Shall We Dance?
Ballroom Dancing and the Benefits of the Alexander Technique
by Jennifer Mizenko
Social Ballroom Dance has made a tremendous come back in the past decade and promises to continue in popularity into the next millennium. People of all ages are returning to partner dances such as swing, waltz, tango and many others. Not only are they returning to these dances they are adding their own twists and steps, making the dances of their own time period and are breaking down rules and barriers that have prohibited change in the competitive ballroom world.
There are many theories concerning why ballroom dance has returned to the popular masses. I believe this resurgence has to do with reevaluating relationships and courtships at the end of the millennium. The joys and fears of a society are always expressed through their social dance. During the Roaring Twenties in America, we see the emergence of feminism and the influence of African Americans in the Charleston, through the separation of partners and the use of isolations and poly rhythmic movements. In the 1940's, the energy and desperation of the young G.I. going of to war explodes in his one last Lindy Hop at the U.S.O. canteen.
The 1960's and early 70's partners separate again, as America's youth questions authority, explores free love and practices communal living. Today, partners are coming back together on the dance floor. After decades of free love and living with the consequences Americans are making a new commitment to monogamy. The transmission of sexually transmitted diseases proliferated during the 1970's and 80's. We now live in an age where unprotected sexual contact can threaten an individual's life. As a result, people are taking more time to get to know their potential partner's history and background. The resurgence of social ballroom dance reflects an attempt by today's youth to practice Grandma and Grandpa's courtship rituals, in hopes of getting to know their partner better and avoid meaningless liaisons.
Another reason partners are coming together is the fact that we are living in a very daunting time. Throughout history we see major changes in societies when calendars turn from __99 to __00. The current transition is even more mysterious, because we are experiencing a change of millennium. A change in time which many people believe may bring a spiritual second coming and/or a technological crash of all of modern society. Thus, people want contact with one another. They want to connect with others in every part of their lives. This includes the dance floor, even if it is only for a three minute commitment. Security is the name of the game. People want to be sure who they are dancing with and they want that dance to be a mutually pleasing experience.
Even though today's dancers are returning to old dance styles to achieve this security, just like in their dancing, they are bringing contemporary attitudes and thoughts on relationships to the partner situation. To achieve this fulfilling and meaningful experience, dancers are having to learn what it is to dance with a partner. What does it take to be a good leader? What does it take to be a good follower?
Today's youth are answering these questions very differently than they have been answered in the past, leading to new definitions for leaders and followers. A good follower is a good leader and a good leader is a good follower. Some even believe that leading is following. The lead/follow relationship still exists, but it exists in a way which is more yielding and more respectful of each dancer's contribution to the dance. No longer does the man tell the woman what to do, and no longer is the necessarily the leader. Through a more flexible lead and follower relationship, today's social ballroom dancers are discovering a more fulfilling and meaningful experience on the dance floor.
This change in approach to the lead/follow relationship can most likely be attributed to the changes we have witnessed over the last forty years in the male /female relationship in general. The twenty-somethings of the late 1990's are the first generation to be brought up in a household where both parents are assuming more equal responsibilities for everything from paying the mortgage to baking cookies for the first grade Halloween party. Certainly there are varying degrees of shared responsibilities within each individual household. But it is a fact that today's youth have been exposed to a much more egalitarian partnership within the home, and they are expressing this in their approach to male/female relationships which includes the dance floor. In achieving this shared dance responsibility, both the leader and the follower need to use their sight, touch, feeling, momentum, weight shift, kinesthetic awareness, and sometimes verbal communication.
Sight is used by the follower to look for subtle differences or changes in the leader's dance. These differences may include a tilt of the head, a change of the level of the hand hold, a general weight shift as reflected by the torso of the body, or even a change of expression in the face of the leader. However, a good follower is not zeroing on one particular visual signal, but is seeing with a broad vision and trying to "take it all in," as it were; seeing the leader and these changes as a whole. A leader is using sight in the same way, but is also being careful to check for traffic as they are dancing and to know if the follower is ready to be lead into a new movement. It is impossible to lead a dancer into a step that they are not ready to do. This does not necessarily mean "able to do" or skill, but where is the follower in terms of the dance, where is her weight and and is your rhythm in harmony and is she prepared to move on to a new step? Through sight, the leader can see in the follower's eyes and body if she is ready to move on or whether she is satisfied continuing with the same step.
