Monday, October 15, 2007

Taming the Wild Child

I have a confession to make. Back in my pre-Feldenkrais® days, when I first started teaching dance, I worked primarily with children. One ballet class stands out in my memory, for it was one of those classes in which a number of the children just didn’t know how to focus. They were constantly talking or fooling around between combinations.

One day, feeling totally exasperated and ready to loose patience, I said, “Ok, let's see who can hold their breath the longest.” Suddenly—there was silence. As I watched those angelic little faces turning various shades of red, I was stunned—they were suddenly completely committed and focused. The really interesting thing was that even after they let go of their breath and returned to dancing, they remained pretty focused—at least for the rest of that class. I must admit that I used that trick on a number of occasions, with similar results.

I have noticed that there seems to be more and more children these days exhibiting the behavior that I witnessed in that class. I suppose some would call it Attention Deficit Disorder; others might blame it on poor dietary habits. Whatever you call it and whatever the cause, these children simply have no means available (other than medication) to quiet themselves.

Learning to quiet oneself is a skill worth developing for all children. Awareness Through Movement® (ATM) lessons are one way to develop this skill, for they teach us to bring our awareness inward. They also teach us how to quiet our system. Although any ATM lesson can help, I have found breathing lessons to be especially effective for my students. Not only does it quiet them down, it has the added bonus of getting them into a state where they are much more receptive to learning.

This week’s lesson incorporates breathing and the use of imagination. I have used it with children as young as eight with great success. The next time you have an unruly class on your hands, give it a try.

IntelliDANCE Podcast: Lesson 3

Friday, October 12, 2007

Re-posting Podcast Link

Hi Everyone,

I am re-posting the podcast link for the October 8 lesson, Scoliosis and Supporting the Pattern, because for some reason it did not transmit to our iTunes subscribers. We are officially listed in the iTunes Directory, but may not show up in searches for a couple of weeks. You can access our link by clicking here. If you do go to the iTunes Store to subscribe, please consider posting a review!

Here it is again:

IntelliDANCE Podcast: Lesson 2

Monday, October 8, 2007

Alignment for Dancers—Part Two: Scoliosis and Supporting the Pattern

In Part 1 of this article/audio combo, we addressed the lumbar, thoracic and cervical curvatures of the spine, which are vital to our ability to support ourselves in standing. Some of us, in fact many of us in dance, struggle with an unnatural curvature of the spine, which is called scoliosis. This is a lateral (or sideways) curvature that usually includes some degree of spinal rotation. For dancers, scoliosis is an imbalance at the very core of the body that can lead to unnecessary tension, overcompensation and, eventually, pain.

Scoliosis can result from structural issues, such as a leg length discrepancy. It can also develop due to functional or habitual issues, such as poor posture or always carrying a heavy bag over one shoulder. Over time, these issues can lead to permanent structural changes in the spine. While we can’t do anything to change our skeletal structure, we can take steps to minimize further deterioration by addressing the shortening and tightening of the muscles on one side of the torso that accompanies a scoliosis curvature. In dance, the tendency for correcting such an imbalance would be to stretch the shorter side and strengthen the chronically lengthened side. In a Feldenkrais®-inspired world, we take a completely different approach.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it is possible to bring about dramatic changes in the body by a teaching strategy that Feldenkrais practitioners call supporting the pattern. It is based on the premise of starting with an individual’s strengths. In dance, we often use the word “strength” to point out positive aspects of a dancer’s technique. In this context, “strength” refers to those patterns strongly evident in the individual’s body and movement—even if we think that the pattern is wrong, or not to the individual’s greatest advantage. In dealing with an individual with a shortened side, for example, instead of trying to stretch out the shorter side, the strategy would be to make the short side even shorter. We would support the pattern.

What is really exciting about this approach is the way it triggers something within us—within our brain, nervous system and body. By supporting the pattern, we set up the conditions whereby the nervous system can detect patterns of neuro-muscular activity that are not useful and shut them down. Within just a few moments the individual can usually feel their ingrained pattern begin to shift: a short side suddenly lengthens effortlessly, for example. I think of this strategy as a kind of circuit breaker for the mind. If our body and movement patterns are the result of neurological impulses, and by supporting the pattern we take over the work of the muscles being impacted by the neurological impulses, the brain quickly realizes that it no longer needs to transmit those impulses. As the neurological firing quiets, the muscle contractions triggered by those impulses release and the mal-adaptive pattern is dissolved.

Although I am framing this teaching strategy of supporting the pattern around working with students with scoliosis, there are many applications where it can be effective. But let’s try a short Feldenkrais-inspired movement exploration that will help you to feel what I am talking about. Once you have experienced the sensation, I think you will be able to utilize the strategy with your own students, with great results!

© Andrea Higgins 2007

Click here for IntelliDANCE Podcast: Lesson 2

Monday, October 1, 2007

Alignment for Dancers—Part One: The Inside-Out Principle

In dance, we have a constant companion—our reflection. Many of us are taught (both implicitly and explicitly) to evaluate our performance in class by what we see in the mirror. Over time, this visually oriented process instills an outside-in model for evaluating alignment—or placement—as it is more commonly referred to in dance class. In order to be effective, this model relies on informed seeing. Informed seeing requires knowledge of human anatomy and the ability to identify skeletal landmarks on the body, which help to determine if the body is aligned properly.

So, what do we mean by “proper” alignment. (This was a word that virtually every one of my dance teachers used when referring to issues of placement.) I found the following definition in my Encarta® World English Dictionary (© Microsoft Corp.):

prop·er adj 1. Appropriate or correct. 2. Fulfilling all expectations or criteria. 3. Behaving in a respectable or socially acceptable way. 4. Characteristic of or belonging exclusively to somebody or something. 5. Strictly identified and distinguished from something else.

Think of the history of ballet and you come to realize that proper alignment may have had less to do with potentiating movement than it did with social mores back in the court of Louis the XIV. Perhaps a better word to use in the dance classrooms of today when talking about alignment or placement would be optimal.

Optimal alignment suggests the most advantageous alignment—that placement in which the body is free to move in any way, in any direction, without first needing a readjustment of some sort. Are the eyes the best and most reliable way to assess this?

Our eyes can only offer an objective (outside-in) evaluation of the body’s preparedness to move. It is bodily/kinesthetic sensation that offers a subjective and immediate sense of the moment that occurs between thought and action—the moment from which our movement potential unfolds. By training dancers to be more aware of their bodily/ kinesthetic sensations, we can help them to find the individual nuances necessary for their own body to be optimally prepared for movement in class. This leads to an inside-out understanding of alignment, in which alignment serves movement rather than serving as a purely aesthetic criteria.

The Feldenkrais Method® is one means for helping dancers to deepen their bodily kinesthetic awareness. Especially effective is the learning process developed by Moshe Feldenkrais called Awareness Through Movement® (ATM). ATM lessons generally last about 45 minutes, making it neither possible nor practical to include a complete ATM lesson during a typical dance class. But, it can be helpful to have a few simple and quick Feldenkrais-inspired exercises up your sleeve that will bring about positive results within just a few minutes. These can be done as part of a dancer’s pre-class warm-up, or at the beginning of class to facilitate an inside-out experience of alignment—even in very young students.

Lesson One: The Spine, Turnout & the Inside-Out Principle

The spine has a series of natural front to back (or sagital plane) curves, which are necessary for balancing in an upright stance. The segmented structure of the spinal vertebrae allows for the constant adjustments necessary for balance, while the lumbar, thoracic and cervical curves enable the vertebrae to efficiently bear the weight from above. When dance students—especially those who do not possess 180 degrees of natural turnout ability in the hips—come into a turned out stance, there is often a compensatory increase in the degree of curvature in the lumbar spine. Why does this happen? Because, the spine and the hips have something in common—the pelvis. If a student forces turnout from the hip, or fails to engage the hip rotators while turning out, the pelvis will help to compensate by tipping forward, thus increasing the lumbar curve.

In ballet class, it is common practice to take a turned-out stance, and then correct the spinal compensations by pulling in, pulling up and so forth. In the lesson we are going to do today, we will take a Feldenkrais-inspired approach to placement at the barre, by first observing the effect of turnout on the spine, and then working with the pelvis and spine to bring about positive improvement of placement in turnout.

A special note to teachers: this lesson runs approximately 23 minutes. I have made this recorded lesson it a little longer than would be practical for use in a typical technique class to allow for explanations that will help you as a teacher. But, keep in mind that once you become familiar with the lesson structure and ATM process, you can shorten the lesson to suit your own purposes. I have shortened it to just three minutes with remarkable results! So, on to the lesson…

Click Here for IntelliDANCE Podcast: Lesson 1

© Andrea Higgins 2007.

IntelliDANCE Podcast Premier!

Hold on to your iPods—the IntelliDANCE Podcast has arrived! I’ve been thinking about doing this for some time, but hadn’t really decided when or how. Then, when I was working on the previously promised recap of my presentation at the DanceLife Teacher Conference, it all came together.

Since the presentation included two Awareness Through Movement® (ATM) lessons on alignment, and since ATM is best experienced by following verbal instruction (as opposed to written instruction), I realized that I needed a way to talk you through the lessons. In the two articles that follow, you can read a summary of the ideas covered in the lecture portion of my DanceLife presentation, but you can try the lessons by subscribing to the Podcast.

Click below to listen to the introductory episode, which provides some general background information. You will find Lesson 1, which addresses alignment while standing in turnout, at the end of the next article. Lesson 2, which will address scoliosis, will be coming next week.


Click Here for Podcast