We’ve had our end-of term reviews and are heading towards the summer holidays. Now seems a good time to look back and see how far I’ve come on my personal Alexander journey. Here’s my story so far, in words and (mostly) pictures:
Once upon a time I had back, neck and shoulder pain
Then I met an Alexander teacher and started having lessons
My body and my thinking slowly began to change
After a while I decided to train as an Alexander teacher
Now I’m something like this:
Thanks to my teachers and fellow students past and present
A new book on the Alexander Technique is always a cause for celebration. So it proved last week as the corks popped at the launch from HITE Limited of Think More, Do Less: Improving Your Teaching of the Alexander Technique with Marjory Barlowwritten by Seán Carey. Marjory Barlow (1915 – 2006) was FM Alexander’s niece. Not only did she have a close family connection, but she trained with him as a teacher in the 1930s, and subsequently ran a training school with her husband Dr Wilfred Barlow.
The author, Seán Carey, qualified as an Alexander teacher in 1986 and had individual and group lessons with Marjory over several years in the late 1990s. This is the fruit of those lessons, capturing what he experienced from her words and her hands, and observing his fellow teachers learning. It is neatly bookended by a foreword from senior teacher Anne Battye (who trained with Marjory and worked as her training course assistant) and Seán’s write-up of his lesson and subsequent interview with Elisabeth Walker. She was a lifelong friend of Marjory’s and the last of the ‘first-generation’ teachers – the interview dates from 2013, shortly before she died.
With his social anthropology background, Seán sees a value in recording how people who knew and worked with FM Alexander taught. Much of the training for Alexander teachers takes place via an oral tradition, or is passed on kinaesthetically through use of the hands. As the generations pass there is little documentation about actual practice, particularly from the earlier teachers. Think More Do Less describes many of the crucial details involved in standard practical Alexander procedures as taught by Marjory. “It’s a historical record of how she taught, and how she thought FM (Alexander) taught” he told me, shortly before the book’s publication.
It was clear to Seán that Marjory expected the lesson to be about learning, not just having a pleasant time. As a pupil you had to be an active and thinking participant, not expecting her to do the work for you. “She wouldn’t let you get away with very much. You had to learn to direct. Standing in front of her teaching chair, she matched the verbal directions she gave you for the head-neck-back relationship with her hands. Because of that your stature increased. However, you were responsible for bending your knees, without losing your internal length.”
She always began with the pupil in the chair, then worked with them lying down on the couch or table (the opposite way round from her husband). She would start with the head and neck, moving to the limbs and back to the head and neck again. This conveyed an immediate physical awareness of the importance of the head and neck in enabling freedom of movement in the rest of the body.
Seán is unequivocal about the value of listening to our first-generation Alexander forebears. “It would be foolish not to take note of what she did and learn from the source. Learning to teach the Alexander Technique is like climbing Mount Everest” he concluded. “You definitely want to talk to people who’ve been to the top before you start, and you also want a good sherpa to get you to the summit and back down again. Marjory Barlow is like Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay combined”.
Think More Do Less is written for current and trainee teachers, and for people who have had a lot of Alexander lessons. It already sits proudly on my Alexander bookshelf and I can see myself using it for guidance as I continue my journey from Alexander base camp towards the summit.
Last week I went window shopping, not for clothes, but for mannequins. I strolled along London’s Oxford Street to see what messages fashion mannequins give us about body posture and movement.
There is a special language of mannequin movement, and this became obvious as I looked in one shopfront after another. Female models only ever wear high heels or stand on tiptoes. They never have their fibreglass feet flat on the ground, so back pain must be endemic among the mannequin community. This applies whether they’re dressed for the beach, a night out, in casual flats or running gear – they’re never balanced solidly on the floor. Male mannequins, on the other hand, are always grounded, in flat shoes or bare feet.
The men have a military bearing, whatever their activity. Often they face straight out of the window, in a no-nonsense fashion. Or if they’re moving, they’re purposeful, going somewhere. They mostly have heads with no features or hair, topped off occasionally with a jaunty hat or sunglasses. Their hands hang down by their sides.
Female shop models are more complicated. They often have groomed wigs, full make-up, a range of uncomfortable body positions, and a variety of hats and bags. Two distinct female poses were repeated along the shopping street. In the first, they held their arms by their sides, wrists bent, hands facing away from the body. This is something we practise on our training to help release the wrists, but it’s not a pose from everyday life, so I’m unclear as to its purpose in mannequin world.
In the second, they stood with one leg crossed in front of the other, throwing them off balance, making movement difficult, and also affecting their breathing. One window display had larger models than anywhere else, but while the proportions seemed closer to those of most women, the crossed legs remained, making sure they stayed where they were. A female runner, dressed for the part, was balancing over backwards, going nowhere.
One department store is worth a mention. This was Debenhams, which had splashed out for its Tropical Fiesta beachwear windows. Their three-quarter length mannequins stood out from the crowd – yellow, with interesting articulated arms that gestured in a human way. Their heads were poised. They balanced fruit head-dresses, in line with the tropical theme, and used their bodies like real people. I warmed to the store and wanted to turn up the volume and join the party.
The usual criticism of mannequins is that their dimensions are unrealistic, diversity is lacking, and they give women in particular an unattainable image of how they should look. This time I was struck more by the poses the models, particularly the women, were placed in. Some were unusual, but many of them looked like many of us – off balance, pulled down or twisted, restricted in breathing, bags dragging down one shoulder, shoes cramping our feet and hurting our backs. We don’t see good body use in the aspirational showcase windows on the high street, so how can we know what it looks like?
Photos taken in shopping streets in London in May 2017