Softening the Chest when the World is Hard

The beautiful decaying grandeur of Raices Profundas dance studio. Yes, that’s cement.

When I travel, I almost always bring a yoga mat – a rectangular island of plushness to gently coax a jet-lagged body back to coherence. But when I travelled to Cuba to study dance, I wanted to travel light. I reasoned that I could practice on any wood floor. I could adapt.

But there was no wood floor. The Casa Particular where I was staying was tiled – unforgiving to my bony back. Our dance studio floor was the dusty rough cement of a decaying movie theater. There was no wood floor.

I lay down anyway, arranging myself in the Alexander Technique “Active Rest” position, but I felt every vertebrae crushed and aching against the tile. I experimented with bridge pose. Worse. Hmm… Perhaps practice on a hard floor is similar to wearing minimalist shoes. Just as thick soled shoes allow for careless impact of the heel bone, my thick mat has protected my back from careless slamming. The more cushioned the shoe, the more people tend to use their feet like bricks – a gait style one would quickly curtail if barefoot. The foot is composed of 26 movable bones…How about the rib cage? Twelve thoracic vertebrae, 24 ribs… What if I allow all these bones to articulate and roll? Perhaps the impact will not be so jarring…

Dance students practicing

The quest to soften the chest was highlighted in my dance studies. I had audaciously assumed that with my years of classical and contemporary training, my recent studies of Afro-Haitian and West African dance, plus the Alexander Technique, my secret weapon for free movement, that Afro Cuban Folkloric would be in my wheelhouse. You laugh. And rightly.

The fluidity of the chest, the articulation of the ribs, the shake of the shoulders, the powerful mobility of the pelvis are not learned in Western dance forms, nor is this sort of movement supported by Western culture. Nothing was coming easily.

The relaxed chest of the Cuban dancers (and everyone in Cuba is a dancer) was mimicked by their relaxed attitude to the harshness of life. With nothing to cushion the impact of poverty and limited freedoms, the people were easy in their attitude towards living. In America, I would have gone to Walgreens and bought a cheap yoga mat. I might have suffered stress from wasting money or buying polluting plastic, but I could purchase a yielding surface. In Cuba, there was no Walgreens. .

Early in the morning, as I did my Alexander Technique inspired warm up for dance, I experimented on that stony floor; rolling and dissolving to avoid impact forces. For 4-hours a day, I danced on cement, and meditated on what a fluid chest might be. I imagined ribs like fish gills, a spine like smoke, shoulders that melt into an easy shimmy in response to the rhythmic song of the feet.

Yes, that is The Little Prince, the ultimate emblem of conquering with gentleness. Yes, he’s painted on a bath tub, propped into a wall, in one of Cuba’s many examples of public art

The environment was hard. I learned to be soft.


 

 


P.S. On the flight home, I remembered to melt in the airplane seat, and fell into a deep, loose slumber.

 

BodyProject Blog ~ Elyse Shafarman

 

 

Pelvic Float

Let your pelvis float and roll around the round femur heads.

By Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below)Bartleby.com: Gray's Anatomy, Plate 237, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=792151

By Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body

How many angles of rotation are possible between the two sides?

Which quadrants feel free and loose, and which feel blocked?

This movement might feel like a tilting ship in a storm.

Or a sexy dance move.

Or something much smaller and subtler that will free you up for walking, standing and sitting.

 

 

 

 

Rushing

BodyProject Blog ~ where thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Like a bird, I walked into a glass door this morning, right before my first class of the year at American Conservatory Theater, where I teach Alexander Technique to MFA actors. My aim was to arrive early, but events *conspired* against me. The outfit was wrong. I needed to bring lunch. I couldn’t find my keys. By the time I arrived downtown, my heart was beating rapidly, a staccato accompaniement to the inner monologue featuring my pet fears. I dashed into Peet’s to grab the coffee I hadn’t had time to make. The line was long and the clock was ticking. “Let’s skip the coffee,” I thought, and spun towards the exit, promptly bashing my nose against the newly washed glass door.

I heard the crowd gasp. Stars and stinging pain, but no time to stop. My class was in 15-minutes. When I got inside the building, I noticed that my nose was bleeding and turning purple. Luckily, emergency ice packs are never in short supply at A.C.T. It’s easy to injure yourself while conjuring the energies of the unconscious.

It did made a good opening story, illustrating two key principles of the Alexander Technique:

1)  Awareness – of self and environment

2) Taking time.

Clutching my ice-pack, I taught for the next five hours. I felt my neck stiffening, a predictable result of the impact and nerves. But as you teach Alexander Technique, you also apply the principles to yourself. I taught my students to imagine warm coconut oil lubricating the joint that connects the neck to the head. We found ways of moving where tight muscles unraveled and space opened between joints. We paid attention to our bodies, but also our minds and our emotions. We dwelt in that space, which so few of us ever give ourselves, where we take time to notice impulses and chose our course of action. By the afternoon, my neck tension was gone. I felt good enough to take a dance class (first checking with the advice nurse at Kaiser. Head Trauma is nothing to joke around with).

My colleague, Monika Gross, shared the following story about Frank Pierce Jones, a renowned American Alexander Technique teacher and Classics professor, who conducted the first scientific studies on the Alexander Technique at Tufts University in the 1960’s and 70’s.

I heard a great AT anecdote involving Frank Pierce Jones. He was in London during one of the trips he made to take lessons from FM Alexander. One day following a lesson, he went back to his hotel room and he raised up the window to let in some air. He didn’t realize the frame didn’t have a mechanism to stay up by itself, and it landed right on his hand. A massive wooden old London hotel windowframe. Yes, very much pain was felt. He said later, he didn’t know exactly why but because he had just come from a lesson he thought, “Oh well, I’ll just stop and direct myself for awhile.” (After extricating his hand first, I assume… That would have been unusually skilled levels of inhibition otherwise!:) He said that the next day, he didn’t even have a bruise on his hand, and he was quite impressed with the result of his “Quick on the Pause” response to a trauma.

Like Jones, I had minimal bruising and no neck pain on the following day, perhaps due to the Alexander Technique.

And although there was nothing overtly dangerous about my lateness, the panicky thoughts created a situation where I was accident prone. We learn (or, in my case learn again) in the Alexander Technique that we have a choice about our reactions. Headlong rushing rarely delivers the calm, cool and on-time result one might hope for.

For all of us, it’s helpful to remember to take more time. More than anything we do, it’s often the empty space we leave – between – where life/body/mind resolves and organizes.