Dance Therapy and the Alexander Technique
Linda Murrow

Thanks to 'Direction' for the use of this article

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Dance/Movement Therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to help further the physical & emotional integration of the individual. Dance therapy is based on the Art and Science of human Movement. It offers movement experiences which, extending beyond the purely functional, engage both body and mind. Drawing on the therapeutic elements inherent in dance, therapists aim at restoring balance and integration in the areas of physical function, feelings and cognition.  The work of Dance Therapists is applicable to children and adults in diverse settings and can be adapted to the needs of clients with a wide range of specific and non-specific disorders and disabilities.

I came to the Alexander Technique with a background in dance/movement.  I began having Alexander lessons in 1983, motivated by a desire to find a way of looking after my scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.  At thirteen, I had been told by a surgeon that I suffered from Adolescent Idiopathic Progressive Scoliosis, and that I needed surgery immediately to prevent a medical catastrophe.  This came as a shock to a physically active and fully functioning teenager with no physical pain or limitations.  After opting to not have surgery, I knew it was my responsibility to attend to my scoliosis.  I was also aware that the physical pulls in my body reflected psychological pulls, and I wanted to understand their relationship and source.

So in 1984, I decided to pursue a Master's degree in Creative Art Therapies.  I specialised in dance/movement therapy and eventually became registered with the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA).

Throughout this process, I was compelled to draw, dance, and explore various means of giving form to the experience and aesthetic of my scoliosis.  Despite feelings of fear, anger, confusion, despair, and powerlessness over this perceived monster that had invaded my body, I also felt I was being challenged to remain open to what my scoliosis might teach me.

Working in Boston as a dance therapist, I encountered a number of highly stressful work environments which placed enormous demands on me physically and emotionally.  Though I found the work fascinating and creative, I became aware that my attention was being drawn out into the need of others i.e. the patients, the hospital, the clinical team, etc.  I was not finding it possible to balance the demands of my job with looking after myself.  I began to exhibit signs of 'burnout' after only three years in the field.

I knew the Alexander Technique offered a unique and lasting approach to the kind of self-care and approach to 'helping' I needed, so in 1990, 1 decided to train.  Although the practice of AT and DT appear very different on the surface, the underlying philosophy and working principles are similar.


Dance therapy as a profession is born from the modern dance movement in the United States and Europe during the earlier part of this century.  The work of a few individual dancers, including Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Mary Wigman, led to a non-verbal exploration of the human condition through body movement.  Marion Chace (1896-1970), and other students of these early pioneers, began exploring, experimenting, and discovering the power of movement as a vehicle for self-expression and communication.  Influenced by the gaining momentum of discovery in the field of psychotherapy and the developments of the human potential movement, the ADTA was established in 1966.

It is interesting to note that F.M. Alexander (1869 - 1955) and Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) were actively developing their ideas around the same time, each motivated by a passionate interest in artistic expression through theatre and dance, respectively.  The branches of their work seem to stem from the same tree: a shared belief in the inherent relationship between mind and body, and the aspiration towards the realisation of human potential.

One significant difference between dance therapy and the Alexander Technique is the fact that dance therapists tend to work in institutional settings (i.e. schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.), emphasising the group process as a core element of the therapy.  People often move together, creating a group rhythm or movement theme, while AT focuses on the individual's relationship to himself: observing, inhibiting, directing and so forth.  Each of these approaches tends to create its own 'group culture,' generating a particular atmosphere conducive to the aim of the discipline.

Another significant difference between DT and AT is the relative emphasis placed on the relationship between therapist:client and teacher:student.  Dance therapists are trained to view the therapeutic relationship as a container and vehicle for the client's change process.  Issues of trust and intimacy are formally acknowledged and consciously worked with, as well as the myriad of transference and countertransference responses inherently part of every sustained relationship.

Relationship material is generally not addressed as a core element in the Alexander process, though it inevitably has a substantial influence.  While the interpersonal relationship may not be seen as central to the Technique, the human interaction certainly is.  Alexander teachers are trained to appreciate the ways in which their own use is an influence on the student, particularly in relation to 'hands-on' work.  The embodiment of Direction and Inhibition is transmitted to the student and this provides the student with a mirror for experiencing themselves.  Most Alexander teachers would agree that trust and a positive rapport in the relationship are important, but the Technique per se does not tend to deal with this.

The Language of the Body:

As a 'mover,' I am comfortable with the idea of movement as a means of self-expression and communication.  The language of the body is the foundation of DT, and also of both modern and postmodern dance.  In the dance world one may talk about 'movement repertoire' or 'movement vocabulary.' Although functional aspects of movement are considered and explored (i.e. anatomy, alignment, ideokinesis), these are generally considered to be tools in developing one's creative potential.  Material relating to how the body works (function) is a means whereby the dancer may improve her ability to express herself fully and clearly.

In DT the aim of a session centres around expanding a person's movement repertoire beyond the habitual and often limiting modes of expression.  The DT model is interested in the personal or subjective experience of the person moving, and does not rely on an external standard or authority.  In other words, there is no right or wrong movement.

DT views the cognitive and affective changes as primary, and the corresponding physical changes as secondary.  The imagination and the unconscious are vital sources in DT, providing raw material for the session.  Developing a conscious relationship with one's self is of central importance, and includes embracing unconscious elements.  This may entail exploring the symbolic meaning of a habit pattern or symptom in order to discover its significance.  A technique often used in DT is 'amplification,' the process of amplifying an image, thought, feeling, or sensation as a means of understanding it more fully.

