The Beauty of Alignment in Dance
I can recall being a young ballet student at the barre, standing tall and straight. My teacher would explain how one should feel as though the body is hanging from a string at the top of the head, encouraging us to find a sense of alignment. That visual never escapes me. In the beginning, I envisioned my body like a Calder mobile, limbs and spine dangling from my crown, as though linked by fishing line and held in place by gravity. As I have grown more educated in dance and the dynamics of the body, the vision has developed into something much more involved, and dare I say, rather poignant.
The idea of “holding one’s self up” against gravity in a way that appears effortless, albeit even statuesque, requires a great deal more than string and fishing line. The torso and all of its parts must be well-organized, the limbs and neck extending gracefully with a sense of energy that garners both strength and sublimity, and of course, the finger and toes lengthened in a manner that beckons the elegance of the Baroque French courts. Dance kinesiologist Eric Franklin asks us to visualize water
rushing through the limbs to achieve this affect. A sense of tautness occurs in the body, but with an underlying fluidity that garners a more organic and natural appearance. Imagining that the spicket is turned off, the water ceases to flow, and one can feel the limbs and torso hanging limp and hollow. Turn the spicket on, and we can feel energized from within, filling up with flowing water rushing from our center outward, creating a sense of extension through the extremities and torso that produces a lively adherence to alignment. It’s an incredible feeling, but one that also requires a sense of control to maintain. So, where does that control come from? What muscles are we to engage to not only feel this fluid strength, but also to maintain it as we move from position to position?
To address these questions of muscular symphony, I bring my awareness to my center. In yoga, our center would be called the solar plexus; Joseph Pilates called it the “powerhouse.” Both schools of thought recognize the center to be the place where the energy of movement vibrates from. We could get very deep with this concept, considering that our navel, the sacred place on our body that once connected us to our mothers, is located here. When we imagine the center as a space of great power, potential, creation, and more, we can immediately feel ourselves grow taller, almost as to give this place in our body it’s proper respect. (In ballet class, you might have heard this action in the body as “pulling up.”) In this thoughtful expansion from center, we are activating our pelvic floor. Once we have done this, we might also feel the “under butt” muscles kicking in, which then trigger our inner thigh muscles. If we explore the upper portion of our body in this action of “pulling up,” we may feel our lower back drawn into alignment, its natural concaved position slightly ironed out to create more length. The tailbone drops as the crown lifts. Our collar bones smile wide, the ribs soften into place, our belly draws in firmly, the torso muscles gently hugging center. The upper back snaps into a position of stability, prepared to support the arms as they reach outward from center, and the neck, in connection with the crown, elegantly extends, allowing the shoulders to ease down the back like the weighted cape of a monarch.
The ancient Greeks believed that that which was beautiful was of the divine. They would argue that beauty required symmetry, proportion, and harmony. It is the idea of harmony that most resonates with with our thinking on alignment. Harmony was an expression that buzzed in much of the ancient Greeks’ beliefs. Look to their temples, figural sculpture, and pottery and you will find excellent execution of harmony. "The harmony of the spheres,” an idea coined by Pythagoras in the 6th century BCE, stated that the celestial bodies were in harmony with one another, much like musical notes on a scale. The Greeks’ mathematics also revealed a harmonious sequencing of geometric patterns in flowers, fruit, trees, and seashells, a Golden Ratio, again coinciding with ideas of the divine. So, overall, for the Greeks, harmony in art, architecture, and nature indicated a presence of the divine, the essence of all that is excellent.
If the celestial bodies and nature are exhibiting divine beauty in their harmony, or alignment, then are we not at our best when we too are in alignment? And if our beloved ballet asks this of us, again and again, how can we not feel connected to the Universe each time we place our hand on a barre, find our center, and draw ourselves into alignment?
It has been debated whether the renowned physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, ever declared dancers to be “the athletes of God.” I would argue that had he not said it, he more than likely would have thought it to be true. Why? Because, like the Greeks, Einstein believed that the Divine “was revealed in the lawful harmony of the world.” As dancers, we adhere to this harmony from the inside out when we draw ourselves into alignment. When aligned, we are in sync with what the Greeks would have considered divine, harmony; all that is of the celestial bodies as well as the blooming roses. We are centered in the stuff of creation, humbly bringing forth that which is excellent of man and of the Universe.