Rebuilding my feet: I miss my tango heels!!


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

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


The easy version: one-minute balance

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

The important parts:

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

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

Slightly harder: roll with the punches

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

Important points:

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

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

Look Ma, no hands!

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

BOTH feet on the roller, hard side up.

BOTH feet on the roller, hard side up.

Total alignment

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

Important points:

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

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

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

The saga

The bad news

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

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

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

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

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

The good news

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

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

I can still lead!

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

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

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

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

Following is harder on my body

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

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

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

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

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

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




In honor of the foot: the anatomy of walking and standing in tango

I realized from talking to a few of my new students, that it is just too hard to page through years of my blog to find the anatomy and tango parts. I am re-posting these to facilitate the work we are doing, especially in Body Dynamics and FUNdamentals.

Finding out about your feet will not only help you dance better, without pain. It will also make you more aware of your body as you dance, enjoying how your body feels during tango. I am a true movement geek, so I walk around, garden, etc., feeling what my body is doing. Perhaps this will bring you to a new level of mindfulness!

I re-read Irene Dowd's excellent "In Honor of the Foot" article, from her book, Taking Root to Fly. She details the structure of the foot, exercises to strengthen it, and ways to think about moving that use the foot efficiently.  I encourage you to buy her book! Here, I will provide you with some ideas from her article that pertain to the work we are doing in class.

The platform of the foot is shaped like a trapezoid, with the corners being the ball of the foot (big toe), the ball of the little toe, the inner border of the heel, and the outer border of the heel. Here is a picture from the encyclopedia, showing the bones of the foot.

The way the bones of the foot are built make a twisted arch between the heel bone (calcaneus)  and the ball of the foot. The bones that make up this arch can be locked into place or relaxed. When the inside border of the heel drops (the arch is untwisting), that is called pronation. Some people naturally do this, and extreme pronation is often called having flat feet (guilty here!). When the arch is raised higher, the outside border rolls out, or supinates. People who tend to do this have "high-arched" feet.


According to Dowd, "When we walk correctly, it appears that the center of the knee travels directly above the pathway . . . from the center of the heel through the third toe." This does not mean that the foot actually moves on a straight line, because the arch of the foot bones creates a more serpentine path of movement (read the article for all the details!). The actual path strikes slightly to the outside of the center of the heel for the heel strike; rolls inside the cuboid bone (next bone forward from the calcaneus) for "midstance"; rolls back more to the outside as the heel comes off the floor in a step; and rolls back to the middle of the big toe as the toes leave the floor.

As this happens, the arch of the foot twists and untwists slightly, relaxing into the floor for stablity, then making a stiff lever to propel the body forward, and relaxing again (whew!). The big toe completes the push off of the floor. I think of this as the equivalent to following through when I throw a ball: I don't just leave my toes limp, I use them to complete the transfer to a new location.

Words to help do this in tango

I have found that using the phrase "push off" makes people use their foot by tensing it too much. I think of the motion of moving as a rolling motion.

When going forward, think about how a cat articulates through all their bones when walking or stretching! I also like Luciana Valle's "lick the floor!" with your foot :-)

When moving sideways, think about wearing fins, and letting the ankle and foot follow through as though going through water. Each bone only moves a little, but the fluidity allows elegance of motion and balance.

When walking backwards, I think about using the ankle's full range of motion, rolling through the heel and releasing, but not pushing. Another visual I use, is to imagine having a thumbtack (point at the the floor!) on your heel, and lightly pressing it into a cork board as you roll over the heel.


Dowd says the foot has to work harder to stand than to walk: "This is especially true when you are standing balanced on one foot only. In this circumstance, the foot has to be somewhat mobile because the rest of your body does not stay perfectly still relative to the ground and yet the foot has to be very stable in order to support you." The foot has to have equal balance inside (big toe), outside (little toe) and back (heel). Think of an open space between these points, lifted up. I think of a plunger, lifting/suctioning up the center of my foot.  Dowd suggests "a receptive aperture through which energy can come in from the earth." Yeah, like she said!

Remember, the foot needs to both relax and tighten in a series of motions, to complete just one step! To stand, it constants adjusts between these extremes to maintain stability.

Exercises to strength/tune into the foot:

  • Put the sole of your foot on the floor, and, with your big toe, practice pushing away a finger or some small object on the floor next to your foot. You are making a fan-shaped motion that spreads your big toe away from your other toes.
  • Do the same thing with your little toe. Both of these exercises are hard at first, especially if you've been wearing high heels with itty bitty spaces for your toes ;-)
  • Put your foot on the floor, and try to "dome" your foot (lift the center while keeping all corners down). Make sure you are not gripping with your toes: keep them relaxed. This is about the muscles in the center of your foot, not your toe muscles.
  • Then, try all three at the same time (ha! no, actually, I just did this while typing, and it is possible).
  • After that, start with that exercise, but draw all the toes towards the big toe; then all the toes towards the little toe.

You will be happy to know that Dowd recommends massage in order to loosen up the muscles and bones in your foot, to uncramp muscles as you try these exercises, and to understand the structure of your foot through feeling that structure.

Tango as therapy

Tango will push your buttons. All of your buttons. If you have emotional baggage or trauma (and who doesn't?), tango will ask you to unpack it, evaluate it, and perhaps send some of it to the emotional Goodwill. If you want to get really good at tango, you need to be ready to tackle your issues.

After teaching tango for 20 years, what I have noticed is that people come to tango to tackle their issues, whether on a conscious level or an unconscious level. They want to dance tango badly enough to reach into the scary emotional closet and bring old fears and hurts into plain sight. They are willing to do this hard work because tango has grabbed them and dragged them into a new space. In this new space, they see that, if they work hard, a whole new universe of beauty and music and dance is waiting for them.


Relationship baggage

Tango brings up all of the good and bad experiences you have had with other people in your life. Many dancers bring a lack of trust, or other emotional baggage, with them into tango. Because it is done in couples, it seems to bring up ALL past negative baggage about relationships! I joke that I am the cheapest marriage counseling available in Portland, Oregon.

"He's doing it wrong again!" "Tell her I don't want her to criticize my dancing anymore!" "Why does s/he always blame mistakes on me?" Part of learning to dance tango is learning to give gentle feedback ONLY WHEN ASKED. This applies to dance partners, life partners, and to random people you dance with once and never see again!

For people who are single, or take lessons solo, these messages still come up and need to be dealt with. Can you trust me as your teacher? What about the people in group class? Which milonga feels safe to you?


Trust issues

Tango requires both dancers to entrust themselves to a new experience in which both people are impacted by the actions of the other person. The dance is done close together, touching bodies. For many people, dancing like that requires a level of trust rarely seen in modern life, especially in the North American culture. We are brought to value independence and individuality. Tango seems to invade this space, asking us to depend on the other person and merge into the couple, losing our individuality.

Tango actually requires the dancer to maintain the individual self and care for the self, in order to dance well as a team. Each person has a lot more possibility to embellish and make the dance their own, than is usually available in ballroom or other couple dancing.

However, it takes a deep level of trust to allow another person that close. "I can't do this!!" is the reaction I hear from many new dancers. To try something new, something complex, with another person--let alone in front of other people--brings up all of our fears about making a fool of ourselves. It brings up the middle school dance: will we be chosen or rejected? Will this person respect and value me, or will they treat me badly? Trust is a big issue for many people coming to tango.


Intimacy concerns

Enjoying how you feel dancing is an enjoyment of the senses (sensuality). Tango is all about enjoying how the body feels when it is moving to music, expressing itself, and interacting with other people's bodies. At its best, it is what I call an "in-body" experience, where my brain can turn off and I can just BE.

