New classes starting in Beaverton!

PDX SportsCenter

My new (second location, don't freak out Om Studio dancers!) will be upstairs at PDX SportsCenter, 8785 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Go in the doors, around to the left, up the stairs, and turn left. You can't miss it! You can always check out what's going on at http://tangobeaverton.com/ although it does not yet come up on a Google search. Help me spread the word!

I will be starting beginning tango classes there this summer, as well as a second class TBD. There will eventually be a practica as well. Monday nights, 7-8:30 PM for right now, expanding to 7-9 PM (or something like that) will be my Beaverton schedule, at least to start. Thank you all of you West Side folks who have kept nagging me for years; I would not have gotten around to this without you!

My first class there will be....drumroll....

Tango, Toning and Technique

When I went to PDX Sports Center to look at the dance studio space, I noticed that there was a Pilates studio there--Lavinia Magliocco's new studio. I know Lavinia from the tango community, and several of my friends have studied with her. She recently had to relocate because of a fire in the building where her studio was located.

It seemed like kismet: we need to work together, Lavinia! We met and talked and played around with tango and Pilates, and the result is the first class at my new studio space. There are still 10 more spots open for the session. You can reserve your spot here.

TTT flyer 1 online.jpg

Lavinia's story

I’ve been a ballet dancer all my life and trained in professional schools NYC and NC. Diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 18, I was told I could never dance professionally. My other love is writing, so I got my BA in English and Comparative Lit and Communications, became a dance writer, and helped translate 19th century dance manuals for one of the country’s top Social Dance historians while performing in his troupe, The Flying Cloud Vintage Dance Troupe.
After life-saving surgery, I dove into studying Anatomy/Physiology, and Kinesiology and was introduced to the work of Joe Pilates. I credit Pilates with saving my career and body, and putting me back onstage in New York City at an age when many dancers choose to retire.
I bring 25 years of experience working with many kinds of chronic or acute injuries, and neurological conditions like Cerebral Palsy, CMT, & Guillaume Barre. My students have gone on to dance and perform professionally at high levels in their chosen arts, figure skating, ballet, ballroom, and acro.
It is my personal experience that injuries expose our weaknesses. We can let these setbacks end our careers or curtail our lives, or we can seize the opportunity to come back stronger than before. I’ve worked with clients as young as 8 years old, and currently, my oldest client is 95 years old.
Equipoise means the balance of opposing forces that allows us to move with grace. When we’re out of balance, we have no equipoise.
Enlightened means intelligent and aware. I specialize in empowering clients with knowledge of their bodies and techniques to support their lives, whether they’re performance athletes or dedicated grandfathers.
Sometimes I joke that I’m here to de-condition people - de-condition them from unhelpful and stagnant movement patterns that inhibit freedom. My private sessions with clients are one-to-one and are uniquely tailored to each person, since no two people are the same.
You can schedule an appointment by emailing me at epoiselavinia@comcast.net or calling me at 503.887.3608.

Optimal pelvic alignment and movement for tango

Many people have asked me how to relieve their lower back pain from dancing tango. Part of the answer I addressed in the "Heels up vs. down" post and video last year. Correcting how you use your pelvis and iliofemoral joints (hip joints) will also make your dance pain-free and beautiful at the same time. Efficient movement looks better and feels better!

Walking, pausing and balance

Tango differs from normal walking in that you must be ready to change directions at the end of each step. Yes, you might take a few steps before doing something else, but you need to be prepared at all times to avoid other dancers, deal with your balance and your partner's balance, and to respond to inspiration.

The reinitiation of movement after each step feels like a heartbeat to me. The movement is not continuous, but has a pulse with each new step. The observer may not see the "stop" after each step, but the dancers have a split second at least where they could stop, or simply begin the next step from a more balanced position.

The best way to be prepared, is to train yourself to arrive on balance after each step. Both feet should be able to land under your body, with the free leg relaxed and the support leg strong but not tense. This means that your head, ribs, back, hips and legs need to be stacked up and aligned to avoid using extra muscle wear and tear.

I find it helpful to think about how your inner thighs and gluteal muscles hug UP into your pelvic floor. Then, think about how your abdominals and back muscles hug your body DOWN into your pelvis. You are always in upper-body/lower-body alignment every step you take: this is the ideal. How you line your pelvis up with your feet and legs, helps you maintain this ideal balance.

Side-to-side (pendulum) motion at the sacrum

When you walk normally, your pelvis adjusts from one leg to the other to allow your upper body and head to move smoothly. Put your thumbs on your sacrum, right at the base of your spine where it connects to your pelvis. Now, walk "normally" (which seems to be very hard to do while we are thinking about it!). Can you feel how your pelvis tips slightly side-to-side? This is normal and we want it in tango.

