Recently, while assisting another teacher in a beginning tango class, the students I was working with were trying close embrace for the first time. The teacher prompted them to find a comfortable hug, then gradually introduced variations to make the embrace work for tango. Both of the students I was working with started with a very comfortable hug, but as they started changing the mechanics according to the teacher’s instructions their responses differed dramatically.
The first student kept the feeling of the hug as he made his adjustments. He played with the mechanics, but with each change he melted back into the hug, uniting the mechanics and the feel into an embrace that was both good for tango and natural to his way of embracing and moving. The second student became very tense, and every adjustment he made required far more effort than necessary. His embrace started to feel like a static position, forced rather than natural, the feeling of a hug a distant memory.
There are many things going on in any learning scenario, too many to say that there is a single cause and effect, diagnosis and solution. But one of the primary things that is happening here is that the first student is integrating technique in a way that works with his body, learning good mechanics without being mechanical, developing a muscle memory that will be functional and comfortable and allow for communication and expression that fits his unique body.
Some might say that the first student is “a natural” while the other is not. But when we think of someone being “a natural” we tend to focus on physical gifts. And if we focus too much on the physical differences between these students, we may miss the mental and emotional factors that influence and often determine those differences, and overlook the importance of addressing these factors in teaching and learning.
When we shift emphasis from someone being a natural (“a person regarded as having an innate gift or talent for a particular task or activity”) to someone doing something naturally (“of or in agreement with the character or makeup of, or circumstances surrounding, someone or something”), we find that anyone can approach technique naturally, in a way that agrees with the character or makeup of their body.
This means the results for the first student are not out of reach for the second student if he adjusts the way he approaches technique. In fact, as I integrated the following three pieces of advice into my work with him, his learning process started to change and become more like the first student’s. These may seem like simple things to do, and they are, but when they are done well and consistently they create profound changes in the way we integrate technique.
1. Make it feel amazing from the very beginning.
Actively search for the new technique to feel awesome as you learn and practice. Keeping one eye on the feeling even as the other focuses on mechanical adjustments will guide you into better movement that is natural for you. When you find the goodness of a new way of moving, it allows the intelligence of your body to reorganize around a new principle instead of forcing a static idea of what is correct onto it. Practicing in this way results in movement that makes its home in your body, providing a comfort and stability from which you can be expressive.
It is important to do this from the very beginning instead of waiting until you think you have all the mechanics right, because the feeling you’re looking for will help guide the mechanics in the right direction. If you wait, your muscle memory will harden before the intelligence of your body has been able to inform it. Ultimately, you want what you learn to be at the intersection of being correct and feeling good. Pursuing that intersection is how you integrate technique in a way that is natural for your body.
A big part of this is trust in how your body feels. This doesn’t mean you will never feel uncomfortable or that what feels normal to you is natural. It can take time to learn how to tell the difference between something that feels uncomfortable because it’s different or foreign and something that feels uncomfortable because it doesn’t work for your body. But developing this sense and constantly honing it is important to acquire technique that works with your body rather than against it.
2. Check your emotions.
Are you bored, tense, fearful, self-conscious, tentative, or frustrated? What would it take for you to be engaged, confident, happy, relaxed, comfortable, and sensual with your movement? Checking in with your emotions can help identify obstacles that may be preventing your body from integrating technique in a way that is not only functional but enjoyable, not only sustainable but expressive. Pedro de Alcantara offers some wise words for musicians that apply equally well to dancers in his book Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique:
It’s easy to underestimate the emotional dimension of technique and of daily practice. If you practice your scales in boredom and frustration, then your technique will also contain a charge, hidden or blatant, of boredom and frustration. If you hear, in every scale that you play or sing, something joyful and expressive, then your technique will contain a charge of joy and expression… If you want to conquer the apparent physical problems involved in each technique, you need to navigate the boredom, frustration, and self-hatred that might be seeping into your work. In many instances, these emotions don’t simply seep into the work; they actually determine the work itself.
One place to start is to try lightening your concentration, your effort, and your attachment to the outcome. Relax your forehead, take a deep breath, try practicing easier rather than harder. Allow what you’re doing to fall apart rather than trying to force it. Stop judging yourself. Embrace mistakes. Receive feedback (from yourself and from others) as a detached observer: There are no value judgments, no good or bad, no right or wrong. There are only observations and curiosity about what is happening in your body.
3. Expand your focus.
Dissecting a technique can be helpful, but integrating it into your body requires understanding how it connects with everything else, including your way of moving, your partner, the music, the form of the dance, even your goals and values as a dancer. As de Alcantara has written about our emotions, all of these things “don’t simply seep into our work; they actually determine the work itself.” Unfortunately, our culture has increasingly embraced a mechanical worldview that emphasizes separation at the expense of connection, and this worldview permeates our way of thinking, including our language.
The word concentration, for example, referred to the “action of bringing to a center” in the 1600s, according to Etymonline.com. But by the 1800s it had become the “continuous focus of mental activity.” Alexander Technique teacher Patrick Macdonald was right when he wrote that “the meaning of the word ‘concentration’ has been debased. It used to mean to relate a set of surrounding factors to a central point. It now very often means to separate a point from its surroundings.”
This way of thinking can affect the level and quality of your awareness when you are learning and practicing. A narrow focus can keep you from understanding how the technique fits into the bigger picture of the dance, and without this larger context the technique itself can become distorted in your body. Seeing the wholeness to which a technique belongs, as the first student at the beginning of this article saw the hug to which the mechanical adjustments belonged, is essential in integrating technique in a positive way.
To expand your focus, imagine your awareness as a circle, with the wholeness making up the circle and the technique taking up the center. As you practice, keep the technique in the center (the original definition of concentration) rather than allowing it to take up the entire circle at the expense of the larger context. The “wholeness” that makes up the larger circle can simply be the goal(s) of the technique itself: to feel more connected with your partner, to be balanced and ready to move in any direction between each step, to express something in the music. Keeping the goal in your mind and body as much as the mechanics of the technique allows the two to develop together as they should.