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Jeroen Staring’s parade:
Bess Mensendieck

In this and the next articles we comment on the talk Jeroen Staring gave in New York, the 13th of February 2002, transcribed by Edward Bouchard. Staring is a Dutch researcher who in 1997 published a book about the origin of the Alexander Technique and in 2005 defended a thesis on the same subject at Radboud University in Nijmegen.

Staring maintains that Alexander was merely “on the fringes” of what we know today as the Alexander Technique.  The true developer of the Alexander Technique, the man from whom Alexander stole it, the man (I would then say) who really deserves our gratitude, is:

     Scanes Spicer

     Caleb Saleeby

     Bess Mensendieck, and other influences

     a string of voice teachers.

We have an embarrassment of victims here.  In this article we will consider Bess Mensendieck, a German physician.

Staring says  “... if you have these influences ... then you can better understand what you are teaching yourself.  Why should the head go forward and up?  You have this German book by Mensendieck in 1906, Körperkultur der Frau [Physical Culture of the Woman], there we have the drawings of the head going forward and up.  Where is Alexander in 1906 ?” (p. 35-36)  And goes on to claim that Alexander was merely a teacher of breathing in 1906.

Mr. Bouchard provides the allegedly telling page from another edition of Dr. Mensendieck’s book, entitled Körperkultur des Weibes, or Physical Culture of Women, published in 1907.  At the top of the page are three drawings.  The first shows Dr. Mensendieck’s idea of the incorrect way to bend the head down, resulting in (translating the German) “a double-chin and possibly ugly jowl creases.”  Ugh!  Help is on the way though, ladies.  “This is eliminated by a double movement, from  b  [the diagram’s label for the lower back of the head] to the rear anwarts [?] and the chin forward at the same time, the deportment of the head is shifted correctly.”

The second diagram shows the “correct head deportment” prior to bending the head down.

The third diagram shows how to properly bend the head down “without a double chin, without jowl creases ... .”  The arrows indicate the back of the neck is to be kept down, the back of the head goes up as the head goes down, while the chin goes forward.

Where is the Alexander Technique?  The above are motions and positions, not directions in the sense of A.T. directing.  Nor do the recommended movements go in those directions if they were misunderstood to be directions of motion.

(“There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a thing as a right direction.” — F. M. Alexander)

Then Dr. Mensendieck provides three photographs of a woman in attitudes corresponding to the three diagrams:  head bent forward in a way that gives you those awful wrinkles, then head upright, then head bent forward so you don’t get those awful wrinkles.  It’s difficult to judge the lady’s carriage because her hair covers the back of her neck.  It’s my impression she’s jutting her chin forward a bit in the second and third photos, per instructions.

Dr. Mensendieck’s ideas are interesting, but even focusing on what is not contrary to the A.T. they lack everything that makes the A.T. what it is.  And the arrows are not forward and up as advertised by Staring, and they appear to indicate endgaining maneuvers rather than release.  The excerpted page focuses on skincare rather than good carriage.

Staring ignores the context of the A.T.’s “head forward and up” that is required for it to make any sense.  He looks at drawings with arrows on them, and just from that concludes it’s the A.T. — tunnel vision analogous to textual criticism that confuses words with ideas.

Staring provides no evidence that Alexander was aware of Mensendieck’s ideas. However apparently he was, and thought them opposed to his own.  The following quote, from Franklin Pierce Jones’s book Freedom to Change (a..k.a. Body Awareness in Action), was pointed out to me by a reader.  It describes the teaching of Alexander’s brother, A.R.  His unsteadiness when standing was due to a horseback riding accident suffered long before Jones met him.

“Because he was unsteady on his legs, he moved around very little but sat on a low sofa at right angles to the pupil, who was seated on a chair beside him. He was skillful with his hands, which for most of the time he was using above shoulder level. As long as the pupil was thinking or ‘ordering’, A.R. could move him easily in and out of the chair with a hand at his arm or back. The instant he stopped thinking, however, it would be detected at once. ‘That’s not Alexander’, he would sometimes say; ‘That’s just Jacobson’ (if you were heavy) or ‘That’s Mensendieck’ (if you were stiff).”
Clearly a disparaging reference.  “Jacobson,” by the way, refers to a system developed by Edmund Jacobson called Progressive Relaxation, where muscles are alternately tensed and relaxed in an orderly sequence. Dr. Jacobson first presented this idea in 1908 and wrote a book about it, Progressive Relaxation, published in 1929.  (I don’t know if Jacobson is on Staring’s list of alleged victims.)

What of Dr. Mensendieck herself?  She lived until 1958 and may have heard of the eventually more famous Alexander. Staring gives no evidence that she thought her ideas had influenced him.

Staring asks  “Why should the head go forward and up?”  as if he cannot conceive that Alexander discovered “head forward and up” whether in the context that gives it sense or any other.  This is an example of the most exasperating aspect of Staring:  his conviction that Alexander could not have done anything.  Dr. Mensendieck yes,  Dr. Frenkl yes,  Mr. Alexander never.

The book of Dr. Mensendieck that Staring mentions was published in 1906.  Staring asks  “Where is Alexander in 1906?” — as if to say that Alexander knew nothing about directing “forward and up” at that time while Dr. Mensendieck did.  Yet judging from the excerpt provided — I assume putting her best foot forward — clearly she did not.  As for the claim that Alexander knew nothing about directing in 1906 and that he was merely a teacher of breathing, this too is false.  Alexander had already developed the essentials of his technique, if not some of the later terminology, long before then.  More on this point when we get to Dr. Scanes Spicer.

Looking up Mensendieck on the Internet, her method is called the “Mensendieck System of Functional Movement” and is today a system of exercises done in the nude in front of a mirror, requiring no equipment.  Their goal is “good posture and correct body mechanics.”