Robin Simmons has been exploring Dart's work for 45 years, since he first encountered it on Walter Carrington's training course in the early 1970s. Simmons' new book, The Evolution of Movement, is a guide to the Dart procedures based on his many years of experience. It is a very thorough reference and an important addition to the body of work related to Dart's ideas. Text and illustrations will be useful tools for Alexander Technique teachers who wish to understand and use this material. However, this is not the first resource I would recommend to new students, as I disagree with the author on some key elements of both the Alexander process and Dart's work.
My review of the book is informed by my own explorations of the Dart Procedures with Marie Stroud, Joan and Alex Murray, and by continued dialogue with other teachers who trained with them, though I did not. I therefore have some sympathy for anyone who is trying to make the leap from a 'traditional' AT training into a more varied and dynamic exploration of movement.. I think Simmons also has this goal in mind, which I enthusiastically support.
The book is divided into five main parts with a total of eleven chapters, including numerous tables and charts designed to help you digest information. Part One gives an easy-to-understand and up-to-date overview of the evolution of the bipedal stance and movement in humans, which was Dart's lifelong interest. It also includes a discussion of the 19th century theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. This theory is still in vogue, and it is still present in developmental and cognitive psychology, as well as other fields; but, according to the latest scientific inquiry, the theory is simplistic and inaccurate. While Simmons does acknowledge this, he nonetheless uses the theory to construct nomenclature for some of the ideas expressed (such as 'fish body' and 'amphibian neck') that I feel make Dart's work seem more obscure than it actually is.
Part Two is a detailed explication of Simmons's understanding of and engagement with Dart's work, including a detailed description of the Procedures, fully illustrated with drawings and photos, along with new additions and discoveries from Simmons's workshops over the years.
Part Three calls particular attention, and rightfully so, to one of Dart's papers, 'The Double Spiral Arrangement of Voluntary Musculature.' Part Four details aspects of Dart's work that Simmons considers important and stimulating to his imagination. Part Five has a short synopsis followed by a detailed analysis of Dart's four papers, written in less technical language than the originals.
I found the clearest, most useful sections to be the updated science regarding evolution in Part One, the new illustration of the double spiral arrangement of musculature in Part Three, and the synopsis of Dart's papers in Part Five, which will hopefully encourage more people to read the originals. There are also some new procedures devised by Simmons. I enjoyed the ones I had time to experiment with, as I feel the experience of the movement is as important to understanding Dart's work as reading is. I did not have time to go through the large volume of material he presents before writing this review.
In a 2013 interview with Robert Rickover,1 Simmons mentioned that Walter Carrington, the person from whom he learned the most about the procedures, later gave up teaching them, stating that he was too worried that they would become 'just another thing to DO' and that people would lose themselves in the movement and forget about the Alexander Technique principles altogether. Clearly Simmons does not feel that this risk of going wrong is so dire that the work ought not to be taught and explored, and I agree with him on that point.
Here is where we disagree: Simmons takes a strong stand (see page 110, 'Where to look when crawling') against looking up and out, emphasizing instead a more neutral or slightly fetal relationship of head to spine, keeping the head always slightly tipped forward. The results of this idea manifest clearly in the photographs, which to my eye do not show the ease and dynamic change that is possible in the model's torso and limbs. She looks stiff and uncomfortable to me, and her spine never changes shape. In fact, even fetal does not really sequence all the way down her spine, perhaps because she is only allowing her head to tip forward from the top joint, rather than letting the movement sequence all the way through into full fetal, which would cause her to move more fully through her thoracic curve, and her pelvis to shift back from the hip joint a bit.
My other points of disagreement are the extreme caution and vigilance recommended and the sheer number of considerations students are asked to make before moving. Simmons proposes five key aspects of misuse and suggests that if you don't do any of them you are safe from harm. For me, 'misuse' is infinite in variety, a natural part of life, and always changing, since misuse is an aspect of use itself and an important part of growth and development. If you are only looking for five specific things, you will probably miss a lot of other sensory information. One of the benefits of the procedures for me has been an increasingly complete 'image' of the pattern of my misuse that involves the whole body, not just one part - as if Dart used the floor in the same way F.M. used the mirror: to get a more complete impression of the total pattern of use, outside the frame of one's habitual sensory preferences.
