A Facebook discussion going on about whether you should have your heels down or up for dancing tango made me decide to tell my pain-to-no-pain story about why I changed my technique to using my heels on the floor for Argentine Tango.
When I started dancing tango in 1995, no one told us what to do with our heels. Many of the teachers who came through were men who focused on teaching combinations of fancy steps. Although I was studying and taking notes every workshop I took, I have no notes on what to do with my feet from those first few years, except for Luciana Valle's advice to "lick the floor with your feet" which focused on articulating your step, but we seemed to mostly practice it walking forward, so again, I had few notes on how to walk backwards.
My first few visits to Buenos Aires in 1999-2001, I spent a few months dancing and trying different techniques. I studied with Tete and Silvia, Omar Vega, Chicho Frumboli, Gustavo and Giselle, Luciana Valle, Jose Garafolo, Chiche and Marta, the Puglieses, Graciela Gonzalez, and Oscar Mandagaran. As usual, no two teachers said exactly the same thing, as many of them danced different styles. I ended up with a lot of material to teach in terms of patterns and steps, but no clear path in terms of walking technique.
Dancing in the milongas, I learned to get my heels down, so that I didn't spike other people, and so that I had better balance. This helped cut down on the toe pain and lower back pain that I got when dancing for long periods of time. However, I didn't really start changing my technique until I brought Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas to Portland and Eugene, Oregon, for workshops in 2008.
I started my private lessons with them telling them all the things in their technique that I wasn't going to do (not a very flexible student!). They patiently took their time to explain WHY they did each thing that I had been told not to do, and to dance it with me.
One of the things they changed about my dance was how I used my feet. They had me articulate through my foot, using natural walking movement, so that I was not tensing my foot, or popping up on my heels, or rolling out, but rather moving efficiently. When you walk backwards in "real life," you roll over your heel, letting your toes relax off the floor. Not only does this give you better balance and less work for each step, it allows you to really MOVE when you step, in a much more powerful way than pushing off your poor toes.
This new approach to walking removed my foot pain on the dance floor: I can now work an 8-hour teaching day and end up with tired, but not painful, feet. When I dance at the milongas, my feet hold up better than the rest of me: I go home because I am sleepy, not sore!
Another benefit to rolling through my heels and working my feet correctly was that people immediately commented on how much better my technique looked. Now when I go dancing in Buenos Aires, women touch me on the arm on the way back to my seat, and say, "Pretty feet!" and "Who is your teacher?"
It took a grueling six months to start to retool my dance after dancing tango on a daily basis for thirteen years, but it was worth it! I constantly try to improve my dance, and study with Oscar and Georgina as much as possible, so that I can teach the technique as clearly as possible.