In honor of the foot: the anatomy of walking and standing in tango

I realized from talking to a few of my new students, that it is just too hard to page through years of my blog to find the anatomy and tango parts. I am re-posting these to facilitate the work we are doing, especially in Body Dynamics and FUNdamentals.

Finding out about your feet will not only help you dance better, without pain. It will also make you more aware of your body as you dance, enjoying how your body feels during tango. I am a true movement geek, so I walk around, garden, etc., feeling what my body is doing. Perhaps this will bring you to a new level of mindfulness!

I re-read Irene Dowd's excellent "In Honor of the Foot" article, from her book, Taking Root to Fly. She details the structure of the foot, exercises to strengthen it, and ways to think about moving that use the foot efficiently.  I encourage you to buy her book! Here, I will provide you with some ideas from her article that pertain to the work we are doing in class.

The platform of the foot is shaped like a trapezoid, with the corners being the ball of the foot (big toe), the ball of the little toe, the inner border of the heel, and the outer border of the heel. Here is a picture from the encyclopedia, showing the bones of the foot.

The way the bones of the foot are built make a twisted arch between the heel bone (calcaneus)  and the ball of the foot. The bones that make up this arch can be locked into place or relaxed. When the inside border of the heel drops (the arch is untwisting), that is called pronation. Some people naturally do this, and extreme pronation is often called having flat feet (guilty here!). When the arch is raised higher, the outside border rolls out, or supinates. People who tend to do this have "high-arched" feet.


According to Dowd, "When we walk correctly, it appears that the center of the knee travels directly above the pathway . . . from the center of the heel through the third toe." This does not mean that the foot actually moves on a straight line, because the arch of the foot bones creates a more serpentine path of movement (read the article for all the details!). The actual path strikes slightly to the outside of the center of the heel for the heel strike; rolls inside the cuboid bone (next bone forward from the calcaneus) for "midstance"; rolls back more to the outside as the heel comes off the floor in a step; and rolls back to the middle of the big toe as the toes leave the floor.

As this happens, the arch of the foot twists and untwists slightly, relaxing into the floor for stablity, then making a stiff lever to propel the body forward, and relaxing again (whew!). The big toe completes the push off of the floor. I think of this as the equivalent to following through when I throw a ball: I don't just leave my toes limp, I use them to complete the transfer to a new location.

Words to help do this in tango

I have found that using the phrase "push off" makes people use their foot by tensing it too much. I think of the motion of moving as a rolling motion.

When going forward, think about how a cat articulates through all their bones when walking or stretching! I also like Luciana Valle's "lick the floor!" with your foot :-)

When moving sideways, think about wearing fins, and letting the ankle and foot follow through as though going through water. Each bone only moves a little, but the fluidity allows elegance of motion and balance.

When walking backwards, I think about using the ankle's full range of motion, rolling through the heel and releasing, but not pushing. Another visual I use, is to imagine having a thumbtack (point at the the floor!) on your heel, and lightly pressing it into a cork board as you roll over the heel.


Dowd says the foot has to work harder to stand than to walk: "This is especially true when you are standing balanced on one foot only. In this circumstance, the foot has to be somewhat mobile because the rest of your body does not stay perfectly still relative to the ground and yet the foot has to be very stable in order to support you." The foot has to have equal balance inside (big toe), outside (little toe) and back (heel). Think of an open space between these points, lifted up. I think of a plunger, lifting/suctioning up the center of my foot.  Dowd suggests "a receptive aperture through which energy can come in from the earth." Yeah, like she said!

Remember, the foot needs to both relax and tighten in a series of motions, to complete just one step! To stand, it constants adjusts between these extremes to maintain stability.

Exercises to strength/tune into the foot:

  • Put the sole of your foot on the floor, and, with your big toe, practice pushing away a finger or some small object on the floor next to your foot. You are making a fan-shaped motion that spreads your big toe away from your other toes.
  • Do the same thing with your little toe. Both of these exercises are hard at first, especially if you've been wearing high heels with itty bitty spaces for your toes ;-)
  • Put your foot on the floor, and try to "dome" your foot (lift the center while keeping all corners down). Make sure you are not gripping with your toes: keep them relaxed. This is about the muscles in the center of your foot, not your toe muscles.
  • Then, try all three at the same time (ha! no, actually, I just did this while typing, and it is possible).
  • After that, start with that exercise, but draw all the toes towards the big toe; then all the toes towards the little toe.

You will be happy to know that Dowd recommends massage in order to loosen up the muscles and bones in your foot, to uncramp muscles as you try these exercises, and to understand the structure of your foot through feeling that structure.