History of the International Congresses of the F. M. Alexander Technique

This article on the history and general aims of the International Congresses was written by Congress organiser Doris Dietschy before the 6th International Congress in Freiburg, Germany.
International congresses in the F. M. Alexander Technique: their background and significance

by Doris Dietschy

Why have international congresses?

We are now fast approaching our sixth international congress and have begun to expect these events as a familiar feature of the AT calendar. But are we simply following a trend? Helping to organise this latest congress has made me consider them not merely as a trend, but as something vital for the survival of the Alexander Technique.

In Latin, congress means "joining together". In the physical coming together of hundreds of people, all sharing the same professional path, the feeling of belonging becomes reality. Whether at the beginning of our training or not, whether teaching a little or a lot, whether since only recently or over many years, we all belong to a group of people who work in a particular way. Working closely together is the very nature of the Technique, but a certain amount of friction is also to be expected.

The international congresses do not have any direct aims in the public domain. They serve the purpose of open exchange among experts eager for knowledge about the whole spectrum of the Alexander Technique. We see where and how the Alexander Technique is being used, yet the congress is also the arena of the untested and undeveloped.

We are able now to look back on five congresses. They are characterised by the desire to bring together Alexander teachers from all over the world to work with the generation of teachers trained by Alexander himself, so they can directly pass on their knowledge of the Technique to others. The older, more experienced members pass on their skills with their charisma, their words and their hands. Hands-on is an experience of continuity: linking back and linking forward.

And it is our privilege that the Alexander Technique hardly ever takes the form of a lecture, but instead consists of application, experimentation and practice; of interchange, participation and movement. In other words, the congresses are active opportunities to get to grips with the Alexander Technique.

The international congresses are not supposed to compete with the Alexander Societies, but to complement their work. Without the enterprise of these organisations the Alexander Technique would not be as widely accepted as it is today. It is in the light of what they have achieved that the concept of an international congress was born.

A little background history

It was Michael Frederick who successfully managed to bring together the people who had shaped the Alexander Technique since the death of F. M. Alexander. Following his invitation, Dr Wilfred and Marjory Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter and Dilys Carrington and Patrick Macdonald came to Stony Brook near New York in August 1986 and along with them 230 Alexander Technique teachers and students from all over the world. The theme of this first congress was "The Alexander Technique, a Worldwide Perspective".

Two years later in 1988, he was able to welcome as many as 450 participants to Brighton, England. This second congress was dedicated to "Research, Training and Stagecraft".

In 1991 the snow-covered mountains of Engelberg, Switzerland, provided the backdrop for the third conference. This time about 500 Alexander experts came together to take part in "The Development of a Profession". This congress, too, was, initiated by Michael Frederick and was marked by his talent for bringing people together. Marjory Barlow, Marjorie Barstow, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Richard and Elisabeth Walker and Dr Wilfred Barlow, who was suffering from a severe heart condition, could once again be convinced that their Senior Master Classes were vital for the continuity of the F. M. Alexander Technique. Master Classes of the second and third teaching generation and the numerous lectures were grouped around their teaching, as had been the case in Stony Brook and Brighton.

This third congress was also confirmation for Michael Frederick himself that the international feeling of belonging experienced by Alexander teachers had become reality and was no longer dependent on one single person.

In 1994 Australia applied to host the congress, for it was there almost exactly a hundred years before that F. M. Alexander had developed the Technique. Dr David Garlick, already well-known for his physiology lectures at previous conferences and for his book, "The Lost Sixth Sense", took over as director. This time our colleagues in Australia were able to attend a congress without having to travel to the other side of the globe. Many people came from the U.S.A, a whole group came from Japan and together with a few Europeans about 250 guests were accommodated at the University of Sydney. This time the theme was "The Meaning of Change". The Senior Master Classes were very different. Dr Barlow had passed away on October 21st, 1991, as had Patrick Macdonald on November 23rd the same year, and also Richard Walker on January 16th, 1992. For health reasons, Marjorie Barstow and Walter and Dilys Carrington could not make the journey. Teaching demonstrations and recollections from their training period given by Marjory Barlow, Elisabeth Walker and Erika Whittaker were all the more appreciated. Thanks to Dr Garlick and his colleagues with their scientific lectures, which included a visit to the dissecting room, the congress took on a new look.

For a long time it had been widely accepted that the fifth congress should take place in Israel, the country with the most Alexander teachers per capita. Congress directors, Shmuel Nelken, Ora Nelken and Rika Cohen gave their concept the title "Back to Basics". The previous congresses had created a basis of trust which now made it possible to focus on our practical work together, because it is this practical work which helps us to understand the foundations of the Technique: Alexander's principles. The Senior Master Classes, the Special Interest Classes and the Open Forum were all grouped around daily exchanges of practical work - everyone together. A special event was dedicated to the memory of Marjorie Barstow, who had passed away on July 31st, 1995.

By the end of the congress it had become clear that working with the Technique was the best way to break down language barriers and inflexible differences of opinion.

This article was first published in STATNews, Vol. 5, no. 3, January 1999, p. 16. Reproduced with permission by the author. Copyright Doris Dietschy.

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