The hip rotator muscle groups (external for lateral rotation, internal for medial rotation) provide a powerful engine for tango pivots.
These muscle groups — and not only, not even primarily dissociation — provides the primary power source for pivots. This article explains how that works, describes how to apply it (differently) for front versus back pivots, and describes exercises to warm up and explore these muscles.
For the warm-up and exploration exercises, scroll down to the EXERCISES VIDEO descriptions.
For the ultra-quick explanation:
FRONT pivots — the heel of the STANDING leg pushes (by way of the leg+foot twist) into the free leg heel, pushing that side of the body around in front of the standing leg.
BACK pivots — the heel of the FREE leg pushes into the standing leg heel, thereby pivoting around behind the standing leg.
This has the advantage that the pivot occurs as the feet pass through the collection point. It must be acknowledged that this is but one of the many “training wheels” used in teaching Argentine tango, for at higher levels there are many ways in which pivots might happen with feet apart. The principle of medial/lateral rotation of the hip remains valid.
Pivots, front (forward) and back (backward), are the movement that powers ochos, molinetes, and other rotational movements. Pivots are one of the two foundations (the other is weight changes) of all tango movement. You can find MANY sources of all kinds explaining pivots in terms of dissociation as the power source.
The power of dissociation comes from the stretching-tightening of core muscles. But note that this twist happens around the spine.
On the inside of the hip joint lie the internal rotators -– tensor fascia lata, gluteus minimus, anterior fibers of gluteus medius, and adductors longus and brevis — which assist in keeping the balance of the hip while standing, walking, or running, and rotate the femur medially (toward the body’s midline; i.e., foot turn in).
On the external side of the hip, six rotator muscles -– piriformis, gemellus superior, obturator internus, gemellus, inferior, obturator externus, and quadratus femoris — are responsible for keeping the femur in its socket and for rotating the femur laterally (away from the body’s midline; i.e., foot turn out).
These groups of rotator muscles control lateral rotation of the femur in the hip socket, or looking at it from the ground up, they control rotation of the hip (with its attached body) around the femur!
Dissociation is primary in pivots only in the sense that the movement usually starts in the torso. From a standstill we can quite readily power a quarter turn pivot in either direction, front or back, with the hip rotators alone, with no dissociation.
In actual practice, of course, we use both dissociation and hip rotation to power greater than quarter turn pivots. We start with dissociation to wind up and provide a stable core, then when that energy is used up in pivoting, the hip rotators smoothly take over, when desired possibly rotating us past the torso rotation, where the process can repeat as a sort of ratcheting mechanism: torso-hips, torso-hips.
Here’s where I feel this article is important and fills a need. Every teacher who talks about pivots talks about dissociation. A far smaller number of teachers talk about the dissociation plus hip rotation ratchet mechanism for either greater rotation or for powering continuous rotation. But no teachers in my experience describe the mechanism of hip rotation and give exercises to help students understand and access that power.
I am happy to learn of teachers who DO explain the hip rotator mechanism, so that I can study and acknowledge their work.
Let’s work from the feet up to our torso, so as to place emphasis on good grounding.
Heels tight together, forefeet spread apart a comfortable distance. Rise up on toes and balls of feet. As you rise keep your attention on twisting your feet away from each others, which causes your heels to press together. Feel the effort on the inside of your legs, with most of the foot pressure on the triangle formed by big toe, ball of foot, and second toe.
Rise up slightly on your toes, then let your weight drop onto your heels. Do this in a Drop-Drop, Drop-Drop, quick one-two fashion. This will help organize your posture and wake up your neurophysiology.
Same foot instructions as for Heel Bounces. Rise up slowly, high on your toes plus ball of the foot. Lower slowly, with the idea in mind of keeping the crown of your head at the same elevation. Imagine your upper body stretching longer. See also the Stand Tall Exercise.
Do The Twist
Spread your feet to shoulder width. Keep your posture tall, upright and centered side-to-side and front-to-back between your feet. Weight on the balls of your feet, twist both feet at the same time, right-left, right-left, …
Do One Twist
Again, keeping your posture organized, put your weight over one leg, with the other leg out to the side to help balance and stabilize you. Do the right-left twist back and forth multiple times. Now switch and repeat with the other leg.
Feet centered underneath you, as for Heel Bounces. Place both hands over your sternum to monitor its unmoving position. Keep the hips level. Rotate just the hips right-left multiple times.
Feet centered underneath you, as for Heel Bounces. Place both hands just below your belly button to monitor its unmoving position. Keep the hips level, facing forward, unmoving. Keep the torso upright, not tiling in any direction. Rotate just the torso right-left multiple times. As you rotate keep your chin over your sternum, so you head moves with your torso.
Static pivots have a place. We also do enrosque pivots, and two-footed split weight pivot and balance exercises. The best general exercise we’ve found for our students is a step, then pivot. The momentum of the step makes the work easier, and it gives a context for the pivot.
The directions below differ for front versus back pivots. Both start with hands placed lightly over the sternum (to give a sense of relaxed shoulders and arms, and take out momentum from swinging arms). The dancer takes a comfortable step, to front or to back, then pivots on the stepping leg, continuing with the front or back direction. We start with quarter turns, then increase to half or greater turns.
For front pivots the heel of the standing leg twists into the heel of the free leg, pushing it around the standing leg.
For back pivots the heel of the free leg twists into the heel of the standing leg, pushing it backwards.