Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Every thing in the body works as a system, so naturally when you work on one area of the body, it will affect other areas. In tango we talk about the role of the hips often because of how it relates to other areas of your dance. When your hips are in the "correct" position, your lower body can find more stability for the standing leg, and freedom in the free leg. Your upper body can soften and become comfortable and sensitive to the signals coming from your partner's body. In general, the lower and upper body can become more coordinated and your whole dance will improve... and we are still just talking about correcting that one magical area, the hips!
Unfortunately, tight hips can prevent us from accessing some of these benefits. There are several reasons we might have tight hips, with the main culprit being a sedentary lifestyle. Some physical activities, as well as stress can also cause our hips to tighten and lose mobility.
In yoga, there are many opportunities for releasing tension in the hip area as almost every posture has some type of hip-opening benefit. So what are the benefits of opening up the hips and how do they relate to our tango dance?
Tight hips can cause mis-alignment of the joints in the lower body including the hip, knees and ankles. This can contribute to pain in these areas as well as in the lower back. In tango, we aim to align these joints not only to avoid injury but to create more stability in the base leg (the weight-bearing leg). When there is more stability in the base leg, and the hips are properly aligned and both strong and flexible, this provides freedom for the free leg (the non weight-bearing leg). This means more responsiveness to your partner as well as freedom to play with adornments - yes even leaders can benefit from this - think of enrosques, lapices and ganchos (these also require a strong base leg and loose free leg).
2. Release Lower Back Pain
As I mentioned above, mis-alignment can cause pain in the lower back, which is never good for tango dancers given the amount of twisting we do throughout the dance. Tight hip flexors can also contribute to lower back pain as this causes the pelvis to tilt forward, which then asks for too much effort from the back by putting a compensational strain on the lumbar spine (the lower back).
Tango dancers also have the tendency to arch their back and stick their butt out when searching for proper tango posture. Opening the hips can help tango dancers find the proper position of their pelvis, rather then to put that strain on the back. This pelvic positioning allows the upper body to fall into place naturally and comfortably. It also allows the hips to give "weight" to the feet, giving the sensation of grounding or density that allows our partner to feel where our feet are on the floor. This sensation is crucial for proper communication and timing between lead and follow.
To learn more about lower back pain check out my blog post on Why Your Lower Back Hurts from Tango And How to Prevent It.
3. Releasing Stress And Negative Emotions
When we feel stressed the body produces cortisol and other stress hormones which travel to certain parts of our body causing the muscles to contract and decreasing mobility in the joints. The hip flexors tend to be the recipients of this stress-induced tension, as they correlate to our "fight" or "flight" response.
In yogic tradition, it is said that the hips are a storage ground for negative and pent-up emotions, so opening the hips can provide not just a bodily release but also an emotional one. One of the best ways I've heard this connection between emotions and the body described is to think about the response your body has when you feel angry. Your temperature rises, your muscles contract and you probably feel some adrenaline running through you. Now think of some thing that makes you angry and try not to respond with the body. It's impossible.
The muscles and joints are not the only area of our body affected by our emotions. It is also said that the fascia (a soft connective tissue below the skin that wraps the bones, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels), stores our entire emotional history. I particularly like the yin style of yoga for this because it's premise is to stretch and release the fascia as well as practice the art of letting go.
Tango is a very emotional dance and can in many ways also serve as an outlet for emotional release. However, when we are working through difficult emotions we can also become blocked in our ability to connect with others in the intimate space of the embrace, both in how we give and how we receive. Opening the hips can be one way to work through those difficult emotions making it easier to open up to our partners on the dance floor.
4. Increase Creativity
In yogic philosophy the hips are also associated with the sacral chakra, "swadhisthana". This chakra correlates to creativity and expression, sensuality, movement and the flow of life, and our connection to our desires and pleasure. When this chakra is blocked you may feel out of touch with yourself and your emotions and lack creative insight. Opening the hips are said to be one way to unblock this chakra.
Although for some people the energetic philosophy of yoga can be a bit too "woowoowaawaa," we all go through moments in our life when we feel creativity and sensuality comes naturally to us and times when it does not. So regardless of if you want to think of it in these yogic terms or not, the qualities of this sacral chakra are familiar to all.
Tango offers us many opportunities to connect with these qualities, so you might take hip opening as just one way to explore how this comes up for you. Next time you go out dancing take note of how creative you feel, what's pleasurable, how your senses are getting activated, and if you are finding a flow. Notice if you feel blocked in any of these areas and observe this evolve over time.
As I mentioned before, almost all postures in yoga offer some hip opening. Below are a few postures you can try that target different parts of the hips. Just remember to warm up properly, especially before going into any deep hip openers.
1. Lizard Lunge (Utthan Pristhasana)
This pose targets the inner and outer hip and stretches and strengthens the groin and hamstrings.
To get into this posture start in downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) and step your right leg to the outside of your right hand. Lower the back knee onto the mat and untuck your toes. Come on to your hands first and if it is available to you, lower down on to your forearms or a pair of blocks. Make sure to keep the knee of the bent leg in line with the toes to protect the knee.
An additional variation is to open the bent leg out to the side, coming on to the outer edge of your front foot. This targets more the outer hip and glutes. Repeat on the other side.
Lizard pose is also a good preparation for deeper hip openers such as the next posture:
2. Half Pigeon Pose (Ardha Kapotasana)
This pose targets the hip flexors, inner and outer glutes, piriformis and psoas muscles.
To get into this pose from downward facing dog, take the knee of the right leg behind the right wrist or a little more out if it is available to you and extend the other leg behind you. First make sure the hips are square to the top of your mat. Then line up the front shin as close as you can to the top of the mat as well. For many people this is a lot, so don't strain yourself here. You can start off on your hands or fold forward and bring your forehead to the mat and either extend your arms in front of you or make a pillow with your hands. If the hip of the bent leg is floating off the mat prop it up with a block or blanket. Repeat on the other side.
If you have a knee injury, you can take a variation of this pose by lying on your back and bringing your legs into a figure four. Then thread your arms through your legs to bring your feet closer to your chest.
3. Yogi Squat (Malasana)
This pose targets the hips, inner thighs, groin, ankles and chest. It also improves circulation and blood flow in the pelvis.
To get into this pose step your feet wide and point your toes out about 45 degrees, making sure the knees are in line with your toes. Lower your hips to wherever you can and bring your palms together in front of your heart, pushing the knees apart with your elbows. If this feels too intense you can sit on top of a block.
I hope this article has given you some insight into the benefits of opening your hips for tango dancing. Would you like to practice yoga together? Get started with this 3-class freebie pack. Each class is just 20 minutes and will get you well on your way towards improving your dance: