Saturday 19 December 2015

Beanpoles & Backbends

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a marathon-encuentro mixer. It was a well organised event in a beautiful city, I met a few (not many) old friends... but that‘s not what I want to write about.

This article is an instructional paper. I usually don‘t use this medium for teaching purposes. I teach in class or via my book+DVD. But the majority of people I want to reach with this information might not visit our (Detlef's and my) classes or buy our product and I don‘t want to criticise my partners during a Milonga. This is why I decided to broach the issue of „la postura“ in my blog, something that I've been wanting to do for a couple of years. Yesterday, a young lady encouraged me to do so. 
(Many, many more details about this topic can be found here.)


The above mentioned event was populated by lots of lovely, mostly young dancers, who come from a marathon background. They are inventive in their movements, have an interesting musicality and dance - as this is the custom nowadays - in a close(r) embrace. So you would think, that I must have enjoyed it a lot. I did, but there was also a problem: very often, my back started hurting. It did not hurt before dancing and it usually does not cause any problems at all. Yes, I am older than most of the young ladies at this event, but I am not yet that old and I do Yoga on a regular basis. I am not as bendy as a gymnast, but I manage well enough, thank you, sir!

So this post is about where I believe that the pain in my back came from.

Many marathony dancers used to dance in open embrace originally or have learned from teachers who still do or did so in the past. That is totally fine and we often also use open embrace in our classes out of pedagogical reasons. But, as we want to dance in a close embrace at a Milonga, we teach a posture, that will work out no matter which distance you choose. Please be aware, that many teachers who used to dance in open embrace don‘t. Although they might dance close embrace nowadays, they might not have updated their concept of a posture but stick to the original idea of the leader standing very upright, with the bodyweight distributed over the whole foot. Kind of an ideal everyday posture, like a perfectly upright beanpole. It might look like this:

Looks fine, doesn‘t it?
But if you use this posture in close embrace, you will "force" your partner to either lean on you or stick out her butt in order to create a chest contact and still have enough space for the feet. Because only few teachers nowadays encourage dancing „apilado“ (off axis, leaning) and most women feel uncomfortable weighing on their partners, many followers will instinctively choose option two. It allows them to keep their gravity centre above their feet. This posture might look like this:

Silly, eh?
When dancing with a partner in a close embrace, it might not look quite as crass and some even find it sexy. But I can tell you: it is not healthy. Dancing with a constant backbend compresses the vertebrae, uses a lot of muscular tension, inhibits natural dissociation and does actually interrupt the flow of the leading signals from top to down. If a communicative signal is supposed to „run through“ the axis, should it not remain unbroken?
Let us not speak about the long-terms downsides of such a posture. Many yoga teachers nowadays abstain from encouraging their students to aim for hyper-flexibility because they know about the risks of such a practise. So please keep in mind: You (or your lovely partner) will not be young forever, but you might still want to dance Tango without hurting.

Ok, everyone knows that the spine is naturally curved. Depending on your personal physique, you may see a more or less defined curve when standing upright and looking at yourself from the side. We don‘t want to work against that, e.g. by pulling the the hips downwards or even tilting them forwards. 

We just suggest that you stand straight, but shift the body weight a little more to your metatarsals. Not to the toes though, because we don‘t want to lose our balance and lean onto our partner. This little adaptation will allow you to dance in a close embrace and you will still have space for your feet. It might look like this:

The difference to the posture above is minimal, but it changes everything, because now both partners can stand upright: 
(Please don‘t tell me, that I stick out my butt as well. What you see are the natural curves of my spine and well... the rest of my body. The only way to get rid of those would be to go on a stricter diet.)

