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.

Walking in tango: a look at the possibilities

I spend a LOT of time in my classes trying to explain how to walk naturally. I teach what my tango teachers in Buenos Aires call "normal" tango embrace/walk (follower slightly offset, each person on their own axis, with each person walking their own straight line) that is foreign to students of other teachers in my town (who teach open embrace, leaning-styles of close embrace, and various other things).

When I go to Buenos Aires, I almost never have to argue about "how" I am going to dance with another person. We agree by cabeceo, we adjust to each other's styles, and it works most of the time. What part of this system is not working in the United States?

The right way?

I think that most people here think there is only one right way to dance tango. They listen to their first teacher, and then argue with anyone who suggests alterations to their dance. In Buenos Aires, everyone knows that there are tons of different styles, and there is more of an attempt to find your own dance, rather than "the right dance."

I have chosen the style that I teach because I believe it is the easiest style of tango in terms of body wear and tear. I want to dance tango until I die, not until I need back surgery. I want to dance all night, not until my feet hurt. As a student of anatomy, I constantly try to find the best ways to help people find their own body, feel how it works, and then use that knowledge to make their own dance. It's about ease of movement and body health; if you want to then go do a style that is hard on the body, that is an educated decision that you are free to make.

What village are you from?

As a folk dancer, we have a joke when we learn a new variation of a dance: "What village are you from?!?" We all know that there are tons of variation in the folk tradition, and we accept that for the most part.

In tango, it's a question of what neighborhood your teacher came from; or what teacher formed their dance. I have danced all over Buenos Aires and studied with people from a lot of different neighborhoods. According to reactions from elderly men in Buenos Aires, I appear to have learned styling that places me anywhere from Villa Devoto to Belgrano to Villa Urquiza.

For most of us who did not grow up in Buenos Aires, we have taken what we know of Argentine Tango from whatever sources we could. I am lucky that I spent a lot of time dancing with the old guys twenty years ago, and got the feeling of their dance into my body. What village am I from? From the one where you get a master's in dance and study anatomy and kinesiology AND hang out with old guys in milongas.

My maestros

Here are some of the people I have studied with to give YOU inspiration and help you see how I have built my own dance.

Omar Vega--milonga

Omar was one of my main milonga teachers in Buenos Aires. He was never one to follow the rules, so you will see some crazy things on his videos, but getting to be his assistant in milonga class formed my milonga. I would follow him as he showed moves, and then switch to leading in the class. The guys in class were very open to me leading, and provided a lot of encouragement. The women were willing to dance with another woman and the chance to study weekly gave me homework for going dancing.

 

Jose Garofalo--milonga

I learned a lot about milonga from Jose Garofalo. His classes were relaxed and enjoyable. Private lessons with him were the best: because he is such a fabulous follower, he would take what I did wrong and expand upon it in a hilarious manner--until I fixed it. Because he is an inventive leader, I have to be super-focused when dancing with him: he doesn't just follow a fixed pattern, and I never know what will come out of that incredible 30-year-tango memory! I couldn't find a video of him doing milonga except with me, so here it is:

Tete Rusconi--vals and tango

Tete was my main vals teacher. He gave me a lot of flack for leading in his classes, but I learned a lot from him. Skip the first 1:30 or so of this video where they introduce him if you don't speak Spanish. I like this dance because it is very sweet and balanced, with a lot of poetry in the musicality--and because it shows his tango, not his vals. I enjoyed dancing with him.

Oscar Mandagaran--milonga, tango and vals

Oscar was the teacher of my Argentine boyfriend, who dragged me to a class in an apartment where I was the only foreigner. I studied with him on and off for many years. Watch this video of us dancing on a crowded plywood stage out on the street in Buenos Aires. You can see a lot of what I try to teach people to do! Just skip ahead past all the stuff about the photographer!

 

Julio Balmaceda and Corina de la Rosa--tango and vals

Julio and Corina taught classes in La Galeria where I went to take classes. They are no longer together, but Corina is a powerhouse of a follower who I hope to emulate someday. Check out their vals here, which is one of my favorites to watch and rewatch. Notice they almost never walk in front of each other: when he does step in front of her, he does not invade her space, but is using it to prepare for another movement.

 

OK, there are a BUNCH more people who have inspired and taught me, but that's enough for this week!

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!

 

 

 

OK, I'm on the wild side! What do I do?

I think of move possibilities like a drop-down menu on the computer, or perhaps a flowchart. My brain makes one decision at a time, and I dance a combination of moves that I often have not set up before-hand. Instead, at each "level" I make a decision, and that affects what happens next.

Level one: things that start on the outside

If I decide to move to the outside track, I often don't have a plan. I am just moving over/out there to see what might strike my fancy. Making my decision about what move to do is based on:

  1. My follower: Whatever my follower does, right or wrong, in response to my move, helps decide what happens next. If they have good balance and alignment, I can do anything I want. If they tend to tip over right or left, that limits my choices.
  2. Space: Do I have a lot of room in front of me? What about to my left? How close are the tables to my right? Where am I in my slot? How dangerous is the leader/couple in front of me?
  3. Music: If I have plenty of space, I can let the music decide my movement choice.

Level two: right, left or straight ahead?

In the drop-down menu, this is my next level. I am on the outside, and need to pick. For my most recent session in my intermediates and up class (Portland, Oregon for those of you outside the area), we first learned several ways to get to the "outside" of the follower (to the follower's right when facing line-of-dance). Then, we explored different uses of the the space and how they work with tango, vals and milonga music.

I learned most of these moves dancing in Buenos Aires. For many of them, I first had someone use them on the dance floor, and then I took them to my teachers and asked how to lead it more clearly.

Back ocho across line-of-dance, then walk to the cross (zigzag to right)

  1. Get to the outside track.
  2. Take one step line-of-dance in crossed system (Leader's left, Follower's left).
  3. Leader puts both feet down for balance, and turns Follower about 90 degrees.
  4. Lead back ocho across line-of-dance: Leader steps side with right; Follower does back ocho with right.
  5. Leader puts both feet down for stability, and turns Follower, ready to walk line-of-dance.
  6. Exit in either crossed or parallel system: the Leader had both feet down, so it is easy to just push off whatever foot you want.

Variation with room for fun, big adornos (1 step straight, one right, one to return)

Same up to #3, then a change.

  1. Get to the outside track.
  2. Take one step line-of-dance in crossed system (Leader's left, Follower's left).
  3. Leader puts both feet down for balance.
  4. Turn the follower MORE THAN 90 degrees for the back ocho.
  5. Lead the back ocho in this direction (slightly right back diagonal to line-of-dance).
  6. Suspend the follower and let them adorn. Because the line of sight is clear, the Follower can decide to do something elegant, or something wild and crazy in the space.
  7. Exit with FORWARD step for Follower and side step for Leader.
  8. Turn follower in to regular embrace angle.
  9. Exit line-of-dance.

Two kinds of circulos

I love circulos. I have been doing them since I first went to Buenos Aires in 1999 and learned them. I like how many walking steps can be fit into a small space by bending them into a pentagon or square, or whatever shape is made by that many steps. It FEELS like a circle, nice and smooth, but the straight lines of the steps make it crisp.

"Regular" circulo

This circulo is probably the one that I use the most. It is very compact, so it takes very little room. Because the follower is on the inside of the circle, it's easier to control the size of the move. I am fond of using it in the corners when other people forget to use them.

  1. Get on the outside.
  2. For each step of the circulo, angle the step just a little bit more than the step before. In other words, you have tiny pivots at the end of each step, making a 4-, 5- or 6- sided figure before exiting.
  3. Don't forget your contrabody! It sounds counterintuitive, but I need to do regular walking, so I can't just have my chest face the follower and go around; that makes a messy circulo. Make each step a GOOD forward step, leaders!
  4. The follower needs to know that each step is a BACK step. If you lose that clarity, the follower will start to do a giro (which is OK, but not what you planned).
  5. If you walk correctly, it is pretty easy to finish the circulo, pivot your follower a bit, and walk out line-of-dance or to the cross, because you can return to the "inside" track at the end of any step of the circulo.

 

Jose's circulo

I am sure that Jose Garafolo did not invent this, but he is the one who taught me how to do this move well. There are only two differences between the regular circulo and this one:

  1. The leader steps forward and then SIDE; forward and side, etc., rather than all forward steps. This means that you need to use your contrabody well to help you pivot. The follower still steps back on each step.
  2. This is easiest to do by taking two steps (forward, PIVOT, side) and then turning the follower to face a new direction for the next chunk of the move. The follower often feels as if there is a six-step triangle or an 8-step square happening. I like the variation! Note: some people do this move in the same shape as the regular circulo.
  3. When you are almost facing line-of-dance, pivot the follower so that you are facing line-of-dance and the follower is facing you; walk to the cross.

Scoop turn

I learned this move from Daniel Trenner, probably in my first weekend of tango. We did it in open embrace, but when I went to Buenos Aires, I found that it worked even better in close embrace!

