Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part Three: The importance of posture

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To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in, through or about this simple yet complex dance over the last two decades. Here is my third "lesson."

Lesson No. 3: Posture is everything. I admit it, I am pretty obsessed with good posture. Being a dance teacher and having recently become a yoga teacher as well, I adjust posture (mine and others'), observe posture, study posture and think about posture every day.

You don't have to be as preoccupied with posture as I am, but let's face it: If your posture is bad, your embrace will suffer. And if your embrace is bad, your connection will be lacking. And without good connection, what is tango?

Why can we not have a good embrace without good posture? Well, just as the arms are connected to the rest of our body, the embrace is connected to the way we hold ourselves. And while when we say "embrace" we think specifically of the arms and hands, we really embrace our partners with our whole bodies: hands, arms, shoulders, back, chest, head – even the position of the hips, legs and feet contributes to the way we hold our partners. If your head is held too far forward, for example, it might push against your partner's head in an uncomfortable way, hurting his or her neck or throwing off his or her balance and therefore affecting the way he or she holds us. If your upper back is too rounded and your shoulders are forward, your chest will cave in and your partner will feel you are holding back or pushing them away rather than inviting them in.

Good posture is a huge part of good overall technique, which will free us to dance with ease and to hold our partners comfortably. So, what is good posture?

Posture refers to the position in which you hold your body upright. Good posture involves training your body to stand, walk, sit, lie and, of course, dance in positions where the least strain is placed on supporting muscles and ligaments during movement or weight-bearing activities.

This illustrates correct alignment.
Posture and alignment go hand in hand and correct alignment is essential for maintaining good posture, so let's look at what constitutes correct, or healthy, alignment.

Alignment refers to how the head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles relate and line up with each other. When dance teachers talk about "axis" and "keeping your axis," they are really talking about keeping correct alignment. Proper alignment of the body helps you achieve and maintain good posture, which will be great for your tango dancing as well as your life in general, as it will mean putting less stress on the spine. There are four main points that should be aligned when we are standing. Moving from the ground up, these are:
• the lateral malleolus, or the little bone on the outside of the ankle
• the greater trochanter, or the top part of the femur (thigh bone), located at the the hip joint
• the acromion, or the little bone at the top of the shoulder
• the auditory meatus, or ear hole

Maintaining these points of alignment maintains the natural curves of the spine, which form an S-shape. Viewed from the side, the cervical (upper) and lumbar (lower) spines have a lordotic, or inward curve, and the thoracic spine has a kyphotic, or gentle outward curve. The spine's curves work like a coiled spring to absorb shock, maintain balance and facilitate range of motion.

A common example
of poor alignment:
the tailbone is tucked,
sending the centre of
gravity too far forward,
and the head is jutting
forward. This changes
the natural curves of
the spine.
In tango, as in day-to-day life, correct posture and alignment can be difficult to maintain, especially if this is all new to us.

Often, people tuck the tail bone, relaxing the lower back muscles, flattening the lumbar curve and sending the centre of gravity toward the toes rather than keeping it over the heel bone (which is the largest bone in the foot and therefore made to support us). Tucking the pelvis puts strain on the feet, knees and spine, but is particularly problematic in tango because it means your pelvis, legs and feet sit farther forward than your upper body and you will tend to bump knees with your partners or even step on their toes (or get your own toes stepped on).

Many people also hold their heads too far forward, jutting the chin (which compresses the cervical spine) or, as is often the case in tango, hanging the head forward in a downward-looking position.

Keeping the head back, by keeping the chin parallel to the floor and sitting the head back on top of the spine, elongates the cervical spine while keeping its natural curve. This position will help you keep your balance while dancing and will prevent you from pushing your head or face against your partner's in an invasive or uncomfortable way.

The good news is, if we practise good posture and alignment regularly, we gradually strengthen the necessary muscles while developing new, healthy habits, and one day we realize that we now stand and sit correctly most of the time, and it even feels natural!

A big part of the challenge, once we have found correct alignment, is to keep those points of alignment while we are in motion. In tango, we have the added challenge of maintaining our own alignment while moving and holding someone else. What can I say except that practice makes perfect? Posture and alignment are not things to be practised an hour or two a week in tango class. They need to be practised as often as possible during your daily activities: sitting at your desk, walking down the street, waiting for the bus, brushing your teeth and, of course, dancing.

Speaking of maintaining your alignment while dancing with someone else, I always tell my tango students not to sacrifice their posture for anything or anyone. This means you don't contort yourself to execute an awkwardly placed gancho and you don't dance hunched over because you are taller than your partner. You also don't lean forward in order to retain a close embrace; if you or your partner can't execute a move in close embrace while standing up straight, either open the embrace or forego the move; do not sacrifice your posture.

And speaking of close embrace, there are slight sacrifices in alignment to be made when dancing in a close, milonguero-style abrazo. But when I say slight, I mean it. Because we are looking for physical connection between our own torso and that of our partner, our rib cage may sit a tiny bit forward in relation to the pelvis. However, if we make sure to keep our hips over our heels and not to thrust our heads forward, the adjustment in the upper body in order to reach our partner will be slight, and should re-adjust itself automatically as soon as we release the close embrace. If the leader keeps his hips back over his heels, he should not have to lean forward at all to achieve close embrace. It is up to the follower to reach forward and find the connection with her partner. But again, if her lower body is correctly positioned, there will be little reaching necessary. Also, any forward reach should be accompanied by an upward stretch in the torso, which will lengthen the spine and prevent us from leaning in an uncomfortable or unhealthy way.

Of course, all this work on your posture and alignment will help to carry you through life with less pain, fewer back problems and better overall health. So improving your posture and alignment for tango will have benefits that reach far beyond the dance floor.

Posture might just be the most important element in our dancing.

Then again, musicality is super-important, too.

Next: Lesson No. 4: Musicality is everything

Previously: Lesson No. 2: The embrace is everything


  1. Correct me if I am wrong but I thought when we dance there should a slight tilt forward and the weight on the toes more than on the heal so that our lower body can separate from the upper body for greater movement and if we are dancing the millangero style then head contact becomes possible. Roxana

    1. Hi Roxana, I agree with you about the weight being on the toes most of the time. My understanding of Andrea's article is that even when you move your weight forward, your alignment remains. In other words, you do not tilt your hips forward (to align them over your toes), but you tilt your whole axis (ankle-hips-shoulder-head) slightly. At least that's how I see it :-)

    2. Hi Magalie. You're half right. In my opinion, we should neither shift nor tilt our axis forward over the toes. Our hips and our centre of gravity need to stay aligned with the heels. This is important for knee and foot health as well as for freedom of movement. Interestingly, keeping this hips-heels alignment frees our feet and allows us to move efficiently. We do indeed use the metatarsals and toes a lot, pushing into them to walk and pivot, but we don't actually need to shift our axis forward to do this.

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