The amount of pendulum will vary depending on the pelvis. Men have narrower hips, so the movement will be slighter. Women with wide hips will tip more than women with narrow hips; but still more than the average guy. We are not trying to add extra movement here: a small amount is efficient and helps with balance. This is NOT the time to drag out your ballroom "Latin motion" hips! What is the smallest movement that works here?

Note: some people have been taught not to move their hips. If the adult who raised you walked with stiff hips, you will probably also do so; we learn from the adults who parent us. Or, a dance teacher might have told you to hold your hips parallel or flat while moving; this is just not good for you! Time to learn/relearn efficient movement.

If you have had any injuries that make you clench your lower spine or pelvic muscles, you may be fighting your own body in an effort to avoid pain. This movement should NOT create any pain: have your doctor/PT/chiropractor check that you are moving well.

Front-to-back hip tip

I've been discussing hip placement with my chiropractor, physical trainer and Pilates teacher recently. Why is the motion for tango different than for strength training? The answer: tango needs the body to be able to rotate at the hips or the torso A LOT more than in daily walking and running. It's about mobility, not stability. Therefore, there is a tiny bit more tip at the hip joints to facilitate that readiness to move, while remaining as stable as possible at the same time. Whew!

Grab your butt

Those of you who have been in lessons with me know what I'm going to say here. In order to find how your hip joint works, grab your sitz bones (your ischial tuberosities if you prefer), and tip yourself over from there (don't arch your back). This should make your lower back feel broad and relaxed, allowing for more rotation when needed.

Another way to find the best position for your hip, is to grab your sitz bone and the front of your hip where it folds, next to your pubic bone. Let your hands tip you forward and backward, feeling for a release of the ligament in the front of the hip. You want to be in the zone between these points, not too far forward and not too far back.

When you get your pelvis out of that tight mode of hanging out on your front ligaments, it recruits your deep abdominals, your psoas, your pelvic floor--all the parts that allow you to suspend your upper body over your lower body, but in a way that allows movement IN ANY DIRECTION.

Share the work

Remember: Let your muscles hug your bones. Let all of your joints share the weight/stress of moving so that no one part is doing all the work. If you have a problem area (knee, ankle, etc.), spread that work out away from the weak spot.

Along with spreading the work out, try to use as little work as possible to maintain correct posture and motion. That way, you always have something left to save you if you fall, protect you from a difficult partner; or to play with when you get a partner where you can really cut loose!

Get your hips in the right position, keep them within the margin of error that allows for adjustment. Let your pelvic floor and deep abs lift. Let those butt muscles work for you. Focus on efficient, beautiful motion, and you will have a powerful tango.

Check out my YouTube channel

I put tango how-to videos up as I have time. I have not had time to put up a walking video, but there are videos on pivoting and turning, as well as milonga drills. There are also exercise, including hip openers. All of them focus on correct movement, and you can watch the hip motion and work on yours. Mine is not perfect, but we are all working on improving!

Esther Gokhale and walking

I also have a playlist about walking and posture from Esther Gokhale's work (she is my hero)! As she says, "If it were not behind you, we would call it something else!" I will add to this playlist as I find new information from her.

BE INSPIRED!

 

Foot-saving tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

Once you have your shoulders relaxed with a good embrace, and your hips in the right position to support your back, Argentine Tango should be a lot easier to manage for people coming to it from ballroom dancing. There's really only one thing more that people complain about: "My feet hurt!"

A lot of ballroom teachers teach dancers to get up on the balls of the feet to dance.  Although I personally would never counsel that having been a student of anatomy and kinesiology, I can see that the "look" of the dance is being stressed over the "feel" of the dance; I understand even if I disagree.

What's different in tango?

Tango requires a constant preparedness to change direction. As it is much more improvisational, neither the leader nor the follower may have a plan further ahead than the current step in many cases. Balance and ability to pivot and change direction take precedence over everything else in terms of the foot.

More surface area improves balance

Get those heels down! Spread out your toes! Yoga talks about the four corners of the foot: use that concept in tango.

Think about elephant feet: elephants have good balance and REALLY big feet. Imagine you have huge feet that hold you up. If you are in heels, pretend that teeny stiletto heel is enormous!

Engage your arch for pivoting

This is especially true for turns. Instead of popping up to remove as much of your foot as possible from the ground, stay more grounded. You need to keep your metatarsal arches as the center of your work, so spread your toes out, rather than scrunching them in. Yes, it takes effort to keep the arches as the focus, not the heads of the metatarsal bones. However, using that arch for support means more hours of dancing before your feet give out.

Build your ankle strength

I inherited very weak ankles from my mother. I was always the kid with an Ace bandage from spraining and straining my ankles. Luckily, seven years of West African dance training coincided with my Argentine Tango beginnings. That helped a lot, but I still didn't have the strength to work correctly in high heels

I have worked hard to correct that, and have used ankle exercises based on the ones that I have learned from physical therapists and trainers to help my students also build their ankles. A lot of power in tango comes from the foot and ankle working together. Once the ankle is strong, the temptation to take all of the work into the toes, ballet-style, can fade :-)

Embrace tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

One challenge that ballroom dancers find when starting Argentine Tango, is the need to change how the partners in the dance are connected to one another. What needs to change?