However, North Americans often conflate sexuality and sensuality. That's why we have jokes like: "Why does the [insert your choice of church/religion] prohibit sex? Because it might lead to dancing!" Our culture is not 100% comfortable with enjoying sensuality. One Buenos Aires dancer told me, "You poor Yankees! So Puritan! Here, we just do what we want, and go to confession." If you have intimacy issues, tango really pushes your buttons.

On the other hand, you learn that you can be intimate and sensual on a non-sexual level that you may not have found before. At its best, tango allows you to connect more closely with your fellow human beings in a deeply profound manner.


Learning to love your body

So many of us don't like our bodies! To dance and become aware of the shape of our body on a deeper level, to find how it works (or struggles) to dance, can push a lot of buttons about not feeling good about body issues.

The body awareness that tango teaches, is invaluable but not easily built. On the way, you have to learn to listen to your body and hear what it is saying. For some people, this is easy and a given in their life. For others, many years pass before the day that they say to me, "Hey, I FELT that!!!!!!" (with about that many exclamation points in the tone of their voice).

After the Princess-and-the-pea phase, where you feel every tiny thing that your body does, you can settle down to a nice medium sensitivity that allows you to care for your body, improves your balance and alignment, and retrains to move in a healthy, pain-free way. That's worth it, isn't it?

When you really feel your body and live in your body, you have to accept how it is shaped and how it works. Popular culture trained me to hate the shape of my body: strong, not slender, with a big butt and calves. Tango has taught me to love the strength and my curves. What can it teach you to love about YOUR body?


Traditional roles (like following) vs. the modern woman

This can be a big button for some people. Luckily, most people who feel this way know that they have an issue. Often, they announce "I have a problem with some guy telling me what to do" (or something like that) at the first lesson. Rarely is this button a surprise for the dancer :-)

Tango is a 50-50 dance. Both people need to do half of the work for it to function. The leader does make some decisions for the couple, but the follower has veto power. The follower can also inspire the leader to change the plan for the next move; the speed of a move; the flavor of the dance. In short, the follower is the motor of the dance. No motor, no dance.

Yes, if a man is leading and a woman is following, buttons about traditional roles will be pushed. However, try to reserve judgment about what it looks like tango is, and see what you can make of tango for yourself. For me, I like to lead and to follow, but not at the same time. I let myself be led when I follow, and I build my dance around my follower's needs when I lead. It's a conversation, a dialogue, not a monologue.

I'd like to hear from you: when you started tango, what buttons did it push for you? Have you found resolution/change/revolution? Tell me!






What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango, Part II

Make It Stick: Why can't I remember moves when I go home after class??

Most people think that repeating information over and over is the best way to learn. In "massed practice," we repeat the same information/moves over and over again, until it feels familiar. Unfortunately, instead of creating long-term memory, when we do this, we are working with our short-term memory. As we loop through our short-term memory, the material begins to feel familiar. We gain confidence and feel good, as if we learned the movement really well. However, when we get home, we can't remember what we did in class (Brown et al. 83).

Just stuffing information into your brain does not help you learn. Think of cramming for an exam: you pass the exam, but is that information really available for later recall? For example, a tango festival, with twenty hours of lessons in a weekend, would be like cramming for an exam. How much of that information is still there a week later?


How to learn movement efficiently

Embrace the fact that significant learning is often, or even usually, somewhat difficult. You will experience setbacks. These are signs of effort, not of failure. Setbacks come with striving, and striving builds expertise. (Brown et al. 201)


Spaced Practice

Massed practice will not help you to learn tango. Instead, you need to space out your practice time. This helps your brain build the connections between the new information and what you already know, which cannot happen immediately. Also, the fact that you have to work hard to retrieve the information each time you practice, helps you learn more thoroughly (Brown et al. 65).

When people ask me how often they need to practice, or take classes, I tell them that it varies by person. If you want to improve, you need to review the information before you forget it; and then keep reviewing it. Personally, if I wait more than 48 hours to review something, I often can't find the information in my memory. So, for me, I need to practice at least every other day when I am trying to learn something new.


Interleaved Practice

The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice. Teachers and students sense the difference . . . and the compensating long-term advantage is not apparent to them. As a result, interleaving is unpopular and seldom used (Brown et al. 66-7)

Interleaving is studying at least two things, rather than just studying one. In an example from the book, a group of people who already were good at baseball were divided in two. One group was given massed practice of hitting several kinds of pitches, but one at a time. They felt good about how they were learning, and continued practicing for six weeks. The other group interleaved all the different kinds of pitches, never knowing what was coming up. They felt frustrated that they weren’t doing very well. At the end of six weeks of practice, they performed much better than the other group (Brown et al. 80-1).

Although I have used some of these techniques for years, some are new to me, or were things that I did not often do. I had felt pressure to make my lessons feel easier from my students, and had drifted towards too much repetition of one thing at a time. However, the changes I have made to class in the past three months have made a believer out of me: I am seeing results that I have not seen in 30 years of teaching! My students agree that class is more challenging and feels more frustrating, but they are learning faster.


Varied Practice

If you interleave different skills or moves, you learn better than working on one thing, but you can improve on that with varied practice: mix it up! Do things in different orders! Do different exercises and drills!

The evidence favoring variable training has been supported by recent neuroimaging studies that suggest that different kinds of practice engage different parts of the brain. The learning of motor skills from varied practice, which is more cognitively challenging than massed practice, appears to be consolidated in an area of the brain associated with the more difficult process of learning higher-order motor skills. (Brown et al. 67)

My guess is that tango counts as a higher-order motor skill :-) When I teach private lessons, I often write three- to four- moves on the white board, and then have the student dance them in different orders. With the "cheat" of seeing the names of the moves, or pictures of them, the student works through different orders of movement. After that, I ask that they do so without looking at the board.





Body alignment: finding YOUR midline

The more I teach, the more I focus on finding where each person's body can balance best.

For a lot of people, dancing tango means finding the front of the partner's body with the front of their own body. Focusing on the front surface of each body sometimes leads to leaning, heaviness, and loss of balance. What other ways can we think of connection, in order to protect our own body and dance better?


Spine front-to-back

try to picture my spine in 3-D, and build my body around that. Here's a great picture of the spine in the body that might help you with the image I'm talking about. What I like here, is that you can see the ribs and the pelvis, but the feeling of all the bones being IN the body is really well done. I want my torso and spine to be aligned, nice and long, and supple, like in this picture.

Front-to-back, my pelvis is balanced so as to keep my spine as relaxed and long as possible; and to let me use my deep core muscles instead of my back muscles, to hold me up. This gives me a lot more rotational movement possible around my center.


Balancing right and left sides of the body

My body is divided right and left, with my spine as the dividing line. That doesn't mean that there is a straight line down the middle all the time. If I am standing on one foot, that midline has some curves in it! Check out The Birth of Venus! The free leg (the one she does not have weight on), is relaxed, and the pelvis is lower on that side. My pelvis is like a see-saw, with the support side up and the free side down; that tips side to side, each time I change weight from one foot to the other.

My shoulders and shoulder girdle rest in a relaxed way, as if they were draped over my body. Remember that the only bony connection between your arms and your body, is your collarbone: the rest is muscle. This page might be overkill, but it does show how everything is connected.

Both the pelvic girdle and the shoulder girdle have to adjust when we move, in order to created balanced movement through our midline. The more we can be efficient with motion at the periphery (away from the midline), the easier it is to remain balance in the center.

If we adjust right and left at our shoulders (the metronome approach, tick-tocking from side to side with the head and shoulders) instead of the hips (pendulum swing) there is a lot more movement in order to stay balanced. Why work harder??


