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The Franklin Method Takes the Pain out of Ballet

by Jessica Abrams
March 5, 2015
Live Arts Los Angeles
4210 Panamint St.
Los Angeles, CA 90065
323-739-0804
As a former dancer, I wish I had been trained in the Franklin Method before I jammed my feet into positions my hips were not ready for and generally associated ballet with unattainable levels of perfection. The Franklin Method came after I had run screaming from dance, tired of a body that was constantly hurting and a psyche that was beaten down as a result. Founded in 1994 by Eric Franklin, a Swiss dancer and inspired by Mabel Todd's Ideokinesis, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen's Body-Mind Centering and Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga, it focuses on the use of visual imagery, experiential anatomy and reconditioning of both body and mind to improve functionality. A former dancer, Franklin applied his techniques of re-aligning the body to ballet dancers, but it has mushroomed into an approach to help athletes across all disciplines.

After two decades of not setting foot in a ballet studio, I attended my first Franklin Method ballet class last Tuesday night, taught by Carol Guidry at Live Arts LA in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles. I was nervous, the thought of my forty-something year-old leg suspended in mid-air daunting; but there were two hints that things had maybe changed a bit since my days in Madame Darvash's class: music came from an iPod and a dog – Carol's pitbull mix Lulu – was hanging out in the corner. The air felt lighter, friendlier. Welcoming.

The barre started with the usual pliés and an unusual forward bend with legs turned parallel. Following tendues that not only worked the foot but centered the body, the exercises were simple, yet precise. For this rusty bunhead, I appreciated that Carol didn't push for a daredevil développé or an endless series of rond de jambes. We weren't being set up to pull ourselves off center or exhaust ourselves and get sloppy. Center work was the same: simple, as opposed to easy, with a fun waltz and a jump segment. And while doing it, something crazy happened: I realized I actually love ballet. The port de bras, the jumps, the sheer joy of moving.

I caught up with Carol afterwards and we chatted.

JESSICA ABRAMS: So what is the Franklin Method? Who is this Franklin person?

CAROLE GUIDRY: Eric Franklin is the latest in a line of movement educators that are loosely categorized as "somatic arts". So it's basically becoming hyper-aware of your physical experience to inform your movement. Specifically what Eric Franklin has done is, he's used the latest information, scientific research on anatomy and biomechanics to inform our movement and that also includes the use of imagery for motivating movement and improving performance. In sports medicine, the use of imagery to achieve specific goals is very widely used and it's very detailed and delineated so there are specific imagery exercises for healing injuries. There are specific exercises for improving awareness. There are specific imagery exercises for enhancing performance.

JA: Is it specifically within a ballet context or for any kind of athletic activity?

CG: Any sports. It's using imagery and knowledge of your own biomechanics and I've applied it to ballet. Weirdly enough, Eric Franklin started as a dancer and he started late – he was studying ballet – and his issue was, it was wreaking havoc on him. It was making everything hurt. And he was trying to figure out, wow – I always thought dance was good for me; why is it killing me? And so he started studying with a man named Andre Bernard who introduced him to this thing called Ideokinesis, this kind of movement training developed by a woman named Lulu Sweigard, who's kind of considered the progenitor of this. And her story is, she was in some horrible accident and was told she'd be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair and she'd never walk again and just through her own observation, she willed herself back into function again, and she did it by observing things like, wow, I notice when I bend my knee, the joints are counter-rotating. We have this mechanistic view of our body – that it's a machine and if a part breaks down it's not a whole system. But she also studied Alexander and also Rudolf Laban and it was this precursor to physical therapy. And basically they were all three doing the same thing: they were serving their own bodies and movement and really tuning into their own experience; and they were able to realize things about biomechanics that weren't observable on the outside but you could experience them if you were really tuned in. And it was all validated once we had MRIs and Cat scans we could look at the body and go, oh my gosh, the bones do counter-rotate at the joint. They don't move in one plane, like a door hinge. And that is actually recognized in sports medicine and physical therapy. It hasn't quite infiltrated the dance world yet. The dance world is still operating in the nineteenth century! [laughs] Because it's an art form, and we're passing down this information that is barely getting revised.

JA: But that was my next question. Certain poses, like for me, a back attitude – my body just doesn't want to do it. Do you think [the reason it hasn't caught on in the ballet world] is because there are these anatomically impossible poses that you have to have a specific body type to achieve?

CG: I would put it this way. I would say, it's like yoga. Ideally, the more flexible you are, the more you can reach those extreme ranges of these positions. But it doesn't mean you can't do ballet. It just means that maybe you can't achieve the extreme heightened expression of that position. But ideally, if you're learning ballet in a biomechanically sound way, you're maintaining your function and improving your range. And the body is really capable of a lot, but there are all kinds of reasons why the body might not do what we want it to do – it could be impatience, ego. It's like we want it to do something and we have a lot of anxiety around it. Like pirouettes – people tend to freeze up around pirouettes. And sometimes that is a barrier –psychological stuff gets in the way. Same thing with flexibility. A lot of times people will do something that requires flexibility and they get stressed about it and their body tightens up and kind of clamps down and it exacerbates the problem. Those are two separate issues. I do think the art of ballet isn't as destructive as the way it's taught – the way it's traditionally taught. The way it's taught is kind of hard on the body. I don't think that's inherent in ballet. It's sort of stuck in the nineteenth century. So it'll take a while, but a lot of companies are already recognizing the need for Pilates and cross-training. The need to work in parallel sometimes.

JA: I have to confess, I'm worried I'm going to be sore tomorrow.

CG: Well, this is my theory: ideally you're working in a way that the body wants to work anyway. It takes a lot of energy and torque to work in the traditional ballet way, but that's not how the body works. The body is constantly counter-balancing. And if you're allowing that to happen and supporting it, it's way less stress on your body. And it's really the way our body is deigned to move, has evolved to move and wants to move, so hopefully it's not going to be as sore as you'd think.

JA: Thank you, Carol. I'll definitely be back.
Carol Guidry helping a participant feel her 'bone rhythms' at the Franklin Method Minnesota workshop

Carol Guidry helping a participant feel her "bone rhythms" at the Franklin Method Minnesota workshop

Photo © & courtesy of Aleutian Calabay


Carol Guidry demonstrating counter-rotation of the hip halves.

Carol Guidry demonstrating counter-rotation of the hip halves.

Photo © & courtesy of Felicity Kiner

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