Walking your tango: Irene Dowd's article about "Standing on Two Legs"

Walking seems like any easy thing to do. After all, we learned to do it as tiny children. For many people learning to dance, however, walking turns out to be more difficult than learning new steps. Why is this?

Many of us use our bodies in ways that are inefficient. When walking inefficiently, we put more stress on our bodies than we need to. If more stress is placed on the body, it wears out sooner. Learning to move efficiently enables us to be active longer in life and to enjoy less chronic pain as we age.

With so much energy being expended to maintain balance and posture,less energy and focus is available to deal with the dance itself. Therefore, learning to walk efficiently makes learning to tango much easier. Irene Dowd's article, "Standing on Two Legs," explains how the foot, leg and pelvis are constructed, and provides several excellent images that might help tango dancers move with more energy and less stress.

The foot

The foot is the base of the body, connecting with the earth. In order to stand and walk efficiently, we have to use the foot correctly. Dowd says that

The foot itself is composed of lengthwise and crosswise arches so that each foot is somewhat like a dome with a triangular base. Ideally, when we are standing still, the weight of the leg transfers from the ankle equally forward and back, one half of the weight going through the heel and one half going through the ball of the foot. (p. 30 in Taking Root to Fly)

I further spread that awareness of weight and balance to the four corners of the foot: ball of the big toe; ball of the pinky toe; inside edge of the heel; and the outside edge of the heel.

Walking in space

Using the foot correctly makes it easier to move through space with less effort. That means that more effort can be applied to balance, breath, musicality, the partner, etc.

When we are moving through space, this arch functions as a powerful spring to thrust us forward from one foot to the other through the action of a multitude of muscles on the sole of the foot and back of the leg. When we put the foot back down again, all these muscles relax as long as our foot is pointing straight ahead so that our weight is again supported by the fundamental arch . . . (p. 30)

Now, this seems to not jive with the idea of being slightly turned out in tango. I have pondered this for some time, and I feel that the main point is that the foot must be in a natural position. Most of the dancers that I teach naturally have some degree of turn-out. I believe that what Dowd means by straight (and I have not asked her personally, so apologies Ms. Dowd if I have mis-read!) is your natural turn-out. 

Other joints: ankle, knee and hip

Dowd stresses that  ". . . the aim to keep in mind is allowing the joints to come easily into line with one another."

The joints of the foot and leg need to line up so that the bones of the body support balance, rather than the muscles. Luckily for us humans, our leg bones are constructed in a way that allows these joints to stack up under/over each other easily. That way, muscles aid in movement, but balance is (mostly) finding the right way to stack bones on bones.

The ankle are relatively stable in structure. It is a hinge joint (forward backward movement, no rotation) and has a lot of strong ligaments holding it together. Rotation near the ankle happens within the foot. 

The knee is less stable, but still built to hold you up. It is a hinge joint, like the ankle, but has some rotation (too much, and you rip things, eek). If you hold the knee out of alignment in your normal walk and standing motion, you need to devote a lot of muscle and brain focus to staying balanced.

The femoral (hip) joint is a ball and socket joint, which means that all sorts of cool movement is possible here. Because the femur tilts out from the hip joint and then back towards the knee, the knee lines up directly with the femoral joint (and the ankle). In order to walk efficiently, the pelvis needs to be in an optimal position in order to balance over your feet correctly.

Images to help proper alignment occur

I think of my legs as part of a huge, thick spring coming up from the ground, up my leg bones and up to my center, with each piece of my legs having the same amount of even flex. Of course, this is not physically possible, but it prevents me from using my knees as my balance point, and spreads that strain from my ankles and feet up to my pelvis (if you have any joint injuries, imagine the other joints picking up the slack to protect your body!).

Here are some images that Dowd uses to help you position your body more efficiently:

  • Think of your sacrum (center back of your pelvis that is also the lower end of your spine) as very heavily sinking down towards your heels but do not contract your buttock or abdominal muscles to do this, let gravity do all the work while you simple observe in your mind's eye.
  • Imagine a line of energy thrusting up from the ground through the center of your foot . . . straight up to the center of your femoral joint (hip joint).
  • Think of the centers of your foot, ankle, knee and femoral joint as open gateways for the energy to shoot through from the ground source. This line of energy jets up like a fountain of water from the ground to your pelvis to support you upright and then it streams down from your buttock and all around you like a waterfall to flow out your feels and out each toe in a spreading pool. Remember that your bones provide the upward thrust against the pull of gravity, not your muscles.
  • Let your feet remember that they are always a living connection with the earth. Allow each leg its full capacity to be alternately stable as a column and fluid as water.

Learning takes time

For each one of you who has said to me, "But it's not working!" I want to reiterate that tango (and learning to walk efficiently) is a process that your body needs to learn. It takes time for the neural pathways of the new, efficient movement to take precedence over habitual movement pathways. Muscles have to learn to relax (or work harder) to balance in a new way. Motor memory needs time to function easily, memorizing the new pattern or shape your body will use. Dowd says this happens after" . . . much movement practice with a new alignment pattern. . . . In the meantime you must actively concentrate on performing every-day basic movement patterns with your joints in line."

OK, go out there, and WALK!

Note: for those of you who would like to read Irene Dowd in all her glory, the book is Taking Root to Fly, ISBN #0-937645-02-8. Eventually, I will touch on all the articles in this book (perhaps not the one of the anatomy of the eye; you can read that one for yourself!). Irene Dowd has performed modern dance, choreographed, as well as taught neuro-muscular training and dance at Juilliard and several other impressive places, and studied at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical School.