Contrabody motion for balanced walking, running or dancing

The midline constantly changes, balanced over one foot or the other; with a pendulum movement of the hips; and responding balancing motion in the upper body, spine, shoulder girdle and head. If this is done without motion twisting around the torso, efficient movement is impossible.

Contrabody motion means the opposite side of the torso and hips/leg match up. If you have ever gone cross-country skiing, you had to do this to move :-) Right arm/torso and left hip/leg come forward, and then the other alternates. I looked for good explanations on the web, but have not found a really good one yet.

Think about jogging or running, or even walking quickly as if to catch the bus: The faster we move, the more we tend to use contrabody motion, because we cannot move efficiently without it!


Exercise for finding good contrabody motion

This is a new find-your-own-body exercise I have been teaching recently:

Version 1: Sitting for hip stability

  • Put your fingers into your solar plexus region, just under where your ribs stop and your belly starts, to feel your oblique muscles
  • Find neutral: straight ahead
  • Twist to your right and feel what muscles start to work (if nothing is working, that's a problem!)
  • Come back to neutral
  • Twist to your left and feel what muscles are working
  • Return to neutral

Version 2: Standing

Take a Pilates ball and squeeze it between your thighs (letting your midline help your stability)

  • Repeat the above exercise, with either a helper or a mirror to ensure that you are not twisting the hips.
  • Make sure that the same muscles are working as in Version I
  • Breathe!

Version 3: No Pilates ball

  • Use your thighs against each other to help you stabilize so that you don't rotate the hips (for those of you with thinner thighs, imagine that they are touching: energy does almost as much as you can with muscle, maybe more!).
  • Continue to use your obliques.
  • Now try walking, feeling this motion.
  • Repeat


Putting it all together

Putting it all together is both easier and harder than it sounds. After all, you have been walking since you were a baby--but no one taught you how to walk any specific way. Look! The baby is walking! Cool! Done.

As an adult, it can feel disconcerting to realize how little body awareness most of us use day-to-day. When I ask students if they can feel certain motions, I often am told, "No." Only after learning to tune into the body, can some people feel what is going on in their muscles, bones, energy, etc. For some people, even partial awareness can take years, especially if any emotional trauma is being held in the body (read: all of us).

I like to think of the body as being a bunch of stretchy bands, linked together in the center of the body, working as a system to make elegant, fluid motion possible. That's the muscles.

I think of the bones as a building structure, but perhaps one designed by toddlers: the bones don't stack in a straight line, but each one is held up by bones further down. The whole structure rests on the arches of our feet, which are like the earthquake cushions under skyscrapers: they adjust constantly with micro-motions, so that the entire structure might sway, but will stand up.

The nerves move electricity around our bodies and that of our partners. The tango connection for me is more about this electrical field interface, then just touching (although touching is nice!).

Our breath, circulation and lymph constantly pump through, connecting the other systems at many levels. The fluidity of the dance mirrors the actual fluids in our bodies!

It's a complex system to balance, even when not moving, but that constant motion within our bodies is what keeps us balanced. After all, if we tried to NOT move at all, we would not be dancing!




Tango mindfulness: Tuning into your body and surroundings

A lot of people who come to me to learn tango feel disconnected from their bodies in daily life. I have had students who needed to look at their feet to see if they were standing on their right or left foot at that moment. I have students who, when I say, "Do you feel that?" when I align their bodies, often (repeatedly) say, "No, I don't." When I try to get people to feel how their hip joint works and how the torso is connected to the legs, I have had someone tell me, "I can't feel anything there," referring to their entire pelvic area. Many times, I ask someone to breathe, and they say, "But I am!" in a gasping whisper, because they have run out of breath.

Why are we so out of touch with our own bodies?

We write our life history on our body. Each event that happens, affects our body. It is impossible to divorce life experience from our body. Injuries, emotional hurt, stress, anxiety, abuse--inscribe themselves on our muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, and affect how we stand, walk, and dance tango.

For some people, the best way to survive their life, is to tune out of their body. If the truth of what has happened is too big to face, and it is written on the body, then the body must be ignored.

Tango, however, demands that we start to feel our bodies and tune in to not only ourselves, but our partners. Tango can trigger a lot of emotions and past experiences as the dancer lets body awareness back into their lives. Tango will push your buttons; ALL of your buttons. Ask me how I know.

You cannot dance your best without becoming aware of your whole self, and not everyone is willing to delve into the deep reaches of their mind and body in order to dance better. For those people, a moderate level of tango works just fine.

For those of you who are willing to work through to a deeper or higher level of tango, what can you do to fight your personal body demons?

  1. Practice breathing deeply: put your hands on your ribcage, and expand your ribs to the sides, front and back. Let your lungs stretch your ribcage out and let it release, without a lot of up and down of the shoulders. This will help your tango embrace and provide you with (a lot) more oxygen than you may be currently taking in. Try not to hyperventilate!
  2. Feel your feet on the ground: barefoot, let your toes spread out and wriggle; let the arches of your feet work naturally; let your weight balance between the ball of your foot and your heel, freeing your toes. This will help, even if your tango shoes feel like they are squeezing your toes. Connect to the earth!
  3. Open your solar plexus: many of us from stressful, stress-out families tighten our solar plexus because it feels protective. However, it also cuts us off from other people. Think about letting yourself feel more vulnerable in order to tune in more.
  4. Increase your flexibility: stretching will help you feel more balanced, more open in your body, and more capable of using tango technique correctly. If your body won't stretch because you have spent too many years holding it in, consider Rolfing or some other myofascial release technique to break down adhesions between the surfaces of muscles, allowing your body more grace and motion with less effort.

I am not saying that this is an easy process, but it is a very rewarding process: your tango gets better, your balance gets better, your body strength increases, and your body feels better. Let's get started!




The moment is always changing--and so is my axis

I've been reading about impermanence: nothing stays the same forever. I've also been thinking about my axis in new ways that bring together the idea of permanence and balance. Here's what I have so far.

I realize that I've been talking about axis as if it is some attainable location that can be found and maintained. However, being on balance, or on axis, is not a stable state. Even if I have completed a step "perfectly" and have arrived on balance in a new spot, the one thing that can make me fall over, is trying to lock my axis into place.

What if the idea of axis was a constantly moving, micro-adjusting approximation of being on balance? The proprioceptors in your ankles send balance messages to the brain, creating small adjustments to keep you upright when standing. The circulatory system (and other body systems) circulate fluid throughout the body. You breathe in and out, unless you concentrate so hard to dance that you hold your breath; causing you to fall over.

What if axis is more like a fluid held inside a mostly stable body shape? Can we use this picture to have better balance by accepting that balance and axis constantly shift?

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.

What is Body Dynamics class all about?

Bonnie Stockman came up to me in my technique class last December, and said, "You know, you really should call this class Body Dynamics instead of Heel Camp, because this is stuff guys need to know, too." She was right, so I changed the name to reflect the real aim of this class.

Body Dynamics is about learning to dance tango with elegant, sensuous power. It is about learning to use your body efficiently, so that you have reserves to pull out when your partner and/or the music demand more from you. It is about mastering balance, axis, breath--all the challenging parts of tango. It is about finding your own voice and energy within the dance to make it YOUR dance.

What do we do in Body Dynamics? If you look at my recent posts with videos, you can see some of what we have been working on recently. This is a serious class that yields major results in flexibility, technique and dance level, in a short time. We start with about twenty minutes of tango-specific stretches: a combination of what my teacher, Georgina Vargas, taught me; with other stretches culled from my 25 years of teaching dance. Then, we do drills and exercises for the remainder of class. Each week, I focus on something that will be used in the advanced class, so that the dancers who take both are really ready to take the underlying work and DANCE it for the next hour. I also work on something for my students who take my intermediate/advanced intermediate class on Thursdays at 8 PM.

