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.

Train your brain and your tango at the same time

One of my students cares for his parent who has Alzheimer's. When he called the support hotline for caregivers, he asked what he should be doing to avoid Alzheimer's--and she told him he should dance Argentine Tango! He happily informed her that he already did that.

What makes Argentine Tango especially good for maintaining brain health, compared to, say, ballroom dancing? Instead of memorizing set patterns and dancing them in sequence, tango asks more of the dancer. Improvisation within the dance means constantly playing with the building blocks of tango and recombining them in different ways. This forces your brain to make new connections, reinforcing memory and providing more pathways to find information stored there.

Like LEGO, tango components can be built into all sorts of interesting patterns that weren't on the picture on the box. If you allow yourself to do the same beginning, middle and end of a move, without variation, your dance will be OK; it's OK to build the picture on the box. However, it is NOT building your brain, and it is NOT developing your dance!

When I teach, I encourage students to stretch their mind along with their body. It creates pockets of questions about moves, questions of how you put things together. When your brain has to work a bit to build connections between different bits of information,  that information "sticks" better. You remember it, and have several pathways to accessing the moves while you dance.

Turns (giros)

Let's use turns as an example, since we have been studying them this month in FUNdamentals class. Many of you came into class with your favorite one or two turn combinations. I have spent the month trying to deconstruct your turns into components, so that you can then take the parts and make NEW versions to enhance your dance (and your brain). Yes, this is hard! Yes, this is good for your brain (and your tango).

Entrances

If you look at the dance from what the follower is doing, there are only three ways to begin a turn: front, side and back steps. For a standard giro, the leader needs to be in the center of the turn for the follower to turn around that spot. For right now, let's ignore traveling turns and sacadas turns, where the leader does not stay in one place. How do you start a turn so that followers get different entrances into the turn? Here's what we explored:

  1. A traspie (rebound, rock step, whatever you call it)--usually propels the follower into a front or side step, depending on the direction of the move.
  2. A salida (any side step, really), followed by the leader keeping both feet under and creating torque around the spot. People will argue whether this means the side step is the first step of the turn, or if the next step (usually a back cross) is the beginning.
  3. Back ochos into a turn ensure that the follower's first step is a back step.
  4. Front ochos into a turn ensure that the first step of the turn is a front step if the leader does unaccompanied front ochos; if the leader accompanies the step, we are back to the question of whether that, or the following side step, starts the turn.

Middle of the turn

Here, if you don't add things like sacadas, your only choices have to do with syncopation. The follower is supposed to syncopate by default on the giro: two fast and two slow steps. If the leader wants to slow down, the follower has to feel the deceleration before launching into the back cross step. If the leader wants the follower to speed up, the follower has to feel acceleration that encourages a continuation of the two fast steps. Most people limit themselves to one speed. Let the music and your partner inspire you to try to vary this!

Exits

The option I teach first in turns, is to finish turning, pause, and walk out. This is great, but it doesn't mean you should only do that for your tango career! Start playing with "catching" the follower's front, side and back step, and accompanying them OUT of the turn. If you think of the turn as a lollipop, find the stick!

The options we have explored in class:

  1. Exit with back ochos (lead front, follow back, but with pivots)
  2. Exit with paso americano (both lead and follow do front steps)
  3. Exit with a front ochos (lead side, follow forward)
  4. Exit with a salida (both people take side steps)
  5. The possibilities are endless, but we only had a month!

For some people, two turns are enough, and that is fine. That's good enough for government work. But consider pushing your brain, building those new connections. The more you challenge yourself, the more you improve your brain health! I hope that's worth the extra work for you!

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!

 

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.

 

 

 

Savoring tango

If you are eating a great meal, do you shovel your food into your mouth? NO! The cook at music and dance camp saw my son (a favorite allowed into the kitchen to help) shoving his food in, and told him, "Jamie! Respect the food!"

If you were drinking an expensive glass of wine, would you gulp it down? No, you would slowly sip it, rolling it around your mouth to enjoy the flavor, taking your time to experience each taste; to savor it.

If you are experiencing a wonderful tango song, let each step roll off your feet, pause between movements, enjoy being in your body, in this embrace, in this tango. Don't shove moves into your dance! Respect it! Savor it, like a fine meal.