I think as teachers we underestimate how challenging it is to stick with a movement form while freeing oneself from habit. Anyone who works with movement such as dance, yoga, martial arts, or otherwise will be familiar with the pitfalls of memorizing sensations, performing movement by rote, and just pushing through the difficult bits - or, as Simmons says, 'just doing movement.' In my opinion, fear of putting the head back and down ('forward head poking') actually prevents a dynamic and challenging exploration, fueled by what Walter Carrington described as 'a clear and strong desire to go up.' A working understanding of upward direction, for me, and the way 'lengthening,' or expansion, organizes itself through our bodies, depends on where we want to go and what we are interested in at the moment. To narrow one's range of movement because of the fear of going wrong makes no sense to me.
I wouldn't call such attention to this point if I didn't think it was so important. In my case, it was looking up and out, organizing my desire to go forward and up while moving into extension that brought me out of my hip joints for the first time. I found a reflexive, widening engagement of my arms and back that would not have occurred without looking up and out. This was key in my coming to understand the use of the hands in teaching the Alexander Technique and in connecting all of my directions 'all together, one at a time.' It's impossible for me to separate my personal understanding of Dart's work, or Alexander's work for that matter, from this experience.
Carrying the Alexander Technique process into the activities of life is the ultimate challenge that we all face. The Dart Procedures can be a powerful, transitional means to explore the Alexander Technique principles in varied activity, and a movement form that challenges us to work on our own growth and development continually. In this book, Simmons has shown that the Dart Procedures can be broken down into small segments well-tailored to specific needs and practiced on their own without the aid of a teacher, which can be so helpful for our students. I look forward to exploring his materials further, and recommend it to interested teachers and students as well. However, I would want new students to have a simpler, more worry-free attitude towards the movements. As Dart himself said, quoted in the opening of Chapter 4: 'Poise is a body state achieved only by steady and carefree education of the body and the maintenance of balance.'
Copyright © Clare Maxwell ( claremaxwell.com). Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2016. All rights reserved.
Part II (chapters 4, pp. 46-136) is by far the largest part; and contains the nuts and bolts of this practical book. This is where readers should spend the bulk of their available time and attention, at first in reading but soon after and increasingly on the explorations which are suggested. Here Simmons presents in great detail the Dart Procedures themselves as they have been developed over the years through the work of the Murrays, Simmons, and colleagues with whom both principals have worked over the years. Again the text is illustrated with copious drawings and photographs, both adult and infant. I wish there were a greater number of photos of infants because I think their faces and attitudes would convey the interest, importance, and emotional involvement so vital to this work, which adults cannot replicate but would do well to try.
The next three parts are mainly theoretical, not to say academic. Related to this, I recommend, especially if you are new or relatively new to the Dart Procedures, that you allocate your limited time thusly; spend at least twice as much time on practical work with the Procedures as you do on reading Dart's writings or about Dart, i.e., if you read for half an hour, work with the Procedures for at least an hour. This will, in time, give you your own resource of experience with which to understand and assess the various writings.
Part III (chapter 5, pp. 137-153) is an in-depth presentation of and discussion about one of Dart's papers directly related to the Alexander Technique, 'The Double-Spiral Arrangement of the Voluntary Musculature in the Human Body' (1946). This, like all of Dart's writings, is well worth the time and study it takes to assimilate the material. Keep in mind Dart's advice to Alex Murray when Alex first took up reading Dart: 'Just let it all wash over you . . . .' This indicates, I think, that if you read and reread over time with undemanding patience (especially if, like this reviewer, you have limited anatomical knowledge and limited capacity for increasing it), then what you need to know will gradually seep in. This investment in time with reading and with the Procedures is a long term project with many long term benefits. Robin Simmons has been pursuing it for forty-five years. His treatment of DSA in this section is thorough and does succeed in sparing anatomy-phobic readers some effort and despair while still extensively quoting from Dart. The extensive drawings and Simmons' own exposition of Dart's paper gives the reader plenty to mull over.
Part IV (chapters 6-9, pp. 155-169) is of a similar nature and merits a similar approach. Here Simmons picks out several topics in Dart's papers for further attention; these include the medial longitudinal bundle, the trigeminal nerve, ambidextrousness, and segmentalism and the cranial nerves.
Likewise with Part V, (Chapter 10, pp. 171-197) which includes brief summaries of all four of Dart's Alexander related papers, followed by fuller summaries, and coupled with tables of suggested sequences of the Procedures which Simmons relates to the individual papers. Simmons' brief and longer summaries are a good introduction to Dart's papers for those who cannot process anatomical information. Hopefully these summaries will encourage some readers to read the full, original papers.