For example, one week last session, we worked on lapiz for the leaders. My advanced intermediate class then learned to use lapiz in a turn with a parada, while the advanced class incorporated it into a three-turn combination with an enrosque and leader adornos. That week, we focused on back pivots for followers, to make both turn combinations work with more power. We also learned a fun adorno for giros that helps the follower stay aligned better on tight/fast turns.

It's not too late to join the current session, even though it's the second week of the session. Sign up for Body Dynamics and the advanced class at 8 PM for $90, or take either session for $60 for six weeks; or drop in and check it out for $12. The Om Studio is at 14 NE 10th, just off Burnside. See you there!

Milonga traspie: rebound steps

Traspie steps; check steps; rock steps; rebound steps: What DO you call those quick-quick thingies that are in milonga, tango and vals?

I call them rebound steps because focusing on the elasticity of this step, rather than the speed of the step, makes for a much more efficient (and thus quick) execution of this kind of movement. Because milonga is faster than tango (and most valses), learning to do the rebound step is especially pertinent.

I was not taught this method when I first learned tango, but my main teachers, Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas proved to me that it worked better. After arguing about it for a while, they simply led me (and had me lead) their style of rebound and HOLY COW! it was a lot easier. Twelve years into fifteen years of tango, and I completely changed my approach and can easily lead most followers, even beginners, in milonga. And you can, too! (and Oscar and Georgina will be back in Portland and Eugene in August and November, lucky us!)

Rebound steps

A rebound step is any step that moves away from a given point and then returns to that initial location. For example, the first two steps of an ocho cortado for the leader are forward on the left, and then back on the right. Another example: a "traspie" step to the side before moving forward line-of-dance sends the leader to the side and then back to the original location.

Think of each two-piece rebound step as one unit: rather than "rock, rock" or "quick, quick" imagine that the movement in your foot and body is more like bouncing a ball: it hits the ground and rebounds up to your hand as one motion.

Ball bouncing

Nothing on YouTube was exactly what I wanted to show you, but this is close. See how the ball flattens into the ground and then rebounds in one smooth motion? That is what the arch of your foot is doing when you do a rebound step. If you do this while leading the follower to execute the same step, you can easily change directions at any speed.

Using the ball bouncing idea, notice that:

  1. The ball does not stop motion when it hits the floor. Instead, it flattens and then rebounds. Make sure you do not stop your motion.
  2. The ball does not stop a few inches from the floor and then come back up. Make sure that you do not signal for the follower to change direction until his/her foot has softened into the floor. The follower cannot change direction easily until the moment that the foot softens. Indicating a lead "early" to give the follower time to react, slows this move down.
  3. When the ball finishes the rebounding motion, it comes back to center (or back to your hand). Make sure that your rebound finishes back on axis/balance before moving to a new location.

Things that are different from an actual ball bouncing:

  1. Don't sink in your knees to lower your body! Stay at the same height while doing this move. The knees are naturally lightly flexed at all times to aid in balance and smoothness of move.
  2. Any direction you send your partner, they will rebound back to you. Think of a combination of handball (trying to send it straight back to yourself, however) and bouncing a ball.
  3. You don't have to push on the ball with your hand to make this happen: move your body, and the follower will be moved. I hope. If not, play naughty toddler!

How to break yourself of old traspie habits

It's one thing to understand how and why a rebound step works better when done this way. It's a much more time-intensive activity to relearn the step, which is why I've begun teaching this as one of the first steps in tango, milonga and vals classes.

My suggestions:

  1. Dance slow motion: slow motion movement will help you find how far transfer your weight before rebounding. Abandon the need to make this move go quickly: as soon as it works slow, it will start to work at faster speeds.
  2. Close your eyes: learn to SENSE the movement of the follower, either in close or open embrace. When you can feel the follower's foot hit and soften into the floor, you will be able to reverse the follower's direction without much effort on either person's part.
  3. Play naughty toddler: I've noticed that most leaders do a great job leading rebound steps when forced to by a follower who is not paying attention and is full-on dancing. After all, stopping early to "signal" a change in direction won't work with this kind of follower! If they are about to run into someone, most leaders do a wonderful job of using the follower's body and weight to change direction ;-)
  4. Ask the follower for feedback: if one of you can feel the transfer of weight and the right time to change direction, you can teach each other the rebound step. If that is the leader, the follower can be told while dancing. If the follower feels it, but not the lead, practice slow motion and verbally cuing the leader ("Now!") until the leader feels confident about leading the step.

Until the new neural pathway is established in your brain, you will need to methodically and slowly repattern your body to access the new pathway first (this is why the new motion feels "weird" or "strange"--it is not the one that feels "right" to the body until the new pathway has been established). I've looked online for a good, short version of explaining how the body builds neural pathways, but most are either too simplistic, or too long. If you are interested in this information, go play on Google, and let me know if YOU find a good article! Thanks!


If you need any inspiration, check out Oscar and Georgina dancing a milonga, and watch their tons of lovely rebound steps! Now, go practice!

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.

"Good" vs. "bad": cultural baggage about posture and learning to dance

Recently, I have had many discussions with students about how hard it is to move in a new way. They feel embarrassed, awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes even dizzy as they try to adjust posturally to salsa and tango. Although a new movement may not feel natural, why do some people have such a strong reaction to new ways of standing, walking and dancing?

We are taught by our culture and our families that there are "good" ways to move and "bad" ways to move. "Good" movement fits with our ideals of how men, women and children should be. "Bad" movements are those that are done by "other" people, or people who don't fit into that particular cultural ideal.

In the United States, there are many different cultural groups.  Many of my students are white adults who grew up in the United States. In this case, I am mostly discussing their struggles against learned "good" cultural behavior, in order to learn salsa and tango, and to find a more aligned body along the way. If the new movement resembles movement that the dancer learned was inappropriate, then not only does the body fight to learn, but the mind must move past old judgments about what movement is "good" or "bad".

What have we been taught?

  • "Good": "Stand up straight!" This means pull our shoulders back, our stomachs in, our hips under and raise our chin; the military look.
  • "Bad": Relaxing the spine so that the natural curves work, the shoulders release, the hips relax back, and the chin lowers. 

Why is this bad? Because it looks suspiciously like "lazy"; the Puritans would turn in their graves! North Americans have a cultural ideal of looking busy, trying hard, and putting effort into what is done. Relaxing feels and looks too easy to be right ;-)

Another example:

  • "Good": "Be a lady!" This means tuck the hips under to hide the buttocks, release the shoulders forward to make sure you aren't flaunting your breasts, and hold your hips in a straight position so you don't call attention to your sexual/sensual body; walking like a "loose" woman. I find this is true more for the 45+ women than the younger women, but many young women from conservative families still have this issue.
  • "Bad": Using your hips the way they were created, with side-to-side swing, makes you look like a "bad" girl, encouraging male attention. Letting your hips move back into a more relaxed position gives your body sway and your butt sticks out a bit. Almost all of my female students tell me that they feel as if their butt is REALLY too far out behind them, while I see their hips still tucked forward! Lifting at the solar plexus makes it impossible to hunch over and hide your chest: if you are well-endowed, then so be it! That really makes some women quake.  An entire sector of N. America has learned to hide their bodies, rather than to enjoy their bodies, and I am pushing all of their unconscious buttons while trying to remedy poor alignment issues.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I think it illustrates how hard a person has to fight to learn new movement that they have been taught is culturally inappropriate. Is it culturally inappropriate to dance salsa and tango? Is it wrong to go against cultural information you learned as a child or young adult? Why do we have certain actions that are culturally accepted or condemned?

I would like to hear your comments about what you find difficult/awkward/uncomfortable about learning tango and salsa and other couple dances. I'll write more as I receive your comments.

Arm and shoulder structure: improving your tango embrace

If I am touching someone else I will be able to feel theirtextures, the forces moving within them, instead of just the pressure of my own tight-held fingers indenting their skin. Something is exchanged through our nerve endings and we are both moved by each other. Each one of us experiences a slight re-arrangement of all our cells. (Dowd, p. 45)

Yet another great Irene Dowd article from the book Taking Root to Fly, "The Upper Extremity" discusses the anatomy of the shoulder girdle and arms, provides a good visualization exercise that I think will help in tango embrace (and any partner dancing) and ponders posture and perceived morality, which we'll also address.

First, let's look at how the shoulder girdle is constructed, how that requires us to move efficiently, and what that means in terms of the tango embrace and leading/following a move.

Arm and shoulder anatomy

The shoulder girdle is an incomplete bony ring that rests on top of the ribcage. There are four movable parts: two clavicles (collarbones) and two scapulae (shoulder blades). The only bony connection between the shoulder girdle and the rest of the body, is the joint between the collar bone and and the sternum (breastbone).

The arms attach to the shoulder blades with a ball-and-socket joint at the shoulder. This joint has the most mobility of any joint on the human skeleton. Because of that joint, and because the shoulder blade can move up and down through a large range of motion, your hands can reach anywhere in a three-foot range of the body.

Your elbows have a 180-degree mobility. At the wrist the two bones that make up your forearm can rotate around each other so that the hand surface can face any direction without changing the orientation of the body as a whole. The twenty-seven bones in each hand move around easily as well.

Balance, dynamism and energy

So, the good news: the human shoulder and arm have enormous mobility potential. The bad news: there are lots of little tiny pieces that need to be aligned in order to correctly create a good dance embrace!

Somewhere between extremes, there is a perfect alignment and balance that we can reach, although Dowd notes that it is "not easily achieved" (p. 40). One reason why it is not easily achieved, is that balance must have an element of energy in order to work. If the alignment is perfect, but not movable, then it cannot be used. Below, there is a visualization to practice, in order to find alignment AND energy.

A second reason why we find balance difficult to achieve, is that we don't typically use the entire range of motion that our arms can perform, and thus find it difficult to find middle ground. Most of us use the muscles for keeping our arms and hands in front or above us. Right now, I'm typing and sitting. I do many tasks that require my arms to be in front of me. When my son drags me onto the monkey bars at the playground, I realize how weak my muscles are for hanging or for pulling myself through space from rung to run. Likewise, my pushup muscles are pathetic.

How do we increase our mobility to find a balanced alignment? Relaxing the shoulders and letting them drape over our ribs will help with this mobility. Dowd says we need to ". . . give up all extraneous muscle tension" (p. 43), in order to find an energized, balanced alignment of the shoulder girdle. Try the visualization described below to help achieve that.

Moral judgments, personality traits, and movement

A third reason why balance is elusive is the moral judgments we have been taught to make about various movements through our cultural upbringing or family belief system. Dowd writes:

Since the potential range of motion of the upper extremity is tremendous, no one culture encourages the use of all this range in 'normal' daily activity. Therefore, the final step [towards balance] involves performing movements one may have never thought of before. Performing activities which are 'abnormal' may bring subtle censure from one's own internal, and perhaps uncompromising, moral judge. The censure may be in the form of feeling awkward or just uncomfortable with the unusual movements, or even a little sad or irritated. (Dowd, p. 41)

As humans, we use a lot of arm and hand movement when we communicate (hand waves, shoulders shrugging, arms folded across our bodies, etc.). We cannot move our upper extremities without expressing emotion or communicating information. We react to how we move, and so do other people.

If certain ways of holding the body or moving are not considered morally "right," we fight with our feelings towards that position. Dowd notes: "If one extreme is judged 'good' and the opposite 'bad' then one can hardly feel balanced halfway between these two. Instead one will keep edging towards the 'good' polarity (p. 41)."

Think about the shoulder element of "stand up straight!" that we see here in our culture. The military "upright" stance throws the shoulders back in an extreme position, squeezing the shoulder blades together, pushing the ribs out of alignment and tightening the body. However, this is taught as a "good" position. Conversely, relaxing the shoulders and back to the other extreme creates a slouchy position that is seen as "lazy" or "bad" in our culture. Most students I have taught tend towards the tight extreme and fight relaxing; not surprising in our "look busy" culture. It's a physical expression of our cultural teachings.

What does this say about people wanting a lot of arm motion but not chest motion? A lot of issues with the embrace have to do with how we feel we need to express ourselves to be heard. Moving arms more than balance allows: assuming that the other person is not listening, or that they won't understand us unless we "yell" with our arms. Rigid shoulders and arms: believing there is a "right position" that we can find and hold so we don't make mistakes.

I could be way out in left field here, but I think there are interesting tidbits about people and movement.

I am thinking especially about a student of mine who LOVES big movements. He doesn't like to be controlled any anyone; he enjoys expressing himself any way he wishes; he likes breaking rules. His arms go everywhere. Dancing with him is always fun, in the same way that rock climbing or carnival rides are fun: fear and excitement mixed; I never know what to expect. His belief system and dance style definitely match: no little tango rules are going to stop him!

My teachers have always told me to "Relax, Ely! Relax!" I am so dedicated to doing things 100% right, that I can't do them 100% right! I have had to learn to use less effort, find out how to stretch while relaxing (tight does not equal stretched!), in order to actually become aligned. My upbringing taught that your vocation should feel hard, like work, not relaxed and fun! Oy.

Visualization for aligning your shoulder girdle without extraneous tension from Dowd

Here is a visualization to improve energy flow, release muscles, and help find alignment and balance. It also aims to release the old teachings we hold in our bodies that no longer serve us because they impede balance.

1. Lie on the floor in a relaxed pose (feet flat on the floor, knees up, back relaxed along the floor, arms either relaxed next to you, resting on your body, or reaching up over your head to release on the floor).

2. Close your eyes.

3. As you breathe, light/energy/electricity/color/you choose, explodes out the solar plexus and then flows along a rib, continuing around to where the rib connects to your spine. Breath again and, each time you breathe, expand the energy circling your body to another rib, until you can see/feel the entire rib cage expanding and flowing like this. (Dowd suggests thinking of the rib as a "horizontal gaseous ring" like Saturn's rings).

4. Now, imagine that your shoulder blades can soften and melt away from your rib cage. Dowd suggests thinking of a "chinese fan with its handle at the base of my thorax [right above your lower back] and its furthermost tips arching open at each of my shoulder joints" (p. 44). I think of having wings like a butterfly, and folding them open, so that the outer edges of my shoulder blades release down and the outer edges of my collarbones do the same thing. The shoulders widen and relax away from the spine.

5. Think of each joint as a gateway that can open to the light. Each gateway widens as you let the feeling move through that joint or bone. When you breathe, light/energy/color flows from your chest cavity, out through the shoulder joint, down through the bones of the arm, through the elbow, through your forearm, through your wrist, through the bones of your hand, and out your palm and fingers. Let the energy release out into the ground.

6. Let the energy flow in through the soles of the feet, up through the foot bones, through the ankles, up to the knees, through the knee joint, up to your pelvis, through your pelvis, up to your spine. Then, repeat step 5 and 6 as many times as you like.

7. As your body releases your joints, you can find a new neutral position, free of old habits and old information about the "right" ways to hold or move the body. When you get up, try to bri ng the new feelings with you, releasing old judgments.

