Practice whilst Protecting Your Dance and Your Body for You & Your Partner

Not just Practice but Protecting your dance and body for you and your partner is often not part the syllabus – but you can, and should, do this for yourself from day one –

First and foremost it’s about ensuring you remain in control of your body so you are never compromised or put at risk.  This is important for developing your Tango skills – both technique and style that’s right for you and your body.  Even more importantly, it’s about protecting yourself from injury as you try out new and unfamiliar movements, AND keeping safe when your partners (sometimes inexperienced or even out of control) are trying things out on you!

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Tall or Short – Fat or Thin  – Young or Old – does it matter?

No!  What does matter is how you use your body, size and weight.  You cannot do anything about your age, but your strength and flexibility will improve with practice – within reason.  Be realistic.   High leg kicks and wrap-rounds etc. are not accepted at some Milongas, but even at an ‘anything goes’ type of event, they can look ugly and, frankly, embarrassing if not done well.  They are also dangerous if your body is not trained to execute them– no matter what your age and size.  If in doubt avoid them, or better still take a video yourself before using them in public.

Whatever your shape and size, you need to take responsibility for, and be in charge of, your own technique.  You cannot expect your partner to carry you.  This does not make you less responsive as a Follower – on the contrary, responsiveness requires you to be able to move freely, well, and at short notice, for which you’ll need all of the above!  Be aware that if you are slow to respond, your leader will also experience this as heaviness.  Conversely, with good technique you can adapt and recover even with a poor lead.
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Being Aware of your Body

From a Volcada back into axis

And how it moves is essential.   Be realistic as your age and experience will have a direct effect how your own body moves.  Don’t try to copy or mimic those beautifully trained dancers you see performing at a Milonga / Workshop / Show.  For many ladies they will also be a great deal younger.  They will have a completely different way of moving because of the years of dance and training.  If they have any balletic training they will have developed their feet to point outward when dancing.  Their knees, hips and lower back have evolved over the years to cope with those movements.  If you come into tango later in life, the chances are you will find this very difficult to achieve, uncomfortable and potentially damaging.  For instance – to do a basic horizontal forward ocho, the trained dancer will develop a style where they open their feet and pelvis outward, so their toes are already facing their partner before the pivot is executed.  There are very simple, elegant and effective ways of achieving the same result, without damage to your body.  You do need good coaching – it’s very difficult to sort all this out on your own.

As a Tango teacher we’ve lead ladies barely 5’3” tall and size 6, and they can be like a lead weight to move, similar to a baby who doesn’t want to be picked up.  Their body goes into “dead weight”.   Other ladies have been six inches taller than and move like a dream.  This has a lot to do with posture and core strength.  At its simplest, developing core strength involves standing up straight with your tail gently tucked in, opening your solar plexis, which keeps your tummy muscles engaged.  Keep your head straight, the back of your neck lengthened and your shoulders relaxed.  If you’ve done Pilates or similar exercises, you’ll know what this means.  This can all be achieved in your class with good tuition.

Dancing safely whilst retaining your composure comes with the assurance of knowing your own dance.  That comes with practising your basic foundation techniques whenever you can – alone.  There’s no great mystery to this.  You have: forward steps, back steps, side steps and pivots.
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How heavy are You?

How would you know if you’re heavy on your partner? (see below ‘How to Practice Forward Ochos).
In a class situation it’s certainly the right place to have this conversation.  But even then, some people will find this very uncomfortable to deal with. You can ask your partner/spouse, but this could be confrontational.  You could ask your teacher, but they may reluctant to be honest in case it distresses you, or results in you giving up.   Moot point – as good teachers need to coach not just instruct.  Sadly some teachers simply do not have these necessary skills.  So you need to find a way to discover, for yourself, these answers.

All the basic foundation elements of Tango are vital to protect your body and your dance.  Everything thereafter – which needs devoted time to practise – will be built on these foundations.  You need to practise until they become a natural part of you.  So don’t be in a rush to forsake practise for content – the more complex moves will depend on your ability with the foundation elements, so it is a completely false economy to rush them – more information on this here.
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To illustrate the point, let’s just focus on one well known Tango movement – the Forward Ocho

D2C_3489The best way to have a supreme understanding of all movements is to de-construct them back to their individual elements.   Even a Forward Ocho is not one step – it is made up of a collection of individual parts – forward walking steps, collects, pivots, some dissociation (torsion) in the upper body, as well as the basic components of posture, head position and embrace.  These components are assembled to create a whole unit.  Therefore at any time, an Ocho can be interrupted and taken into an entirely different direction, for example by inserting a Boleo, provided you know which of the core elements to adjust, how and with the correct timing.

This assumes that you have been shown technically how to do your movements correctly.  If the teaching you have received has only consisted of having it demonstrated then leaving you to copy it as best you can, or shown as a whole element, you frankly don’t stand much chance of doing it well.  Unless, of course, you are very good at observing and reverse engineering.
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How to Practise the Forward Ocho

Practise at home, alone, without the support of a partner.    Make sure you are on a floor surface that allows you to pivot freely.  Your support can be the work surface in your kitchen, a wall or chair.  These inanimate objects are unforgiving and will feed back to you directly how you’re using your weight, axis, balance etc.  Assuming you are in the kitchen, keep your face pointing towards the wall above the work surface (in other words a replacement for your partner’s chest).  Place your finger tips on the work surface, with your upper body at 45 degrees so you can take one step forward (your hands will gently slide along the work surface with you), pivot, step, pivot.  The walking step should be parallel to the work surface (hence the slight twist in the body (dissociation) mentioned earlier).  Make sure you collect your heels together after each step and before each pivot.

Accuracy and understanding is achieved by doing it very slowly.   Observe how in balance are you, not only at the point of collecting, but after the pivot – you should not be falling off your axis into the next step, but in control with “neat feet”.  Pay attention to the weight you are exerting through your fingertips to support you.   Note where your tension is – if it’s high into your shoulders you’ve shifted your axis and using your arms and hands to heave yourself round (in other words you’ll be using your partner!)  You should be completely balanced in your own axis through your core with hardly any pressure through your fingertips.

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Are you drifting towards or away from the work surface?

If so, look at how straight your step is, plus the angle of your feet after the pivot.  Are you pivoting round far enough?  All these factors will have an impact on your position.

Practise your movements until they become embedded naturally into your muscle memory.  This enables you to then have them available in the moment during a social dance and, without compromising your body or technique.

Caution – if your back is hurting, look to see if the small of your back is sagging forward.  Often caused when you artificially push your bottom out.  Don’t try copy the body look of a favourite u-tube performer, most likely they have been classically trained, professional dancer or have been doing it for years.  Do what feels natural to you and work within the confines of your body.


Core Strength –
Tuck your bottom  under, so you can pull up to engage your pelvic floor and your stomach muscles.  You will now be standing tall and straight. (A Pilates lesson or two will teach you how to do this).   This is your core strength and is a fundamental part to support your back.   This is especially so when you begin off-axis movements.  Remember, any weight that sags will be transferred onto your partner.

Everything we have said here about the simple, humble Forward Ocho can be applied to all manner of Tango movements – Walking steps, Giros, Decorations, Off Axis moves and so on.  The detailed work of observing, with slow practise, and listening to your body are what will develop a strong technique as well as elegant style and expression.

Finally a Word About your Energy

Using too little energy and you will stop short of coming back into your axis.  Too much and you will go over the top and fall off your axis on the other side.  It’s another key element of your technique.

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© Jennifer Hudson, Tango Nomads, 2017

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