I wish to discuss a few matters on which l respectfully, but definitely, differ from Mr Simmons. Although he often recommends that people 'experiment' with the Procedures as they find best, when he starts presenting the Dart Procedures in Chapter 4, Simmons strongly urges a painstakingly slow and careful nine-stage process of experimenting with the Procedures in which continuous 'vigilance' and 'sensory awareness' are stressed. Trying to be aware is not the same as becoming aware.
The Procedures themselves are safe and at first require only very basic movement abilities, two qualities that in themselves promote (allow) a quieting and increasing awareness. They helped me in the beginning with what was then the vexing mystery of inhibition. After a time just being in any of the basic positions (positions of mechanical advantage) would start to bring my habits to awareness (so that stopping them became a possibility - paraphrasing F. M. Alexander, 'the wrong things stop themselves').
Inhibition became more tangible and approachable, if still a mystery. The same qualities, safeness and low demand on skill, helped me when it came to the movements involved in transitioning between the positions. It seemed to give me a clearer sense of the unity of working of primary control, that change could start at the head/neck or tail or anywhere in between. The change would then affect the entire mechanism over time. It also exaggerated/clarified the counterbalancing possibilities between the head-neck/shoulder girdle and the pelvis at the other end of Primary. It was when playing with rolling over and over and over from supine to prone, etc., that I had my first faint experience of 'The right thing does itself' per F. M. Alexander. So I would recommend that readers of The Evolution of Movement experiment freely and widely with speed of movement and quality of attention while exploring the Dart Procedures. Most importantly, find ways of doing them that will maintain your interest and enjoyment over time.
My second area of disagreement with Mr Simmons, a disagreement which he freely acknowledges exists, is over the matter of where to look when moving on all fours across the floor (i.e. creeping or crawling depending on your geographical location). In his book (pp. 110-11) Simmons presents the arguments for and against looking forward and ahead to where you are going or, alternatively, looking down at your hands on the floor. He votes for the latter because 'it will prevent you from retroflexing and fixing your head on your neck'. This confuses me because in many other parts of his book, Simmons cites and talks about the vital part our eyes and visual sense play in growth and development. In my 37 years of experience with Dart's work and the F. M. Alexander Technique, I have been asked, instructed, and/or encouraged to begin to look forward and up from a variety of positions; flat on my belly, creeping on all fours, fetal in the chair, etc. It has done me no end of good in the process of changing my use for the better. I have seen the same results in many people who have undergone the same instruction, including Alexander students with whom I have worked. The full exploration of lengthening and widening , involves co-equally the fronts (and sides) as well as the backs of our torsos (and necks and heads) and fully engages the 'Double Spiral Arrangement' delineated in Dart's relevant paper. My own experience suggests to me that many in the Alexander community remain unaware of the possible (and beneficial) extent of lengthening up the front. A related comment by F. M. Alexander appears on p. 82 of The Expanding Self by Goddard Binkley regarding the dynamic lengthening which is possible and necessary when looking up in the upright.
I respect and admire how much time, work, and thought Robin Simmons has given to Dart's works, the Procedures, and the Alexander Technique over the past four and a half decades; particularly the huge amount of work it must have taken in recent years to collect, organize, and wrestle all that he has learned into this book, which he has published himself.
I urge people to buy and read Mr Simmons' book, and most importantly, to conduct their own explorations of the possibilities outlined and suggested therein.
Readers of The Evolution of Movement would do well to read and explore any or all of the following sources concerning the conjunction of the works of Raymond Dart and of F. M. Alexander: Direction magazine Volume I Number 3 'The Life & Work of Raymond Dart' (1988); two slightly varied editions of Skill And Poise: Selections from Dart's writings, (no. 1 desktop published by Alex Murray and teacher trainees 1993/ only 100 copies printed, and no. 2 Skill And Poise published by STAT Books, hardcover, 1996); Beginning From The Beginning: The Growth of Understanding and Skill, edited by Marian Goldberg (1996); Dance and the Alexander Technique by Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and Luc Vanier (2011); and the web site atanatomy.weebly.com compiled by A. Murray and A. F. Legrand.
Copyright © 2016 Kevin Ahern. Reproduced with permission.This edition © Mouritz 2016. All rights reserved.