Touch is extremely important in the lead/follow relationship. Through maintaining the frame, the lead and the follow must change the degree of pressure in their connection to allow new steps to happen. The actual physical contact between the dancers gives off so much information that it is possible for the follower to dance with eyes closed. The leader and the follower must sense the other's entire body through the minimal contact between the hands and the hand at the back. That is it. That is all they get. But so much can be learned from this simple contact. Are we going to the right or to the left? Under? Pivot? Slide? Hop?, etc. Through subtle changes of contact, a gentle give and take between the leader and the follower, the dancers can feel where they are going next, together in partnership.
If the dancers are clear in their contact it can be argued that the lightest touch may be the strongest lead. Much of the sensation the dancers are feeling through contact is momentum and weight shift. The sensation can also be referred to as kinesthetic awareness. When the pelvis shifts, and shifts clearly, it takes the whole body with it. One cannot shift weight without engaging the pelvis. Through the lead/follow relationship the dancers create a shared center. No longer are they individuals with separate will and destiny. They are a unit, separately together, with a shared center between them. When a couple is successful in creating this center it allows them to sense the shift of weight together and to move in the same momentum path. If their momentum is flowing together, it results in a beautiful union of two dancers connecting on the dance floor.
All of these elements of good partnering combine to create a Gestalt effect, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Sight, touch, weight shift, momentum and kinesthetic awareness all work together in this gentle give and take between the leader and the follower. This reinforces the concept that a good leader is a good follower or that leading is following. When these elements combine in a unified way, the summation is the ideal dance partnership. A shared responsibility, which is mutually pleasing to both dancers.
We can take this idea further and state, the dancers must "be" together and bring their "whole self" to the dance experience. "Being" includes physical alignment and organization, mental state and awareness, and the interaction of these processes with the immediate mental, geographic and emotional environment. "Whole self" is just that, one's whole self; one's life time experience on and off the dance floor, compassion, intelligence, emotion, personality, etc. If the partners bring their whole selves to the dance and allow their beings to connect they will achieve the sense of connection and security they are seeking.
This approach to partnering is reflective of the awareness of self improvement that has become an important part of American culture in the last ten to twenty years. The concept of improving one's self and growing emotionally and spiritually has become more of a focus in the average person's life as the new millennium approaches. This is very prevalent in television programming from Oprah Winfrey to various segments on morning and evening news programs.
One of the least discussed techniques that can be used to achieve these goals, and also one of the most effective, is the Alexander Technique (AT). The technique is not only effective in individual growth and development, but the principals can be applied to the lead/follow relationship to promote and enhance quality of contact. According to Barbara and William Conable, The Alexander Technique is a simple and practical method for improving ease and freedom of movement, balance, support, flexibility, and coordination. It enhances performance and is therefore a valued tool for actors, dancers, and musicians.
Practice of the Technique refines and heightens kinesthetic sensitivity, offering the performer a control which is fluid and lively rather than rigid. It provides a means whereby the use of the part - a voice an arms or a leg - is improved by improving the use of the whole body." (How to Learn the Alexander Technique, Barbara and William Conable, Andover Press, 1995)
The Alexander Technique was developed by F.M Alexander in the early part of this century. As a public speaker and an actor, Alexander frequently lost his voice at the most inopportune time - when he was about to go on stage. Through careful observation and years of studying his own body, he discovered that there was a connection between his laryngitis and a shortening of the back of his neck which in turn affected his entire body and the way he presented himself physically. With years of practice and experimentation, Alexander created a technique that relieved this problem and proved to have incredible side benefits.
By stopping one's movement or action, and sending the body conscious directions on how to move, individuals can bring a whole new physical awareness to their being. These directions may be described as follows: (1) Allow my neck to be free in such a way that my head can go forwards and up (2) in such a way that my body can lengthen (3) and widen (4) in such a way that my knees go forwards and away. (Throson's Principles of The Alexander Technique, Jeremy Chance, Harper Colins, 1998.)
How can giving your body these directions aid in spiritual and emotional growth? How can these directions promote a quality connection between ballroom dancers that will lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful experience on the dance floor? To achieve such a quality connection on the dance floor, each partner must bring their whole "being" and "self" to the experience. An important component of one's "being" is physical alignment and organization. A positive change in physical alignment and organization immediately benefit the mental state and awareness, which creates an enhanced interaction with the immediate mental, geographic and emotional environment. Such a change in being will effect the experience of the "whole self" and will allow the self to be more receptive and yielding, which are very important aspects in spiritual and emotional growth. Receptivity and yielding are also important concepts in the lead/follow relationship. Dancers who incorporate these aspects into their dance are the most pleasurable partners.