Change your frame to an embrace

The tango embrace is much less rigid than the ballroom frame. The hands and arms help the leader and follower communicate as helpers to information from the body, rather than as a rudder system to steer the follower around. It's very subtle, and requires attentive listening from both sides; but is also allows many more variations of movement to happen.

The hands and arms are receptor sites

Think about your hands and arms as receptor sites: you are feeling what the other person is doing, and through your embrace, you can get additional information about the other person's balance, axis and direction.

Instead of steering with the frame, FEEL where your partner is now! Is the follower on axis? Are you both headed the same way in the room? Small, subtle adjustments work much better than "driving" the follower around the room. As a follower, I can feel where the leader is by tuning in with my hands and arms.

Hold your partner like a baby

When you hold a baby, you need to constantly adjust your hold to accommodate the baby's movements. You also need to hold with a firm grip that give the baby reassurance that they are safe. However, if you hold too firmly, the baby feels uncomfortable. All of that applies to holding your partner in tango. If you have never held a baby, think about holding an expensive vase.

A good amount of tone in the arms and hands allows the other person to know that you are present and listening. Just like with a baby, it also calms your partner. I often spend my time dancing with beginners (when leading or following) simply getting them to relax enough to dance, usually by adjusting the energy of my embrace until I feel them relax more.

Relax your elbows!

Let your elbows drop towards the ground ("Energy underside" as one of my students says who does aikido and chi work). Anchor your arms and shoulder blades down into the lower center of your back (latissimus dorsi muscles). The lower they are anchored, the better the other person can read where your body is heading.

Anchor your shoulder blades down, not back

Many ballroom dancers squeeze their shoulder blades together to open up their chest. This is not really a position that will work for hours of dancing! Instead, think about anchoring your shoulder blades DOWN your back. If you have ever seen the wine bottle openers that pull the cork up while the sides of the opener fold down, that's an image I often use to remind folks to slide their shoulder blades down and towards the lower spine.

Let your shoulders and shoulder girdle drape over your torso so that they are balanced, but not tense. Think of a coat, draped over a hanger: the coat is not tense! This will help you dance with a lot less muscle tension and neck/shoulder pain.

Do it all the time!

Again, the more you practice, the faster you learn a new skill. What is you practiced keeping your shoulders relaxed, your elbows released, and your shoulder blades actively anchored down the back ALL THE TIME? Then you would not need to think about that while dancing, and could focus on other parts of the dance!

If you try this out while doing ballroom dance, you will find that most of the tips I have given you will also work in ballroom, and will help relieve tightness in your body while dancing. They will also help you lead and follow better: bonus!

 

Back-saving tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

I met a new Argentine Tango dancer this week. She is a ballroom dancer, and I found myself giving her the advice I always give people who start tango with a ballroom background. It occurred to me that it might be helpful for others who are coming over to the tango side of things.

I started teaching ballroom dance in 1986. When I started Argentine Tango in 1995, I had all of the same issues to fix that I work on with other dancers. I have been there myself!

Adjust the pelvis to save the back

Most ballroom dancers come to tango complaining of tight backs and inability to pivot constantly into turns and ochos. The fix: a different hip position to relax and free up the back!

Natural movement at the sacrum

A lot of dancers have been told to hold their hips completely straight. This is not how the body moves! As you shift weight from one foot to the other, the sacrum naturally rocks slightly from side to side, like a seesaw. This allows your head to balance over your feet efficiently.

If you hold your sacrum tight, that extra motion needs to come from somewhere, and other body parts (your back, your feet, your knees) take more pressure and get tired and sore. Let your pelvis move naturally, and you have more graceful movement and less work per step.

Try to find a new natural without exaggeration: with any new movement, you need to be careful not to overdo it.

Build slowly on your body's current abilities

The pelvic motion needed to maintain back health is not extreme. If your body says, "Ow!" pay attention. It may be that you are doing something you THINK is part of tango, but you misunderstood the teacher. Or, it may be that the motion needed is currently not something you can achieve in one leap.

I always encourage dancers coming from ballroom to take at least a few private lessons. A good teacher can evaluate whether or not you might benefit from some myofascial release, or chiropractic adjustment--or maybe just a bit of strength building in muscles that you haven't been using.

Recruit your abdominals for better pivots and less pain

Many people stand with their hips forward and their legs locked. While this may be useful for waiting in line somewhere, it is bad for movement. The back bears the brunt of the weight and the back muscles work a bit too hard.

In tango, it's really important to balance the front and back bodies out, so that pivoting and other movement around the spine is as easy as possible. To get your abdominals in gear, lift your belly button towards your back, adding abdominal tone. Look at some pictures of how your abdominal muscles help you rotate; visualize where they are and how they hug the body.

Make sure that you have a bit of a tip at the hip joint. You need to take pressure off of the ligament at the front of the hip. Yes, that takes more abdominal work than slouching into your hips. However, that little tip onto the point where your hips balance better on the leg, allows your spine and back muscles to get help from the front of the body.

Use these muscles for ballroom too!

By the way (if you haven't guessed already), I am a big fan of using these same muscles for ballroom dancing. I have never had a ballroom dancer come to study with me who did not find that their ballroom dancing also improved from their tango postural work. Once you get used to switching dance styles between ballroom and Argentine Tango, you will find that all the work you are doing in tango will pay off in other dancing.

 

 

Tips for good pivoting in Argentine Tango

Improving your pivots in tango makes a lot of moves easier. Ochos, turns, boleos, . . . the list goes on and on. Pivots are just as important for leading tango, but I have been focusing on making videos for followers to improve their own dance. It seems to me that many classes only focus on how to lead tango, leaving the followers to do the best they can with little information.

Build your body map

If you spend some time working just on the pivots, your moves will improve. Finding what muscles work in your body to make a good pivot, helps you build your own "body map" of how the body works. Then, if something is not working, YOU can detect and fix the problems. Having a good teacher is very important, but that person cannot follow your around the dance floor, pointing out when you have successfully done a move, or when you have made a mistake.

Take the time to work SLOWLY on your pivots. Feel how they work in your body. Focus on your feet, or your hips, or your abs, or whatever part you are working on. Once you have a good feel for that part, add it into your body map until you can see/feel how all the parts work together. For me, when it is working, I feel as if there is a fiber optic cable running through the focus points, lit up like a Christmas tree. When something is not working, one of those connect-the-dot spots fails to light up.

After many years of working on my body map, I can tune into it pretty easily, but it took a lot of work to get to this spot. Don't give up!

Video time!

Bodyfulness: my new favorite word

Why do we always use the phrase "mindfulness" when talking about being aware of our bodies? Biking home from tennis, I came up with BODYFULNESS as my new word of the day.

With the help of my chiropractor, I have mostly solved my shoulder issues in tango. I need to keep my shoulder blades anchored into my spine, and avoid letting my partners pull my shoulder forward when I lead. I have been working on doing correct planks, pushups and other exercises to build my muscles to keep everything in the right place. I try to keep aware of my body, and get my shoulder blades into the correct position as soon as I feel them sliding forward. I am being BODYFUL as much as possible.

Now, I am struggling with mapping new neural pathways in my body for bicycling, working out and learning tennis.

For bicycling, I have found that I refocus on my correct form each time that I have a moment to let the bike glide downhill. Luckily, my regular routes around NE Portland have a lot of up and down variation. I find I am biking a bit faster with my shoulders anchored.

When I work out, I try to picture how my deep core connects to my legs and my shoulder girdle. If there is a move that does not allow me to do that, I slow down. If that doesn't work, I simplify the move to just arms or legs and center of the body. I try to only attend class where I know the instructor is very well trained so that s/he can further tweak my form. I went to class today, and feel that I kept my shoulders anchored the whole time! That's a new level of BODYFULNESS for me, and it shows I am getting stronger.

For tennis, this is going to be a longer-term goal. I have almost no distance judgment, and I find that I was making up for that by reaching too far to get the ball. Last week, the guys at the next court helpfully gave me pointers ("You look like a ballerina! Get BOTH feet on the ground to hit the ball! Follow through!" etc.). I find that I miss a lot of balls when on both feet because my eyes think the ball is closer than it really is. To compensate, I stand on one foot and I let my shoulder drift out towards the ball. Now that I can feel that, I am working on re-calibrating my eyes, and keeping feet and shoulders anchored.

It's going to take some time to apply my new neural pathways to all of my activities. I am happy to find out how much stronger my upper body is when I use it correctly. I enjoy being in my body, having BODYFULNESS, and I try to stay there as much as possible. It gives me a sense of wellbeing that I don't have when I just stay stuck in my mind.

What's the best tango embrace?

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.

back shot for shoulder girdle video with words.jpg

 

Exercises

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.

I suggest:

  • 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!

 

Revisiting the "heels up vs. down" debate: walking backwards

A reader asked me to be more specific about how I have changed my tango walk to remove foot and back pain from following tango. Rather than write a comment on a three-year-old blog entry, I decided to have a fresh look at my technique and why I have chosen the tango style that I dance and teach.

Razan, thank you for the question: "Can you say more about walking backwards, i mean what exactly did u change?"

