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New book shows how small changes produce big results for dancers

Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and a student
Photo by
Natalie Fiol

Using Alexander Technique, dance professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol guides a student in a movement exploration designed to help him learn to lead with his head.

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7/27/2011 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book co-written by University of Illinois dance professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol presents what at first glance seems like a counterintuitive concept for people whose work necessarily requires movements large enough to be seen by the back row of a theater. The book shows dancers they can dramatically improve their artistry through the Alexander Technique – a system of tiny, subtle changes.

“In this book, I write about the struggle of how to integrate these two things,” Nettl-Fiol said. “Alexander Technique is very quiet, one-on-one kind of work; dance is jumping around with music. How can I get across to people that these two things work together?”

The biggest challenge was simply describing Alexander Technique. Frederick Matthias Alexander, an actor and orator plagued by chronic hoarseness, developed this technique in the early 1900s, after discovering that tension and posture caused his vocal problems.

“Explaining it is always the hardest thing to do,” Nettl-Fiol said. “Even the chapter on Alexander Technique in this book was the last chapter we (she and Luc Vanier) wrote. We just kept putting it off, because it’s so difficult to explain.”

It’s easier to explain what Alexander Technique is not: It includes realigning the body, but it’s not chiropractic. It involves repeated sequential movements, though these aren’t designed to increase the participant’s heart rate, build strength or endurance, or even burn calories.

And although it may cure chronic injuries and enhance flexibility, such results would be considered side-benefits, rather than primary goals of Alexander Technique.

“There’s a lot of non-doing in Alexander, and dancers hate that,” Nettl-Fiol said. “If you say, ‘Just don’t do that,’ they think they have to do something else. And actually, you just have to undo the extra tension that you’re used to doing.”

In a typical Alexander lesson, a teacher (certified through 1,600 hours of training) will use his or her hands to make small adjustments to a student’s stance, helping the student become aware of habits that interfere with the body’s natural position. For example, when Nettl-Fiol began taking Alexander lessons from Urbana instructors Alex and Joan Murray more than two decades ago, she discovered that she had a tendency to press her back into the seat while driving, and to lean forward when engaged in conversation, instead of “sitting on my sit bones.” The training helped her stop both of those habits, and many others.

Nettl-Fiol also found that Alexander alleviated knee problems that had plagued her for years, increased her flexibility, and in general made her a more naturally graceful dancer. She began searching for a way to share this technique with her students.

Their new book, “Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the Missing Link,” details a method that Nettl-Fiol and Vanier, a professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, developed to bridge the chasm between the large movements of dance and Alexander Technique.

The term “missing link” refers to Australopithecus africanus, or the Taung
Child – a fossilized skull believed to be the link between apes and humans – discovered by Raymond Dart.

Dart, an anatomist and anthropologist, studied developmental and evolutionary movement, and worked with the Murrays to develop a series of exercises called Dart Procedures, based on the natural, unfettered movements of infants and toddlers.

“It’s kind of a play on words, because these Dart Procedures are the link that really helps dancers understand the Alexander principles in our work,” Nettl-Fiol said. “When you work with an Alexander teacher, it’s very subtle. They put a hand on you, they sort of move you a little bit, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense at first. But with the Dart Procedures, you roll on the floor, you try to crawl, and through doing these things, we can explain the Alexander principles.”

Dancers and dance instructors are the target audience for the book, but Nettl-Fiol said Alexander Technique can help almost anyone. It has long been used by musicians, including James Galway, Yehudi Menuhin and Alex Murray (a flute professor at Illinois), and actors such as Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Paul Newman, Lynn Redgrave and Hilary Swank. Even popular entertainers Madonna and Sting have taken Alexander training.

The book, published by the University of Illinois Press, includes almost 200 photographs and a DVD.

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