Over the 20+ years I have danced tango, I have been taught LOTS of different "best" ways to embrace my partner in tango. Many students have come to me with sore arms, shoulders and backs "caused" by their partners. "What's the best way to dance so I don't get hurt?"
I see a lot of room for improvement in how we dance and how we teach the embrace. For myself, I have found that learning to stabilize my shoulders and arms has helped me dance better with more people, and with fewer injuries. As long as I am using my body correctly, I can do several different styles of tango embrace.
So what is best? Body-based choices. You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?
Anchor your shoulder girdle
You have several layers of muscles at work in your back. You want to make sure that the deepest levels of muscles are strong and aligned, and then stack the outer layers on from there. If you use too much neck and shoulder work for your embrace, you are stressing ALL the layers.
Since it is hard to feel the layers of muscle in your back (for most people), focus on one area: the lower tip of your shoulder blade, and the muscles that help anchor it into the center of your body.
Here are the exercises that I am currently for MY shoulder girdle strength!
1. Table top: Get your arms and shoulder girdle in the right position to use as a stable area.
2. Plank: Build your strength and stability by placing more demand on that area.
3. Negative pushups: After your can stabilize, continue to improve by increasing the demand on those muscles.
4. Pushups (and yes, I can't do these yet!). For those of you out there who do pushups: MAKE SURE you are doing them using these muscles, or you won't be training the correct muscles. Have someone watch you to make sure that the focus is back muscles. Yes, there are other muscles being used, but those muscles may not help your tango embrace as much.
Want more info?
For more in-depth info, I recommend two fabulous books that I use all the time to show my students how the body works:
- The Anatomy of Exercise & Movement by Jo Ann Saugaard-Jones
- Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain (and there is a related Exercises book)
Imagery to help you
Words get in the way. For many people, pictures work better (especially for my visual learners). However I can't transmit the picture in my head to yours without words and the pictures I draw while teaching. Here are some pictures that work for me or some of my students. If they don't work for you, throw them out!
- Wine corkscrew: Think about opening a bottle of win. Your shoulder blades are the wings that pull down and in. Your neck and spine are the cork sliding straight up!
- Hanger: Imagine that the back of your neck is the hanger handle, and that your shoulders and arms are following gravity, like a heavy coat drapes on the hanger. The coat does not need to hold itself up.
- Tree: Your legs and torso are the main strength to hold up the branches. Imagine your head is the top of the tree and that you are REALLY tall. Relax your shoulders: the roots are holding you up. The tree on the right of the picture is the one I think about: it's on my college campus, and I spent a lot of time under it, playing guitar. Don't laugh too hard.
- Fountain: Water shoots up and out of your head, falls to the basin of the fountain, and comes up the middle again. The shoulders are out of the picture! This can help with breathing as well as energy circulation.
Practice time = all the time you aren't dancing!
I definitely try to "forget" all of my technique and just dance when I am out dancing. In order to do that, my technique needs to be hard-wired into my brain so that it just happens. How do you get to that level as fast as possible? Do your tango homework all the time!
Practicing all the time does not mean carving out an hour or two a day to practice. I certainly do not manage that, and I am a dance teacher. Instead, I try to stay aware of how I move my body whenever I have spare brainpower.
- Find good posture for your shoulders and middle back when you start work.
- Set your computer timer so that it gives you a reminder every 30 minutes to find your center back, relax your shoulders, and restart your work with better posture.
- Standing in line waiting for something? Use those extra brain cells for finding your perfect alignment so that you can use it in tango without thinking!
- If you have a job where they don't stare if you do stretches, take 5 minutes of your break time and do the exercises above.
- When you walk the dog, carry groceries, cart your kid around, etc., check in: are you working "smart" or cheating? Fix it!