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

 

 

The Beautiful Poise of the Cuban People

Susana Arenas’ Cuban dance students and members of Raices Profundas Dance Company

Man with crutches exercising

We wondered what it would be like to be disabled in Cuba. This man on crutches seems unusually unhindered, but I imagine he is the exception not the rule.

In August, I travelled to Cuba with Susana Arenas to study dance with the world acclaimed Afro-Cuban folkloric company Raices Profundas (Deep Roots).

I was amazed by the vitality and beauty of the Cuban people walking on the streets of Havana. (The photo at the top of this page is a casual snap of everyday people). Cubans carry their heads high over their hips. Their chests are open, and arms swing free. An observer can draw an invisible vertical line from head to standing heel. This results in a vibrant upright posture and a flowing gait. While you would expect this in youths, even elderly Cubans sped down the pitted streets with long spines and supple hips.

You don’t see this in the US. Typically, as we age (and even these days in people quite young), our legs stiffen, our stride shortens, and forward motion degrades into side-to-side sway. Walking slows and is often uncomfortable.

While there is no homelessness in Cuba, there is also no money to maintain the gorgeous Beaux Arts and Art Deco architecture. The number of collapsed buildings in Havana makes the city looks like a war zone.

True, there is terrible poverty in Cuba. In Havana, a building falls down every 3.1 days. The sidewalks are crumbling and gape with treacherous holes. More conservative friends reminded me that Cuba is still under the rule of a repressive regime. I didn’t see much of this, but a wikipedia search reminded me of some hard facts about human rights and the Cuban state.

Still, the Cubans were notably more relaxed than Americans and perhaps this partially explains their upright stance. I admit, I was enchanted by the concept of a country with no homelessness, universal healthcare, and free education. Gun violence is unheard of and murder rates are low. I felt safe on the streets at night. The people did not seem beaten down by the fear, stress and depression that I see everywhere here. Of course, you can’t understand a culture in just a few days. My impressions are only that.

Rehearsal Hall for Raices Profundas

This dramatic space (to the left) is the professional rehearsal hall for Raices Profundas. Having grown up with the idea that dance classes take place in dedicated spaces with sprung wood floors or marly, gleaming mirrors and frequent sweeping, this studio – a once-upon-a-time movie palace, with a pocky corrugated tin roof that let both shafts of sunlight and rain in – took a bit of getting used to. I was surprised that by the third day it felt like a refuge. It felt like home. I remember reading in the Talent Code that impoverished athletic facilities are correlated with enhanced  performance. Perhaps necessity is the mother of invention, or perhaps soul and heart are not located in the places that we think.

The US Embargo stopped car imports to Cuba, making Havana a living museum for classic American cars.

Cuba is said to be in time warp since the revolution in 1953 when imports from the US stopped. Perhaps the downfall of bodies was also slowed. Although Cubans have smart phones, wifi is uncommon and people do not walk the street with their heads down and eyes glued to screens. But even in the US just 10 years ago, before the advent of smart phones, I don’t remember that we ever displayed the type of natural upright flow that you see in Cuba.

Why do Cubans have such poise? My best guess is that it’s the music making and dancing that is so prominent in life. The undulation of the hips in salsa is a close approximation of the pendular movement of the pelvis required for efficient gait. Dance and music also harmonize social bonds – which optimize heart rate variance and resilience in the face of stress. But no one thinks about it like that. “I’m Cuban, therefore I dance!” said our tour leader, also a grandmother, as she stepped onto the dance floor executing complex moves with fluid expertise.

Find out if the Alexander Technique can help you. Let’s bring some poise back to our people.

Elyse Shafarman, Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient

 

 

Just call me a body nerd

Dancing in SF Carnivale 2018

I crossed some boundary in minimalist footwear yesterday. I clambered over Bernal hill in my flimsy sandals, whilst purposefully stepping on rocks to massage the stiffness out of my overtaxed dancer feet. Back when foot reflexology was in fad, I remember reading advice to hike barefoot. The rocks and gravel were supposed to stimulate key meridians. I thought this was nuts, but now, I’m not far behind the trend. My feet felt fantastic this morning, and body nicely tuned up for dancing. Obviously, the Body Nerd meridian was stimulated

Noticing that my Central Nervous System (CNS) finally stopped throttling my movement range. For months, hip pain and low level depression stiffened every part of me. I couldn’t get low in plies or high in jumps. I thought my age was catching up to me. But the brake is off. Elasticity is back.

Picking up my handstand play a year after elbow injury. If I include a tiny pelvic pendulum as I kick up into handstand I have much better balance and control. The pelvic pendulum is the figure eight motion the hips make in gait. My hips felt free to adjust to the balance vs locked and rigid, as they do when I, on purpose or due to stress, employ the more common handstand cue to, “Squeeze the butt.”

Yes, injury and pain is somewhat a theme in this post. As I dance, I am in constant conversation with my body. I use the Alexander Technique, and everything else I know to keep learning and moving.

