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May 10

Soaking up the learning and love at the AmSAT conference

By Diana Devitt Dawson | ITM

Nature does not work in parts, but as a whole – FM Alexander

On June14 and 15,  I was fortunate enough to be able to attend two very full days at the AmSAT conference in the lovely city of San Diego, California, with its temperate climate all year round.

The conference was held over four days, the last two being for the AGM. I was only able to attend the conference because I was an ‘affiliate member’, as AUSTAT is currently a member of ATAS, the international (Alexander Technique Affiliated Societies) group.

The venue was the Crown Plaza Hotel, which was extremely pleasant, surrounded by gardens with tropical palms, a massive swimming pool and restaurants that offered an exciting mix of Mexican and Spanish food and drinks!

The swimming pool was well used every morning at 7.30am for the Sunrise Activity – a swimming class with UK Alexander teacher Steven Shaw. Other Sunrise Activities included an early morning run with teacher Malcolm Balk or a Tai-Chi class and Qi Gong class.

The conference was hosted by Alice Olsher. Alice is director and head of an Alexander Technique school in San Diego.  Alice is from the UK and trained with Walter and Dilys Carrington, then as a post-graduate she spent a further 15 years with the Carringtons before moving to the States.  Alice has more than 30 years teaching experience. I was lucky to get a place for my first workshop at the conference with Alice in her ‘small group workshop’.

It was an incredible coincidence that I should be able to attend this conference as it just so happened that I was visiting a friend in Carlsbad, just south of San Diego, at the same time the conference was being held. I was made aware of this by colleagues in New York who let me know that they would be in San Diego to present at the ACGM.

As it turned out it was a privilege be able to attend and to have private lessons and take part in the many ’small group workshops’ that were on offer, and be be able to do this for myself, not having to teach or conduct a workshop, so a wonderful CPD opportunity!

It was also great to meet new and ‘old’ American colleagues and to learn from them. There were directors and heads of training from several training schools in California, New York and other states, along with many teachers who specialised in their various fields such as music, the arts, voice work or singing, or who taught in health clinics or in recreational activities.

These teachers were highly skilled at presenting the Alexander principles (verbally) to a group, and then demonstrating with hands-on work to an individual what an Alexander lesson involved.  This was most interesting to observe.  Almost all of these teachers offered, on a daily basis, private lessons, ‘small group workshops’, discussion and demonstration groups and talks, most of which had to be pre-booked.

Also interesting were the ‘open introduction’ days where any curious hotel guests (of whom there were several!) could attend and experience an Alexander lesson. These introductions were conducted in public with observers present and again, a great opportunity for us teachers to hear and observe how our colleagues introduce the Alexander Technique. On the occasion I was present a couple of hotel guests who were very experienced musicians voiced their difficulties with pain and stress while playing their instruments.

There were so many highlights, but one very special highlight for me was on my last evening while waiting to attend the keynote address by Barbara Kent. I happened to be introduced to Rome Earle and ended up sitting next to her for the keynote. Rome (Rosemary) Earle is an elderly, well-known and much-loved teacher in the States who told me that she had her first Alexander lessons as a teenager with Marjory Barlow (Alexander’s niece) and then she had lessons with FM Alexander!

It was fascinating listening to this alert, elderly teacher with her wonderful smile and the most amazing sparkling turquoise blue eyes.  Rome’s story is incredible – she eventually joined Alexander’s training course but had to leave after only a few months, then returned later and completed just two years from 1949-51. However, she had to leave again to fly to the States to help her sister who became unwell.  In Los Angeles Rome met Judith Stranzky and began lessons with her, but after a few years she decided to return to London to complete her training with Patrick Macdonald and Shoshana Kaminitz. She eventually received certification in1974.

Rome then left London to return to California where she taught on Frank Otterwell’s training school in San Francisco for 19 years, and later taught part-time on Giora Pinkas’s training school in Berkeley, Ca.  Rome now lives in Carlsbad, Ca. with her husband, who also attended the AmSAT conference. Rome was offering private lessons but she was fully booked well before the conference.

Other highlights included meeting up again and having lessons with Barbara Kent, who I had previously met in New York and had lessons with while I was teaching at ACAT about five years ago.  So it was rather special to now be present at Barbara’s keynote address, which opened the conference.  Another great highlight was meeting up and sharing work and a long chat with Dominique Jacques.  Many senior teachers in Melbourne and around Australia will fondly remember Dominique as a bright, lively, wonderful teacher. I first met Dominique when I was living in Melbourne (after returning from UK) when she was one of the assistant teachers on John and Carolyn Nicholls’ training school, MATTS,  in St Kilda from 1987-1989 and I was a visiting teacher to the school. Dominique now lives in California and enjoys travelling widely and teaching.

And, of course, there was the ‘share work room’ which almost everyone visited more than once a day. It was so enjoyable to share and have discussions about the teaching.

The keynote address given by Barbara Kent was titled ‘A Path to Integration’. This title fitted beautifully with the theme of the conference that is contained in the quote by Alexander that  “Nature does not work in parts but as a whole”.   Barbara delivered her address in a clear, resonant voice describing how she came to the Alexander Technique and that it was due to her interest in the psychophysical, emotional and spiritual aspects of an individual, the whole person, and how she saw, on reading and studying Alexander’s books and then having lessons, that this is what Alexander’s teaching is all about.  In Alexander lessons we teach and offer the individual a constructive ‘path’ (with principles) in how to cultivate conscious awareness that allows one to become integrated, free from harmful habits of reaction and mal-coordination.  It is, she said, “an extraordinary teaching”.

However, Barbara also pointed out that perhaps not everyone today who comes for Alexander lessons has such an interest.  Today most people come to lessons for pain and or stress relief, however, such people, like everyone, can be given enormous help with these difficulties when they learn how to apply Alexander’s principles that integrate the mind and body to allow change.  And, this change can be experienced throughout the whole self, and/on many levels and it can generate health and well-being.

Barbara outlined some of her other interests and studies which included studying singing at the Juilliard School of Music, the Rubenfeld Synergy Method and Internal Family Systems. In a paper (an interview) with Barbara by Kathryn Miranda, I was struck by what Barbara said, “My first experience in teaching and learning how the brain works, when the combination of physical experience and cognitive learning get balanced based on a student’s needs, it’s a fabulous combo.  Words alone are pretty hard to translate into experience. Experience without understanding of what is happening is less helpful than giving the student/pupil a way to use the tools.”

Barbara came from a strong traditional training of hands-on work with Judith Leibowitz and Debby Caplan in teaching inhibition and direction. In my lesson with Barbara I again experienced her hands-on work that is gentle, energetic and guiding, giving (like a gift) clear gentle direction to the neck, head and back and to co-ordinate the whole, and it is always a new experience. When she was asked once (in the interview) how she teaches inhibition she replied, “One way I like to describe inhibition is the way FM Alexander did, as withholding consent. That helps the student to see it as a positive choice not to respond with a habitual reaction.”

Barbara’s keynote address,  ‘A Path to Integration’, was inspiring and confirming, spoken from a very wise and gentle teacher who lives the Alexander work and who teaches simply and skillfully the principles of FM Alexander.  Barbara ended the talk with, “I feel confident that we all, in our own ways, are committed to expanding the quality of our teaching, working with each other, and broadening public awareness of the Alexander Technique. Keep on keeping on … we have too precious a gift to do any less.  It’s up to us to preserve and expand the legacy that FM Alexander left us.”

Diana Devitt-Dawson felt privileged to be able to attend the recent AmSAT get-together, held in San Diego in June

She is head of the Alexander Technique Institute in Sydney