A pivotal experience

“When do I pivot; right after taking the step or when my feet come together?”

Do you want my answer, or would you Enjoy a way of discovering your own answer?

Stand with your feet apart, as if you’ve just taken a step, either forward or backward. Choose a foot and twist it in any direction that feels most comfortable. Reset and move the old leg closer to the new leg. Notice whether you can now twist more or less than before. Continue testing until your feet are side-by-side.

If your balance and pivoting skills are not yet well developed, you may find it harder to pivot with your feet together. Even so, notice how far your foot could rotate if the rest of your body isn’t blocking it.


Lately I’ve been reading The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, author of the seminal work, The Inner Game of Tennis. A key facet of this method of teaching/coaching lies in the avoidance of over teaching, instead striving to help learners make discoveries, to teach themselves.

True, there are those whose learning style and preference is, “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it!” Plus, it takes more awareness, creativity, mindfulness, and possibly time, to on-the-spot devise and run an experience. So much easier to give an immediate, “Do this,” answer (maybe not even describing why).

As with most everything else about teaching, coaching, learning, practicing, growing, and life in general, it’s a balancing act of efficiency and effectiveness. My preference for empowering individuals to find independence and personal expression tilts me to using imagery, experiences, experiments, and games as the way to develop ourselves.

Pivot Power – the hip rotator groups

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.

See also: List of internal rotators of the human body and List of external rotators of the human body.

EXERCISES VIDEO

5:30 Video demonstrating each of the exercises below

Let’s work from the feet up to our torso, so as to place emphasis on good grounding.

Heel Bounces

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.

Heel Raises

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.

Hip Twists

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.

Torso Twists

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.

Step-Pivots

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.

Front Pivot

For front pivots the heel of the standing leg twists into the heel of the free leg, pushing it around the standing leg.

Back Pivot

For back pivots the heel of the free leg twists into the heel of the standing leg, pushing it backwards.

Tango warmup play

Weight a minute!

I test you, you test me.

* For groups of two or more.
* Take a relaxed forearm-to-forearm hold [1][2] with your partner(s).
* Someone starts by giving a weight change intention.
* Together, you all make a weight change, which can range from in place, to small step, to large step in any direction.
* Everyone stands on one leg, with the free leg relaxed by its side.
* Now, with the intention to test but not destroy your partner’s stability, move your core weight around, up and down, with or opposite your partner. Wiggle, wobble, twist.
* The challenge is to see how well you can use your core muscles to resist your partner’s efforts to move you. Can you resist without touching your free leg to the floor or swinging it wildly?
* After a few moments of this, the next person takes a turn initiating a weight change, then testing stability.

Let’s twist again!

Round and round and up and down we go again! [3]

* For couple partners.
* One partner starts as the twister by placing their hands on the sides of the shoulders [4][5] of the twistee.
* The twister takes a step (open, front cross, or back cross) around their partner. Part of your challenge is to see that during this movement you keep your partner vertical over their standing leg.
* The twistee can respond in a variety of ways to activate a variety neuro-muscular awareness.
* Resist the twist, not allowing any part of your body to rotate.
* Allow only the upper body to rotate, attending to your vertical axis, not leaning in any direction and not breaking at the waist.
* Allow only the lower body to rotate, so that your partner’s pressure on the shoulders acts like a pressure switch — as long as there is pressure in a certain direction, it turns on the hip rotators.

Tango taps!

The kung fu master sees with the whole body.

* For couple partners.
* One partner will start as the sensor, with the other partner as the mover.
* The mover takes a relaxed forearm-to-forearm or other comfortable open hold with your partner.
* The sensor keeps their eyes closed throughout their turn.
* The mover gives an intention for a weight change. The intention can ask for one or the other to move, or both to move in parallel or cross-system, and in parallel or cross-direction.
* Release the hold entirely!
* Now the mover asks the sensor to touch some specified part of their body with some specified part of the sensor’s body.
Examples:
* Your free leg taps my standing foot.
* Your embrace-side hand taps my hand-side.
* Your standing knee taps my free leg.

* Variation: the sensor initiates the movement–while keeping their eyes closed! The other partner still calls out what to tap with what. Try it with the sensor holding the mover.

Discussion

Our understanding says that there are but two elements in the DNA of Argentine tango: Changes of weight and Pivots.

