The Alexander principle of choices

At each and every moment, if we but sense the opportunity, we have three choices. We can do what we’ve always done in that situation, we can do nothing, or we can do something different. The key is recognizing the opportunities to make a choice, and that comes at the moment-before-the-moment.

The BODY LEARNING book cover that shows a man holding a toddler standing upright in the right hand of the man.
BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb

Let’s say that you’ve come to recognize, or you’ve been told, that you do a certain move ALL – THE – TIME. (A cadencia turn, maybe?) You want to introduce variety into that situation. What sort of variety?

  • Do what you’ve always done. But! Can you change the character of the movement? Can you do it at a different cadence, rhythm, or speed? Legato versus Staccato? With styling?
  • Do nothing! Could this be a good time in the music, or in a constant flow of movement, to take a pause? Maybe some rhythmic weight changes in place, or adornos, or simply a quiet gathering of energy for what comes next.
  • Do something different. The cadencia turn makes such an easy change of direction and connector of other figures that we tend to overuse it. What would it take to introduce other creative ways to achieve a similar result with something new? (You might use the Tango Keypad as a tool to analyze existing moves and explore new moves.)

We all want to use our body in the right way, but due to inactivity, sitting, smartphones, desk work, injuries, and repetitive use, what feels right may be less than effective and even hurtful, and what works best may feel wrong.

Maybe we learn from partner or teacher feedback that at times, especially in certain types of movements, we tilt our shoulders, tilt our whole axis, create tension, push or pull, drop a hip, and on and on. The key to making a change comes from recognizing when the problem happens. But because this is what you have done habitually, it doesn’t feel wrong. So instead, we may more easily recognize the situations that lead up to the problem.

So I say to myself, “Ah! We are about to enter that move where I typically do X. Well now I am going to monitor that body part and do what I know to be right, even if it feels different.” Eventually, the better way comes to feel like the right way.

You could benefit nicely from studying all of the Alexander Technique, but you don’t need to know who F. M. Alexander was or what his discoveries and writings were about to benefit from this principle of choices:

  1. Learn and then recognize the situation that arises just before the thing you want to change; and
  2. Give yourself an instant at that moment-before-the-moment to consider and make a choice with intention.

Another principle in the Alexander Technique, and one highly important in learning and improving Argentine tango, is the avoidance of what he terms end-gaining. I plan to explore that topic in a future article.

Frederick Mathias Alexander was born in Tasmania (an island state of Australia) in 1869. He lived in the same era as the development and worldwide growth in the popularity of Argentine tango. In his twenties he became a professional reciter of dramatic pieces, a popular form of entertainment in those days. After almost completely losing his voice, and with no medical answers or help, he developed a method of use of his body in all positions and movements, and cured his vocal problems. [Adapted from THE USE OF THE SELF by F. M. Alexander.]
Library or Store

In addition to Alexander’s own book, I recommend BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb.
Library or Store

You can also find Alexander Technique practitioners and teachers around the world. Search for alexander technique [and your location].

If at first you don’t succeed …

If at first you don’t succeed, calm down, slow down, take a breath, assess yourself, assess your partner.

I wear hearing aids. When I don’t understand a person’s speech, two things help most. Paradoxically, turning down the volume helps me hear more of the nuances and frequencies that can become overridden and blurred by too much soundscape volume. Second, and it works the same way, when a person speaks slowly to me it helps my brain hear more and gives it more time to sort out everything that is perceives.

Galloping by Dóra Klenovszki
If your partner didn’t respond in the way you expected, do you get louder, bigger with your movements? Do you try doing something different to see if they understand that? STOP!

What is your default setting for evaluating your partner when things don’t go as expected?

  • They are being resistant.
  • They aren’t sensitive enough.
  • They didn’t hear, feel me the first time.
  • They don’t understand, but if I can make them do it, then . . .
  • They are slow, mentally or physically.

Let’s acknowledge that any of those things could actually be a factor. Now ask yourself, are any of those things helped by becoming, louder, more forceful, bigger, trying it a different way?

Well, actually, that last one, “try it a different way,” does actually help, if the difference is:

  • Become more quiet and still.
  • Listen to yourself.
  • Listen to your partner.
  • Have a crystal clear intention for The One Next Thing.
  • Express that one next thing with crystal clarity and simplicity in your own body.
  • Allow your partner to move with your body.

Here is a specific exercise and challenge for you. The next time you feel frustration with a situation, first catalog how your body goes about telling you to feel frustrated.

  • A tightness somewhere in your body — gut, shoulders, jaw?
  • A contortion in your body — raised shoulders or elbows, twisted or tilted head?
  • A change in temperature — flushed chest or face?
  • A voice in your head?
  • Something else?

Now anchor that feeling for future reference, so that you can recognize it sooner the next time, to start the changes that keep it from coming or reduce it.

Take a breath, calm down, assess. Does the frustration feeling diminish?

Make a choice.

  • Do something different now.
  • Do what you’ve always done.
  • Do nothing.

Celebrate that you do have choices. Then, we can surely hope, that you can go on to celebrate that by doing something different (or even nothing) that you receive more useful responses from your partner, which allow you both to go on building in connection and abilities from there.

Acting as if

[ From a Facebook post from June 25, 2015, with an additional note about a possible solution. ]

I have begun recognizing a common debilitating – I think I’d have to call it attitude or maybe mindset that interferes enormously with that student’s ability to allow their body to simply respond in its own way “just to see what happens.” (Common, but thankfully low in numbers.) To me it seems as if they have been somewhat “crippled” kinesthetically, such that instead of seeing someone perform an action, then empathizing in their body with how that might feel, they instead try to mentally reproduce the action by moving their body to match the visual aspects that they notice. Instead of letting their body discover natural movement for a purpose, they try to mind direct it.
The problems, pretty obviously, are that the mind doesn’t and can’t act quickly enough to positionally control the body in a natural and effective way, and that they can’t even see or correctly interpret every aspect of what they take in visually.

I hallucinate that these are people who have never learned to “let go”, or perhaps more accurately, they were taught** at a young age to keep themselves under tight wraps. It’s the kind of attitude where, when someone introduces a game or exercise (in a dance or other setting), the person seems to see it, not as a fun activity to explore, but rather as some form of test.

I wonder about your experiences in this regard, and whether you’ve developed fruitful approaches to help people “forget themselves” and “let go”?

** Ah, schooling, the molder of minds and bodies. We’re taught to behave, and, “An average child who starts school at the age of five and leaves at the age of 18 will probably have sat for more than 20,000 hours during that time.” –The Alexander Technique Workbook. Hey, by that measure and Malcolm Gladwell’s criteria, they are experts twice over in sitting!

A helpful idea? We could use the NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) injunction to, “Act as if.” So we say, “Observe the teacher, or some person, or think of someone you’ve seen who does this really well. We’re not yet at a level where we can copy what they are doing, and our unconscious body can help us get better and better at this. So instead of copying that person, allow yourself to be that person with all the capabilities that this body (gesturing to their entire body) has in it. Act as if you are that person.