Updated: Dec 31, 2019
If you've never felt lower back pain after dancing tango, consider yourself lucky. For most of us, this is one of the areas of the body that seems to get the most abuse on the dance floor. As we go through the various stages of learning about proper tango technique our bodies do all sorts of funny things that put strain on the lower back. But it is not just our interpretation of tango technique that leads to lower back pain.
Actually one of the biggest factors can be a lack of spinal mobility which many of us are prone to if we live a mostly sedentary lifestyle. To be more specific, it is the thoracic spine that tends to be the culprit.
Anatomically speaking, the vertebrae of the spine are divided into three major sections, the cervical, thoracic and lumbar. The cervical being the top part which includes the neck, the thoracic being the mid section that mostly spans the area of the rib cage, and the lumbar which is where we find our lower back.
So why is the thoracic important if the pain we're talking about is in the lumbar?
The thoracic spine is designed to be mobile, whereas the lumbar spine wants to be stable. So this is to say that any movement of bending and twisting should be happening in the thoracic spine. But when this area is tight and lacks mobility, our bodies compensate by forcing the lumbar spine to do the work of the thoracic, and here we find our big problem in tango because this puts strain on our lower back every time we rotate our torso to create torsion in our dance, or even just attempt "proper" tango posture.
Side Note: Tightness in our thoracic spine can also have a negative affect on our breathing. Learn more about how breathing can enhance your tango in my article How Attention to Breath Can Enhance Your Tango.
In order to properly twist in the thoracic spine, good posture is absolutely essential. That means being able to lengthen the spine and since most of us have a tendency to hunch our shoulders and upper back forward, we need to counter this by extending our spine (bending backwards). However, the trouble we run into when searching for this spinal extension is over-arching and creating too much compression for the lower back.
This is particularly obvious when we look for our tango posture by sticking our chest forward and our butt back (a common compensation technique for coming into close embrace contact with our partner). Ideally we are neither hunched forward, nor over-arching, but instead find a middle ground where we preserve the natural curve of the spine and are able to lengthen from the floor to the crown of the head, stacking all of the elements on top of each other (head above shoulders, shoulders above ribs, ribs above hips, hips above feet).
In order to ensure that each part of the spine is doing its job properly we can work to increase mobility in the thoracic spine and promote stability in the lumbar. These postures take the spine through it's five ranges of motion: spinal flexion and extension (bending forward and back), lateral flexion (side bending), extension (lengthening), and rotation (twisting).
Here is an example of a yoga flow designed to increase spinal mobility:
When twisting in tango remember that in addition to lengthening the spine it is essential to stabilize the hips (not involving the hips in the twisting -- this can cause further strain on the lower back and also the knees). On the muscular level remember to activate the obliques to create your spiral, keeping in mind that the obliques should twist around a stable lumbar spine. The obliques act as a kind of motor that generates a spiral traveling up the spine into the muscles of the mid and upper back that aid the thoracic spine in it's job of twisting. Learn more about torsion in my free 30 minute yoga class on torsion for tango dancers).
Now that we've covered spinal mobility, don't forget that the body works together as a system and there are other things that can contribute to lower back pain, including tight hamstrings and glutes. Tight hamstrings can cause the hips and pelvis to rotate back, sending our knees forward, and perpetuating the rounding of the upper back while straining the lower back. Again, if you live a sedentary lifestyle you probably have tight hamstrings. However, movement such as dancing, without properly stretching can also cause hamstrings to tighten. Below I will share several yoga poses to stretch tight hamstrings. (Keep in mind that stretching should be accompanied by strengthening. Our bodies need both flexibility and stability, and over-stretching the hamstrings can cause all sorts of other issues).
Lastly, if you want to go the extra mile to ensure that your lower back remains safe while dancing, you can never go wrong with strengthening your core. Core strength aids in improving posture and as I mentioned before, good posture enables proper twisting, and proper twisting reduces the risk of lower back pain. Here are a few yoga postures that strengthen the core.
You can also try adding these movements to those poses for extra core work:
So one more important take-away (hopefully) is that supporting your tango dancing with a regular yoga practice can help prevent all kinds of injuries, so that you can keep dancing for years to come. However, you may be reading this article because it's already too late to prevent that injury. So if you'd like to try some poses that will release your lower back tension and restore your body for dancing check out my free 30 minute post-dancing body care class below: