"Visualizing Movement Potential" for tango

I'd like to summarize and expand upon another of Irene Dowd's fabulous articles in Taking Root to Fly. Rereading them all these years after my Movement Fundamentals class (thanks Sherrie Barr, my teacher!), I realize how much these ideas have become the basis of my teaching. Irene Dowd credits HER teacher, Dr. Lulu Sweigard with much of the content of this article, so read her work, too!

Her main idea in this article: the nervous system runs all the systems of the human body. Therefore, if we want to change how we move, we need to change the way our nerves and brain interact with the rest of the body: our neurological pathways. We can change these pathways through conscious attention, by changing our movement habits. 

"Dis-ease" or lack of ease, comes from the body being out of balance. The more the muscles are balanced around a joint, the less stress is put on the body to use and maintain that joint. The more the systems of the body are in balance, the easier it is to move in an efficient and pain-free way. Balance does not mean that the body is at rest, but rather that all muscles and systems have moments of rest and moments of movement, so that no part of the body is being constantly used (or constantly relaxed) and thus becoming fatigued, injured, or too weak to use correctly.

Dr. Sweigard taught correct use of the body through VISUALIZING lines of movement through the body in order to repattern how the body used energy.  She used the "constructive rest position" (lying on the floor, with the feet flat on the floor, knees up, hips/back relaxed, and arms out and up, relaxed against the floor. After the person visualized the movement in this position, she gradually transitioned them to visualizing the movement while standing and then moving around:

"Visualizing a line of movement thorugh the body while not moving can change the habitual patterns of messages being sent from the brain through nerve pathways to the muscles. As long as this constructive new thinking pattern is activated during movement, a new pattern of muscle activity is automatically being used to decrease physical stress and maintain a more balanced alignment of skeletal parts. Over a period of time during which there is continual daily attention to new habit patterns in thinking and action, the body's shape will be transformed." (p. 2)

This is what we are doing in my classes: realigning hips, knees, ankles, feet and body for more efficient balance front-back and left-right. Then, for each movement, we are repatterning how the body moves through a step to make it efficient. Each combination of muscles and joints works in balance with the body. Efficiency removes pain and imbalance. If you are in pain, the first step is to alleviate pain through teaching the body and neural pathways a new way of moving.

If something isn't working, don't just continue to repeat that step: "Not even a worm will persist after repeated negative reinforcement. The solution is to go one step back to something you can do, crawling perhaps." That may mean that you have to learn to stand and walk before learning tango. Master the fundamentals before going on so that you experience success. When you can do a movement, or series of movements, correctly, then the neural pathways have learned that and are ready to do more complex repatterning.

Exercise, part I (on the floor in constructive rest position)

  • Lie on the floor in constructive rest position.
  • Relax your body, either through visualization (sand or water or ? flowing out of your eyes, ears, hands, toes, wherever you have tension, until the body feels relaxed, open and receptive) or by tensing and then releasing each set of muscles until your body feels relaxed throughout.
  • Take time to really bring your body to neutral: this relaxation may take quite some time if you are under stress or have chronic pain in your body. If you do not feel receptive and relaxed, you will not be able to visualize new patterns easily.
  • First, visualize the basic, fundamental parts of the new movement. For example, if you want to make arm or leg movements that require your center and spine to support them, visualize a long, stable spine, and then do small or easy movements with the limb you want to use.
  • Relax again, while you continue to visualize the flow of strength and stability in your spine, lengthening without working your muscles.
  • Now visualize the entire movement you want to do, without moving your body. Imagine the sweep of the energy through your body, through each joint that is needed, through the muscles that will be used. Imagine doing it without pain or difficulty. While you are doing this, your new neural pathways are being created.
  • Any time you feel the old pattern (or pain or tightness), go back to the relax/go to neutral phase and start over. If you keep trying while it hurts or while you are clenching your body, the new pathways are NOT being formed.
  • Only spend 5-10 minutes doing this at a time: staying in one position for a long time is not good for the body: it contracts some muscles constantly, and lets others relax constantly: what we are trying to avoid ;-)

Exercise, part II (warming up, standing)

  • Get up off the floor slowly.
  • Start doing small movements to warm up the body: leg joints, arm joints, spine, neck, etc.
  • When you feel warmed up, move around doing movements you already know, letting your body feel the "rightness" of these motions.
  • Only at this point should you try the movement.

Exercise, part III (doing the new motion)

  • Do the new movement, focusing on the small, basic parts of the movement first.
  • When you do it correctly, no matter how small a part of the movement is right, congratulate yourself! Give yourself positive encouragement. This is an improvement, even if it is small and gradual.
  • Repeat the successful movement until it feels more "natural" than "strange" (your body needs to start to feel the rightness of it to memorize it as "the right way").
  • Repeat each day: this helps you learn the right movement through it feeling right, and also helps your body develop the new neural pathways more quickly.

Exercise, part IV (let it go)

  • Your body works on neural pathways, and on integrating new information, on its own. Let it do the work!
  • Go off and do other things; let go of the new information consciously, and come back to it tomorrow.
  • Come back to it daily: if you wait too long, you undo the work you did before, and must start over.

Although a teacher can help you learn what motion is correct, and can check in with you to help you adjust the process if it is not working, most of this work is YOU. Focus on the positive: the mind and body are plastic. The human body and mind can learn to do all sorts of movements. YOUR human body can do this. If you can imagine your body doing a motion, you will eventually be able to perform that motion with your body. Irene Dowd says:

"It takes about two months of daily practice from the time you have started to think about your movement differently to the time that your muscles visibly change shape. While sixty days into the future seems like a long time to wait before a new internal balance brings tangible results, it isn't very long at all in comparison to your whole life which you have already spent developing the form you now have." (p. 6)

Off you go now! I need to do my visualizations of the perfect adorno.