  1. Get to the outside.
  2. Two steps line-of-dance: Follower takes two back steps. The leader takes a front step, pivots, and then takes a side step (same setup as for Jose's circulo).
  3. Note: Leader must make sure to catch up with follower at this point, or the move won't work.
  4. Leader plants both feet, facing towards the inside of the dance space, and then rotates the follower in a deep ocho (overturned ocho) to do a medialuna around to the leader's left: back, side, front.
  5. Complete turn, pause (for adornos and balance), and then exit line-of-dance.

 

Marvin's favorite

My student Marvin came back from Buenos Aires completely in love with this move. It is a cross-system, counter-clockwise traveling turn on the outside, but I just call it Marvin's favorite. It has the same setup as Jose's circulo and the scoop turn, and is especially lovely in the vals.

  1. Get to the outside.
  2. Two steps line-of-dance: Follower takes two back steps. The leader takes a front step, pivots, and then takes a side step (same setup as for Jose's circulo).
  3. Note: Leader must make sure to catch up with follower at this point, or the move won't work.
  4. Leader tucks left leg behind into an enrosque, and pivots on BOTH feet around to face line-of-dance (or as close to that as works at the moment). Follower is led to step forward around leader, then side step (2 steps of a left turn).
  5. [Optional] If the pivot did not go very well, and the follower ends up on the outside track, the leader can just exit here.
  6. [Optional] If the pivot went OK, but not great, the leader will need to suspend the follower, and shift to the outside again before repeating the step.
  7. Do the same move a second time if you have room.
  8. Exit to the cross.

Calesita

There are many versions of calesita that work well on the outside. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Do a circulo (1/4, 1/2 or full), and then suspend the follower and do a calesita around them until you are facing line-of-dance. Exit.
  2. Do the scoop turn preparation, but instead of doing the turn, suspend the follower and do a calesita around them at this point.
  3. Do a circulo, then a calesita, then another circulo. This was a favorite for Tete during the time I studied tango vals with him in Buenos Aires in 2000. It flows as only Tete could.
  4. Do a calesita after one of "Marvin's favorite" turns as a fun ending if you have a partner who has good balance.

Boleo

You can add a boleo to either the zigzag back ocho, or at the point where you would have done a scoop turn/calesita/Marvin's favorite; and exit.

Level three: exit!

The drop-down menu on whatever move I am doing has one more level: getting out. I have a few tried and true basic things that I do here, again based on space, partner and music.

  1. Walk to the cross: get back on the follower's right (regular or inside, depending on your dance). It's in a straight line down the dance floor, and familiar to the follower. No complications.
  2. Move line-of-dance and worry about moves later. If I have space in front of me, I will do some walking variation to keep traffic flowing.
  3. Do another one! Especially in vals, if the flow of the dance is working well and I have room, I might do a second (for turns MAYBE a third) iteration of a move, as long as it moves a bit forward. I do that less in tango.

Truth be told, I rarely think this far ahead when I dance. I am happy to have reached the stage where my body often picks a move for me. I don't think very much while dancing. It took me a long time to get here, as I am the kind of geek who thinks about movement all the time. Do the rest of you try to analyze what muscles you are using while you weed your garden? Probably not. :-)

Your turn!

Now, use these ideas for practice, and then go out and dance and see what happens organically. Let me know what else YOU like to do when dancing on the wild [out]side!

Heels down or heels up?

A Facebook discussion going on about whether you should have your heels down or up for dancing tango made me decide to tell my pain-to-no-pain story about why I changed my technique to using my heels on the floor for Argentine Tango.

When I started dancing tango in 1995, no one told us what to do with our heels. Many of the teachers who came through were men who focused on teaching combinations of fancy steps. Although I was studying and taking notes every workshop I took, I have no notes on what to do with my feet from those first few years, except for Luciana Valle's advice to "lick the floor with your feet" which focused on articulating your step, but we seemed to mostly practice it walking forward, so again, I had few notes on how to walk backwards.

My first few visits to Buenos Aires in 1999-2001, I spent a few months dancing and trying different techniques.  I studied with Tete and Silvia, Omar Vega, Chicho Frumboli, Gustavo and Giselle, Luciana Valle, Jose Garafolo, Chiche and Marta, the Puglieses, Graciela Gonzalez, and Oscar Mandagaran. As usual, no two teachers said exactly the same thing, as many of them danced different styles. I ended up with a lot of material to teach in terms of patterns and steps, but no clear path in terms of walking technique.

Dancing in the milongas, I learned to get my heels down, so that I didn't spike other people, and so that I had better balance. This helped cut down on the toe pain and lower back pain that I got when dancing for long periods of time. However, I didn't really start changing my technique until I brought Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas to Portland and Eugene, Oregon, for workshops in 2008.

