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Instructor Tory Matsos (third from right) is teaching a course on the Alexander Tech­nique. Nicole Ault | Col­legian.

Looking amused, sophomore Julia Salloum sings a few bars of opera, then steps up from the wooden dance floor to a balance board. Wob­bling to stay upright, she sings the same notes. She steps down, and sings again — stronger and clearer than the first time.

Sitting in chairs in front of her, Salloum’s class­mates laugh with her, but they’re impressed.

“You can let this be like, ‘this is ridiculous, we’re on bal­ancing boards singing,’” says the instructor, Tory Matsos, lec­turer in theatre and dance and a 2002 graduate of Hillsdale College. But this isn’t just a game.

It’s a three-credit theater class called the Alexander Tech­nique, and the 10 or so stu­dents gathered here in the Black Box Theatre room of the Fine Arts building this Thursday morning — most of them involved in the per­forming arts — are here to train their bodies for a serious purpose.

Noto­ri­ously hard to define, the Alexander Tech­nique is “a reed­u­cation of how movement happens,” Matsos said. “I like to call it ‘con­sciously coming home to your coor­di­nation.’ It’s retaining a person’s inherent poise and freedom of movement by under­standing and releasing habitual mus­cular tension problems.”

By the American Society for the Alexander Technique’s def­i­n­ition, it’s an “edu­ca­tional method” that teaches “how to change faulty pos­tural habits” to improve “mobility, posture, per­for­mance and alertness along with relief of chronic stiffness, tension and stress.” Developed by Aus­tralian actor Fred­erick Matthias Alexander in the late 1800s, the tech­nique has become popular among per­forming artists, though not limited to them.

In the class, Matsos instructs stu­dents to think about their movement in simple activ­ities. For example, she has them roll balls underfoot to “map” their feet. She tells them to think about how their spines connect to their heads.

“By clar­i­fying the image in your thinking, letting your ankle joint be forward of your foot, you’re able to move [more effec­tively],” Matsos tells the class as they sit down after the foot exercise. “That’s why body mapping is so effi­cient and won­derful. Life can get easier with a little bit of thinking.”

She passes around a textbook with anatomy pic­tures and some­times brings in model skeletons to demon­strate, but much of the class is spent in motion.

And the tech­nique isn’t meant to stay in the classroom.

It’s some­thing that comes up in daily activ­ities, Matsos said. For example, hunching shoulders around a pencil while taking a test or over a steering wheel while driving is just a waste of energy. The Alexander Tech­nique encourages its prac­ticers to “take these moments to observe them, maybe laugh at yourself,” and change habits, she said.

The method is to some extent a way of thinking, not just moving: “It’s about how you think about how you move,” Matsos said.

While an acting student going for her MFA at Ohio State Uni­versity, Matsos suf­fered back pain and gave the Alexander Tech­nique class at the uni­versity a try. It had a “tremendous effect” on her per­forming, she said.

She became a cer­tified Alexander-Tech­nique instructor through a three-year course in North Car­olina, and now is teaching it for the third time at Hillsdale. She also taught it last year at the Uni­versity of Florida.

The class is common at the large con­ser­vatory schools, but it’s rarer on a small campus like Hillsdale’s, she said. She added that she’s appre­ciative of stu­dents’ enthu­siasm for it.

Though one student, in class, says with a laugh, “This is like my only time to relax,” she and others are aware of why they’re here.

A voice student, Salloum said she’s def­i­nitely not just taking the class for fun; she’s hoping to develop as a singer, and she’s already seen improvement in the first week.

“Singing is a lot more physical than people give it credit for,” she said. “I’ve def­i­nitely noticed some changes, as long as I’m being con­scious of it.”

As part of the class, stu­dents have to journal every week, recording various activ­ities. Salloum said she’s written about eating a meal and her writing process, and noticed that she tends to be more tense in daily activ­ities than she’d thought.

Sophomore John Szc­zotka, also a voice student, said he enters every class won­dering what will happen, but “Tory always gets the results she wants.”

It’s hum­bling and hard, Szc­zotka said, espe­cially for Hillsdale stu­dents, to give up control and under­standing during the class: “For a while, you have to acquiesce and say, ‘I have to learn about some­thing I’ve been doing my entire life.’”  

But he and Salloum agree it’s worth it and relaxing, but it’s not just for fun.

“All of us are per­formers in one way or another,” Salloum said. “Each and every one of us went in here with a goal.”