No Pain, No Gain

3rd April 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

"Now, this may sting a little just at first. But don't worry, that'll go away once the searing pain kicks in." ~ Ethan Rayne


John Bradshaw carried out an interesting experiment with a group of men. He gave them strips of red cloth and asked them to tie one strip around each part of their body that had been injured. Pretty much everyone ended up looking like this:

Well ok, maybe not looking quite as cool, but you get the point. The depressing thing is if I were to do the same thing, but only with injuries from practicing / dancing tango, I again end up swathed in red.

First do no harm - to yourself

Here's some thoughts on how to minimize the amount you suffer while learning tango.

If I'm dancing with someone who knows what they're doing, tango isn't a physical strain. Simply look at a lot of the older tango maestros, they're not exactly in tip-top shape. However, the fundamentals of how to stand, balance, axis, posture etc are hard-wired into them at this point. Compare two tight-rope walkers. The experienced one may as well be standing on solid ground.

The beginner however, is wobbling all over the place.

He's spending 99% of his time off-balance and trying to correct, but in fact over-correcting which leads to more over-correcting... All of this causes strain. And this is a big problem when you're learning. All that over-correcting causes stresses and strains which adds up.

To further complicate matters, you aren't learning how to move "properly", you're learning the beginners' version of movement. And that has faults in it. And those faults also cause strain.

What to do?

There's not a huge amount you can do about this. Someone once asked "How much alcohol does it take to get an Umber Hulk drunk?". The answer is there is no limit. What's important is the time factor. You can drink a swimming pool of whiskey without getting drunk as long as you do it one glass a day for the next 50 years.

Same thing here. By knowing that you're putting stresses and strains on your body, you can be careful about how much you do in one go and giving yourself some time to recover before trying again, plus some TLC.

Your body will react to stresses by trying to strengthen the relevant muscles. However it will do this by shortening the muscle which is the last thing you want. Take some time after doing tango to gently stretch. (Actually it's not a bad idea to stretch a bit before-hand either. A lot of tango classes have warm-ups but you never see people warming up at a milonga.)

Some tips

Some tips to reduce strain are

First try to improve your balance. It'll pay significant dividends.

Don't Duck Walk - don't stick you bum up in the air like a duck when you walk. As well as adding strains it messes up your balance which in turn adds more strains.

Don't arch your back.

Don't pull your shoulders back military style. Don't tense or raise your shoulders either.

Knees and hips - keep them in the same direction. They move as one unit together, especially on pivots.

Don't look down. It strains the muscles in that back of your neck.

Smaller steps are good. Try walking "normally" but with big steps. Now try with smaller steps, which is more tiring? Use smaller steps and you'll minimize the strains.

The height thing

Don't sacrifice your posture when dancing with someone of a significantly different height.

There's two schools of thought on this.

  1. Only dance with people who are the right height
  2. Dance with everyone

If you're of school No 1 then you've nothing to worry about.

If you're of school No 2 then you probably need to do a couple of things when dancing with someone who isn't the right height. Firstly make sure your posture is right. If someone is 5 foot they've probably given some thought at this point as to how to dance with taller people. Secondly, consider how you an adapt you embrace without sacrificing your posture. You can bend you knees more, or change the position of your arms.

Consider your embraces

There's an embrace where the lead holds with his left hand high in the air. Apparently if the follower relaxes her shoulder correctly it works. Most beginner / intermediate followers seem to find it uncomfortable. Likewise there are various ways of bending your wrists this way and that. Give serious thought to adopting a more neutral, simple, natural position.

The position of the leader's right arm can vary too. This is the standard, hand to shoulder-blade version

whereas this is lower down

The aim is to create a comfortable connected embrace. Simply put this may not always be possible in the shoulder-blade version, especially if the follower is particularly slim. Rather than straining you right wrist trying to maintain contact, simply try moving down a bit (obviously there are limits as to how low you can go!)

Some beginner followers will lean on your right arm. A suggestion is to take them into close embrace with their arm along your shoulder.

Shoes - of course

Shoes are a big deal too. If you're going to be pivoting then friction will start to stress the joints in your knees. Think about how much walking, pivoting, lunging you do in a night - it adds up! Make sure your shoes give your arches sufficient support. You also want to protect your feet from being kicked, stamped on, gouged etc. Check how "fast" (Slippery) the floor is before you start dancing. Also be wary your first few circuits of running into sticky / rough / slippery patches and indeed sometimes actually dents in the floor.

And finally

Remember, you'd demand regular breaks at work, including food and drink - do the same with tango!

 - Christopher O'Shea, 3rd April 2009

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