Ideas to bring onto the tango dance floor (or salsa, or swing or polka!) from this work:

If what comes to me from contact with another person seems undesirable to me at any time, I can simply allow it to continue its movement quickly and unimpeded out of me through the very same pathways from my body to earth that I opened wide during my passive visualization activity. (Dowd, p. 45)

Facing another living organism . . . is almost, but not quite, impossible to do with total neutrality and openness, without any use of previously-learned techniques or defensive contraction, (Dowd, p. 45)

If I am touching someone else I will be able to feel their textures, the forces moving within them, instead of just the pressure of my own tight-held fingers indenting their skin. Something is exchanged through our nerve endings and we are both moved by each other. Each one of us experiences a slight re-arrangement of all our cells. (Dowd, p. 45)

I am so grateful to Irene Dowd for writing these lovely articles. At twenty-five, in graduate school, I didn't completely understand what she was talking about (and wished she would be a bit more succinct). How wonderful to re-read them and find that I've been teaching this information for years, having forgotten from whence it came!

Finding your center: Irene Dowd's article on pelvic structure and alignment

You are now centering your pelvis in relation to the rest of your body, but it is not in a position. It is an ever dynamic balance that allows you your fullest possible range of movement with the least possible muscle work.” (p. 27, Taking Root to Fly)


The pelvis is a bowl, or a funnel or . . . what DOES it look like? Check out these images (and the other thousands on Google):


Irene Dowd’s article, Finding Your Center, looks at pelvic structure and finding balance/alignment while moving. Dowd describes the pelvis as “the hub of a wheel . . . the point around which the entire body weight balances equally above and below, and to all sides” (p. 20).

The rest of the body is connected from this center by muscles, and when the pelvis moves, the rest of the body moves through space along with it. There are three bones comprising the pelvic girdle: the sacrum, and two os innominata (hip bones). The sacrum functions as the end of the spine and the back of the pelvis. The center of gravity in the body is located in front of the sacrum, in the pelvic bowl.

We have a less stable pelvis than animals that locomote on four legs because of the way the weight of the pelvis balances on the legs. “The spine must sit on the sacrum behind the point where the pelvis sits on the legs so that weight now transfers through it and forward, as well as down to the legs.  Thus the pelvis can still be centered over the legs and yet provide the base for a vertical spine,” but we need to fine-tune our alignment for maximum balance while we move.

The posterior arch of the pelvis

As we can see in cathedrals, an arch can hold up a lot of weight.  The pelvis forms an arch, with the hip bones as the pillars, leaning towards each other.  These are balanced on the femurs, with the hip bones rotating on and around the heads of the femurs. The sacrum is the keystone at the top of the arch.  The keystone is wider on top than on bottom, preventing it from falling out of place; the sacrum is triangular, with the wide end up. This arch transfers the weight of the upper body, through the legs and to the ground.


The anterior arch of the pelvis

The front of the pelvis needs to counterbalance that thrust of the spine through to the floor because, as we move, the spine, pelvis and legs move; this is not a fused system. On the front of the pelvis, the cartilage that joins the pelvic bones together, the pubic symphysis, creates the keystone for the anterior arch.  The pillars are the two pelvic bones again, but the front sections (look at that picture of the pelvis again).


The flying buttress

I couldn’t resist ;-)  In this case, the shape of the femoral bone/hip joint creates an upward and inward pressure on the pelvic girdle. Much like the shape of flying buttresses on cathedrals, this functions to brace the pelvic arch. The heads of the femurs pushing up and in counterbalances the downward and outward push of the spine on the sacral joints.


See-saw: pelvic balancing act

Since we have to move this delicately balanced structure (try moving Notre Dame!), things get a bit more complicated at this point. Dowd points out that most of the weight on this structure is on the back of the pelvis, with little weight on the pubic symphysis:

This would seem to create an embarrassing situation in which the front of the pelvic seesaw would fly up and hit us in the chin unless we exerted considerable effort with the muscles that pass from the front of the thigh to the front of the pelvis in order to hold it down onto the legs. (p. 22)


Luckily, there are strong ligaments that help with this process: the ileo-femoral ligament connects across the front of the femoral joint (leg to hip connection) and does a lot of the work for us. This allows the back of the pelvis to tip up slightly, to “balance the seesaw” of forces.


Fixing our old habits

Dowd’s assertion that “few of us, however, have found this state in which our pelvis balances on top of our legs and under our spine with only minimal muscular exertion” (p. 22) will be vocally agreed upon by most of my students! Most of us have spent a lot of time trying to “stand up straight” and “tuck it under” and “pull it in” until we’ve taught our body a whole bunch of inefficient ways to balance and move. Dowd mentions how relieved she felt when she started to learn correct alignment: “. . . it was certainly a relief to know that my inability to flatten my spine against a wall while standing with ‘good posture’ was not due to deformity” (p. 23), but to the fact that the spine has three separate curves that counter-balance each other.

The spine just doesn’t work right in a straight line! If you distort any of the three curves in the back, it forces your body to work overtime just to remain balanced while standing and moving.

If you tuck your pelvis forward to forcibly straighten your back, your hips are too far forward for easy balance. You create extra tension in the muscles of the front of the thighs and back of the calves. You also tense your buttocks more and tighten the muscles in the lower thoracic spine (above your hips). That’s a lot of extra work that gets in the way of ease of movement (or tango).

If you rotate your hips too far back, your lower back and the back of your neck take the extra pressure.  In either case, all that extra work does not make movement enjoyable.

Dowd notes: “Remember how your tower of building blocks in nursery school collapsed in a heap when you did not center the blocks directly over each other? This same principle applies to our body.” (p. 24)

If your bones are not stacked up correctly, you need to use a lot of muscle work to stay upright. This makes some muscles work all the time, becoming strong, but not flexible. Other muscles aren’t used enough, becoming too weak to function correctly.

Exercises for finding the right alignment

If it’s hard for you to find the right alignment, Dowd suggests that you rest with your back on a rug or towel (if the floor feels too hard for you), knees up and feet flat on the floor. Make sure your feet are placed so that your hip joints are still in comfortable alignment. Have about a 90 degree angle between your thighs and shins. Rest your arms either 1. above your head on the floor; 2. palms down at your sides; or 3. on your chest or abdomen: pick the easiest of the three positions for you.


  • Visualize the long, stretchy length of your spine. Remember that it has three curves in it: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest) and lumbar (lower back).
  • Imagine your sacrum moving down towards your feet and spreading out.
  • Let the floor support you.
  • Visualize your lumbar spine relaxing, letting a line of energy come from the center of your pelvis/center of gravity, up along the inside of your lumbar spine.
  • Feel how the heads of the femurs can sink deeply into the hip sockets, closer to your center of gravity inside your pelvis.
  • Remember how this feels when you stand up: you are aiming for this ease of alignment when standing!
  • Your deep core muscles do the work of this alignment: if you feel your abdominals on the surface working hard, you are using the wrong muscles. This entire work of alignment is about LESS effort for more balance and LESS discomfort for more mobility.


Feel the difference: memorize the difference

When you get up, get up slowly and stand with your eyes closed for a moment, feeling the alignment again in balance, as it was on the floor. All my dance perfectionists:  Here is what Dowd says about new body postures:

Stand quietly with eyes closed for a moment and be aware of how your body feels now without making any postural adjustments or self judgements [sic].  Sometimes we feel out of balance when we alter some of our habitual patterns of muscle activity, but our sensations can be deceptive. Ask a friend or look in a mirror and see if you are actually more or less centered than before. (p. 27)


 My favorite bodyworker in Eugene, Joe, told me it takes six weeks minimum for a new habit to begin to feel natural. Stick with it, dancers!


"Visualizing Movement Potential" for tango

I'd like to summarize and expand upon another of Irene Dowd's fabulous articles in Taking Root to Fly. Rereading them all these years after my Movement Fundamentals class (thanks Sherrie Barr, my teacher!), I realize how much these ideas have become the basis of my teaching. Irene Dowd credits HER teacher, Dr. Lulu Sweigard with much of the content of this article, so read her work, too!

Her main idea in this article: the nervous system runs all the systems of the human body. Therefore, if we want to change how we move, we need to change the way our nerves and brain interact with the rest of the body: our neurological pathways. We can change these pathways through conscious attention, by changing our movement habits. 

"Dis-ease" or lack of ease, comes from the body being out of balance. The more the muscles are balanced around a joint, the less stress is put on the body to use and maintain that joint. The more the systems of the body are in balance, the easier it is to move in an efficient and pain-free way. Balance does not mean that the body is at rest, but rather that all muscles and systems have moments of rest and moments of movement, so that no part of the body is being constantly used (or constantly relaxed) and thus becoming fatigued, injured, or too weak to use correctly.

Dr. Sweigard taught correct use of the body through VISUALIZING lines of movement through the body in order to repattern how the body used energy.  She used the "constructive rest position" (lying on the floor, with the feet flat on the floor, knees up, hips/back relaxed, and arms out and up, relaxed against the floor. After the person visualized the movement in this position, she gradually transitioned them to visualizing the movement while standing and then moving around:

"Visualizing a line of movement thorugh the body while not moving can change the habitual patterns of messages being sent from the brain through nerve pathways to the muscles. As long as this constructive new thinking pattern is activated during movement, a new pattern of muscle activity is automatically being used to decrease physical stress and maintain a more balanced alignment of skeletal parts. Over a period of time during which there is continual daily attention to new habit patterns in thinking and action, the body's shape will be transformed." (p. 2)

This is what we are doing in my classes: realigning hips, knees, ankles, feet and body for more efficient balance front-back and left-right. Then, for each movement, we are repatterning how the body moves through a step to make it efficient. Each combination of muscles and joints works in balance with the body. Efficiency removes pain and imbalance. If you are in pain, the first step is to alleviate pain through teaching the body and neural pathways a new way of moving.

If something isn't working, don't just continue to repeat that step: "Not even a worm will persist after repeated negative reinforcement. The solution is to go one step back to something you can do, crawling perhaps." That may mean that you have to learn to stand and walk before learning tango. Master the fundamentals before going on so that you experience success. When you can do a movement, or series of movements, correctly, then the neural pathways have learned that and are ready to do more complex repatterning.

Exercise, part I (on the floor in constructive rest position)

  • Lie on the floor in constructive rest position.
  • Relax your body, either through visualization (sand or water or ? flowing out of your eyes, ears, hands, toes, wherever you have tension, until the body feels relaxed, open and receptive) or by tensing and then releasing each set of muscles until your body feels relaxed throughout.
  • Take time to really bring your body to neutral: this relaxation may take quite some time if you are under stress or have chronic pain in your body. If you do not feel receptive and relaxed, you will not be able to visualize new patterns easily.
  • First, visualize the basic, fundamental parts of the new movement. For example, if you want to make arm or leg movements that require your center and spine to support them, visualize a long, stable spine, and then do small or easy movements with the limb you want to use.
  • Relax again, while you continue to visualize the flow of strength and stability in your spine, lengthening without working your muscles.
  • Now visualize the entire movement you want to do, without moving your body. Imagine the sweep of the energy through your body, through each joint that is needed, through the muscles that will be used. Imagine doing it without pain or difficulty. While you are doing this, your new neural pathways are being created.
  • Any time you feel the old pattern (or pain or tightness), go back to the relax/go to neutral phase and start over. If you keep trying while it hurts or while you are clenching your body, the new pathways are NOT being formed.
  • Only spend 5-10 minutes doing this at a time: staying in one position for a long time is not good for the body: it contracts some muscles constantly, and lets others relax constantly: what we are trying to avoid ;-)

Exercise, part II (warming up, standing)

  • Get up off the floor slowly.
  • Start doing small movements to warm up the body: leg joints, arm joints, spine, neck, etc.
  • When you feel warmed up, move around doing movements you already know, letting your body feel the "rightness" of these motions.
  • Only at this point should you try the movement.

Exercise, part III (doing the new motion)

  • Do the new movement, focusing on the small, basic parts of the movement first.
  • When you do it correctly, no matter how small a part of the movement is right, congratulate yourself! Give yourself positive encouragement. This is an improvement, even if it is small and gradual.
  • Repeat the successful movement until it feels more "natural" than "strange" (your body needs to start to feel the rightness of it to memorize it as "the right way").
  • Repeat each day: this helps you learn the right movement through it feeling right, and also helps your body develop the new neural pathways more quickly.

Exercise, part IV (let it go)

  • Your body works on neural pathways, and on integrating new information, on its own. Let it do the work!
  • Go off and do other things; let go of the new information consciously, and come back to it tomorrow.
  • Come back to it daily: if you wait too long, you undo the work you did before, and must start over.

Although a teacher can help you learn what motion is correct, and can check in with you to help you adjust the process if it is not working, most of this work is YOU. Focus on the positive: the mind and body are plastic. The human body and mind can learn to do all sorts of movements. YOUR human body can do this. If you can imagine your body doing a motion, you will eventually be able to perform that motion with your body. Irene Dowd says:

"It takes about two months of daily practice from the time you have started to think about your movement differently to the time that your muscles visibly change shape. While sixty days into the future seems like a long time to wait before a new internal balance brings tangible results, it isn't very long at all in comparison to your whole life which you have already spent developing the form you now have." (p. 6)

Off you go now! I need to do my visualizations of the perfect adorno.

Postural information for dancing Argentine Tango

This is some of the work we've been doing in my Tango Fundamentals class this summer. We are six weeks into this class, with four more to go. I usuallywait and post the review as a page, but I'm going to post this much on my blog so that you all read it before coming to class this week ;-)  I'm working on the steps we've done, and will post that ASAP, with updates until the end of classes.

Postural information


The hips needs to be positioned correctly both from front to back, and side to side. From front to back, the hips have to be aligned in such a way as to take stress off the lower back, while tilting slightly back. This alignment really comes from using the psoas and other core abdominal muscles (I think this will take another blog entry, so hang onto that thought for the moment) to lift and stretch the entire back, so that each vertebra can rotate slightly, with ease.

The way that Georgina got my back into the right position (the first time) was to lift me from my rib cage, until my lower back relaxed, but I had a very lifted, stretched feeling in my abs. Once you find this position, it doesn't vary, but remains uniform throughout the dance.

The side-to-side motion of the hips changes with each step, in the shape of a pendulum. The pendulum motion aids in changing weight and staying on balance. The point of the hip motion is to position the hip joint above the foot arch to maintain balance more easily. It is NOT a hula motion and it is NOT Cuban motion. It helps the dancer to use ALL joints for movement, from the neck to the foot, rather than the knees.

The same motion (both forward/back and side/side) is used by men and women, but it looks different because the pelvic bones are shaped differently. Similarly, a woman with wide hips and a woman with narrow hips will do the same motion, but it will look VERY different. The point is that there is not a correct LOOK, but a correct ALIGNMENT: don't try to make it visually match another dancer whose body is not similar to yours.


Keep both of them slightly flexed. This aids in balancing the body. Try not to put extra stress on your knees and quadriceps. Keep your knees as together as possible, but focus on keeping the ENERGY in between the knees, whether you can touch them together or not. If you are feeling a lot of work going on in your quads, adjust your hips further back. I've noticed at the milongas that a lot of people dance while crouching a little bit. Tango is not tennis ;-) and we need elegance as well as balance. Remember to stretch up the entire length of your body WHILE keeping the joints released.


