An American folk dance form beloved around the US and the world, contra dancing is enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life. If you’re familiar with contra but don’t know much about the Alexander Technique, please feel free to peruse the pages here at Sound Direction: Alexander Technique – Skills for Life, Is the Alexander Technique for You?, and Lessons in the Alexander Technique.
Some people contra dance because it can be good exercise: you’re taking about 2 steps a second for the length of each dance, generally working up a healthy sweat. It’s also good for your brain: learning dance sequences (do-si-do, swing your partner, circle left, allemande right, etc.) and responding to the caller’s instructions keeps you mentally alert. Contra dancing really allows a person to use his or her whole self, thinking and moving in harmony. Most people, though, would probably say that they enjoy contra because it’s fun: you’re moving to lively music, engaging in friendly social interactions through dancing. (Here’s a great article about Indianapolis’ contra dance community at Sky Blue Window).
So, why would contra dancers use the Alexander Technique?
Three main reasons:
preventing dance-related pain
being able to dance longer
enjoying the dance more!
When I began contra dancing, I usually ended the evening with a sore neck and pain in my knees. I enjoyed dancing less because I was in pain. Learning balanced coordination and centered movement is key to dancing with more ease, especially when dancing with a partner. All that swinging and spinning? I was collapsing, fixing my neck against the centrifugal force of a swing, allowing my spine to be compressed as I moved. What about a dance I’ve never danced before, with complicated sequences and a fast pace, where I’m barely hanging on? Startle pattern, or fear reflex, causes the shoulders to hunch, head to pull back and down, increasing strain and tension in every move I made.
There’s also the issue of fatigue. The average contra dance is 10 minutes long, and an evening of dancing is about 3 hours. If you fatigue quickly, you increase the tension in your muscles as you try to fight the fatigue, getting tired even more quickly. If you move with more ease and less strain, not only will you avoid pain, but you can dance longer!
Another issue particular to dancing with partners is ‘giving weight,’ or the physical connection with your dance partner. In contra, you have a single partner for each dance, but you may be dancing with numerous neighbors. When you have balanced and centered poise, you can more easily connect with a dance partner, and retain your poise without being pulled ‘askew’ as you dance with different people up and down the set.
This picture shows a contra dancer in a spin, probably coming out of a swing. Notice that her head is balanced gracefully on top of the spine, and her back is lengthening and widening, allowing the spine to support all her movements, and freeing the muscles of her arms and legs for the next action. Looks like fun!
How can you apply principles of the Alexander Technique in your dancing?
1. Stop and Tune In. Take an opportunity to become aware of your body before you dance, and throughout the dance. Notice if you are holding tension and/or collapsing. Are you breathing freely?
2. Direct your movement. Think of not only what move comes next (do I walk forward? join hands?) but how to move with freedom (how can I lengthen as I walk? How can I join hands with ease instead of grasping?) Allow the neck to be free, so that the head can balance forward and up, allowing your whole torso to lengthen and widen. Allow your feet to make full contact with the floor, but don’t pound them down with every step. Allow your arms to extend from back to fingertip without losing the integrity of your spine.
3. Work less hard. As you tune in to your movement, notice where you could use less effort. Take some opportunities to do a ‘lie-down’ or constructive rest in a semi-supine position. Lie on your back, with your feet resting on the floor, knees up, and your head resting on a paperback book. This allows the head to go ‘forward and up’ while your back rests, lengthening and widening in contact with the floor. Notice points of contact in your pelvis, shoulders, and feet. Notice your breath. When you go back to dancing, take this sense of ease with you.
Using the Alexander Technique can allow to you dance with more ease, more focus, more spontaneity, and ultimately, more joy!