- Tango dancing is based entirely on natural movement – at its best, it does not require any artificial technique. Moreover, recovering natural body coordination is the biggest key to continuous improvement in tango dancing.
- The MAIN CHALLENGE in body conditioning is to recover natural movement and coordination until no adjustments of it are necessary in order to dance tango. In other words, all choreography and musicality, no matter how complex, should be accomplished easily through natural walking, without sacrificing good partner connection (see corresponding sections).
- Due to certain trends in modern culture, in most people natural movement is not fully manifest, but is covered up by anti-natural patterns, caused by lifestyle habits and psychosomatic factors. This means that most people who wish to explore more advanced levels of tango dancing may need to recover good natural movement and coordination, at least to some extent.
- There are various schools of bodywork which aim to recover natural coordination – I discuss several of them in this section – but, so far, no integrative and/or reliable approach seems to exist. However, there are certain directions of improvement, common goals which can be potentially agreed upon.
- The following aspects of body coordination seem useful to discuss individually, though they are all just different views on the one thing – good natural movement:
- It is often difficult to tell if one is improving, even if the directions of improvement are clear. I therefore list some objective tests which can be used to monitor one’s progress. However, the most important evaluation is subjective – the main point is still the heightening experience of the dancer.
- At the end of this section, I provide some more information on the schools of body work which I have found particularly helpful – The Alexander Technique, Nei Kung, Tai Chi Chuan, and Bioenergetic Therapy.
As I mention repeatedly, good standing and walking are the biggest key to good tango. One of the most beautiful aspects of this dance is the fact that it does not require any artificial technique – just good natural movement. A man and a woman connecting into one organic whole with no artifice. This is why one of the known sayings of the old-timers is that “to dance tango is to walk like one walks in the street.” Of course, in dancing, the body may perform more different movements than it does in simple walking. The point of the saying is that nothing needs to be changed in the fundamental mechanics of the walk – the body is simply allowed to adjust to the challenges of the dance like in most traditional folk dancing, without learning any specific technique for one’s feet or one’s hips. In addition, more than other dances, most tango figures are based on simply stepping here and there, and the best tango dancers actually look like they are “just walking”. But there is another famous saying: “in order to dance tango well, one must first learn how to stand and walk well.” If tango is based on natural movement, what is there to learn? The seeming contradiction is resolved when one understands that most of us do not walk well even “in the street”. The sad fact is that good natural movement is rare nowadays. Many movement specialists acknowledge this problem, but most people are still unaware of it. A vast majority of people in developed countries do not use their bodies well, do not take full advantage of their natural physical design. For many people this is hard to believe, but the sooner we face this fact, the better for us. It represents a larger trend in civilized societies in general: a weakening of the instinct. It is for this reason that most tango dancers today are not as comfortable dancing as they are walking – they are having to adjust their movement, use special techniques or unconscious manipulations in order to make the dance work.
The good news is that it seems to be possible to do something about this, to get back in touch with our instincts, to recover good natural movement. This has been understood and even accomplished to various degrees by many Eastern martial artists. For example, in Tai Chi Chuan, it is understood that the greatest power comes from the Taoist principle of aligning, harmonizing with nature. I have become convinced, both through observation and through personal experience, that the same principle governs tango dancing: no artificial technique is nearly as effective for tango dancing as the natural movement and coordination of the body. An artificial technique can help make this dance work before proper natural conditions are achieved, but the most sublime tango is the one that is walked naturally. In my experience, *RECOVERING NATURAL BODY COORDINATION IS THE BIGGEST KEY TO CONTINUING IMPROVEMENT IN TANGO DANCING*. But in order to even start this process, I had to first come to terms with the fact that natural movement is not to be taken for granted, that what has become habitual is not necessarily natural.
