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.

No comments: