Foot and ankle exercises to help your tango

Strong feet and ankles are a must for good balance in both tango and life in general. Many of us sit all day at work and have not built up our standing/walking muscles as much as we think. In my Tango, Toning and Technique class, we spend a lot of time working on improving how we use our feet and ankles—and the improvement always accompanies a boost in tango level. Plus, working on your feet and ankles helps you dance longer when you are out dancing, and cuts down on foot discomfort during and after dancing.

My Pilates teacher, Heidi Weiss, also dances tango. She graduated from Reed College, and has moved back to the area to open her business. If you haven’t introduced yourself to her on the dance floor, you should!

Heidi is the owner of Portland Pilates Collective and is a Pilates teacher as well as a nutritionist. I work with her privately to improve my full body strength and muscle efficiency. I appreciate her eye for detail and her calm teaching approach. My own goals for 2019 are to do a pushup and a pull-up (yes, one of each, don’t laugh).

I asked Heidi to talk about what exercises and stretches she needed to add to her regime when she started tango. Here are some suggestions from her about exercising and stretching that will improve your tango and your foot health.

Pilates foot exercises and stretching tips for Argentine Tango

Adornos, Part I

“Pretty feet!”

That’s the second-best compliment I ever received while dancing. A woman I didn’t know tapped me on the arm as I left the dance floor at La Nacional when I passed her table. She smiled at me, nodded in approval and told me, “Lindos pies.” I almost fell over! I was not used to compliments from Argentine women on my dancing.

“You adorn with your soul”

A few years after that other compliment, I was dancing at Los Consagrados with someone I didn’t know, and even the first dance was amazing. I forget what orchestra was playing, but I was really enjoying the music as well as the leader, and my feet just did their thing as part of my dance. When we finished the first song, he accused me, “Hey, you are a teacher!” And I replied, “And so are you!”

After the second dance, he told me, “You don’t just adorn with your feet, you adorn with your soul!” That is the best compliment I have ever received on the dance floor in Buenos Aires, and I treasure it. I don’t think of adornos as a separate part of my dance: they are integral to my body and to my tango. I loved it that someone noticed.

I didn’t think adornos were important

I didn’t work on adding adornos to my tango for a long time. I started tango in 1995. There were very few tango teachers around, and if I wanted people to dance with in Eugene, I was going to have to teach them. I already had an M.A. in Dance and was teaching ballroom and folk dancing at University of Oregon. I jumped into tango, and most of my time was spent ensuring that I understood the lead and follow parts of each step I learned, so that I could teach it correctly.

Eventually, I realized that my feet were the part of my tango that needed the most work. I focused on my adornos, foot strength and elastic use of my legs for the next few years, and it paid off with those compliments about my feet.

Adornos are functional

I have come to understand that adornos are a functional part of my dance. They allow me to keep my body relaxed and ready for any movement the leader might suggest. They help me keep a dynamic balance, rather than trying to lock into a complete stop. They use the natural margin of error that we have for balance (the amount our feet and ankles can adjust to help us maintain balance) as an inspiration for small, but full-body, movement.

These days, I teach beginners adornos from their first day in tango. I find that people who learn this way feel more empowered to express themselves in the dance. They are more relaxed because their body is moving, which makes them breathe more fully. They understand that balance is dynamic, and that they don’t have to have a perfect dance.

I encourage people to use “too many” adornos in class to explore what a good level of movement would be. If someone is worried about movement being “wrong” they will dance more stiffly. If dancers are afraid to adorn, they struggle to find a comfortable balance between doing what the leader asks and what they hear in the music themselves. Finding a good balance and understanding that each dance and each partner will differ, is a huge relief to most learners: it’s ok to experiment! Plus, it’s fun to play with your feet and the music, and learning should be fun!

What adorno should I do?

This is the question most learners ask me. There is no should in adornos. I tell my beginners to write their name in the sand. Put energy into the big toes, but don’t spend a lot of time thinking of what to “write” or your time in the pause will be over.

Adornos are filigree to fill in and beautify the dance, commenting on the music/mood/partnership that is happening at that moment. We learn specific adornos in order to train our legs so that we can improvise in the moment.

What is in the video?

This video reviews the adornos we have been doing in my Tango: Toning and Technique class. So far, we have done linea (line), lapiz (pencil), front and back crosses (which I was taught as “amagues” but I just argued about this with a friend, so we will just call them whatever and move on; and an adorno I call “the elevator” because no one ever told me a name for it. When I say elevator, everybody gets the right idea :-)

Core and leg exercises for more elegant tango

I use a lot of different approaches to improve my tango technique and that of my students. For a lot of people, the wish to move quickly overrides paying attention to how the body actually wants to move. I think it’s important to take time to train your body to feel how the muscles, bones and connective tissue are constructed. If you use your body in an organic manner, the movement will look more elegant and smooth.

The video version

Chair drill: connect the core and upper leg

The chair version of this drill allows you to focus on using the deep core to work your legs, rather than the quadriceps. Yes, the quads are still working, but we want to see the long line of the entire leg for tango. That means the core needs to work a bit harder than we are used to in our sedentary lives :-)

Note: Assume that you are cheating on the drill, and reset each time you complete a leg movement. Eventually, you will start to be able to maintain your alignment for the entire drill. At that point, add the standing version to your tango workout.

Standing chair drill: adding balance to core strength

If you can do the chair drill, move up to the standing drill. It takes more focus and balance, but the concept is the same: trace the connections from the deep core out and down to the foot. Allow time for each movement signal to travel down the body!

Note: Be careful with your back. Make sure your core, not your lower back, is doing the main lifting work for this drill. If you can’t do it correctly yet, do the chair drill until you have more core strength.

Jose Garofalo is back in PDX 12-20 March 2019!

I am very pleased to announce that Jose will be back in Portland NEXT MONTH! He is one of my favorite teachers because he has a huge vocabulary from the Old Masters with whom he studied; and as one of the people exploring tango in the 1990s, he was part of the creation of tango nuevo as well. 30+ years of tango in one person—let’s take advantage of his presence in our community!

The other thing about Jose is that he is FUN! Performing with him is a joy: I never know what is coming next, but he always takes care of me as his follower, and makes me feel secure. After 30 years, he is still exploring, looking for new information and open to new ideas.

Workshop Topics

Investigation of Roles for Tango Dancers (Friday & Saturday)

We will work on the idea of tango role (leader/follower) as a dialogue of movements between people. These classes are not about learning the “other” role, but rather to generate a more playful communication. Register for classes!

3 Sequences, 3 styles (Thursday & Sunday)

We will explore several different styles of Argentine Tango, using sequences from the Old Masters, as well as elements from non-traditional and stage tango, that have been incorporated into current-day tango. We experiment with different types of: embrace; axes; music, etc. Register for classes!

The details

Jose Garofalo Mar2019.jpg

Private lessons

Jose is available for private lessons from the evening of March 12th, to March 20th (I don’t have his plane times for his departure, but I will know soon). The cost is $120/hr or $550/5 lessons. If you take the weekend workshops, there will be a discount on the lesson price and the 5-lesson block price. Private lessons will be at 4315 NE Garfield Ave. in Portland. Contact me to schedule!

EXCITED!!!!!

December classes in Beaverton and Portland

Tango Beaverton: Tango Toning & Technique

We are changing up the format of the Beaverton class. As everyone who has come to class so far is advanced beginner to advanced intermediate so far, this class will be a Tango, Toning and Technique class. Although the class is weighted towards follower technique, those of you who want to become advanced leaders will find that the same work applies to you! Everyone is welcome, even total beginners. Everyone is working at their level, and I can adapt what we are doing to make it more basic—or more advanced—for each dancer.

The class has a brief warmup. After that, we do drills focusing on balance, alignment and building strength for your dance. Depending on who comes to class, we might work on: walking, adornos, pivoting, free leg work (boleos, ganchos, etc.). Most of class is dedicated to improving YOUR dance, so that when you dance with someone, you bring the most that you can to your half of the couple.

If you have 1 lb. leg weights, please bring them along. Wear layers, as we are the first people in the room for the day, and it’s not always warm at first. Bring your dancing shoes: practice shoes are also ok.

  • Noon on Wednesdays

  • Global Art of Dance

  • 12570 SW Farmington Rd, Beaverton, OR 97005

  • $15 drop in, or 10-class punchcard for $120

Portland FUNdamentals: Holiday goodies

FUNdamentals class is designed to work on tango basics for beginners and anyone else who wants to polish their dance. As people have difficult schedules over the holidays, each class will be a stand-alone class. I will design one basic combination for each week so that we can practice all the things, but also walk out with usable content.

This is a great time to get a head start on tango for the New Year, or for coming to polish up your basics in a small group setting.

  • 7 PM Thursdays

  • Om Studio

  • 14 NE 10th Ave. Portland

  • $14 drop in, 10-class punchcard for $120

Continuing Tango: Sacadas & other combinations

Like FUNdamentals, December will be a month of working on one combination (and variations, you know me) per week. By popular demand, we will keep working on sacadas, but integrate them into the dance musically, combining them with other elements to make a fun addition to your dance each week. Don’t worry if you haven’t been in class before: this is a friendly group!

Continuing Tango class is aimed at intermediate and advanced intermediate dancers. You may bring a partner, or switch partners. I encourage you to work both roles of the dance to understand the moves more holistically.

  • 8 PM Thursdays

  • Om Studio

  • 14 NE 10th Ave. Portland

  • $14 drop in, 10-class punchcard for $120

If you are not willing to look stupid

If you are not willing to look stupid, nothing great is ever going to happen to you.”
— Gregory House, in House

I have been thinking a lot about learning (and looking/feeling stupid) this week. I took a workshop on preparing wool to spin and started to learn new-to-me movements that I will need to practice. Washing wool and doing something to it make it spinnable? That looks easy! Hmm, apparently watching YouTube videos on how to do it only gave me some of the information! And I am already wondering about the magical twist the teacher gave to her wool cards in the middle to get all the wool on one: how can I forget that quickly what it was?

I also have been reading books about Aspergers for teens that stress how important it is to learn neurotypical rules and expectations in order to thrive in the adult world; and how much practice is needed to be successful at that. As the parent of a gifted kiddo who struggles daily in the neurotypical world, I see how hard it feels to translate your smarts from what you excel in, to what baffles you.

Tango can seem like a different world with unspoken rules and movements that mystify the beginning dancer. The moves also seem very easy, but then cannot be easily mastered. Where is that self-help guide to tango that will explain everything? Aaahhhh!

Use what you know

Remember that you have learned other things in your life, and you know HOW you learn. Maybe it was not dance. Have you learned a sport? Do you have training in how the body is put together? Perhaps you are very good at seeing patterns, or analyzing situations, or flying a plane. Are you a visual learner? A kinesthetic learner? An analyzer? Pretty much every time you have learned something new, you have improved your learning skills. You may not know tango, but you know YOU: apply that knowledge.

Restrain your perfectionist tendencies

Lock your perfectionism in a closet. Give yourself a workable timeline. Remember: You are doing tango for FUN! I know, I know, it’s hard to see that sometimes in the midst of a difficult class; or when you run into someone on the dance floor; or when you cannot make your body do the same move to the left that you can do just fine to the right. The focus is FUN, improving your strength and balance, socializing with nice people, expressing yourself. The focus is NOT doing it perfectly.

Risk looking stupid

Just get out there and do it. YOU are the only person worrying about if you look stupid. The others are worrying about THEMSELVES looking stupid and they don’t care :-)

Babies learn by falling down and messing up. Guess what? Humans learn this way. My computer programmer husband tells me that his job means he messes up daily (or more) and then has to fix it. Making mistakes is the way our brains work: we learn from our past behaviors. Oops, you are normal!

Remember: Sometimes messing up creates colossal, fabulous new creations! You can get mediocre at something without messing up a lot, but to be brilliant, you will need to really fail from time to time. Apparently, Thomas Edison is quoted as saying that he had found 1000 ways NOT to build a light bulb. So get out there and look stupid! It may take 1000 tries—but it may only take a few.

See you on the dance floor!





Colgadas: more tips for off-axis tango moves

A colgada puts the follower off-axis AWAY from the leader. Like the volcada, it is a move that works like a pendulum or a wave. The leader sends the follower away, counterbalances, and then allows the move to resolve to the best exit point available.

The big picture: get the follower feeling safe and on balance, and then tip the follower over, adjusting for free leg motion and rotation; and get the follower safely back on balance.

Upcoming classes

We will be working on volcadas in my 8 PM Thursday classes at Om Studio August 9, 16, 23 & 30, 2018 if you happen to be in Portland.

Tips on colgadas

Following a colgada can be a scary experience: the leader asks you to trust them, and there is nothing behind you to hold you up if the move does not work, except your own behind :-)  I find that leaders scoff at this being scary, but are very nervous about being LED in colgadas. Trust has to be built for two people to do colgadas well.

Leading colgadas

The main important focus of leading a colgada should be making sure the follower feels safe so that s/he will LET you go off-balance with his/her axis.

Regular (with or without a free leg moving):

  1. Put the follower ON-axis, with the supporting foot grounded, first!
  2. Add tilt away from you.
  3. Counter-balance from the same shared axis point.
  4. Feel the pendulum of the follower's movement, and exit with it.
  5. Don't hold the position! It's a pendulum.
  6. Exit the direction that feels the easiest for the follower, barring obstacles.

Colgadas with pivoting:

  1. Not all colgadas have rotation/pivot, so make sure you read the follower's movement.
  2. Do steps 1 & 2 from the previous list (put follower on-axis and then add tilt).
  3. Add the rotation.
  4. Again, there is a pendulum motion to colgadas, so don't hold it; let it keep moving.
  5. Figure out the exit pattern based on tilt AND rotation. You can S-T-R-E-C-H it out.

Following colgadas

Although you can't control the leader, you can make your half of a colgada work better.

Regular colgadas:

  1. Get on/off-axis from the floor up. If the leader can't feel your connection to the floor, they will push/pull harder, which will knock you over. 
  2. Keep yourself ON your foot. If you are rolling off your little toe or the inside of your foot, you are too far off-axis to do a good colgada.
  3. Feet, knees, hips, spine and embrace all work together as a spring to make the colgada work. Tone (but not locking) throughout the system makes colgadas feel easier for you and the leader. Think like a "water spider" that spreads its weight out to all limbs.
  4. Feel the pendulum of the motion through your body, and follow it. The leader can better resolve a colgada by reading where your body wants to go.
  5. Practice, practice, practice to feel safe enough not to clench your body. See the drills below on the video.
  6. If it's not working, step out of the move: Your free leg should be available to put down under you.

Pivoting colgadas:

  1. Focus on how your axis/spring of your body can stay springy first.
  2. If you can let your free leg go free without collapsing your center, do so.
  3. Keep your foot balanced over your metatarsal arch. I find it helps to put a little extra energy into my big toe so that I don't tip onto my little toe.
  4. Pivoting off-axis is much harder than on-axis, so practice (see below) with a door jamb before working up to a human :-)

Solo drills and tips to prepare for colgadas

Follower-friendly volcadas

There are many ways to signal to the follower to do a volcada, but to really lead them and follow them well takes preparation.

What is a volcada?

A volcada is a "dumping" or "tipping" over of the follower, usually with a free leg that can be manipulated by the leader to cross (or uncross) before setting the follower back on axis.

Types of volcadas

I classify volcadas by what happens to the follower's legs. The leader "draws" a shape with the follower's free leg. If you think about what the follower's free leg needs to do (it's a pendulum motion), it's easier to figure out what to do with the follower's axis to make the move work.

  1. V-volcada: The shape of the movement the follower's leg makes is a V, or a skinny U. Often led after a salida, the follower's leg is moved forward, curved around the front of the standing foot, and put into the position of the regular cruzada, albeit off-axis. Then, the leader shifts the follower's weight to the foot that is crossing (the left), and exits the move IN CONTROL OF THE STEP. Both people get to on-axis within two steps, preferably one :-)
  2. C-volcada: The leader leads a boleo, and then tips the follower over while the free leg is rebounding from the boleo. The free legs falls in a circular motion (thus the C-shape), ending in the same cross and exit as the V-shaped volcada.
  3. Wind and unwind: The leader leads a V- (or C-) shaped volcada to the cross, but does NOT lead a weight shift. Instead, the leader unwinds the follower's leg back to where it started, and exits in a walk, putting the follower back on axis.
  4. Multiple volcadas: The leader does a V- or C-shaped volcada, complete with weight shift for the follower, but instead of exiting, suspends the follower a second (and third?) time, leading the same move with the other foot, including the weight shift. This is the trickiest version.
  5. Reverse volcada: This volcada starts in the cross and unwinds to exit in a back walk for the follower. I usually lead it from the "famoso ocho de Tete" and let it pivot slightly to keep the follower feeling safe.

Drills to practice going better volcadas

You MUST practice volcadas on your own if you expect them to work with a partner. I cannot stress enough how important it is for the leader to understand how the volcada feels on the part of the follower. I have been led in many volcadas that leaders felt were clear (they were), but which were too scary for me to be willing to let any foot come off the ground! Here are some tips and drills that I feel make the move work better for the follower, and thus better for the leader.

Any questions? Ask!

I am happy to answer questions about volcadas! Just put them in the comments box here or on YouTube. Or ask me in class, if you are in Portland!

Optimal pelvic alignment and movement for tango

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

Walking, pausing and balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front-to-back hip tip

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

Grab your butt

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

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

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

Share the work

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

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

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

Check out my YouTube channel

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

Esther Gokhale and walking

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

BE INSPIRED!

 

Foot-saving tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

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

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

What's different in tango?

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

More surface area improves balance

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

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

Engage your arch for pivoting

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

Build your ankle strength

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

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

Tips for good pivoting in Argentine Tango

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

Build your body map

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

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

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

Video time!

Turn technique for followers: practice drills

Here is a short video on turn drills to help improve your tango turns. My FUNdamentals class asked me to video some of the exercises that I do, so that they can remember them outside of class :-) Sorry about the sound: I was fighting a cold and sounded horrible the day I shot the footage for the drills, so I gave up talking and just typed the information on the video.

It is much harder to practice by yourself than with a partner. First, it's easier to practice when someone else says, "OK, put on your shoes now and let's go!" Also, when you have a partner, you can hold onto them, and that makes getting around the corners easier than on your own. Lastly, I tend to practice longer when I have someone to talk to; it's hard to make yourself do more than a few songs.

Making the video made me do a lot more practice that day! I kept shooting video, looking at it, and then going back to do it again. I think I did turn drills for almost an hour before I got interrupted by my family! So maybe we should all just turn on the camera and go for it! It never looks good, by the way. I can see every one of the mistakes I made here. I hope that, by leaving them in, you can see that it's not about perfect, it's about practice.

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!

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Corridas and toquecitos: technique for milonga excellence

Milonga is perhaps my favorite dance in the entire world (tango, cover your ears!). I love the groove of the dance and the simplicity/challenge of playing with syncopation instead of the more varying syncopation, pauses and slo-mo possibilities in tango. Many dancers who come from other rhythmic dances, find milonga easier to approach than tango.

However, because of its speed and the need for smaller steps, milonga can be more challenging than tango to reach a level of excellence. It is SO easy to abandon technique and just clomp through the dance, panicking at the needed speed of each step.

I have just taught six weeks of milonga technique in my beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. The Body Dynamics class has been focused on small steps, elegance and speed for the session as well.

Corridas and toquecitos

Corridas

Corridas, or "runs" are a series of fast, small steps that can be moving forward, backwards, or laterally. Corridas are also done in tango and vals, and have the same considerations there.

For forward or backwards steps, the main issue is making the fast (syncopated) steps feel comfortable. Remember:

  1. Take quick steps that are half as big as the regular steps.
  2. Get your heel down on each step to balance yourself for the next step.
  3. As you shift feet, keep your knee and hip alignment so you have cushioning.
  4. Core, core, core! Engage your deep core to make a dynamic step your partner can feel.

For lateral steps, a lot of people find the errors in their normal side steps are magnified by going quickly! Focus on:

  1. Rolling through your foot on both the step traveling to the side, AND on the step in place!
  2. Letting the natural shift in the hips happen when you change feet. Don't keep your hips flat to the ground!
  3. Keeping the knees soft.

Toquecitos (little touches)

Toquecitos are adornos that work really well in milonga. BE CAREFUL to avoid overdoing them. I distinctly remember one woman who was dancing when I started in 1995: she sounded like she was tap dancing! Don't be that person ;-)

That said, toquecitos that are soft and get your feet under you can be used as what I call a "functional" adorno: something that improves your technique, rather than just an ornament.

Toquecito tips:

  1. As one of my teachers used to say, "Don't kill the cockroach!" Just tap lightly.
  2. Use the ankle muscles so that the movement is the whole foot.
  3. Think of using it just before you move, rather than step and tap. I think of it like a downbeat: "And, go!" instead of "Step, TAP!" which is too loud/harsh.

 

The video

Exercises for fabulous boleos: the video

The origins

When Guillermo di Fazio was in Portland for Valentango, I had the chance to study privately with him. I am very interested in the style of the old masters, so when he announced a class on Todaro's style/combos, I was very excited. Unfortunately, I had to work at the time of the class, so I contacted him, requesting private lesson time.

During my lesson, Guillermo taught me:

  1. the material from the Todaro class.
  2. all the material he had hoped to cover but had not.
  3. another Todaro combo that occurred to him while we were working.
  4. drills to prep the leaders for the combinations we had worked on.

I really enjoyed dancing with someone who could lead me in the combo, and then follow well, so that I could try the same thing that I had just followed. I learn best this way, and am happiest with a strong teacher who can do this well.

My brain completely full, I sat with my camera, rewatched the lesson and took notes until all the info was on paper and on film. Although I lose some of the information, that way, the maximum that I CAN retain can be found :-)

Crack balls, KNIFE!

As is my habit, I share all information I learn with my students. I don't see a purpose in withholding information to make people wait, or pay more, or to keep my level higher. That's my main complaint about dance schools with prescribed levels--you know what I mean.

Anyway, by teaching new information, I can see how much of it works for dancers at beginner or intermediate or advanced levels, what other material they need in order to be able to do the movements; and how I can best explain it so that more people get it faster. Body Dynamics (for those of you in Portland, this is my 7 PM Monday class at Om Movement Studio) gets all my new material, as it preps for all levels of my group classes.

The men in the class were taken back by Guillermo's suggested instructions of "Crack balls! Knife!" to explain how to swing the leg across the body, pivot, and stop abruptly, on balance. The women just thought it was funny. I have since changed how I describe the movement.

Adapting drills for other purposes

As the Todaro combos proved too difficult for my students to actually do, I started to look for other applications for these drills. I broke down the exercise into easier parts, and working up to the full effect.

Immediately, I noticed that these drills were really about having good balance while one leg was completely relaxed and moving quickly, followed by pivoting on balance. Hmm...this seems to be the same info needed for doing good follower moves that require loose legs! I made last week's video to show how this can benefit followers.

 

In addition, there are a lot of possiblities for the leader to add into other moves, if s/he is sooo on balance that flicking the free leg around does not inhibit a clear lead. We have recently been playing a new game I call "Crazy legs" that incorporates the leader playing with this while the follower does turns.

Go watch the video, do the exercises, and come to class!

 

 

 

 

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!