Change of weight means moving our weight supported by the floor from one foot to the other foot. This can include

* In place, with no movement of the feet.
* A step of any size. The cardinal directions for steps are forward, backward, and to the side (away from the standing leg). These are generally rectilinear (straight line) movements in an orthogonal (right-angle) direction, but they may include curved steps, slightly diagonal steps, and even steps across the line of the standing leg. A step may leave the weight over the new standing leg, or may displace the weight only temporarily, returning to the original leg.

Pivot means keeping our weight balanced in a straight column over the ball of one foot. But we don’t move as a solid column; we move in vertical segments. Generally a leader initiates the pivot through a twisting of their torso to indicated a desired pivot to the front or to the back. The leader may also indicate this be stepping around the follower. The follower senses the twisting in the torso, then spirals that energy down to the hips and legs, magnifying the amount of twist as it goes down. A pivot can also originate in the hips, often as an adornment. There are many more details, but for purposes of warming up, this will suffice.

We’d like to make play activities that will wake up our neuro-muscular system for tango for balancing and for torsion (twisting, contrabody) through the body. We also want to wake up our sensing of our partner, where they are in space and the space they occupy, where is their weight, how are their torso and their hips facing?

Notes

[1] Forearm-to-forearm hold. We want to keep the arms close to the core and relaxed.
[2] Feel free to experiment with other holds, such as hands at side of their shoulders, or even hands on each other’s rib cage.

[3] “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Originally “The Twist” by Hank Ballard.

[4] We don’t place our hands palm down on top of a partner’s shoulders because we want to keep weight off our partner, and we want our arms in a relaxed position with elbows toward the floor.
[5] If both partners feel comfortable with this, the twister can place their hands at the sides of their partner’s hips to produce different kinds of neuro-muscular awareness.

Anticipa-a-tion

Record album cover for ANTICIPATION with Carly Simon standing, legs astride, arms out wide holding onto large gate leaves.

Summary — After presenting the problem we give two exercises to help both leaders and followers discover how to wait in quiet anticipation.

“Anticipation” by Carly Simon could serve as an anthem for Argentine tango dancers. Check out the lyrics at that link. See her perform it here. We’ll wait . . .

A common refrain from leaders and followers has them complaining or wondering, “Why can’t they/I wait for the lead/follow?” Three factors figure into this failure to wait in readiness:

  1. We’re just so darn eager to please. They’ve agreed to dance with us! Now we want to show them that they made a good choice. Leaders rush on to the next great move before their partner has fully finished the last thing. Followers don’t want to keep their partner waiting, so they rush on to what they expect comes next. But, hey, like Carly says, we can never know what comes next. In a fully improvised dance even the leader experiences it moment to moment. The anticipation, wondering what will happen next, can create as much magic as the actual doing.
  2. We fall into habitual, patterned movement. This can particularly arise in classes or practice where a couple drills a movement repeatedly, then when the leader moves on to something else without warning, the follower wonders what happened. Even in our social dance both leader and follower create expectations in their partner from habitual responses. In a class or práctica an alert can come as a verbal, “Okay, how about now we try combining this with the other class material?” At the milonga we can give a non-verbal “warning” by becoming particularly intentional and grounded on the step before the transition. That is, as leader we want to be thinking about doing something different before the last step of the pattern we’ve created. That’s two moments before the actual transition!
  3. We fail to fully seize our axis. A common example arises in the back cross, such as in the molinete. Whether due to lead or follow or both, the step may move away from your partner. If no one makes an adjustment, it leaves possibly both dancers in an unbalanced position, where they will likely “fall” into an open step. Do you remember that Voguing dance from the 1980s? Think of tango like that, where every step is a pose, complete and fully realized in itself, with feet and body set just so, with any and all future possibilities available to flow from there. Note: We don’t want to limit creative possibilities by insisting that our axis must be over one foot with the other foot collected. Our weight could be split between two feet, together or apart; or over one foot with the other leg away; or even outside of our footprint. The key consideration comes from both leader and follower knowing where we intend to place the axis, and what can flow from there.

Exercises

1. Follower waits on leader.

In a randomness of fundamental movements — movement (step or pivot), not patterns — before making any movement the leader (and follower, of course) takes a moment, that can range from an instant to quite long. Then they invite each movement with varying direction, size, and dynamics. The leader can increase the intensity by moving themselves into “non-standard” orientations with their partner before marking the next movement. Leaders can see this as a challenge to shake up their habitual way of moving. Followers can see this as a challenge to become comfortable with, even coming to enjoy the not knowing; to be quietly listening with their body, and prepared to move anywhere, without feeling the least anxiety or care for where or how or when that might be.

