Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2007 | Features

A Moving Experience

By Amy Schoon
To improve their skills and their lives, students unlearn the habits of a lifetime

In a class that teaches the basic principles of the Alexander Technique, adjunct assistant professor Rachelle Tsachor helps her students discover their healthier postular alignment, which improves their mental and physical well-being and their skills as performers.

In the opera rehearsal room of the Voxman Music Building, musicians gather at the grand piano, watching as a fellow student strokes Chopin's First Ballade upon the ivories. Nearby, an artist props her sketchbook onto a music stand and begins to draw. One young man juggles several balls in front of a mirror. Singers concentrate on the gestures they make as they practice arias. Actors pair up for hand-slapping and a chorus of pat-a-cake. Dancers plié around the room.

This disparate group of UI students has signed up for a three-week, intensive class called "Movement for Performers: Introduction to the Principles of the Alexander Technique (AT)." They'll learn plenty in this interdisciplinary class. Just as important, though, are what they will "unlearn": the habitual and unconscious patterns of movement that can cause pain and injury or affect performance skills.

As they sing, dance, or juggle, students are actually involved in an intense exploration and scrutiny of every single movement they make. By analyzing how and why their bodies move, they're working to correct repetitive and potentially harmful patterns that may have built up over the years.

They're drawing upon a method of movement developed decades ago by Shakespearean actor F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) to remedy the chronic voice problems that plagued him in the prime of his career. With its focus on posture, breathing, balance, and coordination, the Alexander Technique is said to help practitioners — people from all walks of life, not just performers — relieve mental and physical stress by freeing themselves from unnecessary muscular tension.

"I want students to have tools and methods that support their whole selves as artists, that help them feel integrated and coordinated, whole and healthy," says Rachelle Palnick Tsachor. An adjunct assistant professor in the School of Music within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Tsachor targets the class to anyone in the Division of the Performing Arts — and beyond.

Only offered once a year in the first session after spring semester, the AT course is part of the UI's continuing education program available to anyone in the community, so it fills up quickly. This year's participants include actors, dancers, singers, pianists, cellists, music therapists, a biology major, and a guy who just loves to juggle.

"All performers move for a living, but everyone who's alive moves. I like to say that if you have a body, you're welcome here. You can learn something from the Alexander Technique," says Tsachor, who is a certified movement analyst and registered somatic movement therapist specializing in another type of movement technique — Laban Movement Studies. She is in the process of becoming certified in the Alexander Technique, so for now she teaches some basic AT principles to her students.

One key principle becomes a mantra that echoes through every session: free the neck, so that the head will go forward and up, then the back can lengthen and widen. This conscious adjustment of posture emphasizes how the poise of the head shares a fluid relationship with the spine and affects all other body movements.

Students also explore their bodies' responses to gravity, refine their sensory and spatial awareness, and learn to consciously use their energy. They read about and examine diagrams of the human skeletal and muscular systems. For the first part of each three-and-a-half hour session, they gather in group discussion to share insights about what they have learned in class and through their textbook readings, reveal excerpts from their required class journals, and ask questions about body structure and movement.

A mix of men and women wearing a variety of loose-fitting clothing — from yoga pants and leotards to T-shirts and sweatshorts — the 16 students sit in a circle on an assortment of chairs, exercise mats, and inflatable fitness balls.

"Whatever feels comfortable," Tsachor directs. Although she takes the subject matter utterly seriously, she encourages free exploration of the concepts being taught and delights in her students' discoveries of themselves and their abilities.

The daily lessons focus on specific body areas and how they connect, move, and affect each other. Today, students team up and rotate their shoulders, consciously flex their collarbones, and lift their arms. Each person asks permission to place fingertips or hands on his or her partner's specific joints or body parts to feel the movements. Tsachor stresses the need to show respect by asking permission to touch someone or enter another student's personal space. If they feel overwhelmed or don't want to be touched, students are free to say "No, thank you."

Controlled chaos erupts when Tsachor instructs students to incorporate AT techniques by doing whatever activity is their specialty — whether playing an instrument, taking to the theater stage, or practicing ballet. They discover how tension creeps in when they hold their necks a certain way or move their shoulders, elbows, chins, or even their tongues.

Greg Bligard, a biology sophomore from Fort Dodge, Iowa, intended to use the course to explore his interest in a theater arts minor. When he realized that the techniques could help his tennis game, he started bringing sports equipment to class.

"When we all go off and do our own thing, I'm banging tennis balls against the wall. At first, everyone was uncomfortable and awkward," Bligard says. "We quickly figured that since we were all doing things that looked kind of ridiculous, we might as well just go with it."

A significant part of each class period requires students to relearn and practice a familiar daily activity. They might repeatedly sit down in a chair and stand back up, bend over and tie their shoes, or brush their teeth — all while staying conscious of AT principles.

One of the most challenging and fundamental principles requires not doing something. Students have to learn to inhibit their habitual movements, to keep themselves steady in the moment just before they act so that they can think about how to move in a new and different way. For performers, this simple approach has many applications. It can help them overcome stage fright, break bad habits, or stop cycles of tension that can lead to misaligned bones and injuries.

The concept intrigues and frustrates Thuy Dao, a native of Vietnam who earned her bachelor of arts in piano performance in May from Iowa and will start graduate school here in the fall. "I'm used to learning to do or achieve something, such as playing a piece of music, where the result is what's important and the means don't matter," says Dao. "When you've done something your whole life in a certain way, learning to do it differently takes time."

Becoming so aware of one's body can be an intensely emotional experience. Lauren Johnson, a senior in painting and drawing from Tabor, thought she would take the course as a way either to refocus her painting postures or to work on stage techniques for her theater minor. Instead, she says, "It helped me figure out my whole self."

After years of therapy, Johnson thought she had recovered from an earlier emotional trauma. What she didn't realize, though, was that she had ignored the physical aftermath of the trauma — her tenseness and how her body had been reacting. Once she started applying the AT principles, she was overwhelmed by the tension and anxiety that flooded out.

"I was right there in class, and it was like everything all clicked together," she says. "I started to cry and had to leave the room."

Although she describes the weeks in the class as "mentally, emotionally, physically exhausting," Johnson is almost giddy when talking about what she's learned.

"I've figured out why I've been painting what I've been painting, why I hold myself the way I do, and why that makes me feel anxious," she explains. "It's amazing that something as small as the way you hold your head and neck can change your whole outlook. It's made me a much happier person. It's like I've found the missing piece of my life."