So, in my opinion, these are your options of dancing without forcing yourself or your partner into an unhealthy posture or dancing off-axis:

1. If you (as a leader) don‘t want to change your posture, because you are used to a certain form of stability by having part of your bodyweight above your heel: Fine. Keep your posture, but dance in a more open embrace. There is nothing wrong about it and it does not mean that you have to dance unsocially. You might take up a little more space in the ronda, but if you pay attention, everything will be ok. 
Look at the following video of Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne. Both of them stand very upright most of the time and open the embrace, when they need more space for their feet and legs. In any case, Giselle Anne does not have to stick out her behind. (Nevertheless: don‘t do all the stuff that they are dancing at a Milonga, please.)

2. Adapt your posture to allow for both partners to keep their spine upright. If you still don‘t know how, please work with specialised teachers.
Check out a dancing video that we made for our DVD. I have chosen it, because you can often see us from the side and the light allows for a good visibility. You can also watch an initially faulty posture changing to the better: Check out the first couple of seconds when we go into the embrace. In the beginning, Detlef is standing with his body weight a little bit too much towards his heels. His mistake! In order to create a connection, I then break my axis and lean my upper body towards him. I should not have done that, but maintained my posture and therefore show him how to position himself, as I tell our students. My mistake!
Fortunately (whilst already being in the embrace) Detlef also shifts his weight to the front of his feet and all of a sudden, my posture is good again. Both of our axes remain upright throughout most of the dance and we‘ve got enough space for our feet. (We don‘t claim to be perfect though.)

3. Grow a Milonguero belly! The belly will keep your partner further away, so that you have got enough space for the feet. If the follower is shorter than you (only then!), she will even find a nice soft spot to make contact to with her upper body without having to bend. 
Look at the following video by Tete - in particular the moment when he and Sylvia go into the embrace. By the way: Tete was a famous dancer and teacher who, like most Milongueros of that era answered „Tango de Salón“ when someone asked him, what style he danced. But that is yet another story...

So, cheers to the Milonguero belly!

Please note that I don't want to put all the blame on the leaders. There are many, many things that followers can do to put themselves into a disadvantageous position or to hurt the leaders. This post concentrates one one particular feature of the leader's posture and the consequences for the followers, because I have experienced this situation to a larger extent and I believe it to be a typical problem of recent developments.
If you want to work on the details of your posture and connection, I encourage you to buy our book+DVD. ;-)


msHedgehog said...

Ahh, that is actually super helpful. He readjusts at 00:13, right?

I would add that the mere fact of wearing high heels causes one's bottom to appear more prominent. This is why the models often leave their shoes on when posing nude for the Sun and similar publications. And this can mislead people.

An interesting and fun demonstration would be to show the same posture in the same motion with and without a good quality false bottom of the sort you can purchase at good department stores - or on Amazon. Since the permanently-fitted kind are allegedly quite popular in Argentina as an intelligent investment in fixed business assets.

Melina Sedo said...

Yes. Around that time, msHedgehog.

And good idea. Will go an buy false bottom. ;-)


Unknown said...

Thanks very much, Melina! It's so simple and obvious but many followers (as me) suffer backpain after a milonga and think that it was caused only by their, followers', drawbacks of walking technic or|and posture. Yes, yes, nobody is perfect - so the last thing i do - to blame a leader if i accept his cabeceo. It's really hard to judge a leader's posture when there are no rough problems but a very small difference in axis position )) On the next practice i just try to be more attentive to this aspect when adapting an embrace starting to dance.And, if neccesary, try to mildly provoke a leader to move his weight a bit foward.

Melina Sedo said...

Elena Mo:

Of course you don't want to blame your partners and this post is not about giving all the responsibility to the leaders. There are lots of things, that follower can do to cause the leader pain, like weighing onto him. And of course, some women do break her axis and stick out their behinds without the leaders "forcing" them to do so. ;-)

But: This post addressed a specific topic as I have been encountering it a lot in these past years. I hope it creates a little awareness to both sides of the coin.

Good night,


Mamborambo said...

As my belly grows bigger in my old age, I find my axis moving towards the front of my standing posture... So I guess there is a scientific basis why the best dancers are the old dancers :)