The Language of the Body: 

In the Alexander work, there is a primary emphasis on the functional aspects of movement behaviour: use affects function.  AT looks at the functional potential of the body/mind in relation to a model of energy efficiency: the appropriate use of tension in relation to gravity and the demands of daily life.  It looks at how habitual patterns of use can, and do, influence that potential.

Using Alexander's principles of observation, direction and inhibition, teachers attempt to bring about a psychophysical improvement to a person's functioning.  This functional improvement is often experienced as 'lightness,' 'ease,' 'connectedness,' and so on.  Changes in affective state are generally seen to be a result of changes in the psychophysical functioning of the human organism, rather than the other way around.


A major tool of DT is Laban Movement Analysis (LMA).  LMA comprises a significant part of the DT training, and is utilised as a movement language in a variety of contexts.  LMA has been used for a wide variety of purposes, including cross-cultural studies of movement styles (Lomax and Paulay: 1974).

Rudolph Von Laban (1879-1958), another contemporary of Alexander, was an Austrian-born architect, philosopher, and choreographer.  Laban developed a highly sophisticated system of movement observation and description that enables the observer to identify and articulate what parts of the body move, and when, where, and how they move.  The body's relationship to 'space,' 'shape,' and 'effort' (or inner impulses) are some of its primary elements.  For example. to someone trained in LMA. a person may present with a predominant use of lightness and free flow, a tendency towards quickness, and a sunken body attitude.  Movement may be seen to begin gesturally, initiating from the periphery.

Observable tension areas include the pelvis, shoulders, feet and face.  Movement may be seen to occur primarily within a one-unit torso in the vertical plane, with little or no sense of spiralic movement or upper/lower differentiation.  This description is of value to the dance therapist, enabling conimurdcaflon and clarity.

In an Alexander context, a teacher may choose to emphasise certain functional elements or qualities, depending on what the student's needs are.  In applying AT to the example given a teacher could work on inhibiting the movement that initiates peripherally (i.e. hands, feet, face), and directing through the central axis of the body, while at the same time not fixing the torso as one unit.  Mobility through the pelvis and shoulder girdle could be explored through introducing spirals and diagonals in walking, crawling, or chair work.  Of course, these things may go on anyway in the course of a lesson, but the process of making one's observation conscious, and making choices based on what one observes, can greatly enhance the teacher's ability to respond to the individual student in a useful way.

LMA provides a model for expressive movement potential, and a map for movement educators/ therapists.  Whereas Alexander's map tends to highlight the value of movement in terms of 'lengthening,' 'widening,' 'expansion,' and 'up,' LMA places no emphasis on which movement quality or shape is desirable.  All movement is seen as part of the total range of human possibilities, including 'shortening,' .narrowing,' and 'contraction/condensing.' These movement qualities are like hues in the spectrum of human expression, along with their corresponding mental attitudes and affective states.


While the Alexander teacher is trained to use both visual and tactile/kinesthetic modes of perception to observe what is happening in the pupil, the language used to describe movement is somewhat random.  Words like 'tension,' 'slump,' 'pulling down,' 'upthrust,' 'grabbing,' 'holding on,' 'letting go,' 'softening,' 'releasing' and so forth, are some of the ways Alexander teachers describe what they observe.  This is not necessarily problematic, provided both teacher and pupil have a clear understanding of what the chosen language connotes.

The Alexander directions, 'neck free,' 'head forward and up,' 'back to lengthen and widen,' 'knees away,' are utilised in a more uniform fashion.  Uniformity, of course, does not equal comprehension, and there may still be discrepancies as to what these words actually mean.  My experience is that each Alexander teacher tends to develop his or her own language that suits his or her personality and style.  Generally, this works well, and provides a refreshing variety in how the technique is expressed, yet the value of a common language cannot be underestimated in promoting research, communication between teachers, with other professionals, and with the public at large.


The highly refined use of touch is a distinctive feature of the Alexander work not found in DT.  LMA, and most other DT techniques, tend to emphasis visual observation.  Where touch is used, it tends to be more gross and general in its application, relating to an overall increase in body awareness.

The notion of 'mirroring,' used in DT to describe the reflective role the therapist serves, is not unlike the ,mirror' provided by the touch of an Alexander teacher's hands.  The more the client/student is 'seen' by the therapist/teacher, the more (s)he is able to see him or her self.  This 'seeing' can be done with all of the senses, and is enhanced by repetition.


The common ground in the aim of DT and AT is the element of choice.  Both systems see limiting and destructive potential in habitual response patterns that are unconscious in nature.  Both view awareness and personal responsibility as a means of creating options, and the potential for change.  In addition, both approaches methodologically use movement and the body experience as their way in, while at the same time emphasising the mind-body continuum.  In both instances, this is done through the use of verbal and non-verbal cues or stimuli.

A weakness of DT is its limited attention to the functional aspects of movement, and to the powerful tools of Direction and Inhibition in facilitating change.  A weakness of AT is its limited attention to the expressive aspects of movement, including the value of habit patterns as communicators, and the relationship dynamics between teacher and student.

DT offers the Alexander teacher a more developed appreciation of group dynamics in shaping individual behaviour, as well as a model (LMA) for movement observation and description.  AT offers the dance therapist a functional appreciation of the use that is shaping individual movement behaviour, as well as the refined use of touch in both receiving and giving information.

Providing people with a functional understanding of their bodies seems to enhance self-expression and expand the range of movement possibilities.  In this way, function and expression are linked and mutually reinforcing.  So, use affects function, which affects expression, which affects use...and so on...

Linda Murrow is a Dance Therapist and teacher of the Alexander Technique

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