Helping a Dancer with Foot Pain

Blond woman smiling over her shoulder at the camera.Today I helped a dancer with foot pain using Reembody Method. She had pain in the balls of her feet from dancing in heels. The pain was more intense in her left foot, which was her non-dominant (ND) side. As she described her situation, I was forming a picture in my mind about what her steps might look like, and how her ankles and feet moved.

Frequently, dancers are instructed to push the back foot into the floor, almost like the foot is an oar in the ocean. This has the counter-intuitive result of stalling forward momentum, while dispersing unwanted force into the tiny bones in the balls of the feet.

We were working online[i]. I observed her walking. Then she lay on her back with pillows under her knees. She followed my instructions to plantar flex her left ND ankle. Plantar flexion looks like pointing the toes, but the action is isolated to the ankle joint while the toes remain completely relaxed. It can be surprisingly difficult to uncouple these movements.

I could see where she was having problems. To create the pointed shape, she was pushing her forefoot down as though pressing on a gas pedal, with minimal movement in the ankle. The action I was looking for requires sliding the heel bone along the floor towards the body by shortening the Achilles tendon. The Reembody method predicts that people will have a harder time organizing this movement on the non-dominant leg, which seemed to be the case. So, I had her switch legs, and try it on her right dominant leg.

Piece of cake.

Next, she practiced a sequence of upper and lower leg rotations on her right D leg that I thought she would need to improve the launching[ii]capability of her left ND leg. According to the Reembody Method, we tend to stop using our ND leg as an effective launcher, and the bones spiral in directions that make this leg trend towards bending and weak force production. It gets a bit soggy. Over time, the ND side grows dormant, and we end up doing almost all the work of locomotion and support on the D side of the body. You can observe this by watching people walk. Since most people are right legged, watch how people post over the left leg. Observe how the left leg tends to rotate out and doesn’t land under the center of mass.

Then I had her rest. Rest is an important part of learning new skills.

Then I asked her to visualize the movement sequence on her right leg, followed by visualizing the sequence on her left leg, followed by performing the movements on her left leg.

Piece of cake.

The two sides the body learn from each other, due to the chiastic nature of the nervous system – stay tuned, that’s another blog.

Next, she stood up and commented that the left leg felt longer, more stable and easier. I could see that she was allowing it to bear more of her body weight.

Then we translated the actions of the leg on the floor to the way the leg moved during gait. I had her position the left leg behind in the “pushing off phase” (but please don’t push off the foot, remember we don’t have oars). As she drew her heel bone up away from the floor and shortened her Achilles tendon, she allowed her shin, thigh and pelvic bones to spiral as we had practices. “I feel less pressure in the ball of my foot.”

Bingo!

True, she’s got a bit of homework to integrate this new way of moving into dancing in heels, but the beauty of Reembody Method is that newly learned movement sequences are “sticky,” meaning, the body adopts them quickly and unconsciously. This is surprising and different from most training models. Usually repetition, reward and effort are needed to build a new habit. We think, but don’t know for sure, that Reembody works more quickly because the movement sequences provide the central nervous system (CNS) with an immediate feeling of safety, hence we gravitate towards the new movement. It’s only under heightened stress, that we are likely to revert to the old inefficient patterns and will need to again practice the optimal joint rotations.

This is a small example of how the Reembody method can be used to solve pain, and fine-tune our movement for better living, sports performance and artistic expression.

I’m teaching an introductory class at Berkeley Rep starting July 10, where as a bonus you will also learn methods from the Alexander Technique.

Join me!

 

[i]Many Alexander Teachers do teach online but it is still quite controversial in our community. It takes many years of training to get the special quality of directive touch that marks an AT teacher’s hands. That touch is an art from, and many feel that without it, the technique loses its integrity and heart. I remain neutral on the topic, but for now chose to teach Alexander Technique in person, and use an online platform for other forms of mindful movement training.

[ii]Launching is the moment the back foot leaves the ground and springs forward. In the arms, you might think of it as expressing or releasing force, for example the moment an arm explodes forward in a punch or to throw a ball (to be discussed in a future blog).

A reliable reference for the body moving in space

Took my first Ballet class in 25 years (with the encouragement of my friend David Cho). From the deep unconscious, I obeyed the piano and Piqué’d, Frappéd, and Dégagé’d en Cloche…steps I haven’t practiced in decades. If I paused to give it a moment’s thought, the choreography fell apart. But if I listened to the music and remembered to breathe, flow.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

 

I felt grateful for all those years I studied with Beth Hoge as a teenager in Oakland, and later with Ernesta Corvino at SUNY Purchase. Their classes, rooted in the Cecchetti method and deepened by Alfredo Corvino (Beth’s mentor and Ernesta’s father), prioritized precision and timing over extremes of range. Under their careful tutelage, even a short-legged modern-dancer, with what was then, an unfashionably-pronounced booty, could learn what Ballet offers: a reliable reference for the body moving in space. And so, years after, the head knows to be over the foot in Pirouettes, the fingers and toes finish together in Développé, and the body automatically aligns with the invisible diagonals of the room…Croisé Devant, Effacé à la Seconde.

I’m sure I’ll be very sore tomorrow, but I may go back. It felt relaxing to do something where I’d already put in the hard time trying to achieve. Not to imply that I have, in any way, figured Ballet out, but only to say that I no longer have any skin in the game. It doesn’t matter if I’m good or not. The dirty secret is that it never mattered. All that’s left is to have fun.

And, in case you are not a former aspirant ballerina or danseur noble, if you have no interest in sewing ribbons on toe shoes, or brandishing princely hand waves, you can still achieve a reliable reference for moving your body in space by studying the Alexander Technique.

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Why Study Alexander Technique?

10487410_10204190998279179_5402076236014725919_nJoy!

Many people come to the Alexander Technique because of pain. The Alexander Technique is an effective tool for overcoming pain. You learn how to align your body and reduce pressure on inflamed tissues and joints. You learn how to move efficiently and avoid further damage. You learn how to calm your nervous system and exit the positive feedback cycle of pain, stress and more pain. Alexander Technique is one of the few alternative health modalities whose beneficial effects on back pain have been verified by a large-scale randomized controlled trial (BMJ 2008;337:a884).

But, I never came to Alexander Technique for pain.

I studied Alexander Technique, because like FM Alexander, I was passionate about an art form. He wanted to act. I wanted to dance. After an Alexander lesson my dance technique was infinitely better in ways that no amount of stretching or diligent work in dance class ever approached. Through Alexander Technique, the chronic tension in my neck, shoulders and spine released. My hip joints were magically free. My balance was effortless. My jumps floated. My turns never stopped. My creativity flowed.

I was also always very curious about psychology and the relationship between what you think, how you feel, and how you move. Alexander Technique was the key to that invisible link between thought, impulse and action.

Why study Alexander Technique?

  • To perform at your peak
  • To perfect your art
  • To discover Joy in your body

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!

 

*Photo by Holly Glenn Whitaker

tango journey – follower’s perspective

I may have said to a friend that I was not on a tango journey. This was not true. I was trying to play off how much the dance had come to matter to me.

Everyone  says, ‘Tango is so sexy,” but that’s not my usual experience. More frequently, the awkward combustion of two strangers fitting their bodies together requires expansive compassion, sophisticated somatic knowledge and a healthy respect for newtonian physics.

Then there’s loneliness. There were evenings when those tango hugs from warm bear-like men saved me. Sometimes, “You want to go/Where everybody knows your name,” but without all the bar chatter, and where speech is a silent rhythmic vocabulary.

Tango answers a need for elevation in life. The black dresses with open backs, long limbs, high heels, the Argentine men with lustrous thick black hair tied back in casual pony tails…Oh, I see, it is sexy after all.

And every once in a while, you have a tanda (a set of 3 – 5 dances) where it feels as if you had wings.

The concentration needed to follow is the sort of in-depth mindfulness training that will knock you out of depression – that is, if tango itself is not the source of your depression. How could tango be the source of your depression? Even the most beautiful and skilled followers have the occasional evening of social decimation, sitting out and watching everyone else dance. No a follow cannot ask a lead to dance…don’t get me started. Of course, if it’s gender parity you are seeking, you can always go to an alternative milonga, or practice switch tango, or better yet, blues dancing, but for me, without sharp dichotomies, the dance looses its poesy. But I digress. How can tango lead to depression?  The ongoing discomfort of high heels, bunion toes, an aching back, late sleepless nights and groggy work the next day, or the endless politics of the dance floor, the people you haven’t slept with and wish you had, or the people you have slept with and wish you hadn’t…

But if the tango journey is really about beauty and sensuality, love and loss, gravity and flight, doing and non-doing, yin and yang, and any other dramatic polarity that you can imagine, it can be a good place to park your restlessness for a very long time.

 

 

Dance and Alexander Technique

  • Very excited that the article on dance and Alexander Technique, Freedom of Movement Through Consciousness, by Joseph Carman can now be read online.
  • I was interviewed along with 3 other Alexander Technique teachers who are also dancers.
  • You can read the whole article here: http://www.dancestudiolife.com/alexander-technique/

Walking backwards in high heels

Elyse Shafarman

Reflections on Tommy Thompson’s Alexander Technique Workshop for Teachers, Oakland, CA April 14, 2013

I put on my Tango shoes and walked backwards in high heels.

I wobbled without a partner’s support. My low back arched. I was conscious of the crowd of Alexander Technique teachers watching…judging.

A teacher colleague began working with me. She did exactly what I would do with my own students, what I do with myself. She talked about releasing the hip joints and finding length in my legs. Her hands softened my lumber spine as she instructed me on how to distribute weight over my supporting foot…until Tommy Thompson stopped all the busy helpfulness.

He put his hands on my head.

Not much happened.

Quietness.

He asked me to repeat my tango walk.

There were no wobbles.

There was no doubt.

I was smooth and fluid through my whole body.

I heard the room gasp.

This sudden grace was achieved by touching on one of the key principals of the Alexander Technique: If we free the neck and allow the head to balance without tension, breath, body and being coordinate.

This was a strong reminder of the simplicity and power of the Alexander Technique.