The secret to powerful pivots

Activate both internal and external hip rotator muscles for a powerful, smooth, controlled pivot, by pressing one heel into the other in the direction of pivoting.

David gives warm-up exercises, an explanation of the operation of the hip rotator muscles, and an explanation and examples of using this technique.

Index

0:00 Introduction
0:26 Warm-up exercises
0:41 Heel raises
1:09 Importance of ankles
1:31 Single-leg heel raises
2:09 Freeing heels without raising up
2:38 Double-leg foot twists
3:05 Hip twists
3:36 Torso twists
4:03 Whole leg and hip work, side-to-side steps
4:23 Importance of energy
4:47 Forward-and-backward steps
5:16 Importance of getting over axis in back step
5:39 Typical instruction for pivots: dissociation
6:08 More important muscles: hip rotators
6:22 External hip rotators
6:48 Internal hip rotators
7:40 Tip to help internal hip rotators for backward pivots
8:15 External and internal hip rotators working together
10:05 Concise summary of The Secret — pressing the heels together in the direction of pivot
11:29 Conclusion, an invitation to try it and comment

Transcript

Hi, this is David and I’m coming to you from the Tango Tribe studio in Austin, Texas. Today, I would like to share with you a secret that we use to help students produce powerful, controlled, smooth pivots, forward and backwards.

Let’s start off with some warm up exercises that will both prepare the body for work and inform the body about how to move in a way that produces those pivots.

We’ll start off with heel raises. With our heels together, our feet turned out or not, to whatever angle is comfortable, producing a nice base underneath us. We’ll move our heels up and down in a smooth, slow, controlled manner that gives us the best muscular exertion.

The ankles are so important because they are the connection between all of the rest of our body, and the base that is supporting our body that is our connection with the ground. So this is something that we ought to be working all the time.

We can make it harder by doing one foot at a time. And we can make that more controlled by anchoring one heel against the other. So the heavy leg is doing the work of raising the heel, while the light leg anchored against it is just floating free.

Then we can switch legs. Again, the light leg heel will anchor against the heavy leg.

Now of course, we don’t want to be popping up as we’re dancing an Argentine tango. We’d like to keep a nice level line. So what we will actually be doing is flexing the knees slightly forward to release the heels just enough that the foot can skim over the floor.

Now a different exercise. With the feet spread slightly so that the legs are still under the edges of the hips, let’s do the twist. I’m gonna keep my hips and torso facing forward while the legs twist independently underneath.

And after we’ve done that work, then I will keep the legs and the feet still, I’ll keep the torso pointing straight forward, and rotate only the hips. If it feels confusing, how does the body do this, think of working in opposition. So my opposite shoulder, I’m in effect pushing that forward as the hip goes forward.

And then we’ll keep everything from the hips down to the feet quiet while we rotate only the torso. I’ll keep my chin over the breast bone. I’ll keep my arms relaxed.

Good, so we’ve warmed up all of these connections. Let’s also do some whole leg and hip work. We can begin that most simply by doing side-to-side steps. And with those I’m going to emphasize rotating through the edges of the feet to give a strong grounding into the floor.

I always like to emphasize energy in my classes because it connects the dancer to the music, and to one’s partner no matter what their energy level is. If we have good strong energy available, then we can produce more powerful and clear movements and connect with our partner whatever their energy level is.

And let’s also do some steps forward and backward, again emphasizing rolling through the entire foot, pushing off the front of the foot to go forward. Pushing off the heel going backwards. Switching feet. This movement is important because as I step backwards I want to reach, providing room for my partner to step forward. And I want to get my hip fully over my axis, over the ball of the foot of the standing leg to enable it to pivot easily.

Okay, so what about this secret I talked about? Well, in most tango instruction, you’ll see emphasis placed on dissociation where the body parts twist in opposite directions. If I’m going forward pivot, I turn the shoulder away from that, and that’s going to pull the muscles, pull the hip around.

However, I think there are even more important muscles down below: the hip rotator muscles that we exercised at the beginning of our warm-up.

For external rotation which rotates the foot away from our center line, or if we’re standing on the ball of the foot, it rotates the heel to the front. There are six muscles that attach to the top of the thigh bone and then connect to the hip, and they run at a fairly horizontal direction.

For internal rotation which sends the foot towards the center line, or if we’re on the ball of the foot as we would be for pivots, it sends the heel back away from us. There are also six muscles but some of those are shared, and also they don’t run at a horizontal angle, they run more vertically, and attach both to the hips and to the spine. That makes them somewhat less effective.

For external rotation, we can go as much 140 degrees. Internal rotation as much as 110 degrees. It’s not as powerful going internal rotation, which is what we do for back pivots. That’s one of the reasons why back pivots are a little more difficult.

And here’s a tip, a little trick. If we tilt the pelvis forward, it puts those internal rotator muscles at a more advantageous angle. It also serves to send our weight more forward over the ball of the foot, freeing up the heel. So what we want to do is when we’re stepping for a back pivot is leading with that hip and keeping that hip back as we pivot.