I started my private lessons with them telling them all the things in their technique that I wasn't going to do (not a very flexible student!). They patiently took their time to explain WHY they did each thing that I had been told not to do, and to dance it with me.

One of the things they changed about my dance was how I used my feet. They had me articulate through my foot, using natural walking movement, so that I was not tensing my foot, or popping up on my heels, or rolling out, but rather moving efficiently. When you walk backwards in "real life," you roll over your heel, letting your toes relax off the floor. Not only does this give you better balance and less work for each step, it allows you to really MOVE when you step, in a much more powerful way than pushing off your poor toes.

This new approach to walking removed my foot pain on the dance floor: I can now work an 8-hour teaching day and end up with tired, but not painful, feet. When I dance at the milongas, my feet hold up better than the rest of me: I go home because I am sleepy, not sore!

Another benefit to rolling through my heels and working my feet correctly was that people immediately commented on how much better my technique looked. Now when I go dancing in Buenos Aires, women touch me on the arm on the way back to my seat, and say, "Pretty feet!" and "Who is your teacher?"

 It took a grueling six months to start to retool my dance after dancing tango on a daily basis for thirteen years, but it was worth it! I constantly try to improve my dance, and study with Oscar and Georgina as much as possible, so that I can teach the technique as clearly as possible.

Using the toes: making little steps as luscious as big, dramatic steps

After a few nights of dancing in Buenos Aires, I had a new goal: learning to make each step beautiful when it was small. I knew that my regular and large steps had really progressed in technique in the past few years, but I felt that my teeny tiny steps in the milonga weren't feeling fabulous. I had plenty of partners, but I felt something was not working within my own body.

Oscar and Georgina told me (I prefer my lessons in Spanish, so this is an estimation): "Don't worry! Everyone learns technique in regular size steps first, then in bigger steps. The hardest steps to do well, are small steps." Then Oscar grinned, and said (as usual), "No vacation! Come on, let's work!"

The new information was about how to use my toes. I had worked hard to get my weight back, evenly shared by my heel and the ball of the foot. I had relaxed my toes, ankles, knees and hips to get a smoother, sexier, balanced walk. But I wasn't finishing my steps completely. As I pushed through the floor to take each step, I was not following through with my toes. Looking at the videos from my lesson, I had to agree: my toes looked dead!

Structure of the foot

The way that the foot and leg are built, the body needs to use a bunch of muscles, not only to propel the body through space, but to maintain balance when on tiptoe (stiletto heels, anyone?)! The muscles that flex the smaller and big toes pass along the inside of the ankle, and support the medial arch of the foot and are important in the propulsion phase of walking. There are also smaller muscles that do not cross the ankle joint, that aid in propelling the body forward; these also flex the toes. If you grab a book on anatomy and look at how the foot is constructed, it makes sense that, if the toes aren't engaged, the body can't move as efficiently or strongly.

There is a lot of foot anatomy information on the internet, so I'll leave detailed pictures and explanations to the doctors (and leave it out of here, in case you don't want to read in detail!). Suffice to say, when you look at the lever system that makes up the foot, it becomes obvious that the toes are essential to movement.

This last little movement of the toes is what completes thepropulsion of the body from the location of the last step, to the new location in space. If the movement is not finished, the body needs to spend energy and time to finish arriving at the new location. If the toes are used correctly, as the last step in the push off-extend leg-send body-land on balance sequence, the body arrives ON AXIS and ON BALANCE, every single step.

And voila!

This would explain why my dance has progressed so much since I stopped having my weight on my toes! By moving my hips back slightly, and balancing over the arch of my foot, my dance has become much more elegant. Also, I have come to expect that a night of dancing creates tired feet, rather than painful feet!

Looking at my new work, of using my toes to finish each step, I could see what had not been working before: I had been arriving on my balance a micro-second late for each step. What I noticed about using my foot and toes correctly, was that I always ended up the same distance away from my leader, no matter how big or small the step was. Part of improving my timing, was to improve my reaction to the leader's requests.

As my time in Buenos Aires went on, I found that I could work my feet correctly without spending all my attention and energy on my toes (there were a few nights where my partners told me I was a great partner, but where I knew only part of my brain and body had actually been paying attention to the leader!). My small steps began to feel like a real dance, and I started to use my steps in a different way: I practiced arriving a tiny bit early, and touching the free foot to the floor softly, so that the movement felt more rhythmic. I could now choose to move more slowly, more romantically; or more rhythmically; or with a strong adorno, like a tap. I now have a much broader ranger of "flavors" for my dance.