AT is taught through physical contact. Alexander teachers use their hands to guide the student to a new feeling of ease and grace. In fact there are many similarities between the lead/follow relationship of social ballroom dance and that of Alexander Teachers and their students. A good AT teacher uses sight, touch, feeling, momentum, weight shift, kinesthetic awareness, and verbal communication during an Alexander lesson. These are elements that are present in a quality lead/follow relationship. During a typical Alexander lesson the instructor uses many approaches, so that the student may understand the technique.
The instructor usually starts in dialogue with the student. The primary purpose of this dialogue is to discover what is currently going on in the life of the student and to determine the goals for the coming session. The secondary purpose, but certainly not secondary in priorities, is to give the instructor a chance to observe the student in a natural moment where the student is not trying to be correct. The student is simply telling the instructor something that is very familiar, which allows them to use their body in the way they are accustomed to moving. This is often referred to as "habit" in the Alexander Technique.
Discussion is also used throughout the session, so that the instructor may get feedback from the student. The instructor uses this feedback to learn more about what directions the student may need at any given moment. It is also a chance for the student to observe their own body and the new sensations arising. Through this observation the student will be able to apply the instructions given during the lesson when there is no AT teacher around.
It can be argued that this conversation is very similar to conversation two dancers may have before and during their dance. It is probably true that they do not have a running dialogue throughout the dance. It is more than likely that there is the initial question of "Shall we dance?", which may lead to a brief discussion concerning what styles the two dancers have in common, which may also continue in brief moments on the dance floor. e.g. "Hey...do you know how to....?"
The most obvious parallel between an Alexander lesson and a ballroom dance is touch. Touch is crucial in both situations. Additionally, the roles played by the teacher and the student and the lead and the follow are very similar. Each participant in both situations is responsible for their own activity. However, a shared physical sensation results through the contact made with the hands. Through gentle guidance with the hands, the AT teacher works in conjunction with verbal response, and sight to direct the student forward and up, allowing the body to lengthen and widen, and at the same time letting the knees go forwards and away. The hands are the central component in this process.
The Alexander teacher uses clear, direct touch to send these messages. However, it is not pushing or manipulation of the student's body that achieves the communication. It is a direct, careful, purposeful, and light touch from the hands of the teacher which sends this information. Much like the leader in the ballroom dance, the AT teacher only takes the student where they are ready to go. They do not try to guide students through any fancy steps, so to speak.
The teacher must take into consideration the student's current understanding of the AT process, and also what that student does or does know naturally about their body. In assessing the student's whole self, the Alexander teacher leads the student through a dance that results in ease and freedom of movement. Similarly a lead must assess the follower's knowledge of the dance they are doing together, and dance experience in general, when making choices concerning the next set of steps or movements.
Sight is also an important factor during an Alexander lesson and during a partner dance. In both instances the teacher or leader see their student or partner, emotionally and physically. Does the student or partner look physically comfortable? The AT teacher is interested in seeing the student's "use." How are they using their bodies? Are there certain areas that are being held? Is this holding purely physical, or are there emotional and situational stimuli that are associated with these problem areas? The leader does not need to be quite as in depth, but the leader does need to be sensitive to the follower's emotional well being. If the follower looks perplexed or confused, they are probably not getting enough information from the leader, or are very uncomfortable with the dance. With sight the leader needs to gauge the follower's comfort level. "Is the partnership working?" and "Is my partner ready to go on to a new step?" can be answered simply by looking at their partner.
Kinesthetic awareness and sense of weight shift are also crucial area for the AT teacher. Alexander Technique teaches us that in good use, "the head leads and the body follows, simultaneously one after the other.." Well if this is true, why is it important to shift the pelvis when moving? If we only move our head and not our pelvis will we go anywhere in space? Will this locomotion look easy and have good body coordination? Certainly not, but in order for the pelvis to be free to shift clearly, the head must be free from pulling down so that there is ease and freedom throughout the entire body, which allows the pelvis to move freely.
I often like to make a comparison to the skeleton hanging in the closet of the average American High School biology laboratory. The skeleton is most often hanging from the crown of its head. The rest of the bones dangle from this point and are free to move within the joints. AT helps the student achieve this sense of dangling, while also staying connected to the ground, which promotes freedom and ease of movement, whether one is walking across the street or performing a Viennese Waltz. The leader in the ballroom dance benefits from this freedom as much as the Alexander teacher.