But now, there’s more to it. We have external rotators, we have internal rotators. What if we could get the effect of both of those sets of muscles working together? We can!

What I want to do is if I’m going to the front, my heel is going to the front underneath my body. I am going to press it against the other heel. Firmly press the heels together, which in effect recruits the internal rotators of the other hip. So you get the effect of both muscles working synergistically together, the external rotators and the internal rotators.

To illustrate. So from standing still, it could produce almost a 360 degree turn. Going in the other direction, backwards, the heel is moving behind me away from me. In this case, I’m going to take the heel of the light leg, and push it firmly against the heel of the heavy leg. And of course it’s the very same thing on the other side.

Going backwards I press the light leg heel against the heavy leg. Going forward, the heavy leg is coming around, it presses against the light leg.

[Pausing to collect thought.]

Oh, so it takes longer and is more confusing to explain all of this than it is to actually do it. We don’t need to be thinking about okay, which side of the heel is going where if I’m going back? Is it the right one or the left one? Which one is coming?

All we need to think about is if I’m turning in this direction, I can even do it on two feet to figure it out if I don’t know, then this heel is going forward, this heel is going towards the other one. So that heel is going to press into the other one. If I’m going backwards, this heel is going away, so it’s the other, the light leg heel that’s coming towards the other heel. I’m going to press the light leg heel into the heavy leg.

That’s what we need to remember is simply firmly pressing one heel [whichever one is moving toward the other heel] into the other. And it works not only standing still, but as we’re coming through our axis collecting, we get the same effect by pressing those heels strongly together.

So that’s our secret. I hope you give it a try, both for yourself in your own practice, and with your partners or if you’re teaching students. See what it does for you. In our experience with beginning dancers, and even never-ever dancers, the quick warm up, explaining of pressing the heels together as they pivot, it so quickly produces quality pivots.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you. Thank you for your attention.

The Alexander principle of choices

At each and every moment, if we but sense the opportunity, we have three choices. We can do what we’ve always done in that situation, we can do nothing, or we can do something different. The key is recognizing the opportunities to make a choice, and that comes at the moment-before-the-moment.

The BODY LEARNING book cover that shows a man holding a toddler standing upright in the right hand of the man.
BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb

Let’s say that you’ve come to recognize, or you’ve been told, that you do a certain move ALL – THE – TIME. (A cadencia turn, maybe?) You want to introduce variety into that situation. What sort of variety?

  • Do what you’ve always done. But! Can you change the character of the movement? Can you do it at a different cadence, rhythm, or speed? Legato versus Staccato? With styling?
  • Do nothing! Could this be a good time in the music, or in a constant flow of movement, to take a pause? Maybe some rhythmic weight changes in place, or adornos, or simply a quiet gathering of energy for what comes next.
  • Do something different. The cadencia turn makes such an easy change of direction and connector of other figures that we tend to overuse it. What would it take to introduce other creative ways to achieve a similar result with something new? (You might use the Tango Keypad as a tool to analyze existing moves and explore new moves.)

We all want to use our body in the right way, but due to inactivity, sitting, smartphones, desk work, injuries, and repetitive use, what feels right may be less than effective and even hurtful, and what works best may feel wrong.

Maybe we learn from partner or teacher feedback that at times, especially in certain types of movements, we tilt our shoulders, tilt our whole axis, create tension, push or pull, drop a hip, and on and on. The key to making a change comes from recognizing when the problem happens. But because this is what you have done habitually, it doesn’t feel wrong. So instead, we may more easily recognize the situations that lead up to the problem.

So I say to myself, “Ah! We are about to enter that move where I typically do X. Well now I am going to monitor that body part and do what I know to be right, even if it feels different.” Eventually, the better way comes to feel like the right way.

You could benefit nicely from studying all of the Alexander Technique, but you don’t need to know who F. M. Alexander was or what his discoveries and writings were about to benefit from this principle of choices:

  1. Learn and then recognize the situation that arises just before the thing you want to change; and
  2. Give yourself an instant at that moment-before-the-moment to consider and make a choice with intention.

Another principle in the Alexander Technique, and one highly important in learning and improving Argentine tango, is the avoidance of what he terms end-gaining. I plan to explore that topic in a future article.

Frederick Mathias Alexander was born in Tasmania (an island state of Australia) in 1869. He lived in the same era as the development and worldwide growth in the popularity of Argentine tango. In his twenties he became a professional reciter of dramatic pieces, a popular form of entertainment in those days. After almost completely losing his voice, and with no medical answers or help, he developed a method of use of his body in all positions and movements, and cured his vocal problems. [Adapted from THE USE OF THE SELF by F. M. Alexander.]
Library or Store

In addition to Alexander’s own book, I recommend BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb.
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You can also find Alexander Technique practitioners and teachers around the world. Search for alexander technique [and your location].