2. Leader waits on follower.

As in exercise #1, the partners move in a randomness of fundamental movements, but this time the follower dictates the duration of the stillness and where their next step goes. The challenge for the leader is to follow their follower, to become comfortable with both giving the follower the time they need or want, and with moving to accommodate whatever happens in the dance. From this exercise the follower discovers a world of possibilities for their movement, where they can control the direction, size, and dynamics of their movement. They can know the power of a follower’s intentional movement, and how such movements can make the dance easier or harder or more interesting for their partner.

Note: Take moments of stillness, not to become inert lumps, but as times for mind and body to continue dancing in that stillness. Energy expanding or contracting, size growing or compressing, gaze intensifying or shrinking.

Two situations might suggest that you use these exercises in your practice time. One, you feel that you are dancing in a habitual or perfunctory way. Use the exercises to shake up your awareness of all the possibilities for movement. Two, you feel that you or your partner aren’t fully connected with each other. Someone’s not listening, or someone’s just going through the motions without considering the power that each pose can bring into the dance.

Final note: Can you bring these exercises to the milonga? I sure hope you realize that yes you can, as either leader or follower, without verbally expressing it, you can bring the exercise intentions into your social dancing when you recognize that you want more from yourself.

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Grounded exercises

Aside from couch potatoes and astronauts, being grounded – well rooted by gravity, stable and in balance – serves pretty much all of us throughout our daily life. Being well grounded is a vitally important skill for Argentine tango dancers, and it’s a skill that will serve a person well in all aspects of their lives, through their life. Being a skill, it is a capability that can be trained, exercised, and developed.

Here are some general purpose and dance specific exercises that I’ve used for developing the skill to have a strong, stable base when standing still or moving on the dance floor. See if any of them resonate with you, and which ones you can easily fit into your daily activities.

  1. Do a lot of standing on one foot at a time. But not like a stork! With both feet on the floor, heels close to each other, feet angled comfortably away from each other, this forms a triangle, a highly stable base. Even when we commit our weight fully to one foot, if we keep a long leg by not allowing the hip to drop, we can keep both feet fully on the floor, even though only one has the weight. The unweighted one can still serve to help with balance.
  2. A useful exercise for this is to stand on one leg and do let the hip on the unweighted side drop down, then lift it up above horizontal, then play with it up and down, above and below horizontal, to develop a sense of where horizontal is?, all the while observing what is going on elsewhere in your body.

  3. Do a lot of natural walking, outside (safely!) where you can walk with ease both forwards and backwards. Add variety: of surfaces, size of step, speed of step. Part of your safety is in fully feeling the landing of each step to know that it is secure before you move your weight over it.
  4. Some tango instruction, particularly beginner instruction that focuses on style, can unintentionally pervert the idea of natural walking, plus, walking while you have someone immediately facing you doesn’t help matters. But now think about how babies learn to walk? They hoist themselves up to standing with the aid of furniture. If they overbalance to the rear, where they have only the small foot projection of the heel, they fall on their bottom. But they discover that when they overbalance to the front, and the body automatically acts to try to catch itself, and succeeds, then they soon start smoothing out this fall-catch sequence.
  5. Stop yourself at the moment of the fall-catch, and scan your body configuration. Bent joints and toned muscles in the catching leg. A long line with only relaxed (not bent) joints in the trailing leg. A horizontal, well balanced hip. When going backwards you want that same configuration as you begin the step. That is, the long leg reaching back, with the standing leg bent to power the push off.
  6. Grounding for a step. We talked about not allowing the hip to drop to one side in the weight change. The possibility of a hip drop becomes even more pronounced in the intention phase of preparing for a step, where we load all of our weight onto the supporting, powering leg. But by keeping the hip horizontal we engage all the core, sending power down to that supporting foot-leg.
  7. Do a LOT of catching yourself all the time, any time you can think of it. Walking to or from your car, walking in the store, walking at home: every so often, frequently even, catch yourself “unawares” on one foot and hold your balance there for a moment. Play this game with yourself all the time. With each grounding, feel your entire leg rooted to the floor, with the powerful leg and hip muscles all engaged to hold you in position.
  8. Lastly, play the catching game with tango music. And now you can add all sorts of movement in the privacy of your home or practice space. Add all the possible ways of stepping: weight change, sideways, forward-backward, rock steps, check steps (catch your weight but immediately return to your supporting leg), steps plus kicks, boleos, pivots. Then as you are dancing solo to the music, catch yourself – often – at various random, unexpected steps. Play with your body (kicks, twists, pivots, reaches with foot or hand, bend over, you name it) as all the while your supporting leg feels rooted to the floor.