If the follower or the student experience this release, they are more apt to receive the directions from the leader or the Alexander teacher. If the leader and/or the Alexander teacher achieve this freedom, they are more apt to send clear physical directions through their hands and body. As we witness on television every day, people are more and more anxious about their relationships and are hungry for strategies and tools that can heal and improve these relationships.
As with every stage of history, we see the change in society's needs expressed through social dance. At the dawn of the new millennium, this need is individual growth and healthy contact with others, as expressed through the resurgence of social ballroom dance. Training in the Alexander Technique is very often a life changing experience. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. The technique inherently teaches concepts and strategies that can be applied to an individual's life relationships and also surprisingly the social ballroom dance partnership.
AT lessons require a unique atmosphere to be successful. This atmosphere is one of openness and receptivity, an environment where there are no wrong answers, where every time you arrive, there is a new destination to be explored, where the teacher and the student need to put down their agendas, take a step backwards and get out of their own way and allow the lesson to proceed on its own course. This is very much like an improvisational social ballroom dance between two individuals. Similarly, when a student senses freedom and ease in their body, the student tries to memorize how they did it and attempts to lock into a position they believe will elicit the freedom and ease once again. But eventually the student realizes there are no fixed places, positions or postures which achieve ease, only a continuing renewal of the "going" towards freedom and ease. Such is the case for the leader who has only a fixed set of dance steps, and is not willing or flexible enough to go with the flow of the dance in the moment and allow new steps and even mistakes to become a part of the experience.
All of these principals, from the lead and follow techniques in ballroom dance as compared to teaching an Alexander lesson to the principals and ideas behind the Alexander technique, can inform one another. As America's youth borrow dances from Grandma and Grandpa's generation, they are also bending the rules of partnering. There is more flexibility in the lead/follow relationship which leads to a more balanced and egalitarian dance experience. In seeking to connect with individuals on and off the dance floor in a meaningful way, these modern concepts of partnering and the principals of the Alexander Technique should be applied.
The Alexander Technique is a physical method. All too often our society divorces the physical from the intellectual and emotional. But as dancers we all know this is impossible. All of these elements are linked and interact with one another. Applying Alexander principals to the partnering experience will bring a new level of quality and connection to the dance, and may even improve one's life choices and relationships as we prepare ourselves for the new millennium.
JENNIFER MIZENKO, AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF DANCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI, HOLDS A BA FROM KENYON COLLEGE AND AN MA IN DANCE FROM THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY. SHE IS A FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE MISSISSIPPI DANCE ASSOCIATION, AN ORGANIZATION SHE HAS SERVED AS TREASURER, VICE-PRESIDENT , PRESIDENT AND FESTIVAL COORDINATOR. SHE HAS ALSO SERVED ON THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF THE MISSISSIPPI ALLIANCE FOR ARTS IN EDUCATION AND IS ONE OF THE AUTHORS OF THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI'S DANCE CURRICULUM FRAMEWORK.
JENNIFER'S CHOREOGRAPHY HAS BEEN HONORED BY THE AMERICAN COLLEGE DANCE FESTIVAL ASSOCIATION AND SHE HAS BEEN A MASTER TEACHER AT ACDFA EVENTS FOR THE PAST 7 YEARS. SHE HAS STUDIED EXTENSIVELY WITH ERICK HAWKINS IN NEW YORK, AS WELL AS WITH SUSAN VAN PELT, RALPH LEMON, HEYWOOD "WOODY" MC GRIFF, FRANK HATCHETT, AND CHET WALKER.SHE HAS ALSO STUDIED PERIOD DANCE WITH WITH RENOWNED EXPERT WENDY HILTON. JENNIFER HAS BEEN ON THE MISSISSIPPI ARTS COMMISSION'S ARTIST ROSTER SINCE 1991, AND IN 1996 RECEIVED THE STATE ARTS COMMISSION'S PRESTIGIOUS FELLOWSHIP AWARD. THIS IS THE SECOND YEAR JENNIFER HAS DIRECTED AND CHOREOGRAPHED THE MISS. HOSPITALITY PAGEANT. CURRENTLY, MS. MIZENKO IS STUDYING TO BECOME A CERTIFIED ALEXANDER TEACHER, AT THE ALEXANDER FOUNDATION IN PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA. SHE MAY BE REACHED AT firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to find out more about the Alexander Technique