Your feet stay in a V, with the heels together all the time. The "free" foot keeps contact with the floor for energy and balance. In heels, the ankles touch each other, big toe down on the floor. Guys, think about your big toe maintaining connection with the floor in the same way (it will look different because of the heel height). I think of this as a "kick-stand" that provides extra balance. 

Oscar and Georgina say 1% of the weight is on the "free" foot.  I'd agree with that. The weight on the foot is balanced, 1/2 on the ball, 1/2 on the heel. The weight is also balanced down the center line of the foot, although the ankle energy focus is towards the other foot. If you tend to roll in, think about connecting with the outside edge of your foot. If you tend to roll out, like me, focus your attention in, towards the big toe.

Forward steps are ALWAYS heel toe (do you walk down the street toe heel?). Side steps: the heel usually hits right before the ball of the foot, but it depends on the step. Backwards, the foot hits toe heel. If you relax your ankle right before you step, the correct, "normal" anatomically efficient movement will usually happen in all directions.

Solar plexus

Keep your solar plexus lifted all the time. It does NOT tip up and down; it remains the same during the dance. When I lead, I aim my solar plexus a tiny bit above straight ahead. If I tilt my solar plexus down, the follower's feet suddenly get in my way, because I have directed their energy down, rather than out.

The energy of the dancer connects the partners at the solar plexus, even when dancing in styles where the solar plexus is not always touching. I prefer a small V embrace, where the dancers are not facing each other squarely. I still keep my energy towards my leader. When I dance open embrace, I follow all of these postural rules; the dance doesn't change when it opens up unless we get sloppy and sacrifice posture and connection for (poorly-executed) fancy steps.

Contrabody position

Contrabody position, where the solar plexus and hips rotate slightly away from each other, is not a big movement. It is small but occurs in every movement, just as it occurs in your normal walk (if it doesn't occur in your normal walk, we need to work on your non-tango locomotion for improved efficiency off the dance floor ;-) We worked more on this in the intermediate class (for those of you taking both levels), so I'll focus more on this in another entry.

Reminder: next session of classes will begin in early September, both in Portland and Vancouver, WA. If you'd like to sign up for a few private lessons between sessions, now is the time to do that. If you have never studied with me before, I am offering a "first class special" of $10 off my regular rate for one private lesson; as always, if you buy four at a time, you get a fifth one free!

Walking your tango: Irene Dowd's article about "Standing on Two Legs"

Walking seems like any easy thing to do. After all, we learned to do it as tiny children. For many people learning to dance, however, walking turns out to be more difficult than learning new steps. Why is this?

Many of us use our bodies in ways that are inefficient. When walking inefficiently, we put more stress on our bodies than we need to. If more stress is placed on the body, it wears out sooner. Learning to move efficiently enables us to be active longer in life and to enjoy less chronic pain as we age.

With so much energy being expended to maintain balance and posture,less energy and focus is available to deal with the dance itself. Therefore, learning to walk efficiently makes learning to tango much easier. Irene Dowd's article, "Standing on Two Legs," explains how the foot, leg and pelvis are constructed, and provides several excellent images that might help tango dancers move with more energy and less stress.

The foot

The foot is the base of the body, connecting with the earth. In order to stand and walk efficiently, we have to use the foot correctly. Dowd says that

The foot itself is composed of lengthwise and crosswise arches so that each foot is somewhat like a dome with a triangular base. Ideally, when we are standing still, the weight of the leg transfers from the ankle equally forward and back, one half of the weight going through the heel and one half going through the ball of the foot. (p. 30 in Taking Root to Fly)

I further spread that awareness of weight and balance to the four corners of the foot: ball of the big toe; ball of the pinky toe; inside edge of the heel; and the outside edge of the heel.

Walking in space

Using the foot correctly makes it easier to move through space with less effort. That means that more effort can be applied to balance, breath, musicality, the partner, etc.

When we are moving through space, this arch functions as a powerful spring to thrust us forward from one foot to the other through the action of a multitude of muscles on the sole of the foot and back of the leg. When we put the foot back down again, all these muscles relax as long as our foot is pointing straight ahead so that our weight is again supported by the fundamental arch . . . (p. 30)

Now, this seems to not jive with the idea of being slightly turned out in tango. I have pondered this for some time, and I feel that the main point is that the foot must be in a natural position. Most of the dancers that I teach naturally have some degree of turn-out. I believe that what Dowd means by straight (and I have not asked her personally, so apologies Ms. Dowd if I have mis-read!) is your natural turn-out. 

Other joints: ankle, knee and hip

Dowd stresses that  ". . . the aim to keep in mind is allowing the joints to come easily into line with one another."

The joints of the foot and leg need to line up so that the bones of the body support balance, rather than the muscles. Luckily for us humans, our leg bones are constructed in a way that allows these joints to stack up under/over each other easily. That way, muscles aid in movement, but balance is (mostly) finding the right way to stack bones on bones.

The ankle are relatively stable in structure. It is a hinge joint (forward backward movement, no rotation) and has a lot of strong ligaments holding it together. Rotation near the ankle happens within the foot. 

The knee is less stable, but still built to hold you up. It is a hinge joint, like the ankle, but has some rotation (too much, and you rip things, eek). If you hold the knee out of alignment in your normal walk and standing motion, you need to devote a lot of muscle and brain focus to staying balanced.

The femoral (hip) joint is a ball and socket joint, which means that all sorts of cool movement is possible here. Because the femur tilts out from the hip joint and then back towards the knee, the knee lines up directly with the femoral joint (and the ankle). In order to walk efficiently, the pelvis needs to be in an optimal position in order to balance over your feet correctly.

Images to help proper alignment occur

I think of my legs as part of a huge, thick spring coming up from the ground, up my leg bones and up to my center, with each piece of my legs having the same amount of even flex. Of course, this is not physically possible, but it prevents me from using my knees as my balance point, and spreads that strain from my ankles and feet up to my pelvis (if you have any joint injuries, imagine the other joints picking up the slack to protect your body!).

Here are some images that Dowd uses to help you position your body more efficiently:

  • Think of your sacrum (center back of your pelvis that is also the lower end of your spine) as very heavily sinking down towards your heels but do not contract your buttock or abdominal muscles to do this, let gravity do all the work while you simple observe in your mind's eye.
  • Imagine a line of energy thrusting up from the ground through the center of your foot . . . straight up to the center of your femoral joint (hip joint).
  • Think of the centers of your foot, ankle, knee and femoral joint as open gateways for the energy to shoot through from the ground source. This line of energy jets up like a fountain of water from the ground to your pelvis to support you upright and then it streams down from your buttock and all around you like a waterfall to flow out your feels and out each toe in a spreading pool. Remember that your bones provide the upward thrust against the pull of gravity, not your muscles.
  • Let your feet remember that they are always a living connection with the earth. Allow each leg its full capacity to be alternately stable as a column and fluid as water.

Learning takes time

For each one of you who has said to me, "But it's not working!" I want to reiterate that tango (and learning to walk efficiently) is a process that your body needs to learn. It takes time for the neural pathways of the new, efficient movement to take precedence over habitual movement pathways. Muscles have to learn to relax (or work harder) to balance in a new way. Motor memory needs time to function easily, memorizing the new pattern or shape your body will use. Dowd says this happens after" . . . much movement practice with a new alignment pattern. . . . In the meantime you must actively concentrate on performing every-day basic movement patterns with your joints in line."

OK, go out there, and WALK!

Note: for those of you who would like to read Irene Dowd in all her glory, the book is Taking Root to Fly, ISBN #0-937645-02-8. Eventually, I will touch on all the articles in this book (perhaps not the one of the anatomy of the eye; you can read that one for yourself!). Irene Dowd has performed modern dance, choreographed, as well as taught neuro-muscular training and dance at Juilliard and several other impressive places, and studied at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical School.