The short answer: video

More detail: body-based is best

The foot

The foot has a lot of moving parts. For tango, there are two main components: being on balance over your arches when not traveling; and rolling through your feet as you travel. Both take a bit of work to perfect.

The arches of the foot work like a springboard if your body weight is correctly placed on the foot. Placing your weight too far forward, onto the metatarsal bone heads, or onto the toes, makes your body work a lot harder to maintain good balance. It is not impossible to dance on your toes, but it will hurt your body.

As I say to anyone who points out some famous tango dancer prancing around on her toes: "If you are a trained ballerina, you can maintain your balance like that. On the other hand, what age do ballerinas retire? How long do you want to dance tango?" Not to mention that ballet, while pretty, is not tango.

Find your feet

Gently massage one of your feet. Find the part of your arch that is the softest/highest. That is what I call the MAGIC METATARSAL. That is the center of your foot arches. It is the keystone of your foot. It may not touch the floor, but if you keep your weight balanced over that part of your foot, you will be using your arches correctly.

Now, put your feet on the floor and walk around slowly. Roll through your foot like a cat. Feel how all the bones and muscles and ligaments and tendons GENTLY work together to make a fluid, strong step. Feel how taking front, back and side steps changes how your support foot "launches" you (I am still looking for a good word instead of "launch" or "push off" that makes fewer people tense their foot to move!).

When you stop traveling, your balance is not a static thing: there are micro-adjustments happening all the time to help you maintain balance. Close your eyes and feel how much variation there is in "standing still" and then try it on one foot: harder, isn't it? Let yourself feel/learn what your feet do to balance.

The ankle

The ankle's main movement is that of a hinge joint. Your ankle is happiest moving forward and backward. The bones of the lower leg, the tibia and fibula, help hold everything together. The ankle does have some movement side-to-side in the secondary joint of the ankle, which helps to stabilize the body over the joint.

For more than you probably ever want to know about the ankle, here's a clear video about the ankle.

How do you apply that to walking backwards?

Watch this video of people walking backwards. Look at how their heel is the last part of the foot to leave the ground when they push off (except for some of the girls in backless shoes :-).

If you let the foot and ankle move naturally, you get a much better step, every time. You will cause less wear and tear on your body per step, allowing you to both dance longer AND look more elegant.

What happens when you get tired?

When you stand up on your toes, you are constantly using more muscle work than when more at rest with the heel down against the floor (or against the heel of your shoe, as IT rests on the floor). Any time that you are using more muscle and work to stay upright, you are working harder. When you add that to standing/walking in heels AND backwards, for hours on end, you are talking about tiring out your body.

When you get tired, you begin to make mistakes. Your core gets tired, and you let your back start to take the brunt of your balancing act. You let your ankles roll in or out, as most of do not have perfectly balanced muscles to keep us from doing our favorite bad habit. After my broken toe this year, I have one foot that likes to roll in, and one that likes to roll out; not pretty if I get too tired!

However, if you put your heels down and use your feet naturally, you will have a lot longer you can dance before you are tired AND you can protect your body from injury better as well.

Images to help you change to heels down

1. Imagine that there is a thumbtack on the bottom of your heel, that gently pushes down into the floor as you roll over your heel (just as you would gently push a tack in with your thumb, to pin paper to a cork board). The floor is soft, like a cork board, so you don't need to tighten your body. Just let the heel sink into the ground (or your shoe if you are not barefoot).

2. Elephant feet: Let your foot be soft and imagine that it is HUGE and can easily hold you up. Softening your feet will help normal foot/ankle motion to occur.

3. Pouring sand: Imagine you are a mold, and each time you step, sand gets poured into the mold. First, it flows into the shape of your foot, then your leg, then you body, and finally to your head. The sheer weight of the sand holds you firmly to the floor so that you don't have to grip your feet.

4. What works for YOU? Tell me!!

A final thought: walking backwards is beneficial!

Walking backwards may actually be good for you! Check out this article and tell me what YOU think!

 

 

 

The knees in tango: how much flexion should I have?

A lot of tango technique is focused on the foot and ankle, as well as on the hip joints. The knees have a much smaller role in tango, but it is still important to have good technique all the way up the leg!

Bend zee knees!

When I was a sweet young thing in Omar Vega's milonga classes at Torcuato Tasso, he used me to show moves. Between my bad Spanish and (apparently) bad technique, he could get really frustrated with me. "Bend your knees! More! More! Too much! Straighten your knees!!" I heard that every week until I figured out what he meant.

Knee Structure

Let's look at the structure of the knee. Notice that nice, rounded surface where the bones meet? They are meant to roll/flex in a front-to-back movement with very little lateral motion.

The muscles that attach to the knee or run across the joint, move the knee. For efficiency, the muscles at the front and back of the knee must have some sort of balance of power. You can see that the hamstrings (back) and quadriceps (front) are the big muscles groups of the upper leg that need to be balanced.

The problem: weak knees

Most of us have weak hamstrings and gluteal muscles from sitting too much, so we rely more on our quads, and hold the flexion in our knees with too much muscle work. When that happens, the leader cannot feel the follower's feet very well (and vice versa): there is no connection to the ground energetically, and so the power of the move is reduced. In high heels, that pulls your forward onto your toes, and adds extra work and possible discomfort to your tango.

Fixes to the knee problem

Leg strengtheners

Any exercises that build your gluteal muscles and your hamstrings will benefit you for tango. Check our your local trainers, physical therapists, exercise classes, etc. I have learned a lot of exercises from my chiropractor (who is also a physical trainer). I use my information to make sure that I am working correctly when I go to my Barre 3 classes.

Mobile alignment

Build your hamstrings and gluteal muscles, but in the meantime, try to balance your knee bones so that the BONES hold you up, and the muscles simply help. Not too flexed, not too straight, and constantly adjusting: that is the secret! It's not a "position" but a "range of motion" approach. Let there be some variation in your move. After all, the proprioceptors in your ankles are constantly adjusting for balance, and that needs to travel up through your knees and hips to your body. You can't hold a static shape that is right: everything constantly adjusts.

Extend your legs?

So the answer is: yes and no. A good tango step is a balance between too straight and too bent a knee and allows for efficient muscle use and balance. Too many dancers reach their legs out behind them as they take backward steps. This might look pretty, but it has no power, and the leader does not know where your feet went. Check out my videos if you'd like more about how I think you should move.

 

 

 

Traspies and crosses: more milonga technique

The second video for milonga technique was supposed to finish things off, but I keep coming up with more exercises that help improve your milonga; so there is a third one. This was supposed to be published over two weeks ago, but my interface software to internet was not behaving, so if you see this "after" the third video, that is why :-)

 

The video

Lateral crosses and pivoting traspies: Round 3 for the milonga drills!

Adobe seems to have finally fixed the glitch for uploading to YouTube, so I can finally publish my newest video!

It's been a rough week here in the USA in many ways. Here's something to work on to take your mind off the rest life for a few minutes! I will post more tips later on, but with the Buenos Aires tour in less than two weeks, I am running full speed ahead planning events for that; so please forgive me for just jumping to the video.

 

Ankle and foot stretches and strengthening for tango

Just the video, ma'am!

For those of you who don't like to read, here is the video, right at the top where you can find it!

A big thank you!

Thanks for all the nice /website messages about my last video! So nice that all of this work learning to shoot and edit video is helping other people. As a shy person, it is VERY hard to turn that camera on. Don't be fooled by how much I talk: I talk a lot more when I am nervous! For me, this is almost as awful as those dreams where you realize you don't have clothing on in a public place...

It's been fun to (re)connect with dancers from all over the country. I was thinking about working on my ocho video, but a viewer asked me about ankle strengthening exercises (Hi, Lisa!).

For those of you who don't like to read, I will try to talk through most of this on the video; but some of us still like the written word!

My ankle history

As a child, I was always the person twisting/straining/spraining my ankles. I constantly rolled over the sides of my feet and hurt them. For those of you who know me well, you know I have almost zero stereo vision, so part of this was due to not being able to see very well. However, I also inherited my mother's weak ankles. I remember Mom driving to school to tape my ankles so that I could run track (my school required all of us, even us slow folks, to take part in track meets). I always seemed to have ace bandages on.

I didn't get stronger ankles until I took about six years of West African dance in grad school and afterwards. By the time I got serious about tango, I had strong ankles.

Now, after my foot injury, I am just beginning to put my 9 cm. tango stilettos back on, and I notice that my ankles are not as strong as previously. In the video clips that follow, I will show you how to stretch and strengthen your ankles so that YOU can wear tango heels and not get injured.

Foot & ankle: 26 bones, 31 joints, 20 muscles

A complex system of bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles holds us up and moves us around. No wonder we have so many foot and ankle issues!

Warm up first!

Get the blood flowing in your system before doing stretches and strengthening exercises. Even if you just go walk around the block, that will help you protect your body while improving your tango. I usually do arm and legs swings, as well as twisting around my body, before I start stretching. If I don't walk to warm up, I do ankle circles right and left before stretching.

Part 2: Stretch!

The first part of the video shows gastrocnemius and soleus stretches. Those are the two big calf muscles. They share the Achilles tendon across the back of your ankle. If your issue is lack of flexibility, spend MORE time on this, and less on the strengthening exercises. Remember that it takes 1.5-2 minutes for the microfibers in your muscles to allow for a full stretch: they are there to make sure you don't tear and rip muscles.

Part 3: Massage your feet!

Use a massage ball or golf ball to get your plantar fasciae in gear. That's the layer that encases your muscles on the bottom of your foot. You can also massage your feet: we do this in Body Dynamics almost every week. Consider doing this also when you take your heels off after dancing, ladies!

