How I teach alignment

Lynn Simonson with Danielle Conner

"In my technique, the movement supports the individual,” says Lynn Simonson. “It’s about using what you have naturally—your natural range of motion, your skeletal alignment—and bringing your overdeveloped and under-strengthened muscles into balance.” Trained in ballet, modern and jazz dance, Simonson was first drawn to study human anatomy after struggling with a variety of dance-related injuries. Over time, she developed a technique to help dancers learn to move with greater ease, freedom and awareness—injury-free. Now, more than 30 years later, the Simonson method flourishes worldwide and students of all ages and abilities study her jazz technique. Both local and international dancers flock to Dance New Amsterdam in New York City each year to complete the Simonson teacher certification program.

A Simonson technique class helps dancers develop a more acute sensory awareness and an understanding of how their bodies move through space. Her classical ballet training is evident in the sequences of tendus, développés and pliés, but unlike the ballet focus on achieving a specific shape and line, Simonson emphasizes moving within one’s capability.

The key, Simonson says, “is getting to know your body in a more finite way, so that you can move efficiently and with ease.” The first step in teaching, she says, is to assess a dancer’s limitations and determine where they grip their muscles or hold tension. “You have to figure out where students need to move with more freedom—honoring each individual’s anatomical potential and possibility,” Simonson says, before you determine what they need to stretch or release.

One of her greatest abilities as a teacher is to understand, identify and respond to individual learning styles and movement patterns. “I challenge the teachers in my training course to see each of their students as individuals, anatomically,” Simonson says. “Every body is different; and even of the same body, both sides are not symmetrical. A teacher must help the student have that information for herself.”

Here, Simonson and dancer Danielle Conner demonstrate a simple tendu exercise and offer tips on resolving common errors in alignment.

Noticing Posture: One way to begin is to look at simple standing positions. This will give you all the clues necessary to recognize a dancer’s weaknesses and potential strengths.

  •  If a student stands in correct vertical alignment, one should be able to draw an imaginary line from the ear, to the shoulder, down through the trochanter (the bone on the top, outside part of the femur—near its insertion point at the hip) and just a hair in front of the ankle bone. This is a student’s plumb line.
  •  Tight lower hamstrings often cause students to stand with a tucked pelvis. This shifts the pelvis forward and upper plumb line backward, incorrectly placing shoulders and weight behind the trochanters
  • A student with tight hip flexors often stands in an anterior pelvic tilt—the swayed-back position. In this incorrect posture, a student stands with shoulders in front of hips, compressing the lower spine.

Close-up of a Parallel Stance

  • Students are told often to stand with their “feet parallel.” However, if she has more outward lower leg rotation (notice the tibia rotating outward), her weight will shift to the outside as it comes down through the feet. She will not have any weight through the first metatarsal, placing extra stress on tendons on the outside of her foot.
  • When initiating a relevé, she rolls through this sickled, or supinated, position—continuing to stress the ankle tendons—before adjusting and straightening at the top.
  •  Instead, instruct students to stand with legs parallel and let their lower legs adjust according to each student’s tibial rotation. This may mean standing in a slightly more turned-out foot position, always making sure the first and fifth metatarsals and the heel are equally supporting weight. In this natural alignment, a student can rise up into relevé, vertically, without rolling outward. To plié, don’t force “knees over the second toe”; simply allow them to float out when bending, with ease.

Originally from Seattle, Washington, Lynn Simonson moved to New York City to pursue a ballet and musical theater career. She began to develop her anatomy-based technique in Amsterdam, when teaching a class of adult beginners. After returning to New York City, Simonson continued to teach modern and jazz classes and in 1984 co-founded (with Laurie De Vito, Michael Geiger, Danny Pepitone and Charles Wright) Dance New Amsterdam (originally called Dance Space Center) in New York City. From 1983 to 1991, Simonson directed the Jazz Project for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachussetts. She also developed the Teacher’s Workshop at Jacob’s Pillow, which she co-directed with Bessie Schönberg.

A longtime Simonson technique enthusiast, Danielle Conner graduated from University of the Arts in Pennsylvania and has performed in New York City and in Las Vegas, where she lived for 10 years. Conner recently graduated from the Lynn Simonson teacher training program and is a certified Pilates instructor.

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