Performer, Heal Thyself

Strains, sprains, breaks, aches, and pains are all-too-familiar results of the extreme movement work required of many professional performers. If you're a dancer, aerialist, cirque artist, stunt actor, or physical comedian you undoubtedly push your body through challenging and repetitive movement regimens that may lead to serious injuries or debilitating conditions. Yet we seem to have a basic human need to move, and in many cases, movement itself can be an impetus for healing. When performed in an informed fashion, certain forms of body movement can prevent physical injury. Various movement systems have been designed specifically to promote physical well-being, rather than to meet athletic demands or fulfill the needs of artistic expression. So what are some of these more therapeutic, healing, and preventative-care movement techniques?

Feldenkrais and Pilates

Two of the most well-known movement disciplines are the Feldenkrais Method and Pilates. The Feldenkrais Method contains two components. The first, "awareness through movement," consists of thousands of highly structured exercises, which the method terms "lessons," that are typically taught in a group setting. The second, "functional integration," involves a trained practitioner helping to move a student or client with a hands-on approach. The "awareness through movement" lessons include a multitude of exercises specifically tailored to the problems of performers and other professionals who work with their bodies in specialized ways.

Pilates is an exercise methodology that teaches proper body alignment and muscular control, making everyday tasks—or whatever sport or physical activity you do—easier and more efficient. The practices of Pilates involve two kinds of exercises: those that use mechanical apparatus and those done on floor mats. Most people encounter Pilates through mat-work classes and feel this is the place to start.

Zena Rommett's Floor-Barre Technique?

Current research in the fields of sports medicine and orthopedics recognizes the therapeutic effectiveness of continuous passive motion in the repair of many common joint-related injuries. It is believed that the injuries heal better if, rather than completely resting or immobilizing a joint, the patient engages in movement. That movement, however, cannot be weight-bearing.

About 40 years ago, ballet teacher Zena Rommett invented a technique she called "Floor-Barre" in which dancers lie on the floor and perform the basic ballet exercises that are typically done standing while holding on to a barre. Her technique has become widely recommended by physical therapists treating dancers who have lower-extremity injuries. The technique allows dancers to keep moving as they heal and to continue practicing the coordinations specific to their dance work, without bearing weight on their injured legs.

Rommett's technique also prevents injuries, as it is based on the principle that dancers can better learn correct alignment and use of their muscles if they do not have to simultaneously negotiate the challenges of bearing their own body weight. Attempting to embody ballet's markedly unnatural movement vocabulary while maintaining a vertical stance is what often causes dancers to develop bad technical habits that prove harmful to the body over time.

"Zena was strengthening and working from the core before 'core' was even in popular parlance," says San Francisco–based Floor-Barre instructor and former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company David Chase, who will be teaching Rommett's technique this fall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and in January at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. "Zena's technique consolidates and galvanizes the dancer's strength in the pelvic floor and up the spine, which is why Graham dancers, as well as ballet dancers, love this work. Her technique opens up the hip joints in a benign and gentle manner and seems to make your extremities longer. By the time you get halfway through a class, you feel as though some invisible force is carrying your leg up and there's no gripping or feeling of muscular effort. You come away with the sense that your extensions have gotten higher, your turnout is improved, your feet are pointing more beautifully, you feel taller, more elegant, graceful, supple, and strong. And that kind of feeling, for a dancer, is emotionally therapeutic."

Alexander Technique

"This technique goes against our central cultural paradigm that says, 'Go, go, go, work hard, don't give in.' This approach says, 'Wait a minute, come back to yourself.' It reminds you that you are as important as the work you are doing," explains Alexander Technique instructor Joan Gavaler, a professor of dance and chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "As performers, typically, whatever we are working to accomplish is given priority, and our own condition as we do that work is almost erased. But the Alexander Technique, at its deepest level, teaches that if we value ourselves equal to our physical accomplishments, we will have a heightened awareness and a more conscious use of ourselves. And therefore we'll do our bodies less harm."

Invented about 100 years ago by the Australian actor and Shakespearean orator Frederick Matthias Alexander, the technique is rooted in freeing up the head-neck joint, as it is based on the premise that your entire body is locked to a degree equal to the tightness in this key area. "If you have tight quadriceps, it's just a tight leg; it's localized. It doesn't necessarily translate to a tight hand," says Gavaler. "But a tight neck will mean that both your arms and legs are a little bit gripped, because the coordination of our body is led from the head."

Gavaler sometimes suggests that those new to Alexander work begin by studying Authentic Movement, another therapeutic movement technique, which teaches you how to pay attention to the movement impulses that are coming from you, rather than to those being imposed upon you. "As an actor or dancer, you have to be open to your impulses, but first you have to know what they are and be able to recognize them."

Alexander Technique is an excellent tool for "getting yourself out of trouble," says Gavaler, "when you realize you've pulled so far into yourself or have stiffened so much that you don't like the state you're in." Yet with so much emphasis placed on releasing tension, relaxing muscles, and attuning to internal impulses, one may erroneously think of Alexander Technique as a listless activity. "But, as I tell my students, we're not calming ourselves down in order to go to sleep. We're calming down so as to be able to start our actions from a calm place that we can then layer anything we want to on top of. This is not about curling up in a little corner or going off alone and meditating. It's creating the calm in the eye of the storm. If there's something very gentle at the core, it frees you up to be highly boisterous, if that's what you wish. But if you're always just bouncing off the walls because you don't know any better, then you're not really making your own movement choices."

Bartenieff Fundamentals

"What this work does is allow for movement re-patterning, and in doing it you achieve greater mobility, freedom, stability, and balance," explains New Jersey–based choreographer and Laban certified movement analyst Claire Porter. "The Bartenieff Fundamentals are very simple exercises that go underneath whatever you're doing—whether it be dancing, playing baseball, or conducting an orchestra—and help you clarify your movements, make them more efficient, and utilize a greater range of effort qualities."

Working in New York City just after World War II, German physical therapist Irmgard Bartenieff brought the ideas of her teacher, movement theorist Rudolf Laban, to her practice rehabilitating injured patients. By applying Laban's ideas about the three-dimensionality of movement in space and the importance of intention and dynamics in movement, she devised a therapeutic collection of basic movement combinations, the Bartenieff Fundamentals. Her work is used today by people who have suffered injuries and are interested in retraining their movement patterns so as not to hurt themselves again. "The work does this by having you focus on just one movement—hip flexion, for example—until you begin to find the underlying simplicity of the movement and let go of habits of holding or doing unnecessary movements—such as including your right side when you're working your left," explains Porter. "Your movement becomes more efficient and cleaner. Your body becomes smarter, and you feel much better."

Bartenieff created a series of exercises called the Basic Six, which are used as a launch pad by most practitioners of her work. "They are very simple movement actions, such as a two-count thigh lift, which you carefully study and then alter. You may start by doing the movement lying on your back, then try it on all fours, and then try it standing, or maybe upside down. Each time you want to be noticing the differences that the changes demand. Then you'll go back and do it all again the next day. It's important to pay attention to what happens over the course of time," advises Porter, "because advancement in this work is a slow progression."

The Thinking Body–
The Feeling Mind

"I am in my mid-60s, and because of The Thinking Body–The Feeling Mind, I am still performing onstage. As a matter of fact, last year I was nominated for one of our West Coast dance awards—it's called the Lester Horton Award—for solo performance," says Linda Lack, the inventor of The Thinking Body–The Feeling Mind. Based on the principles of hatha yoga, movement therapy, and kinesiology, Lack's technique serves to identify and correct an individual's physical weaknesses or imbalances, helping to reduce pain, movement limitations, and chance of injury. The technique includes the practice of traditional yoga postures but blends them into a nonstop progression of movements that feels more like a dance class, incorporating modern dance–influenced floorwork and standing sequences that allow movement through space, extending beyond the perimeters of an exercise mat.

"The Thinking Body–The Feeling Mind was created because I saw so many performers—dancers, actors, musicians—pushing themselves to the edge, to the point where they used up their natural resources and had to stop performing by their mid-30s," says Lack. "The Thinking Body–The Feeling Mind was conceived as a technique that creates sustainability for those pursuing professional careers in the performing arts."

Lack teaches her body-mind integration technique in individual sessions and classes at Two-Snake Studios, in Los Angeles, and also travels the country lecturing on anatomy and training other instructors in how to teach her work. "My work has much kinship with Feldenkrais and Pilates, but neither of those practices go on to a developmental stage that actually teaches what we need in the performing-arts world: the ability to integrate and sustain challenging movement sequences. Feldenkrais and Pilates are wonderful for John Doe and Mary Doe and even professional dancers who have injuries, but they really just teach the basics of how to live inside your body and do a task. The teaching isn't taken into very, very high-level movements, like the inversion postures used in yoga or the complex phrases you would do in an advanced ballet class. So The Thinking Body–The Feeling Mind endeavors to go beyond that. It starts with the basics that Feldenkrais and everybody else does but then takes you on to the very heights and depths of your movement possibilities."

For further information on the techniques discussed, you can visit the following websites:,,,, and