three principles. The first is to observe without judgment. Often dancers look in the mirror and don’t like what they see, so they force their bodies into the “right” shape. Kosminsky has her students face a mirror, then asks them where their eye goes. A dancer with an arched lower back and popped ribs may notice her rib cage first.

“Dancers often overcorrect, so if a ballet teacher comments on a student’s ribs, she may hold them in so she can’t breathe well,” explains Kosminsky. When a dancer can observe her body without judgment, it helps her realize her alignment isn’t carved in stone. It’s the first step in becoming aware of her tendencies.

Kicking the Habits

Once a dancer has noted a habit that’s creating problems, she needs to “inhibit” it. This means pausing before initiating a movement. Many injuries happen because dancers go on autopilot once they know a piece well. Kosminsky notes this tendency in each freshman class. “If a dancer begins a tendu by pushing into her ankle, winging her foot, and comes back still winging, over time she develops a sprained ankle.” Kominsky helps the dancer consciously inhibit her winging and think about using her whole foot to tendu.


Photo: Natalie Fiol, courtesy Rebecca Nettl-Fiol

The Power of Direction

The final principle, direction, means deliberately deciding where and how much energy to use. Many dancers use more energy than the movement needs, causing muscle tension and fatigue. Direction also helps dancers solve alignment challenges. For instance, the dancer who pops her front ribs should think about lengthening and widening her back, and visualize releasing the extra energy from her front ribs. Her rib cage may hang more easily if she thinks about “floating each rib from the spine” rather than forcing them in and down.  

“I think of direction as replacing overexertion with clarity of intent,” explains University of Illinois dance professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol. “Dancers new to Alexander say they feel like they aren’t doing anything, it seems so easy!”

Solving Alignment

Building on these three principles, Alexander makes “good” alignment the foundation of its work. But how does a dancer achieve this enigmatic goal? A fourth principle, primary control, focuses on the relationship between the head and neck. An instructor may guide a student by saying, “Neck free, head forward and up.” Students are often surprised by how much they are gripping their neck muscles. Once this head-neck freedom is found, a more natural alignment follows through the rest of the torso.

Correcting imbalances that can aid injury recovery and even prevent injury is only part of Alexander’s benefits. Many dancers find increased skill and dexterity, and even emotive focus. The secret lies not in forcing action, but in making the impulse behind every action conscious. “It is a process, a refinement,” says Kosminsky, “an encouragement to become an artist.”

Jen Peters is a NYC dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.