At present, the corruption of physical functioning is progressing at an alarming rate. Problems of hypertension, chronic fatigue, debilitating muscle pains and joint trauma are more common than they had ever been in the past. The modern sedentary lifestyle is partly responsible for this. Spending most of our day in a chair since early childhood certainly contributes to our loss of proper freedom in the hip joints. In “The Origin of Species”, Charles Darwin talks about the growth or the disappearance of certain traits through “use” or “disuse”. The mechanism of this is not yet known, but the fact itself is confirmed by various experiments on animals. Since good movement is not necessary in the modern lifestyle, we are losing it, unless we do something deliberately to maintain it. But there is another deep cause of body malfunction – psychosomatic disturbances. We are now living farther and farther away from our original natural environment. As a result, the voice of the instinct in us is getting weaker. At the same time, we are becoming more mentally and emotionally complex, more able to imagine things, and carry our emotions everywhere with us. But, as it has already been shown by science, all our emotions find expression in the body. Our bodies adopt chronic psychosomatic tension patterns corresponding to our habitual emotional attitudes (bioenergetic therapy deals with this phenomenon directly). These chronic tensions in time can turn into physical shortening of the muscles and fusing of connective tissues together in anti-natural ways. As a result, our joints are not allowed their full range of motion, the spine cannot release into the subtle balance inherent in its design. These patterns are further complicated by the fact that we often adopt them as children, before our bodies are even fully formed.
How can we reverse this trend? There is no going back to the past, to the unconscious, entirely instinctual functioning. We must use our growing awareness to learn how to free ourselves from the built up conditioned reflexes and the anti-natural tensions in the body. (A great advance in this understanding was made by F.M.Alexander – I will give more details about his work at the end of this section.) But this also means learning how to be different emotionally, how not to hold on to the psychosomatic patterns. This is one of the ways that body work, and, by means of it, tango dancing, connects with one’s general mental and spiritual development.
Tango comes from a different time and a different culture, in which an average person was blessed with stronger connection to good natural movement. An average person in Buenos Aires of the first half of the 20th century stood and walked much better than an average person today. This is why tango dancers of the old did not have to work on their body conditions. If their natural conditions were not good enough, they simply did not dance tango, and we do not know much about them. But the old-timers who we have seen dance so beautifully learned it with ease due to their good natural conditions. Such people were mostly the ones who invented this dance – tango grew out of the very way that they stood and walked. Nowadays good body conditions are rare. Our attitudes have changed as well, and we do not want to give up the idea of dancing tango even if we do not walk well enough. This means that most people today must work on their bodies in order to even approach the grace and skill of the old-timers, let alone surpass it. Clear ways to bring our bodies back to their natural grace do not even exist yet – our corruptions are developing faster than our knowledge of how to deal with them. The old-timers saw that most younger dancers could not walk well and spoke out about it, but they did not know how to remedy the problem.
A big breakthrough for me was seeing that the secret of the old-timers was not in any “special tango walk”, but in a relative freedom from corruptions of good natural movement. I then began looking for ways to develop that freedom in myself – to relearn how to stand and walk well. I have studied Alexander Technique, yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, Nei Kung, and Bioenergetics, all of which make some claims about their ability to bring one back to harmonious functioning. I have learned a lot and was able to progress in what I feel is the right direction. But I have not seen any complete system, any school that was able to produce balanced human beings with any consistency. They all had some pieces of good understanding which helped me greatly, but, in my opinion, none of them see the full picture. I do not yet see the full picture, either, but at least I know that I do not. My great hope is that eventually there will be enough of a dialogue among people who see the full magnitude of the problem so that a working method for reversing our physical corruption can be developed. To say “reversing” is not exact, however. We must learn how to be “good animals” again but with an unprecedented awareness of ourselves. In fact, I believe that it is only through awareness that we can rediscover our proper natural functioning.
To turn our attention to how we move is to open the Pandora’s box of painful self-consciousness. Initially, it can greatly inhibit one’s freedom of movement and dancing. In a children’s story, when the centipede was asked how it managed to coordinate all its legs, it could no longer take a step. But we are losing our proper coordination even without anyone asking us about it. I believe that eventually we will all have to pass through the initially painful self-consciousness, learn how to turn the light of awareness on to all aspects of our being and how not to freeze up under it. Once we begin this process as applied to body movement, the task is two-fold. On one hand, we must find ways to gradually bring ourselves back to harmonious natural functioning, which means identifying and eliminating the anti-natural patterns and their causes. But in the meantime we must also learn how to use our less-than-perfect conditions in the best possible way, how to forget about our imperfections at least sometimes. (I have a lot of trouble with this.) As the body is brought into harmony with its nature, it becomes an increasingly refined instrument for all our creative pursuits. All our acts become more rooted in our unconscious, instinctual nature, thereby becoming more and more creative and spontaneous. Purifying the body is like cultivating the soil upon which all that we do can grow better. It is the strengthening of our root in our evolutionary past so that we can more effectively create the future. As applied to tango, the better we learn how to stand and walk, the more refined and free our dancing can become.
Working on the body is a very difficult task about which we so far know very little, it can take years or even decades, and one can never reach the state one aims for, but the process is worth it nevertheless, for every step in the right direction brings more freedom, energy, and creativity to many aspects of one’s life. Moreover, I believe that it is an integral part of our conscious evolution, a necessary step at this moment in history. Many people are starting to feel this, which explains the growing interest in yoga and other body-oriented disciplines. Body work is one of the main aspects of tango which give evolutionary significance to this art form. It is through dancing tango that I first discovered that my psycho-physical being needed improvement, and it is my dancing that acts as the clearest feedback to that process.
Whether the optimal physical functioning has ever existed among humans is an interesting anthropological and philosophical question. At what point in our evolution did we stand up straight? Was it before or after the first psycho-somatic problems started taking hold? Some Greek statues look more balanced and more beautiful to us than many tribal humans. Who was closer to nature? Maybe there have only been some fortunate moments when we approached perfect harmony with our natural design, possibly only in some extraordinary individuals. As a culture, we could not have held on to it, for it happened largely unconsciously, if ever. Through awareness, however, anyone can move towards the functioning that is more in accord with our nature.
The value of harmonizing with nature has been understood in many traditional Eastern arts. Tai Chi Chuan is an art based on Taoist philosophy, in which following the natural way is a fundamental principle. Tai Chi masters achieved supreme fighting ability not through an artificial technique, but by opening up natural powers of the human body. Because of it, they were able to defeat a physically stronger opponent without effort. In the Tai Chi circles, it is common knowledge that practicing “the form” is central to one’s progress in the interaction with an opponent. Diligent individual practice of the form is supposed to restore natural coordination of the body and breathing, eventually letting the internal energy manifest. Beginners are not even allowed to spar or do push-hands for the first year or two. By contrast, tango dancers naively believe that they can keep improving without limit without any systematic body work. The Tai Chi culture is definitely further along in its understanding of how necessary it is to work seriously on the realignment and reintegration of the body. But even among Tai Chi practitioners, optimal body conditions are rare.
After studying several different body-oriented disciplines and looking closely at their practitioners and teachers, I have seen that none of it works automatically. What may have been effective for some people a couple of centuries ago may not work at all for a modern human. The body-oriented arts of the past can teach us a lot, but we must be more aware than ever of what we are trying to accomplish, as well as of how to monitor our progress. I have seen yoga instructors, Tai Chi practitioners, and Alexander Technique teachers alike who had terrible posture and poor body coordination, completely unaware of their problems. They blindly trusted that if they practiced their discipline enough and if they were able to get certified in some way, it meant automatically that they were on the right track. We must become more scientific about bodywork. A great project for medical science would be to extract the very essence of the various ancient body-based practices and create a yoga that is scientific in addition to being spiritual. Hopefully, some day it will happen. Meanwhile, I have been trying to figure it out for myself. I approach this work roughly from three sides:
1. Learning the right general attitude towards one’s physical self, the best way to “think inside the body”, consciously “direct” one’s functioning. Learning how to intend better conditions without violently fighting one’s limitations, how to deal with one’s less than perfect state in the most optimal way. The Alexander Technique was what largely opened to me a higher sophistication of this process.
2. Physical work on one’s tissues, stretching, strengthening the muscles and the tendons, realigning and freeing up the joints. I have been learning a lot about this from Nei Kung, Tai Chi, and to some extent yoga.
3. The psychological component – learning how one’s emotional blocks are expressing themselves through chronic patterns of muscular tension and physical body “attitudes”; gradually releasing these patterns through appropriate exercises and psychological self-examination. Bioenergetic therapy has been helping me with this part.
