I was 16 when I quit swimming. I've had enough with the psycho swimming coach - she would yell at me for really silly reasons on every practice, and I was a sensitive boy. I actually quit swimming once before, at age 10, and returned to it at 13, falling behind all the kids (who didn't quit back then).
With all the yelling I received, I also received compliments about my progress (which was very rare) - I improved my competitive times at a ridiculous rate, starting as the slowest guy and becoming the 2nd fastest guy on the team within a year! That's not the point of the story, but let me brag.
I don't think I'm especially talented at swimming, but I did do something different, I did have a "thing". My parents called me "gifted", but I think every parent thinks their kid is gifted, so I don't know. Swimming wasn't special, but it was where, in retrospect, I used "it" the most. The "thing" that made me good at it is the same thing that made me good in other things in life, and it's called intention.
Intention and focus, in my opinion, can make a difference in a way that strength, experience, and talent sometimes can't. As a "comeback swimmer" falling behind, I had both the intention to become the fastest in the team, but more importantly - make sure every stroke is perfect, in form, in gripping the water, feeling the space between my fingers, applying all the strength, timing my breath and the angle of my body in the water. I did everything with 100% intention, and that, I believe, gave me an edge.
After quitting swimming, I went on to play basketball, and had some similar experiences to that "intentional swimming", but not as intense. While I found other interests and goals in life, I haven't felt the opportunity to use intention in a way that feels similar to how it felt swimming...until I found dance.
I found out that dancing with intention also made all the difference, and I went into dance with great efforts to become the best and perfect every move. With time, I understood that while intention makes the dance, social dance was meant to be enjoyable, and not win competitions - my intention had to change, and with it the crazy amounts of focus that I was putting on my body, stressing it out.
This is when I found Alexander Technique.
Alexander technique changed my life. I sound like a testimonial, but trust me, I'm not getting paid - I have actually invested a lot of time and money into learning it; I'm glad to say that the return has been priceless. I don't hesitate to say that Alexander technique is the biggest discovery since I found dance, and definitely one of the biggest I've had in life.
For me, it freed up all that focus for me to be able to allocate it to my partner and my emotions while performing even better with my body. It's like a software update that makes you use less resources for better outcomes - Alexander technique taught me how to use intention more effectively.
But enough about me, let's learn what it is.
What is it?
The Alexander Technique is a way of learning to move mindfully through life. It is a method that works to change (movement) habits in our everyday activities. It is a simple and practical method for improving ease and freedom of movement, balance, support, and coordination.
The technique teaches the use of the appropriate amount of effort for a particular activity, giving you more energy for all your activities. It is not a series of treatments or exercises, but rather a reeducation of the mind and body.
The Alexander Technique is a method that helps a person discover a new balance in the body by releasing unnecessary tension. It can be applied to sitting, lying down, standing, walking, lifting, and other daily activities.
It is used and endorsed by actors, musicians, dancers, and more: Heath Ledger, Keanu Reeves, Moshe Feldenkrais (Originator of the Feldenkrais method), and Frederick Perls (Originator of Gestalt Therapy).
In short, Alexander technique is about a few things:
Building higher body and mind awareness
Creating new habits
It's not a massage.
Here's a short explanation and a demonstration of how Alexander technique session usually looks like:
I went to try it in 2019 after hearing about it for many years, and after my first session, I was blown away. I felt so good, relaxed, and efficient in all my movements, just by lying on a table and walking around, so what if I applied those principles to more complex movements, like partner dance?
Yeah, but what do you actually do?
There are many body awareness concepts to talk about (such as "The Primary Control" that is our head and neck, aligned over our hips), and mental exercises in intention and observation of our body (imagining breath differently, and reframing how we think a movement begins), but I will focus on the principle that affected me the most - "End-gaining".
We don't want to end-gain - to think about the end goal and try or force our body and mind towards it- and that means we are training our mind to think differently about how we do things, or rather - how to "not do". Instead of doing and trying, we "let things happen", releasing into movement, and use our thinking to change how we feel in our body.
