Dancing Through Ease: A Conversation with Alexander Teacher, Chris Lidvall

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Chis Lidvall and Micki Fine
Photo by N. Wozny

Lidvall has been teaching dance and movement studies for 35 years, so it seemed natural for her to add the Alexander Technique to her training. She began her studies of the work in 1987, and became a certified teacher in 2000. In addition to offering private lessons, Lidvall has taught workshops in the Alexander Technique for various organizations, including the C.G. Jung Center of Houston and Rice University where she also teaches dance. Lidvall has taught workshops and master classes in dance for organizations across the country, including North Carolina School of the Arts, Regional Dance, Inc. and the Houston Ballet Academy. She directed Chrysalis Dance Company for 14 years and is a recipient of a “Buffy” award for her service to Houston dance. A graduate with a B.Sc. in communications from Northwestern University, she also received an M.A. in dance from the University of Houston/Clear Lake. Lidvall brings a wealth of insight to her work in the Alexander Technique. We recently had a chance to visit.

If you have to describe the Alexander Technique to someone who had never heard of it in two sentences, what would you say?
CL: It’s a study of how the balance of our head, neck and torso influences our movement. We often develop habits of movement or restrictions in our movement that throw us off balance, but we can learn to stop doing that and move with greater ease.

Who was F.M. Alexander?
F.M was a very self-motivated man who was born in 1869 in Tasmania, Australia. He worked at many things as a young man, and found that he was very good at acting. It was popular at the time to do Shakespearean monologues. Alexander was having quite a success when he began to lose his voice. Doctors could find nothing wrong with his throat or vocal cords, and told him to rest his voice. When he did it came back, but as soon as he began performing, he would loose it again. He decided there must be something he was doing to cause the problem. That began his life-long study of his own specific movement, and then human functioning in general.

Can you describe a typical private session?
It depends on the student and how they might want to focus the lesson. But during a lesson I will talk with a student and use my hands to guide their movement. Usually we do simple movements at first, like going into and out of a chair (sitting and standing), walking, lunging, reaching. If the student is a musician or dancer, we might look at some movement involved with playing or dancing, but really what we are looking at is the relationship of the head, neck and back and what happens habitually when a student moves, or stops moving.

What about table work?
There is often a part of the lesson when I work with someone on a table (with their clothes on). It is often easier for students to let go of postural habits when lying down. Then we work with the freedom of the neck to allow the head to freely move and to allow the back to lengthen and widen and the arms and legs to move freely.

What happens in a group session?
One of the things we do is look at the relationship of the head, neck and spine (what Alexander called “Primary Control”) as I work with each individual in the group. It is very interesting to see the work in others and to recognize that everyone has similar responses to the changes that take place in them. Some of the class will involve simple explorations of movement in a group as I guide students into noticing themselves. We look at how they may be walking, for instance, or what their response is to walking in a small space as opposed to a larger space. We look at all sorts of simple movement possibilities. We will also look at how we think we are put together, so to speak.

What do you mean by “put together?”
Some faulty habits of movement come about because we have a faulty idea of how the body is designed. I also have students practice lying in the semi-supine position and talk students through a way of thinking that can help to stimulate the uprighting responses in the body. We also look at activities that students choose that may be challenging or cause problems for them. Each class may have a theme or movement context.

When did you first encounter the Alexander Technique? Were you still dancing then? Can you describe your experience?
CL: I was attending a dance performance in Washington, D.C. and came across a brochure about a workshop in the Alexander Technique that was to take place that summer in West Virginia. After reading through the brochure, I decided that the Alexander Technique must have something to do with dance or performance. There were many teachers with a background in dance or theatre and it just sounded interesting, odd, amazing and confusing. I was still dancing a little at that time, but was much more involved in teaching and I think I was looking for something other than a dance technique class that would stimulate my teaching. Although I didn’t know that this workshop would do this until it was over, my experience really did change the way I saw my students. I began to change how I talked about movement.

Can you give me an example of how the AT changed how you spoke about movement?
CL: First, I could see deeper patterns in students that were affecting their ability to move. And it wasn’t about the dance technique. It was about the person. I found myself not wanting to use typical dance instructions like “pull up” or “hold”. They were already holding enough! I didn’t want dancers to force things and then injure themselves because they weren’t working from their natural coordination. I’m not sure that I didn’t back off too much at first. I don’t know. Now I am more interested in finding ways to tap into students’ natural coordination and strength through movement and language as well as a little hands on.