Where does one get time to do all this? The good news is that many of these things can be combined. The Alexander Technique, for example, does not even require a separate practice, once one has learned enough in lessons. It is mostly about developing a more appropriate and conscious approach to one’s usual physical activities. It can be practiced while sitting on a subway or walking to work, which is when one can also ponder one’s psycho-somatic states to some degree. But some regular practice is necessary, I believe. I work on my body for 1.5 to 2 hours a day on average, with a routine that I keep modifying slightly all the time, often improvising exercises of my own, but which is still based mostly on Nei Kung and Tai Chi. I have incorporated several Bioenergetic exercises, especially because some of them are strikingly similar to Nei Kung postures. Sometimes I also feel like doing certain yoga poses, and occasionally I go running. I will not discuss my routine in detail here, for I constantly keep adjusting it to what I feel are my current needs. In general, it seems that everyone’s problems are so different, that anyone who is serious about body work must eventually develop their own routine, and keep modifying it according to one’s own senses. However, to begin this process, it is very helpful to learn how others have been trying to do the same. Eventually I may start sharing specific exercises for body conditioning, but I do not yet feel ready to do it. For now, I can recommend the disciplines which were helpful to me (the Alexander Technique, Nei Kung, Tai Chi, Bioenergetics, yoga), but also talk about the directions of improvement. It is the latter which, in my opinion, can be shared and agreed upon more than specific routines. As long as the objectives are clear, one can eventually find a way to approach them.
How does one know that he is working in the right direction? How can we tell that the body is recapturing its natural functioning? Some general aspects are obvious – one is probably on the right track if one has more energy, feels lighter, is less prone to disease. The biggest criteria are subjective, meaning how one’s physical functioning is experienced from the inside. The more the body is brought into its natural balance, the more it feels like energy, the less it feels like matter. There is less and less sensation of body parts – we are not meant to feel individual joins or muscles unless the body is hurt or stressed excessively. If we feel (or hear) individual parts, especially if there is pain or discomfort, it means that something is wrong. Ultimately, the body can be experienced more and more like “no-thing” – as a field of energy, weightless, with no uncomfortable rigidity. Another definite sign of progress is if all other aspects of tango dancing – partner connection, musicality, choreographic freedom – seem to improve at once. In my experience, the most important principle to keep in mind is that, on some deeper level, the body wants to “right” itself, which means that a better functioning feels better, that one can eventually find the way to work on it simply by listening to one’s senses. The whole process of readjusting ourselves can also become natural, like the stretching of a cat. Another way to know that one’s movement is good is if there are no two ways about it, when it feels right, and even paying attention to it does not “scare it away”.
But before we develop such inner wisdom, we need some more precise and more objective criteria or aspects of good physical functioning. Without an extensive experience with body work, most people are very out of touch with their own senses, and can hardly rely on them. I will describe such criteria, goals, or lines of improvement which I consider valid at this point, the ways to work on them, the ways to get feedback on them, and the ways in which they apply directly to better tango dancing. After that, I will share some more information about Alexander Technique, Nei Kung, Tai Chi, and Bioenergetics, the study of which has helped me greatly to piece together my present understanding.
One must keep in mind, however, that no criteria, no tests, nothing that can be said or even imagined can ever completely describe or ensure good natural movement, even if simply because there is no limit to how good it can be. Ultimately, it is up to each dancer, each human being to discover the path to one’s nature. Everyone has a different set of problems, which means the solution will likewise be somewhat different. However, at any stage, we should have some commonly acknowledged degrees of freedom or fundamental abilities, which can therefore act as guidelines and standards in one’s process of improvement. I will discuss such aspects of good body movement and coordination, some of which are more difficult to test and observe objectively than others. After that, I will summarize some useful objective tests of good body conditioning. The breakdown into “aspects” really amounts to looking at the same thing from different angles. It can be useful for learning, but, ultimately, it is all about letting the nature of the body manifest. If this work is done well, all the aspects of good movement improve at the same time.
DIRECTIONS OF IMPROVEMENT/ASPECTS OF GOOD MOVEMENT AND COORDINATION
In many art forms, from music to martial disciplines, there comes a time when the teacher is urging the student to “relax!” as the student has no idea how to do it. Many artists in various fields have understood that the excess tension is one of the biggest obstacles to progress. Such “internal” martial arts as Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido have had an advantage over the “hard” styles through relaxation and refinement of effort which allowed for better sensitivity and responsiveness to the opponent. In music or painting, if one is tense one’s hands will not be able to affect the subtleties which one intends. In tango dancing, it is likewise one of the most important directions of improvement. The more relaxed one becomes, the more sensitive one can be to the partner, the more spontaneously one can respond and connect to his or her movement. A woman who is tense will feel heavy no matter how little she may actually weigh. A man who is tense will inevitably feel hard in his lead.
Relaxation, ease of movement, is a big part of the elusive quality of elegance – the quintessential attribute of tango dancing. Elegance is the freedom from the unnecessary, the beautiful simplicity of means, the “refinement of effort” as writer Albert Murray put it in his elaboration on the elegance of jazz music. But above all, relaxation is necessary for openness – be it to one’s partner, to the music, or to spontaneous invention of dance patterns.
To understand the potential advantages of being more relaxed is a lot easier than learning how to relax. The first problem is that we often do not know how relaxed we are. Usually, other people have to break the news that we are too tense. Second, there is no such thing as “completely relaxed”. In the words of cellist Pablo Casals, “there is no limit to how relaxed one can be”. So the challenge is really to relax more and more all the time. OK, but how does one do it? For many people relaxing means sinking one’s body into a nice soft couch. How does one do it while standing, let alone dancing?
The most sophisticated way I have seen for reducing excess tension is the Alexander Technique. (I will discuss it in some more detail at the end of this section.) It involves becoming aware of anti-natural and unnecessary reflex patterns in the body and unlearning those reflexes. It also involves learning how to change conditions within the body with thought, which is a fascinating thing in itself. To relax does not mean to collapse, it means to project an intention of expansion, softness, and weightlessness throughout the body. With practice, such intention can get rid of a lot of the unnecessary muscular effort which we tend to use in our everyday physical tasks. The thought of lengthening and widening one’s torso, of extra space in all one’s joints, eventually starts to manifest in reality, and the body attains much more of an effortless power. F.M. Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, discovered that the relationship between the head and the spine play a key role in our patterns of tension. He realized that “releasing the head away from the spine” is a good place to start. (This relates well to one of the main Tai Chi principles of “the head as though suspended”.) Alexander Technique relates to the principle of nothingness – it is about clearing the slate, training oneself to stop interfering with the natural coordination of the body.
But there is another part to the issue of relaxation, which the Alexander Technique does not take into consideration. There will always be a limit to relaxation if the skeletal structure has not achieved its proper alignment, if the joints are not allowed their proper range of movement. Alexander teachers assert that if one practices the Technique diligently and patiently, the body will eventually “right” itself. But I have seen serious practitioners who after 30 years of it have not achieved proper alignment or coordination. The Alexander principle is probably the most important one for working with the body, but it may not be sufficient. I believe that in most cases (mine included) a deeper intervention is necessary. Tissues need to be stretched, inactive muscles must be challenged to mobilize, possibly some connective tissue needs to be “un-fused”. In this regard, I have learned the most from Nei Kung and Tai Chi Chuan, which involve conscious realignment of the skeletal structure and the reintegration of the musculature by means of fairly strenuous postures (more details below). One problem with this approach which I have experienced is that once I have understood where I lack range in my legs, it became difficult to keep myself from trying to stretch a little as I am dancing. As a result, I am often pulling or pushing something in my body during the dance, which sometimes gets me a certain mechanical advantage, but always interferes with relaxation and inevitably prevents more sublime states from happening. Alexander practitioners understand such temptation all too well, which is why they discourage any manipulations of body parts. I believe that I simply have to learn better self-control: stretch when I am stretching, and let go when I am dancing. At times, I manage to stop all my manipulations, and project a thought of release throughout the body, starting with the head, and I do experience an improvement in many aspects of the dance. So far, however, I cannot do it consistently enough – putting my limitations out of my mind is still hard for me.