It makes a huge difference, simply because it addresses a very important aspect of dance, movement, and all of life - intention. Our intention is set by our thought. We can do things without a specific intention or a guiding principle, and that is when we rely on our lifelong habits - it could be walking in the street or looking at a phone - we don't pay any specific attention or set an intention for those things.
Experiment time! Try this at home:
That's it. Sit down.
Now let's try this again, but differently:
Get up from your chair, but tell yourself this first: "I'm not going to get up. I think I might stay, maybe I'll get up, and maybe I won't. I'll do it on my own schedule". Then get up.
How did that feel? Even if it wasn't a big difference, there was a difference.
Pausing and noticing are key principles in achieving awareness, similar to meditation. We observe the tension that was building up towards the action of standing up, we can release that tension, and perform the same movement with a whole different feeling to it. The biggest changes I felt were not visible on my body, but internally felt - and also by my dance partners.
Those are things that you learn in an alexander technique session - a teacher will guide you through very simple movements, like sitting, standing, walking, picking something up, and you will find that there are many habits that you didn't even think about thinking about.
Dancing made soft - how it applies to dance
Another goal in finding those habits is to raise the efficiency of moving around in life. When you use less energy, when you don't strain your body and put pressure on places that you shouldn't, you can reduce pain and have more energy to do other things. Personally, it helped me eliminate lower back pain in dance almost completely, and enjoy my dances so much more.
Dancing became effortless at some point for me, it felt like cheating! I was barely sweating even after dancing fast because I learned to dance from a "place of rest", I stopped pushing or "engaging" and let the body fall into place.
One of the best perks was that my balance got better - instead of pulling muscles and holding everything together, I let EVERYTHING go and let the ground push against my feet, the result was stress-free and much better than the way I have balanced so far, which was - using ballet turn-out and core flexion.
"How can you not engage muscles and still move? it doesn't make any sense."
I thought so too...let's think about it: Why do we think "engage" anyway? Usually, because we want to feel that we are doing a movement - especially if that movement has a certain technique. But here's the deal: You don't have to feel that you are doing something in order to do it.
Intention leads the body. By just taking the body into the form we want, our muscles will accommodate that. A form, or a feeling in a certain move, is what dictates what muscles we use and how. We can't think about all of it at once, our brains have a limited focus capability, and we would like to use it for other things in dance.
We don't really need to take movements apart and activate each muscle consciously, but we do need to understand how our body works, to visualize processes and know the mechanisms.
Experiment time again!
I swear this has a point.
How are you standing up just now? Are you thinking about core, quad, and shoulder engagement? Probably not, and why would you? If standing is a "habit" you do every day, you don't need to think about the muscles being used, you just set the intention ("stand up"), the muscles work to get you there, and they keep you standing.
Dance includes movements that aren't habits (yet), and we use a lot of thinking when learning something new, but it actually might unnecessarily elongate our learning process. We will try too hard, do too much and use too much energy anyway, even if we encourage the intention of letting go. I believe we don't need to think about engaging or activating muscles - we set the intention, and the muscles will serve it.
Stand up on one foot
Stand tilting your whole body towards the standing leg, until you start falling - hold off putting the free leg down as much as possible
See what happens.
You will lose balance at one point, and notice how the body reacts. We try to balance, and you might notice that you bend your knee - but why? Our intention was to stay standing, and our muscles served that intention, as we are more grounded and stable when we bend our knees. Our body knows! We usually don't need to tell it.
To conclude, there's a lot more to talk about regard Alexander technique, dance, and the connection between them, but I'm keeping it short. I have combined the principles of Alexander technique in all of my teachings, be it Zouk privates and group classes, or "Dance is a language" workshops. The results are outstanding to feel and see.
I'll end with a few amazing free resources - information, exercises, and more - and an invitation to ask me questions! I'd love to talk more about it.
What is the technique, quick history, principles:
Scientific research backing the Alexander technique
How does it work? session overview
Exercises and concepts by Robert Rickover: