Half the World is Behind You

Do you find yourself sticking your neck forward and crunching your shoulders in concentration? These are common reading, texting, and speaking habits. Our need to focus to extract meaning, or to see, hear and speak drive us to push our faces forward. The urgency of social communication can undermine our natural capacity for ease. This is a common problem for my actor students who have the challenge of broadcasting emotion to the back row without sacrificing authenticity. Luckily, there is a simple solution that does not involve advanced postural cuing, hands on work from an Alexander Technique teacher, or expensive equipment. You can try it right now.

Expand your awareness to include the space behind you. Sometimes it’s helpful to actually turn around and look behind you, and then turn back and imagine you are seeing out through the back of your head, or the skin of your back. This requires a little imagination. Do you recall that feeling of knowing someone is looking at you even though they are behind you? How do we know? I don’t have the answer to this, but we can make use of our ability to extend perception to balance our use. “Use” is F.M. Alexander’s term for the way we habitually organize our movement in response to all the stimuli of life. What does it feel like to extend your awareness backwards?

Then, if you are an actor, take out some text, or a script you are learning. If your are not an actor, your phone is probably your biggest stimulus to focus forward and contract your attention. Do you feel an immediate impulse to push your neck forward? Are you holding your breath? Again, expand your attention to the space behind you. Rest a bit, and try your task again. Toggle between expanding awareness backwards, and focusing attention forward. Only practice 2-minutes, and then let it go. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get anything done. Directing attention takes a lot of cognitive resources at first! See if this short amount of practice leaves you with the spontaneous ability to broaden your awareness and breathe throughout the day.

It’s pleasant to practice expanding your field of attention outdoors while walking or exercising. It’s challenging but good to practice expanding awareness back during a conversation with someone. The heat of communicating, the need to be heard, liked, or to make your point, is often the biggest stimulus to push your head forward.

I learned this exercise from my teacher Frank Ottiwell. I had the privilege of assisting Frank’s Alexander Technique Classes for actors at American Conservatory Theater (where I still teach) for several years.  As you know, actor’s frequently stick their necks out in the urgency of communication. I’m sure you’ve seen this on stage. Two actors argue, and if you turned off the sound you would witness the argument progress as chins compete in forward motion. Frank would quip, “Half the world is behind you.” With this simple reminder the actors would find a way to speak while staying centered and free.

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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Celebration of the life of Frank Ottiwell

IMG_8887Please join in celebrating the life of our beloved Frank Ottiwell at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Stage on Nov 6, 2015 at 1pm.

I will post more about Frank soon. It’s been hard to write anything definitive. I am still saying goodbye. I have been reading through my 11-year journal of my time studying with Frank, and excerpting bits here and there. The notes begin half way through my 3-year training at the Alexander Technique Training Institute of San Francisco where Frank was the Director, cover the period when I was visiting and then assisting Frank’s classes at A.C.T., and end rather abruptly when Frank retired from A.C.T. due to illness.  It’s slow going. As a diarist, I didn’t distinguish between the profound and the trivial. I was equally excited to report Frank’s dapper corduroy trousers as his sharp observations about the discipline of teaching, “It’s a kind of love, but not the sort where you want to have dinner with your students after the lesson.”  Frank was my teacher and mentor, but Frank’s great gift was that so many people can make that claim. I feel his presence with me all the time, and miss him dearly.

In his own words: Back to Simplicity

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!