Fear of falling: when tensing up changes balance and stability

Ice Skating at Somerset House, London November 2018

Fear of falling affects all of us at times, specially in winter.  But reacting by tensing up is not the answer as it alters our balance, affecting stability and making us more likely to fall. This was clear when I visited two of London’s pop-up ice rinks over the Christmas holidays.

Anxious skaters were hesitant and stiff, intent only on keeping upright. As they tensed, their weight shifted.  This put them off balance and they became more unstable. By contrast confident skaters moved in a fluid and poised way. They were more springy and supple, allowing their balance to look after itself. They had energy and time to take in their surroundings, which in turn helped with stability.    No fear of falling for ice marshal at Somerset House, London

Fluid and effortless movement

At Somerset House the most skilful skaters were the ice marshals, easy to spot in fluorescent jackets.  They were everywhere at once, swooping in whenever a skater took a tumble. They floated round, upright and alert, eyes taking in their surroundings. For them skating on ice seemed as natural as walking on grass.

Gliding on the ice without fear of falling at Tower of London ice rink

At the Tower of London one skater stood out for her easy flowing style.  She skated forwards and backwards with equal grace, turning and stopping to let her two less confident friends catch up. Like the ice marshals, she looked up and out, aware of her position on the ice and the space around her. And bending at the hips, knees and ankles she used her body’s natural spirals to skate round, shifting her weight onto each leg with fluid co-ordination.

No fear of falling on the ice for children at Somerset House, London

Children falling without fear

The Polar Bear Club was in a separate space reserved for under-8s.  Here there was falling but no fear. Every minute, it seemed, children collapsed on to the ice. But by holding on to the weighted bears they stood right back up and continued to skate.

Falling was part of the experience and the fun.  No-one tensed up or got hurt and the adults encouraged and assisted. As Olympic ice dance champion Christopher Dean put it “The Christmas pop-ups are a really good taster. Especially for kids, who don’t tend to see the fear in it that adults can.”

Ice skates, Somerset House London

Tensing up affects balance and stability

Back at the main rink the disco beat urged skaters round.  But fear of falling made it hard for some even to step onto the ice. Then, once on the rink, some clung to the side, easing round by hand.  “Keep your glove on, Emily!” yelled a protective but unhelpful dad, as Emily tensed her shoulders and gripped the barrier.Street art, London South Bank

Fear of falling is not just a problem when we skate. Cycling on muddy ground recently I noticed that I tensed my legs the minute I moved off the path and onto the mud. As soon as I let go of the tension I felt more balanced and in control of my bike.   It can also be a common response to ageing, pain, post-op recovery or just moving on an unfamiliar surface like ice or mud. What was clear as I watched the skaters was that tensing up to guard against a fall only made a tumble more likely.

Details of a small pilot study showing the positive effects of the Alexander Technique on older people with a fear of falling.

Skating polar bears, Somerset House London

Fear of falling on the ice at Tower of London ice rink


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