A skeleton is for life, not just for Christmas

Skeleton in Christmas hat

Finding my skeleton

I’ve bought a skeleton. He was hiding behind four gilded ornamental pineapples in a dingy corner of a local auction house.  His plastic bones were hanging in the right order, he was moveable and, like most anatomical skeletons, male. (Female versions are rare and cost an arm and a leg).  He was silent but we had an instant connection.

Making a bid

Browsing in an auction house was tricky, like a game of three-dimensional poker. I was a novice, so took my cue from others. It seemed communal yet competitive, sociable but filled with low cunning. Some bidders gave off an air of unconcern, as if out for a Sunday stroll. Others honed in at once on their target, chatting in hushed tones to decide on a price.

There was only one skeleton in the sale and others might want him. How much was he worth to me? I knew I’d find him useful, but didn’t mind if he went elsewhere. Best to treat it like a game where the outcome didn’t matter. So I studied a telescope, a yellow diving helmet and a silent pair of peacocks hoping to throw rivals off the musty scent of sternum and femur. Then I made a nonchalant foray into pineapple corner to settle on my bid.

Internal body map

When I started having Alexander lessons my internal body map was, at best, sketchy. I hadn’t paid much attention to skeletal structure since school biology lessons with Mr Brodie. Where my bones and joints were, what they did or how they moved was not important knowledge.  Or so I thought.

But without a body map I had no sense of what was possible and moved in a more compressed and restricted way than I needed to. With Alexander work my body map has become more accurate.  My movement is now more in harmony with my joints and internal structure rather than ignoring or working against them. Seeing a life-size skeleton during Alexander lessons and training has been part of this process. Without doubt the plastic figure behind the pineapples could be of use.

Looking after my skeleton

My auction house strategies were successful.  No-one else bid, and I secured the skeleton at a modest price. “He’s a good dancer” laughed the receptionist. “We’ve enjoyed having him around”.  So the next challenge was to escort him home.

He blinked as we emerged into the sunlight and paused, uncertain. We set off uphill. An arm (his) fell off.  I stopped, picked it up and carried on. A black cab came to a sudden halt as I wheeled him on creaking castors over the zebra crossing.

Crowds parted as we continued and two waiters at a pavement cafe laid down steaming spaghetti meatballs for a quick selfie.  We made stately progress onward to my front door and I invited him in.

I’ve repaired his arm and re-aligned his hip joints. He’s definitely not just for Christmas.  Both he and my own skeleton are for life. I need to take care of us both now.

Written in Term 8 of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher.

Palindrome by William Cobbing
Don’t try this at home. Palindrome 2003 by William Cobbing (Wellcome Collection)


Dancing into the future, letting go of the past: two journeys out to sea

Belonging 2017 by Chiharu Shiota
Belonging 2017 by Chiharu Shiota
Ocean crossing

As a child, six nearly seven, I arrived in the UK by sea from another continent. King Neptune dipped me under water as I crossed the equator for the first time. Each evening the adults dined and danced in formal dress while I slept beneath the porthole. Every morning a cabin attendant in a starched white jacket woke us with a tray of tea and crisp biscuits.

Flying fish leapt from the waves and dolphins followed our wake. We stopped in the Canary Islands where I bought an embroidered postcard of a Spanish flamenco dancer. Vibrant silk thread sparkled on the flounces of her skirt and I held her close like a talisman.

Fish weathervane, London

Starting again

After two weeks at sea a tug hooted as it brought us in to dock. We waited on shore while a crane lifted our battered Vauxhall Velox from the hold and laid it like a toy on the quayside. My father turned the key in the ignition and we drove north for a new life.  Our possessions, crammed into splintering tea chests in the hold, followed on. I clutched my Spanish postcard.

Learning to dance

Within months I was dancing the Dashing White Sergeant and saw snow for the first time. My mother wrote a weekly letter home on crinkly airmail paper and learned how to make shortbread.  At Christmas my father, the youngest of seven and back after many years abroad, led the singsong as his siblings gathered round the piano.

