When I started having Alexander lessons my own bodymap was woolly or non-existent, I didn’t know what was where. Slowly it’s shifting closer to reality. I’ve refined it this summer by looking at the skeleton of something very different to me – the whale. I cleaned whale bones a few weeks ago. Now I’ve visited the whales exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum and paid my respects to their newly installed blue whale skeleton, Hope.
Before I went I knew whales were mammals, like us. I wasn’t aware they started out as four-legged land-based animals. Over time, as they moved from land to water, their back legs disappeared, along with most of their pelvic bones. Their front legs became flippers. They’ve adapted to life in water, but their skeleton is mammal not fish. When they swim, fluke-powered using their strong boneless tails, the movement is up and down along the backbone, not side to side like a fish.
I stood under the vast diving skeleton of the blue whale. I imagined its undulating spine powering it gracefully through the sea. I don’t live underwater, but it’s time for me to trust my back and ‘forget about my legs’ when I move.
Whales have short, stiff necks, and fused neck vertebrae. This stabilises the head, so there’s not much mobility. Movement comes partly from their front limbs. These are now like paddles, with shorter bones than our arms, and fixed elbow joints. Shoulder joints and shoulderblades remain, connecting flippers into the spine.
Shoulders and arms have been a bugbear for me – letting go of tension, becoming aware of joints, using less effort to pick things up. The sheer size and otherness of whalebones is helpful here – like me and not like me at the same time.
It’s the skull of the whale that’s most altered since its ancestors walked on land. Whales have no external ears. Instead they have sophisticated internal systems to hear and communicate under water. Their nostrils now sit on top of the skull, with one or more blowholes. The skull shape has altered to make space for elongated jaws. Toothed whales have asymmetric skulls, no sense of smell, and teeth. Baleen whales, like the blue whale, are toothless. They use baleen plates to filter fish or krill from large mouthfuls of water.
To my sorrow I’ve never encountered a live whale. But I saw my first dead one in a whaling station in Iceland in 1983. I dug out the photos of enormous whale innards being matter-of-factly cut up and hosed down, and remembered the overpowering smell and noise.
Back to this summer, and my dances with whales are over. Their eerily beautiful water-soaked bones have given me food for thought about living and moving on land and my own bodymap.