In tango we talk a lot about posture, how to find your axis and stay grounded, and a host of other fundamental techniques that contribute to your competency on the social dance floor. One often-overlooked aspect of these essential habits is how your side body affects your dance.
Most of the time when we talk about posture in tango we have to get the front and back part out of the way first. If that isn’t mastered, it can be tricky to incorporate the side body. What I mean by front and back is that for many of us we either stick our chests out to meet our partners or cave and round the back, leaving a gap between our partner’s chest and ours.
If we have poor posture regardless of tango, then tango posture becomes far more challenging to sustain for an evening of dancing. We can improve our posture by strengthening the core and opening the upper back, chest, and shoulders. Loosening the hips can also help with posture as it relieves the spine, and strengthening the lower body and the larger muscles that support your upper body can also be very useful. In general, working on our posture outside of tango, in my opinion, is far more effective than to keep reminding ourselves to stand up straighter while we dance. But, I digress.
Aside from hunching forward or sticking our chest out too much, one of the common ways in which we let our posture collapse is by tilting sideways, or in other words, shortening one side and lengthening the other. It might be easy to keep your spine upright in linear movement such as walking, but once we start incorporating spiral movement into our dance (ochos and giros and everything that stems from that), it can be trickier to maintain good alignment through our side body. Often we might think we are twisting, but in reality, we are tilting, and tilting not only affects our own stability but our partners as well, as it begins to invade the space they need for their movement.
Let’s take a moment to geek out about the culprit of this side body collapse. I’d like to blame the quadratus lumborum more than anything else. Your QL muscle acts as a bridge in between your pelvis and rib cage. Since we do not have any bones to support the side body, that little muscle needs to work hard to hold your torso up. Not that it doesn’t have some good friends helping it out, but I’d say this little guy doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as he deserves. When those friends are weak, the QL takes on their workload and eventually tires out from this extra stress. When we strengthen and relieve the tension in our QL, we can ensure that it’s ready to kick in and do its job to keep our spine upright while we dance.
There is another reason that keeping our side body lengthened benefits our dance, though. Part of what makes us feel grounded yet “light” and “soft” in our partner’s arms is being able to stretch the lower body down towards the floor, and the upper body up into our partner’s embrace. A good analogy for this, I find, is to imagine your body like a rubber band, and you want to pull that rubber band apart to create a little bit of tension - the good kind of tension we talk about in tango. The crown of your head stretches upwards while your feet stretch downwards, digging into the floor. The point where our body stretches in opposite directions is at the crest of the pelvis. Remember, the QL attaches to the pelvis and the ribcage. So the top of the QL is helping to stretch upwards, while the bottom part of the QL is stretching downwards. So imagine this QL as another rubber band.
The QL is also responsible for lifting and lowering the hips. This is an important job in tango! I’d say the number one reason we lose our stability when moving through ochos is the hip of the free leg hiking up and creating the collapse of our side body. To gain control in this movement, we need to do the exact opposite, and stretch the hip down, while remaining stable in the opposite hip. This means lengthening the QL and teaching it to behave in the way that best serves us in this moment.
It would seem that the QL has quite a large list of tasks already, but there is one more important task that needs to be mentioned when talking about tango. You have probably heard many tango teachers say that your leg begins beneath your ribs and not where we think of it as starting, in the hip socket. When we talk about bone structure, yes, your leg begins where the head of the femur inserts into the pelvis. But on a muscular level, the hip flexors, glutes and yes, the QL are all involved in the movement of your legs. So tango teachers who told you the leg begins at your lower ribs are not lying.
A good example of how the QL affects your side body leg movement can be found when we examine our tango side step. When we take a step to the side, a common mistake is to let the hip of the free leg hike up, similarly to what happens in our ochos. This causes our torso to tilt and throw us off our axis. To counter this tendency, a good practice is to train the QL to drop the hip of the free leg and tilt the torso slightly in the opposite direction, creating almost like a banana shape in your body.
Imagine you are taking a side step to your right. When you land on your right leg, think of lengthening your right side body. This automatically lets the hip of the free leg drop, which creates a natural and smooth collection of the free leg and helps you find your axis.
Ok, enough geeking out already. Let’s get practical. Below are 5 yoga poses that strengthen and lengthen your side body and some dynamic exercises that will boost these poses even more.
Standing Crescent Moon (Parsva Urdhva Hastasana)
Start off standing with your feet together or hip-width apart. Extend your arms up towards the ceiling, bring your hands to steeple position, interlacing all fingers except your index fingers. Stretch up towards the ceiling as much as you can and then side bend. Keep rooting down equally through both feet. Make it active by pulsing to the side. Active stretching can be very effective in increasing strength and flexibility.
Start off in a wide stance with your feet, hips and chest pointing towards the long side of the mat. Point your right toes towards the top of your mat. Extend your arms, send your hips back, stretch your right arm forwards and then lower that hand down to the inside of your front shin, the floor, or a block. Reach your other arm up towards the ceiling. Give your QL more challenge by raising your bottom hand up. Then repeat on the other side.
Reverse Warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana)
Start off similarly to triangle pose but bend your front knee and stack it over your ankle. Turn your front palm up, extend that arm forward and then take it up and back. Keep lifting and lengthening your spine as you side bend. Make it active by moving dynamically between warrior 2 and reverse warrior several times.
Gate Pose (Parighasana)
Start off kneeling on your knees with your spine upright and your hips stacked over your knees. Take one leg out to the side, coming onto the sole of that foot. Stretch your arms up towards the ceiling and then side bend towards the extended leg. Rest your bottom hand on the leg or dynamically lift it towards your top hand and lower it back down for more active stretching.
This pose comes up more often in yin yoga. (read my article Vinyasa and Yin Yoga: The Big Differences to learn more about yin). Start off lying on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet down. Press into your heels to lift your hips up and take them to the right side of your mat. Extend your legs and arms towards the left side of the mat. Try to keep your right hip down. You can cross your right ankle over your left. And you can grab on to opposite elbows. Repeat on the other side.
This pose stretches but doesn’t strengthen the side body, but I included it because it helps to feel the banana analogy I spoke about earlier and it stretches the fascia when done in a yin practice, which helps with flexibility. (Muscle flexibility isn’t the only way to increase our freedom of movement).
I hope this article has given you some insight into the importance of your side body in tango, and a few poses to practices. Would you like to practice yoga together to improve your dance? Get started with this free yoga for tango dancers class pack. Each class is just 20 minutes and will get you well on your way to improving your dance: