What are the Dart Procedures?
by Erik Bendix, M.A.
Am.S.A.T. certified teacher of the Alexander Technique
Raymond Dart’s discovery in 1926 of the ‘Taung child’ fossil in South Africa revealed the ‘missing link’ of evidence for evolution from apes to humans. The fossil had formed from the skull of an 11-year-old child and it sat for ages in a cave under a mineral drip, forming a perfect crystalline replica of the brain that had once been inside the child’s head. Dart was a specialist in brain evolution and recognized from the shape of this brain endocast that it had belonged to an ape that walked upright. The brain was no bigger than that of a chimpanzee.
One thing demonstrated by this discovery is that human uprightness is far more ancient than the expanded brain capacity we now enjoy. Encephalization, social expansion, language and cognition as we now know it all came much later. Human babies today also generally learn to come upright before they learn to speak, apparently mirroring in some way the sequence by which our ancestors evolved. One would therefore expect the brain functions responsible for uprightness to be preverbal, and perhaps more likely to support than to be supported by the ability to speak and think.
Dart’s discovery was highly controversial in his day, as scientists thought it was perhaps only a chimpanzee skull and were reluctant to cede the site of human origins to the continent of Africa. It was only with the exposure of Piltdown Man as a hoax in 1953 that Dart’s claims were confirmed and that exploration in Africa for human ancestor fossils began in earnest. In the meantime, Dart and his wife had become parents to a brain-damaged child who had difficulty standing upright and walking. To help his child, Dart began in 1943 to devise a series of movement procedures that recapitulated probable evolutionary steps toward coming upright. These are now called the Dart Procedures.
The Dart Procedures examine the relationship between different positions of weight-bearing and the effect these positions have on the nervous system. For example, one portion of the procedures guides one through the experience of making a transition from four legged support to support on two legs. It does this by experimenting with bearing weight on different knuckles of the hands, as was probably done by human ancestors (since other members of the ape family also stand and walk on forelimb knuckles). Weight is then removed from the hands to free the arms and to complete the transition to bipedal support over the feet. Such weight shifts are a common part of human daily movement repertoire. What makes their performance different in the Dart Procedures is their purpose and the way in which they are explored. Each transfer of weight is given time to be fully observed in its effects on breathing and on reorganization of balance. Dart himself explored these movements by observing himself in each position for up to twenty minutes at a time before stopping to take extensive notes.
As a founder and director of medical colleges in South Africa, Dart sometimes spoke to groups of his medical students about his insights into the evolution of human movement. Many of these talks were published in medical journals of the day. They were neglected by the medical community and even by Dart himself until 1967, when his work on movement development was rediscovered by the music professor and Alexander Technique teacher Alex Murray. At the time, Dart was Chair of Anthropology at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, so Murray joined him there to learn if his interpretation of the movements described in Dart’s article The Postural Aspects of Malocclusion coincided with Dart’s own understanding. What Murray learned was that the most important stage of Dart’s procedures of movement development had been omitted from Dart’s writings. This was the transition from full flexion in utero to the beginnings of extension during and after birth. Dart, then in his 80’s, jumped on a table to demonstrate how to explore this in movement. He subsequently asked Murray to oversee the republication of his papers on human movement evolution, many of which are now collected in a volume called Skill and Poise: Articles on Skill, Poise and the F.M. Alexander Technique.
Since that time, Alex Murray and his wife Joan have explored and refined the practice and application of the procedures, using Dart’s writings and their own deep skills as Alexander Technique teachers in the observation and facilitation of movement. Apparently, Dart’s understanding of movement development also deeply influenced the early work of Moshe Feldenkrais, who was taking Alexander Technique lessons from F.M. Alexander and associates in the early 1950s around the time that Dart’s work came to the attention of that circle.
One area the Dart Procedures sheds much light on is rotational movement. Many studies of human movement, including standard versions of the Alexander Technique, focus mainly on flexion and extension, i.e. on the ability of the limbs to fold or unfold and of the torso to bend or unbend, and have little to say about how rotation works or how it can be done with optimal ease. Dart showed how rotation in human embryos is built out of alternating relays between muscles that flex forward, backward or to the side, and how adult rotation built on that simple foundation is optimized by following the lead of the navigating head.
In the Murrays’ articulation of Dart’s procedures, there is also a profound understanding of the relation of rotational movement to the curvatures of the human spine. The natural elasticity of the spine and its support of continual respiratory movement both depend on the ability of the torso to twist evenly both ways without localized resistance, while freedom of rotation in the limbs also supports the torso to come fully upright. These rotational freedoms are explored in the Dart Procedures mainly in pre-quadripedal positions, rolling and gyrating on the floor much as a baby does in its preparations for coming up on all fours before it stands. The baby’s gymnastics are some combination of instinct for uprightness and exploration of how to get there. In the Dart Procedures, the movements are systematized and studied more consciously to allow them to be reintegrated into daily mobility wherever that mobility may have been compromised.
Raymond A. Dart, Skill and Poise: Articles on Skill, Poise and the F.M. Alexander Technique (STAT Books, 1996, ISBN 0-9519304-5-1 hardback), edited by Alexander Murray. This volume includes Dart’s articles “Voluntary Musculature of the Human Body: The Double-Spiral Arrangement (1950)”, “The Postural Aspects of Malocclusion (1946)”, “The Attainment of Poise (1947)”, and Alexander Murray’s “The Dart Procedures”.
Marion Goldberg, ed., Beginning from the Beginning: The Growth of Understanding and Skill (1996, spiral bound). This is a series of interviews with Joan and Alex Murray about their history of learning from Dart and their development of his procedures in relation to the Alexander Technique. It includes photos of babies learning movement juxtaposed on photos of Alexander Technique and Dart Procedures performed by adults.
Rebecca Nettl-Fiol & Luc Vanier, Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the Missing Link (University of Illinois Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-252-07793-7 paper). This book includes a DVD demonstrating the Dart Procedures. It is written by 2 students and close collaborators of the Murrays.
© Erik Bendix 2012