Seated on the floor in a wide butterfly stretch position, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Scott Putman is the picture of relaxation. His posture is impeccable—head stacked on top of tension-free shoulders, hands resting on his shins and a spine that seems to levitate up out of his hips and legs. “Soles of the feet together. Find your sitz bones," he says soothingly. As he gives concise instructions, he begins a series of small spinal actions—shifting back in the pelvis (for lumbar flexion), folding over (to engage the thoracic spine) and stretching through the sternum (for slight thoracic extension). He calls this “Awakening the Spine," and it's the beginning of his Elemental Body Alignment System (EBAS), a structural alignment and reeducation system that he has developed over the past 20 years.
Development and Application
A back injury in 1996 was the impetus for Putman's EBAS research. One of his students, trained in the alignment method Global Posture Reeducation, offered Putman the opportunity to work with her to heal his back. “Muscularly, we reeducated the small deformities in my spine and bow legs," says Putman. “There were huge transformations happening in my body." When his student moved away after a year, Putman began creating his own set of exercises to sustain the progress he had made, eventually developing his level 1 series—an hour-long flow class.
EBAS has come a long way since his injury. Putman now has level 2 and 3 exercises and has incorporated a variety of practices into EBAS. “Eastern philosophy and esoteric healing modalities have a lot to do with the teaching philosophy," he says, referring to massage therapy, Thai healing and martial arts. “For example, when I talk about tendu derrière and how the leg gets to arabesque, I use energy lines of the body and energy points on the leg to help students understand how to override the quadriceps working."
EBAS exercises come back to one main focus: accessing the deeper muscles to help support healthy alignment. Putman's combination of using anatomical terminology and vivid imagery (“Feel the erector spinae yawning") helps students connect the dots between what they're feeling and what's occurring anatomically.
Although Putman is oriented to dance, EBAS can be beneficial for any kind of physical practice. “I've done workshops with yoga practitioners. I worked with a Parkinson's patient to increase her balance and stability," he says. “I've had golfers increase their swings because of the new range of motion in their spines."
In the University Setting
At VCU, Putman teaches ballet and modern technique, as well as composition, partnering, repertory and senior projects. He incorporates EBAS into the freshman curriculum two days a week, moving through the level 1 series their first semester and level 2 in the spring. Students work sequentially through each exercise slowly until they know the whole series, at which point Putman conducts the entire flow class.
“Ballet is a codified system, so it tends to be a way in which students can enter into the information easily," Putman says. “They all know what a tendu is, so it takes away the mystery of the concepts and focuses on the technique of the body in that form." For example, his traction series, done seated on the floor with arms behind the torso in line with the shoulders in a push-up position, helps students connect their arms to their backs for better port de bras.
Because few freshmen come with prior experience in any somatic practice, Putman appeals to their existing desires. “What is needed to reach them is to empower them in what they want, such as increased range of motion, more turns, higher jumps, and show them that they are able to do it pain-free," he says. “It's surprising to see how quickly students open up to the work when they see themselves having immediate results."
The overall effect at VCU has been positive. Teachers have found that EBAS helps eliminate many typical alignment issues, which allows them more time to focus on other things like performance quality, musicality and style. Students find a heightened consciousness of how their bodies function. That consciousness then inspires greater confidence in themselves.
Putman has spent the last 20 years developing and refining EBAS. Photo by Keith Weng, courtesy of Putman
Spreading the Word
“My goal is just to share the information," says Putman. Since 2012, he has been certifying teachers in EBAS. Though it isn't a requirement, many practitioners are VCU alumni. EBAS teachers can be found throughout the East Coast, as well as Italy, Canada, Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee and Michigan. Meanwhile, Putman is working on a book about EBAS and a level 2 DVD (the level 1 DVD has been available for three years).
“The biggest hurdle for me has been helping people realize where I'm coming from," says Putman. “EBAS is designed to enhance people's functionality inside their aesthetic practice, not change their aesthetic practice. I want to work together with people, not change people."