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

 

 

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.

Speaking from the Bones

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman, MA, Certified Alexander Technique Teacher

I wrote this for one of my MFA Acting students, but I think it’s relevant for all of us:

Speaking from the Bones

Before speaking, pause for a moment. Allow your chest and belly to soften, and find the support of your bones. If sitting, you could move in the chair a bit to feel your sit bones. If standing become aware of the skin contact of your feet with the floor. Try and get balanced evenly between both sit bones, or evenly between heel and toe and both feet. If standing let your knee (on the dominant leg) soften inward. If the knees lock out this will cut of your support from the floor, but it’s mostly the dominant knee that needs a little inward softening. It might feel knock-need.

Remind yourself that the resonance in your voice comes from your bones, not the muscles of your throat, and direct your neck to be easy, your head to float. Trust that the sound vibrations will resonate in the bones of your face and the throat and chest and shoulders can stay loose.

Even a little pause here and there will help maintain your energy and freedom

See Three Things

When we worry about getting things right, we tend to stop breathing, grip up and try harder. The harder we try, the tighter we get.

Here’s a practice (adapted from Peter Levine’s Somatic Experience Work) that will help you stop worrying and relax into presence and a broader perspective.

Let your eyes dance around the environment until they land on something pleasant. This might take some imagination, but usually there’s something interesting to look at: the sky; the glint of light on a glass; or a crack in the sidewalk. Then, as if you were writing an essay, describe the object. Briefly observe your body. Do this three times. Then return to the original issue. Has the problem lessened in some way? Is your breath easier? Is your neck freer? Are you still worrying? Can you now approach the original problem with less effort?

For example:

Caught in the repetitive loop of worry, my chest is tight, my breathing is shallow and my hands are cold. Wrenching my attention away from my inner story, I look at the folds of my white curtain. The curtain hangs gracefully. The light flows through softly. My chest feels cool. I see the moldings on the ceiling. The light plays over the smooth ridges turning the white stripe shades of beige and cream. My forehead feels smooth. The pencil in the jar glints pink, silver and orange. The pop of color pleases me. My facial muscles relax. I feel less fearful.

Looking around and actively perceiving ones relationship to the external world is one of the quickest ways to gain perspective. Seeing helps us leap outside the box of negativity.

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!

Let there be love

The spine moves.
The head is part of the body.
Let the soft animal of the body love what it loves. (…wait, that’s Mary Oliver)
Let there be love (…wait, that’s a play I just saw by Kwei-Armah)
Be (…some dude named Buddha had something to say about that).

These were my thoughts after an epic Reiki session from my friend Jordana del Feld

For a brief amount of time, I dabbled in Reiki. Reiki seemed like the Alexander Technique, minus the technique. Reiki does not demand 3 years of daily training to certify as a teacher. Reiki is not concerned with movement. And Reiki does not teach people a reliable means for changing habits.

But it does offer energy flow without any ego manipulation. Isn’t that the essence of Alexander’s and the Tao’s principal of non-doing?

Everyone intuitively knows about flow state. We’ve all been lucky enough to have fleeting experiences of effortless action. But we forget that flow is our birthright. We forget that it is always available—if we get out of the way.

When I put my hands on my students, I don’t intend to ‘do’ anything to them. I am helping them learn how they can prevent pain, constriction and heaviness. How does this work? I think students get the hallmark Alexander Technique sensations of lightness and ease through resonance. That is, if I am sufficiently free, my flow will be catchy and they will catch the current of their own flow.

Still, I need my students to do more than to catch my flow. During the the lesson, they’re moving: sitting, walking, or reciting Hamlet. I’m an educator, not a therapist. I’m giving my students the means to find freedom without my help. So I ask them to imagine space here and to notice a habit there, to become conscious of the intersection between thoughts, emotions and body states, and to direct energy. I teach them techniques that they can practice on their own. The trick is to spark their awareness enough that the body transforms, but not so much that they are micro-managing alignment details.

Sometimes I think that technique is a ruse. All that’s needed is to let every opinion about bio-mechanics, habit, gravity and direction dissolve into the bliss of dancing molecules and love. There’s no need to reach for knowledge. Effortless (but not passive) absorption is effective and valid. Experience has taught me that our bones know what to do. It’s our personality (composed of our habit and ego), that forces them into uncomfortable configurations.

The Alexander Technique works indirectly to release energy flow in action. Students learn techniques to recognize and prevent limiting habits, and thus get out of the way of their own life force.  But the root of transformation is compassion, connection and love. Out of this, positive change is self-generating, the way a seed germinates and eventually reaches for the sun.

Poet Galway Kinnell said it best, Saint Francis and the Sow

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

Quick body awareness refresher

Distracted? Worried? Bored? Noticing body sensations and adding helpful directions is an easy way to coax yourself into better postural habits and an easy way to come back to the present moment.

From time to time during the day, ask yourself these questions:

What am I doing with my shoulders?

  • Am I scrunching?
  • Can I do a little less?
  • What happens if I imagine my shoulder muscles melting like butter in a pan?
  • What happens if I imagine the collar bones like two arrows pointing apart?

How am I standing on my feet?

  • How does standing change if I pay attention to the soles of my feet?
  • How does my breath change when I consciously relax my feet?
  • Can I sense the distance between my feet and the top of my head?

You might find yourself subtly expanding upward just by noticing the distance between your feet and head.

 

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.