I gradually started attracting more discerning partners, and began to field requests to dance a second tanda. One night, I was asked to save the next milonga tanda for four different men. Ack! For the first time in my fourteen years of dancing tango, I had Argentine men APOLOGIZE for their level of dance. Strange, but it felt good to be the one reassuring them that I had enjoyed the set.

Practice, practice, practice!

As I have started to do my foot and leg exercises that Georgina gave me for strengthening my dance, I've noticed that I can dance for longer and longer periods with good technique (duh!). I'm going to start a follower's technique class, based on these exercises, in the next month, so stay tuned if you are interested in working on improving your dance.

Elegant walking in tango

My teachers, Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas, have a sinuous, elegant, sexy walk. They call it "walking like a porteno" but I call it "walking like Oscar" to avoid all the arguments about how portenos do and do not walk. In Buenos Aires, everyone agrees that there are many different ways to do tango, but here in Portland, we seem to spend a lot of time arguing about the one way to do something . . . 

In Tango Fundamentals, we've been working on this walk a lot, but many questions have come up that I think are more easily answered here.

1. How many "tracks" do I use for the "porteno" walk?

Don't you hate the "it depends" answer? In this case, there are two tracks for dancing, but the leader is on one, and the follower on the other. Compared to the "two track" walk, the leader is actually slightly offset compared to the follower, but not enough to be leading to the cross. As each person walks in a straight line, each person steps in front of him- or her-self.

This walk works best in a slight V embrace, close embrace, but not square to the partner.

2. Why is this better than two-track walking?

This walk is simply more elegant than what I see on the dance floor most of the time. Two-track walking is not wrong, but it doesn't look as nice. I'm not going to walk up to you on the dance floor and ask why you aren't doing this ;-) Your walk is a personal choice; mine is to do the walk this way when possible.

There are as many ways to walk in tango as tango dancers. The reason I teach the version of tango that I teach, is that this style uses the body efficiently, and reduces injuries, as well as allowing me to dance for hours with less fatigue and foot pain.

3. But what if the person I'm dancing with tells me I'm not walking right?

What I am teaching you is not what "everyone" is doing in the tango community. You will find people who think that different=wrong. You have two alternatives: improve your dance, or conform to local habits of dance, whether or not they are good dance choices. I like to think that, in a few years, we will all be dancing better and more fluidly, and many more people will be doing this style of walking. I've noticed that all of you who are in my classes look more elegant and balanced. I get a lot more comments about my good dancing since I've switched to this style.

By the way, when I am offered unsolicited advice on the dance floor, I respectfully suggest that I will ask for feedback when I want it.

4. What is all this about contra-body motion?

Part of walking like a porteno is using natural body locomotion. When you walk, your body uses a slight rotation around the spine to help shift the weight of the body from leg to leg. You can see this if you walk and pay attention to how your arms swing gently as you walk. When your right foot is going to step forward, your body rotates slightly to the right BEFORE you step; when you step with your left, your body rotates to the left first. When you step backwards, your body twists away from the free leg.

Using natural contrabody motion also allows you to stay connected to your partner. If the leader is stepping forward with the left, s/he rotates counter-clockwise before stepping. The follower steps back on the right, also rotates counter-clockwise to the left. That means that both people move together, allowing both more freedom of movement AND more connection in your walk.

5. Why do I have to move my hips to make this walk work?

When you walk down the street, your hip releases slightly to help you shift weight from one foot to the other. The hip shift moves your weight directly above your support foot without grabbing with the muscles that surround the hip--more mobility, less work! This is an active, lifting movement, not like doing the "bus stop." This is one key part of having a lithe, sexy tango walk.

To find the right amount of pelvic movement, stand in front of a mirror. Locate the inside edge of your hip joint with your fingers, and move your pelvis until that point is over the center of your foot. Each person will have a different amount of movement here, as a woman with wide hips will move differently than a woman with narrow hips or a man. Instead of copying the look of your favorite dancer, take time to figure out what is right for your body.

6. Why did you tell me to stick out my butt?

Many people stand with their pelvis tilted forward, but the femoral joint (hip joint) works better if the pelvis shifts back further. This settles the femur into the hip joint and helps use your bone alignment for balance so that you use

7. How can I find out more about my body and how it moves?

There is an excellent reference book, designed for the average person, that shows the bones and muscles of the body, as well as explaining what motions the body can perform at each joint. I HIGHLY recommend Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain (ISBN 0-939616-17-3 for paperback). It has great pictures and lots of information without being overwhelming.