Notes: keep your foot over the massage ball, so that the weight of your leg helps apply pressure to the sole.

Part 4: Stretchy bands are your friends!

The video shows the first of three parts of a leg and ankle stretch that we do in Body Dynamics. The rest of the stretch addresses other leg muscles, so I left it out for brevity. You will see it some other time!

Part 5: Towel exercise for foot strength

I spent a lot of grad school going to PT and getting my feet taped so I could dance as much as I needed to for my M.A. in Dance. I have learned a lot since then: in my 20s, I saw that as a necessary evil, but never really did my strengthening exercises. I just thought I would have weak ankles my entire life! My feet and ankles are much stronger now in my 50s, thanks to hard work!

Part 6: The alphabet, foot style

Fine muscle control in your feet will help you do fabulous adornos and have precision in your tango. Drawing the alphabet with your feet works the muscles you need for that. Have fun: do different alphabets, draw them upside down or backwards, write whole words--whatever works for you. I usually try to remember the Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets from my grad school studies.

Part 7: Lateral ankle strength stretchy band work

You need a friend or a heavy piece of furniture for this one. Loop a stretchy band under a chair, sofa, bed, or have a friend hold the other end. Make sure you get enough tension on the band to have a good workout, but don't overdo it. I almost always end up moving closer to the piece of furniture than I start.

The most important part here is to STABILIZE YOUR KNEE. You don't want to work the whole leg. The better you line up your knee, the more the ankle gets focused work.

Hope this is helpful!

 

 

 

 

Improve your tango: stretch your hips!

As I come back from my foot injury, I am noticing that MANY parts of my body are more out of shape than before. I have made a commitment to stretch more as well as to work out more; at least until I am back in shape!

Hip stretches

Stretching my hips was one place where I was slacking, so now I am back on it. Here are a set of hip stretches that I learned from Rita Honka when we were in grad school. It's an oldie but goodie.

Try this and let me know how it works for you!

Saving time in your workout

This stretch sequence takes about 16 minutes if you do it correctly. Many days, I don't have that much time, so I only do one or two parts of the stretch. I am very stretchy in two of the four stretches, so I only do those when I am leading the stretch for other people.

I have found that most people are stretchy in at least one part of their hip. If you find that the stretches in the video are too easy in places and really hard in others, concentrate on the hard ones, and let the easy ones go for a while. This saves time and also focuses on problem areas.

Rebuilding my feet: foot care & body alignment

I am trying to do a weekly vlog, as sometimes it is MUCH quicker to show something, than to try to explain it in words!

This week, I wanted to show a quick body alignment reminder, followed by some foot stretches and foot care ideas to help you dance longer and more often, without foot pain.

For those of you who are local to the Portland, Oregon area, I teach a class called Body Dynamics, where we do stretches, exercises and games that help build body strength for tango, while practicing tango technique. I teach at the Om Studio, 14 NE 10th Ave. (off Burnside), and class is at 7 PM on Mondays. Both women and men are welcome, and I tailor the class to the people who take it. Please bring socks and your dance shoes, and dress in clothing that allows you to sit/lie on the floor.

 

Rebuilding my feet: I miss my tango heels!!

Update

Six weeks in a boot certainly affected my foot and ankle strength! A month after getting out of the boot, I am still not back in my beloved heels. Luckily, my chiropractor and trainer (same person) understands that heels are in my future, and has given me strict instructions about what I will have to be able to do before he OKs stilettos.

Even if you have not had a foot injury, if you have had trouble wearing heels before, you might try the exercises I have described below, to build your foot and ankle strength. If you tend to roll in or out, or end up on your toes when you turn, these will help build your arch muscles up to help with stability.

Exercises

The easy version: one-minute balance

The first exercise was to balance for a minute on the half roller, on one foot. No problem! I do this all the time...before the injury. It took a week of doing this to be able to get up to a whole minute without pitching off.

The important parts:

  • Make sure to spread your toes
  • Keep both margins of the foot down (you can see here that I am still tipping away from my big toe a bit)
  • Breathe! If you don't breath, you fall off by 30 seconds (ask how I know).
 Balancing for 1 minute on the half roller, easy side up.

Balancing for 1 minute on the half roller, easy side up.

Slightly harder: roll with the punches

Once I could balance on the easy side, I turned over the roller. After two weeks of practicing, I can now stay up for a minute. As you can see, my big toe is still not spreading out the way it should, so those muscles are not completely back to where they were before. I am wearing Correct Toes (toe separators) to help train my toe back to a good position, but not in this picture.

Important points:

  • Same as above, spread toes, keep margins of foot down, and breathe.
  • Make sure that you are stacking your hips above your foot correctly and engaging your core.
  • Keep your hips in balance front-to-back and side-to-side. Movement is OK: don't clench anything!
 Balancing for 1 minute on the half roller, hard version.