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

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.

 

 

 

Not yet: another great TED talk that inspires

As most of you know by now, I tend to watch TED talks while knitting. I also tend to watch TED talks about learning. I am doubly concerned with the best ways to learn, as I am both a teacher and the mother of a child with disabilities who struggles through every day of school.

Today, I watched several TED talks by Carol Dweck. Although she is discussing research about children and learning, pretty much everything she said applied to tango. I will summarize, but the talks are short and interesting if you want to watch them.

 

Professor Dweck studied how children dealt with learning and difficulty. She describes how your approach to mistakes and learning can help--or hinder--your learning. There are two models of the learning mindset: the fixed mindset, where the idea is that intelligence is fixed; and a growth mindset that understands that you can develop talents and abilities through practice.

Looking at learning as a pass-fail opportunity, where failing means that you are stupid, makes learning very emotionally difficult. Switching to the growth mindset, and learning with an attitude of "not yet" will give you better tools to learn. If you can't do something, that doesn't mean you won't be able to do it later; you just haven't had enough practice!

Every time you push out of your comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in the brain form new connections and over time, you can get smarter.

Although Dweck was talking about how to teach for better student performance, as adults, I think we can all serve as our own coaches in learning process. Work on talking to yourself the way you would to someone you are mentoring.

Instead of yelling at yourself for failing, follow Dweck's advice: praise yourself for pursuing the PROCESS of learning. Reward yourself for effort. Reward yourself for progress towards your goal. Reward not giving up! Give yourself a pat on the back (or a chocolate? works for me) for perseverance. Maybe you can't do something yet, but you can see the steps you have taken, how hard you have worked, how you haven't given up, and reward yourself.

With a positive, not-yet mentality, when you encounter difficulty, that's when the neurons are forming connections: it's getting smarter time!

 


Anxiety and tango: getting out on the dance floor

During the past few weeks, I have watched my students and how they approach dancing tango (and other dances). One Thursday night, I am happy to say, several students were out on the dance floor, doing their thing. However, two more were sitting at the dance, not making much eye contact with potential dance partners; one was texting. Another beginning dancer was hiding in the bar and watching from where no one would ask him to dance.

One student told me that he may never go out dancing, but just wanted to learn tango. Several people have told me that their fear of asking someone else to dance has made it almost impossible to dance, although they have reached intermediate and advanced levels of dancing tango by taking lessons.

This is not only about my students. I had the opportunity to talk to other dancers at workshops and milongas during the past few weeks, and asked them about their experiences going dancing. Some told me of crying in their cars after the milonga, or not being able to walk in the door some nights. Only a few people seemed to find my question silly: "What problem? I love this!"

Most of the responses of current dancers were similar to those persons who were too scared to go dancing, but something must have occurred to get them over that initial hump, and out on the dance floor. What could make this experience work better for those of us who are shy, anxious, lacking confidence, or just starting out dancing? How can we get out on the dance floor more easily?

I would love to hear what you have to say about your experience getting out on the dance floor. What advice would YOU give to someone to help them get out there?

 

Access more of your tango knowledge on the dance floor!

Typical tango nightmare

The music begins. Joe Tango asks someone to dance. The floor is a bit crowded, which makes Joe a bit tense. The song is unfamiliar, which makes him more tense. The partner is someone he would like to impress with his tango skills: more pressure! Suddenly, Joe can only remember three moves. His brain freezes, and for a moment, he can't remember even a single move. Freak out time!

If you lead tango, I am sure this has happened to you before. For some dancers, this is how it feels at the beginning. For others, this is how it always feels when the room is crowded. People say to me, "I went to [x] milonga, and it was too crowded to dance, but YOU looked like you were having fun and doing cool moves!" (in an accusing tone of voice). "How did you do that?!"

How I deal with lack of space

The reason I don't freak out in crowded spaces, is that I had the equivalent of learning to drive in Boston as my training for learning to lead tango. Three years into tango, I spent four months over the space of two years, dancing in Buenos Aires. I led a lot at Torquato Tasso, La Viruta, even at El Beso.

My Spanish was eight weeks old when I first visited Bs As, so I had no idea how much negative attention I was attracting by leading. Some of the guys said rude things about "women drivers" and some women refused to dance with me. However, many guys simply tried to get me to run into them so that they could point out how badly I lead. Others just tried to run me off the dance floor.

I learned to protect my partner from other couples and from the tables at the edge of the floor. I saw that everyone else seemed to be leading just fine in small spaces, and copied their moves. I learned that a well-planted axis (an ample butt helps) keeps other leaders from taking your space. I experienced following good leaders with no space to maneuver, and alternated that with leading in the same spaces.

If you can't make it to Buenos Aires, go to crowded practicas. Or, set up chairs in your practice space, and dance around them. Attend classes focused on dancing well in small spaces. Practice is the only way to learn to do this.

How I remember moves easily

I have discussed how I arrange my vocabulary of tango moves in a way that makes it easier to remember more moves than my short-term memory has slots for recall. Here is an example of some moves from a student's lesson:


Apart from that, I practice moves in different combinations. I practice them to the right and left. I practice them as a leader and as a follower. This gives me more ease in recall, as I don't have to follow the same brain path to find a move; there are lots of connections between each move and at least several other moves.

How I deal with unfamiliar songs

At this point, I only hear a new song a few times each year. Very few of the tangos, valses and milongas that DJs play are strange to me, so I rarely have this problem anymore. So, the easy answer is: listen to tango all the time :-)

A more useful answer when you are already on the dance floor: tune into the "flavor" of the music. Explore the music with your partner. The next time you hear that tango, you will dance it better. Approach it as a new adventure, not a roadblock to good dancing!

One outstanding problem: shyness

I don't know the answer to how to deal with the nervousness that accompanies dancing with someone who you are nervous about leading. I get nervous when I dance with someone new who is above my level, even though I have danced tango for twenty years! Being a shy person, I think I will always struggle with this part of couple dancing. I just try to remember that they would like to enjoy themselves, and I try to give them a sensitive, connected, energized dance.

DRAW your Argentine tango future!

My favorite idea of the week

I like to surf TED Talks while I knit or spin fiber (my main hobby right now). This gives me all sorts of ideas about tango. Here is the one I watched yesterday: Draw Your Future. Patti Dobrowolski gives a vibrant, short talk about designing positive change in your life. You draw what you want to see happen, and then work on making the drawing reality.

What if we apply this to our tango?

Recently, many of my students have asked me, "Why am I doing this?" They have spent a lot of time, money and effort to learn tango. They go out dancing--and sit. They ask people to dance, and get rejected. They feel ignored, not welcome, and invisible. This includes my most advanced student, men with years of tango experience, and beautiful, young women with intermediate tango skills. Instead of quitting, what if we all applied Patti Dobrowolski's ideas to improving our tango life?

An example

I tried this with one student already. She took almost no time to draw it: she already knew what she wanted to be different. I asked her to list three things to change into her dream, and she had two in under a minute. All three goals were spot-on in my opinion, and all three were practical, reasonable, and could be achieved! Now, we have a plan to work on!

Translation (not word-for-word): "I have my axis, but anything like criticism, or a dancer who is not dancing well with me, or a bad day, blows me off my axis." The green is wind, energy, things pushing the dancer off-balance. Instead, she wants to add glide to her dance, more flexibility/bounce to her alignment, and warm, positive energy coming off of her that makes her feel confident about her own dance. She wants people to see her dance by, and ask, "What was that [masked] woman?"

Plan so far: part of each private lesson will be spent on strengthening her body so that she can better maintain balance and alignment without tightening her body. Part will be spent on how to use her feet, knees and hips better so that her movement smoothes out to a glide. Part of her "homework" is to go out dancing more, to practice. And part is working on her self-confidence, partially by me pretending to dance badly while she manages to still dance with grace and balance: no matter who takes her out on the dance floor, she will know she can look good and dance well. Part will be personal work on her own.

Your turn!

So, I am asking you to consider watching that short video, and then trying out this idea: draw your current tango experience, and draw the future that you envision. What is it that bothers you about your tango/tango experience now? What would you like to have happen by a year from now?

Would you draw YOUR tango future and send it to me? I would love to hear your transformation goals and how you plan to get there!