Beyond Time by Chiharu Shiota, Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2018
Beyond Time by Chiharu Shiota

So I became Scottish and British and European, speaking new languages and adapting to the rhythms and steps of countries not my own. Finally I settled in London, at home in a city with a tidal river where everyone comes from somewhere else.

London buildings from the Thames

Sea change

Many years have passed since that tug guided us in and I stepped onto dry land to dance to adulthood.  If I’d found the Alexander Technique earlier then maybe my passage through life would have been more expansive and comfortable. But these past few years I’ve returned to sea on a different kind of voyage. I’m again far from my embarkation point and heading for unknown territory.  Somewhere beyond the equator my old choreography melted into the deep and something smoother and more graceful took its place.

Seal in Cornwall

Dancing to a new rhythm

Now as I approach the shore, I reach for a flamenco talisman again, but this time I no longer need to hold on.  Instead my own internal threads have untangled. Like the act of breathing, an exchange has taken place at sea and what was outside has found its way in.

The landing point is still hazy but I hear its muffled music through the mist. That subtle rhythm is infectious and my feet are tapping. Soon I’ll leave my sea legs behind and be ready to join the dance.

Written in Term 8 of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher

Dancing the flamenco to a new rhythm with the Alexander Technique

Vitality and poise: a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Vitality and poise in Julian Opie's People 15 in Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Walking with poise – Julian Opie’s People 15

Vitality and poise are two key benefits I’ve had from learning the Alexander Technique.  I hadn’t expected this (though I’m sure my teachers did). I’d gone for greater mobility and relief from back pain.  Both duly arrived as my head, neck and back began to work together in a more integrated way. Now other rewards have started to come through. One is that I’m more self-possessed with a greater zest for life.

Expanding and breathing

I’m more aware of vitality and poise in the world at large too, and found both on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park .  Here monumental pieces – stone, bronze, iron, wood, even string – animated the landscape. Many were of the human figure or about movement, almost alive yet with an inner stillness. Despite their size I felt they could easily come to life and swap places after closing time.

Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
Part of The Family of Man (1970) by Barbara Hepworth
The Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth

I puzzled over what was different here from any other gallery.  Barbara Hepworth, born in nearby Wakefield, gave me some clues. She wrote of  sculpture as “something still and yet having movement, so very quiet and yet with a real vitality”.  But being outdoors was also important:

“I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe.”

Playful vitality and mindful poise

Visitors too seemed more energetic, lively and engaged than in many indoor spaces. No tired ‘museum feet’ here.  Instead some had hiking poles and set off briskly round the lake trails. Family groups argued about the best routes. And round every sculpture people gathered in twos and threes. They discussed, chatted, wondered what it was all about or just enjoyed the cracking Yorkshire view.

Later I picked up two of the park leaflets.  One of them – 50 Ways to Play – suggested you “play with our art and nature to lift your spirits, enjoy your day and test all your senses”. The second listed Well-being events, including sessions called Still Looking and Room to Breathe.  These encouraged you to “think deeply, move mindfully and connect with nature” while engaging with art and with others. I discovered the park has an Art and Well-being Coordinator  who is herself an artist interested in walking and mindfulness.

Touch with Care, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Expect the unexpected

All in all it was a satisfying place to visit. It encouraged visitors to discover a playful vitality in themselves, while moving through the sculptures and landscape with mindful poise.  My trip to Yorkshire was to see the sculptures. But like my experience with the Alexander Technique, what I found when I got there was deeper, more interesting and worth going back for.

Written during Term 8 of my Alexander Technique teacher training.

Network by Thomas J Price
Network by Thomas J Price
One and Other by Antony Gormley
One and Other by Antony Gormley
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Promenade by Anthony Caro
Promenade by Anthony Caro
Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick
Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick
Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink
Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink