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.”