As my students have been learning to release their hips, I have been trying to find different ways to explain how to keep balance by using the SMALLEST hip adjustment possible.
The big picture
What do I mean by "on top of your femurs" when the entire body rests on them? The upper leg bones that attach to your pelvis and end at your knees are a strangely shaped bone (check it out). They channel all the upper body weight down the leg to the ground. If the femur is in the right place, a lot of your balance work for standing, walking, tango, etc. becomes much more efficient.
Many people lock their hips into one position for tango in an effort to stay on balance. As I have discussed before, that stability is created by asking too many muscles to work overtime. Locked hips means awkward, stiff dancing that misses the sensuality of tango by a long shot.
When dancers learn to release their hips, they often overdo that new feeling, and wiggle a lot. There is so much muscular relief at not having a stiff back and sore toes, that the rest looks somewhat like an earthworm :-)
Tango, as well as normal walking, works best in a position where the hip joint is free to move, but the deep abdominal and pelvic muscles are working lightly to keep the body close to its midline.
Finding your hip joints
When you lift your knee, your hip creases. Your hip joint is deep in that crease. You can feel the front of the area by pressing in as deep as you can at the hip crease. You can also find the back of the area by grabbing your ischial tuberosity, or sitz bones (the bony part you feel on a chair). For your right hip, use your left hand to find the front of the hip joint, and the right to find the sitz bone.
Tip your pelvis (and thus your upper body) with your hands at the hip joint. This always makes me think of the silly bird desk ornaments that tip back and forth. Notice how much your body can bend here! Feel how relaxed your lower back feels? The tip is in the hip joint, not in the arching of the lower back.
To find the best range of motion for your body, notice that, when you tip your body WAAAAY back, bringing the hips forward, the muscles on the front of the hip feel very tight. When you bend WAAAAY forward, the muscles also feel tight. There should be a range of motion between too far forward and too far back, where the front of your hip crease feels more relaxed. That is your correct range of motion (notice: there is not just one spot, because we don't just stand around in tango!).
Finding your midline
Your body moves most efficiently when you center movement around the midline. If you had only one leg, you would have to hop, but your midline would be obvious, and would stay in the same place for balance. We have two legs, so it's a bit different for humans.
Because we have two legs, we need to shift our balance/midline from one leg to the other while moving. If you use a lot of side-to-side movement, you waddle. In real life, walking like that is hard on the body, but it works. In tango, that makes you step on your partner.
When you walk efficiently, your hips tip slightly, like a pendulum, to allow you to walk in one straight line. The free leg is relaxed, as is that hip. The support leg hip joint is slightly higher than the free hip joint as the pelvis tips. Although this is more obvious on women, men's hips work the same way.
The main point of staying on your midline, is to allow your heavy head and torso to balance on top of one femur, then the other, allowing most of the work to translate into motion in the direction you want to move. Therefore, we want to find how to move from foot to foot with the least amount of muscular work possible.
Finding the muscles you need to use
Many of us don't have strong core muscles to help us balance: we spend too much time in chairs and not enough moving our bodies. To counteract our sedentary lifestyle, we need to work our core a lot more.
I got the idea for this exercise when I was sweating my way through a Barre 3 class. I have looked online, but the exercise is apparently too silly-looking to post on the web! Here's the closest I could find to show what we were doing. As we squeezed the Pilates ball between our thighs and lifted weights, the instructor called out, "Come on ladies! Try to pop that ball!" I realized that I could use this idea of squeezing in my tango practice.
I place a Pilates ball between my thighs, and do my regular side-side step practice: 1. release through the arch of the foot to push off; 2. project the leg; 3. finish rolling through the support foot to complete the step. As I land, I squeeze my thighs together, using my strength to keep me from rolling out onto my little toe. When I do this, my hip tip is minimal, but working.
When you do this, remember that the Pilates ball is made of a sticky plastic: it will stick to your clothes. You don't need to grip it tightly while you move sideways (otherwise, you look like you have go, and are trying to hold it). Let your entire leg still project for the step. It is OK to drop the ball as you are learning the exercise. STRETCH the leg and then squeeze.
It sounds weird, but it is making my dance more elegant. Because I am elongating more and using my body more efficiently, I look longer and stretchier. Also, I am moving my midline less to shift feet, so more of my work goes directly into moving the direction I want to go.
Try it and let me see what you think!