Body Language

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

The students in Webster Studio 1 are learning to talk and walk. That is, we’re learning to talk about how we move, and then to walk in new and unaccustomed ways. As Missy Vineyard teaches us in her Interterm course on the Alexander Technique, this is trickier than it sounds. It challenges everything we think we know about the connections between mind and body, words and actions, old habits and new awareness.

As we sit in a circle during the first class, Vineyard tells us about Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), a Shakespearean orator from Australia who kept losing his voice. After numerous unsuccessful treatments, Alexander had the brilliantly simple idea of observing himself in mirrors. He realized that every time he spoke—every time he even thought about speaking—he would scrunch his neck and shoulders in a way that put strain on his vocal chords. So he developed conscious ways to break this unconscious habit, and the Alexander Technique was born. Vineyard was introduced to it as a dance student in 1972, became certified to teach it soon thereafter and now teaches from her home in Amherst as founder and director of The Alexander Technique Center New England and a member of The American Society for the Alexander Technique. Though the technique is still best known among actors, dancers and musicians, Vineyard believes it can help anyone who owns and operates a human body.

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Missy Vineyard uses a model skeleton as a visual aid.

Vineyard asks us if we suffer from any aches and pains, and sure enough, we all do: bad knees, sore backs, stiff necks. She asks me if I mind talking about my disability. I don’t mind—I’m generally glad to inform people about my cerebral palsy and my electric scooter and wheelchair—but I am surprised: I’ve long suspected that many people are curious about it, but relatively few dare to ask. I recognize, in Vineyard, someone who is especially comfortable talking about bodies.

That comfort level doesn’t come nearly as easily to the rest of us. She has us observe one another as we stand up, sit down and walk across the room, and then asks us to describe what we see. We—smarty-pants college students and graduates, some of us bilingual, I a professional writer—find ourselves tongue-tied, unable to accurately name certain parts, resorting to demonstrating positions and movements in our own bodies because it’s a struggle to put them into words.

“His head was tilted forward,” one student says of another.

Vineyard asks, “What do we mean by head?”

“Umm… his head?”

 

After furthering questioning, we figure out that when we say “his head was tilted forward,” we actually mean that his neck was bent backward in relation to the rest of his body; we’d never thought about it that way. This posture was just a quirk of his particular way of standing up—neurologically ingrained in him, perhaps, since he first learned to stand. It’s such habits, says Vineyard, that can run contrary to how the human body has evolved to move and can put unnecessary stress and strain on our joints, bones and muscles.

Vineyard approaches other students, one by one, and guides them through a more efficient way to walk. She places her hands on the backs of their necks and does something—she won’t and, indeed, can’t explain to us precisely what—to alter the signals being sent back and forth between their brains and muscles. She is essentially re-programming them. As teacher and student move across the studio together, she reminds them not to tell themselves to walk; their musculoskeletal responses to the idea, to the word walk, are too strong and too specific and will interfere with the process. They should just go with the new signals. The students are amazed at how much lighter and faster this new walk feels; one young man, at least momentarily, stands half an inch taller.

Our interest is piqued. One student asks how long it takes to master the Alexander Technique. Vineyard says it can be studied for a lifetime. Is there any way to speed up the learning process—to fit more into the five days of this class? Unfortunately, no. These are, quite literally, just the first steps.

“How many of you have studied the Alexander Technique?” Felice Wolfzahn asks the group in Studio 1 the following week. There are a lot of the same student bodies present for this class on contact improvisation. Wolfzahn is also a dancer and teacher (trained at Juilliard and bringing more than 20 years of experience in various forms of dance and theater), and she will also guide us to greater awareness and more graceful movement.

But where Alexander focuses on efficiency of motion, contact improv is about expression and transformation. Our bodies become maypoles, bags of sand, bottles of seltzer, sacks of potatoes. As we explore “the full sphere” of human motion, we end up devolving and evolving: lying on our backs like dead cockroaches, clinging like starfish, walking like monkeys.

And for all this simile and metaphor, there is relatively little spoken language. Everything is demonstrated and visualized—poetry in motion. When Wolfzahn reminds us to “listen to our partners,” we know that she doesn’t mean listening to instructions and interjections. We listen for breath and weight and movement; we listen through our skin and muscles and “bony structures.” Comfort with one another’s bodies comes not just through talking about them, but through touching, leaning, carrying. Support. Contact.

So, enough of my words. I think these action shots say more.

 

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