Balancing for 1 minute on the half roller, hard version.

Look Ma, no hands!

Now that I can balance with one foot, I have added some kind of surfing thing to the mix. This requires me to get a good lineup for my feet, and then to (eventually) be able to touch my back knee down and stand back up while doing this. THAT is not happening yet, although if I use the flat side of the roller against the floor, and can do about 10 reps of knee half-way to the floor.

 BOTH feet on the roller, hard side up.

BOTH feet on the roller, hard side up.

Total alignment

This was fun to try to photograph solo. You can't see the mouse on the table :-) I had to balance, hold the stick, get aligned AND shoot the photo at the same time. This is the same exercise as above but showing the whole picture

Important points:

  • Feet should be a forearm's length apart.
  • Weight should be shared between the feet (I was putting too much weight on my good foot and my quads were sore the first time I tried ten of these).
  • Back of head and back of sacrum should make a perpendicular line to the floor (can check with a mirror/friend and a dowel).
  • Core is working like crazy.
  • From this pose, you gradually bring the back knee to the floor and back up.
 VERY important to keep the head and butt on a plumb line, perpendicular to the ground.

VERY important to keep the head and butt on a plumb line, perpendicular to the ground.

What having a broken big toe has taught me about my tango

The saga

The bad news

About a month ago, I got kicked by an enthusiastic dancer. It hurt a lot, but I carried on teaching. The next day, another student (a doctor) felt my toe and told me she couldn't feel a fracture. I kept on teaching, but mostly danced in socks for the week.

I went dancing a week later, in heels as usual. After about three tandas, I couldn't dance anymore. I figured that, after teaching five hours, I was just tired. However, another week in socks, and another attempt to dance in heels after the second week, ended the same way. I felt a sharp snapping feeling in my toe, and couldn't pivot anymore.

My husband insisted that I go to urgent care, where they xrayed my toe, told me they didn't see a break, and sent me home in a boot with my big toe buddy-wrapped to my second toe.

The next day, the doctor called to say that the radiologist "might" have found a fracture of my toe. Two days later, they confirmed that my toe was broken. My chiropractor, who works with Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers, read me the riot act, and made me promise to cut down on teaching, as well as to wear this (stupid) boot for six weeks.

I am two weeks into the six weeks. I figure that I probably re-broke the toe at least once before wearing the boot, so I am counting the break from the Xray day, rather than from being kicked. I am NOT a good patient. I push my body. I am still teaching about three hours a day, six days a week. Being self-employed means that I don't have workman's compensation for injury on the job, and I don't have sick days or paid vacation; so I work.

The good news

I am getting a lot of help from my students. Some are coming to classes with a partner instead of solo. Some have switched to every other week to rest my foot. Some are helping out with my dance classes. I really appreciate it!

That's the only good part when I'm in a grumpy mood about my (stupid) foot.

I can still lead!

All of those years of learning moves to the right and to the left, using either foot, have finally paid off!

I can't pivot on my left foot, and the boot doesn't let me articulate my left foot BUT I have found that I can mostly lead as well as without the boot. When I need to pivot, I use my right foot. If I need a really good VROOM! of energy to get the follower to do something, I start on my right foot. I don't even really have to think about adjusting moves because of years of training lead and follow, on all my moves. I know

Simply from having learned to dance from elderly Argentine men on the dance floor, I can see how less than stellar posture and technique can still make a good dance. I focus on the follower and being clear (as usual), and I adapt my dance as needed.

I like that my core strength and my balance allow me to do a lot of my giros and other pivoting moves, on one foot. All those hours of balance training have paid off too!

Following is harder on my body

I don't think this is always the case, but without a left foot that pivots, I have to work a lot harder to get to where the leader needs me to be, without causing trouble for the leader. I have developed ways to cheat that I have not had to ever use before. It's not as easy as leading, where I have the choice of where the dance is headed, and can avoid pivoting when needed.

The injury certain shows me that I have been dancing over the center of my arch, using my metatarsals instead of my toes. If I danced on my toes, I would not be able to dance at all right now. Thank goodness for healthy technique!

My chiropractor said that he was surprised that I wasn't out of alignment, between the broken toe and the awful boot. He said it must be due to my good walking technique. He also said he is always amazed at how healthy my feet look despite wearing heels a lot, and agreed that my technique must be strong.

No social dancing for six weeks??!!??

Go out and dance a tanda for me: I can't go out social dancing until this is over. It's just too painful to watch everyone else dancing when I can't. Sigh.

At least I can still teach! I think I would go crazy without any dance. I have four new class sessions that start this week. Lots of plans, lots of enthusiasm, lots of frustration that I can't show everything the way I would like to show it.

 

 

 

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.

Walking

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.

Standing

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.