Using the toes: making little steps as luscious as big, dramatic steps

After a few nights of dancing in Buenos Aires, I had a new goal: learning to make each step beautiful when it was small. I knew that my regular and large steps had really progressed in technique in the past few years, but I felt that my teeny tiny steps in the milonga weren't feeling fabulous. I had plenty of partners, but I felt something was not working within my own body.

Oscar and Georgina told me (I prefer my lessons in Spanish, so this is an estimation): "Don't worry! Everyone learns technique in regular size steps first, then in bigger steps. The hardest steps to do well, are small steps." Then Oscar grinned, and said (as usual), "No vacation! Come on, let's work!"

The new information was about how to use my toes. I had worked hard to get my weight back, evenly shared by my heel and the ball of the foot. I had relaxed my toes, ankles, knees and hips to get a smoother, sexier, balanced walk. But I wasn't finishing my steps completely. As I pushed through the floor to take each step, I was not following through with my toes. Looking at the videos from my lesson, I had to agree: my toes looked dead!

Structure of the foot

The way that the foot and leg are built, the body needs to use a bunch of muscles, not only to propel the body through space, but to maintain balance when on tiptoe (stiletto heels, anyone?)! The muscles that flex the smaller and big toes pass along the inside of the ankle, and support the medial arch of the foot and are important in the propulsion phase of walking. There are also smaller muscles that do not cross the ankle joint, that aid in propelling the body forward; these also flex the toes. If you grab a book on anatomy and look at how the foot is constructed, it makes sense that, if the toes aren't engaged, the body can't move as efficiently or strongly.

There is a lot of foot anatomy information on the internet, so I'll leave detailed pictures and explanations to the doctors (and leave it out of here, in case you don't want to read in detail!). Suffice to say, when you look at the lever system that makes up the foot, it becomes obvious that the toes are essential to movement.

This last little movement of the toes is what completes thepropulsion of the body from the location of the last step, to the new location in space. If the movement is not finished, the body needs to spend energy and time to finish arriving at the new location. If the toes are used correctly, as the last step in the push off-extend leg-send body-land on balance sequence, the body arrives ON AXIS and ON BALANCE, every single step.

And voila!

This would explain why my dance has progressed so much since I stopped having my weight on my toes! By moving my hips back slightly, and balancing over the arch of my foot, my dance has become much more elegant. Also, I have come to expect that a night of dancing creates tired feet, rather than painful feet!

Looking at my new work, of using my toes to finish each step, I could see what had not been working before: I had been arriving on my balance a micro-second late for each step. What I noticed about using my foot and toes correctly, was that I always ended up the same distance away from my leader, no matter how big or small the step was. Part of improving my timing, was to improve my reaction to the leader's requests.

As my time in Buenos Aires went on, I found that I could work my feet correctly without spending all my attention and energy on my toes (there were a few nights where my partners told me I was a great partner, but where I knew only part of my brain and body had actually been paying attention to the leader!). My small steps began to feel like a real dance, and I started to use my steps in a different way: I practiced arriving a tiny bit early, and touching the free foot to the floor softly, so that the movement felt more rhythmic. I could now choose to move more slowly, more romantically; or more rhythmically; or with a strong adorno, like a tap. I now have a much broader ranger of "flavors" for my dance.

I gradually started attracting more discerning partners, and began to field requests to dance a second tanda. One night, I was asked to save the next milonga tanda for four different men. Ack! For the first time in my fourteen years of dancing tango, I had Argentine men APOLOGIZE for their level of dance. Strange, but it felt good to be the one reassuring them that I had enjoyed the set.

Practice, practice, practice!

As I have started to do my foot and leg exercises that Georgina gave me for strengthening my dance, I've noticed that I can dance for longer and longer periods with good technique (duh!). I'm going to start a follower's technique class, based on these exercises, in the next month, so stay tuned if you are interested in working on improving your dance.