Do you remember one single experience that made a lasting impact?
CL: One of the most memorable experiences I had at that first workshop was in an individual lesson with Meade Andrews, a gifted teacher and now a great friend. She put one hand on my sternum and the other on my upper back and spoke about not having to hold oneself up. Her hands spoke volumes, because I let go of a big chunk of something that I had been doing to hold myself up and got suddenly dizzy, sat immediately on the floor and began to cry. After the cry, I don’t remember much. I just remember leaving the lesson feeling love for everything. I loved the woods, the trees, the sky, the people, my life, everything. So I invited Meade to come to Houston for the next three years.

When did you decide to become an Alexander teacher?
CL: I played with the idea almost from the moment I started studying, but I first decided to train around 1991. I really wanted to teach this work, but after I looked at the cost of training and where the schools were, I thought that I just couldn’t do it – it didn’t seem to work with my life. Then I taught for a couple of years at a dance workshop at the North Carolina School of the Arts with Glenna Batson, a wonderful dancer and Alexander Teacher. After working with her, I said to myself “What am I doing? I really want to train in this work!” So I called Glenna’s teachers, Bruce and Martha Fertman, who had a school in Philadelphia, and talked to them about starting at the school. And I did train there and finished in May of 2000, after which I was certified by Alexander Technique International.

How has your Alexander training changed your choreography?
CL: I’m not sure how, exactly, but it has changed it. I have always been interested in a broad range of movement and now I don’t feel that I have to limit myself so much to what I think I “should do.” For years, I was very “super-critical” of everything I did and now I just do what I want to and don’t criticize myself as much. Now, I’m more open to ideas. A couple of pieces that I’ve choreographed since my training have been about roach-like insects, and I don’t think I would have done them before. Also, I’m learning how “simple” can be a good choice. I can allow pauses so that the audience can see what I’d like them to see, instead of rushing through things. I also let dances speak to me more, let them go in their own direction. I don’t care so much about what the dancers think. I let them be surprised when something works.

What are the gifts of the work for dancers?
CL: Many dancers have poor postural habits that can affect their dancing and to improve those habits; they tighten themselves. It is such a revelation to free oneself into movement instead. In ballet, I used to dance with incredible tension, working overly hard at it. Modern dance helped me let go some, but I found that there was still quite a bit of unnecessary tension. After I began my Alexander studies, it was so much easier to dance, so fun, so freeing when I wasn’t trying to hold on to everything.

Would you say the dance field has embraced the work?
CL: Many dancers love the Alexander work and have found that it saved their careers. Others find that it is easier to stick with ideas that they have trained with, what they already know, rather than changing. In order to change the way we move, we have to allow ourselves to feel different kinesthetically. We get used to the kinesthetic feeling of the way we are, and it takes some time for a new coordination, a new organization of ourselves, to feel right. We have to be patient with ourselves and not everyone has that patience. It can become frustrating when the goal of a performance is looming ahead. Of all people, dancers have the capacity to change more easily because they have lively kinesthetic awareness already, but it is still a big challenge and not a quick fix.

How could the AT actually help a dancer access technique?
CL: This is a big question. One thing that comes up for me is how often dancers create problems for themselves through repeating a movement in such a way that it causes an injury. In fact, many dancers come to the Alexander Technique because of injuries. I think the AT can help us understand more about our true alignment in movement and how we can be aligned and free to move.

When we experience ourselves moving from our natural coordination, it can awaken us to a whole new idea of movement. We can dance with less tension and greater balance, greater breath. We don’t have to push and pull and overwork to get the results that we want. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t effort, but I think the best dancers can have a sense of effortlessness about their dancing.

How can the AT help people stressed out from their daily lives?
CL: So many of us rush through our days, unaware of ourselves and what we are doing to ourselves. Just pausing to notice ourselves can help break up this habitual busyness. Many of us create undue tension in ourselves in response to the stress in our lives. Through the AT we can reduce the level of tension. It can also be very helpful to people with repetitive stress injuries, injuries often incurred through unconscious habits of use. We can learn how to “inhibit,” Alexander’s term for not doing the habits that cause us problems.

Where do you teach group and private lessons?
CL: I’m starting a new group class at the C.G.Jung Educational Center of Houston on Monday evening, September 11th. It will meet for 6 weeks from 6 to 7:30pm.

I also see people privately at my studio on Bissonnet, just west of Kirby. My lessons are about an hour in length and I recommend that students take at least ten lessons to get a sense of what this work is about. The actual length that one studies depends a great deal on what you want from the lessons.

How do people feel after a lesson?
Many people feel lighter and easier in themselves.

Chris Lidvall can be contacted at 281-989-8574 or chrislidvall@hal-pc.org.
Learn more at: http://www.ati-net.com/

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