How does one monitor progress in one’s relaxation? How does one know that one is more relaxed than before? One good test is how much one sweats. I used to bring three shirts to every milonga and soak them through one after another. Wearing a jacket for dancing used to be unthinkable. Now I can dance all night in a suit and do not have to change once. Another test is how light one’s body feels, or how little body parts hurt after hours of dancing. In addition, if one pays careful attention, eventually it will become clear that when one projects an intention to become softer and more expanded throughout the body, many aspects of the dance improve instantly as though by themselves – one is able to better adjust to the partner’s movement, be more spontaneous in responding to the music and avoiding collisions. I found that when I relax my eyes and use more of the peripheral vision, I am able to flow with other couples on the floor instinctually, without even trying. Through one’s own relaxation, one can sometimes even produce relaxation in the partner’s body (this phenomenon is known and used routinely by Alexander teachers). Ultimately, one can neutralize effort and balance the body to such an extent that all the particular mechanics of it become “erased” from one’s senses, begins to feel more and more like “no-thing”. But that is a very advanced stage. In any case, if I had to name one most important physical quality to develop, it would be relaxation.
Few will deny that good balance is an aspect of good dancing and good body movement in general. Internally, a well-balanced body feels calm and steady, none of its movements feel out of control, it never feels like it is about to fall, even in the midst of a vigorous physical activity. Balanced walking is what enables one to slow down and explore a more sophisticated musicality in tango dancing. It is also essential for the quality of stillness in partner connection. Balance on one foot is essential for female tango dancers for their part includes many pivots, voleos, and one-footed stops. But it is also important for the men, especially if they wish to do one-footed turning or twisting figures.
In balanced walking, the foot is placed on the ground lightly, and only then the weight of the body is transferred on to it. A body that is properly coordinated does it naturally. Native Americans were famous for their inaudible walk, though to them it was completely natural. The whole reason it was noticed at all was how much it contrasted with the way people in our culture “bump” from foot to foot. Try walking barefoot around a room without causing any vibration. Every “bump” represents a slight falling off balance. While dancing tango, such bumpy walk robs one of control, of an ability to accompany the partner, and of a more sophisticated musicality. Many dancers of the older generation saw this problem and criticized younger dancers for “falling” or “running” instead of walking. A number of older teachers tried to fix the problem by telling their students to practice moving “first the foot, then the body”. Initially, many younger dancers, including myself, rebelled against this idea, for it seemed artificial. Besides, it seemed impossible to provide a body lead if the foot had to move first. Later I understood the right motivation behind the concept of “first the foot, then the body”, but also that the reality was more complicated. (In the flow of the movement, the weight can be kept on the foot even as the body has already moved forward or has not yet arrived completely over it. I call this “dynamic equilibrium”.) For women, keeping the balance on the “previous” foot is essential for the ability to accompany the partner (see Partner Connection section). It provides for the famous “waiting” or hesitation in each step, which in turn allows for an easy synchronization with the partner’s rhythm and timing.
Truly balanced walking cannot be developed by simply practicing moving the foot before the body. It is not about any “technique”, but a much more difficult and involved process of recovering the natural walk – the one that the body was designed for. As all other animals who walk on the ground, humans are not designed to “bump” from foot to foot, but to place it down softly, without immediately dropping the weight of the body on it. When natural body coordination begins to manifest, steps naturally become softer and more balanced. To learn how to walk smoothly without adopting any artificial technique, one must develop proper range in all the joints of the legs. It is mostly the stiffness that makes one fall. This issue relates directly to flexibility, relaxation, and alignment. When all the muscles act as one integrated “membrane”, while not being held in a fixed pattern, they instinctively adjust for any loss of equilibrium that is about to happen. When joints have their proper freedom, they perform miniscule adjustments automatically to compensate for anything going out of balance.
A good way to work on balance is to practice walking very slowly, like Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. This is useful to do both on one’s own, and with a partner. Anyone who has tried to dance in slow motion close with a partner knows how difficult it is – it does not let one “cheat” as much as one can while walking by oneself. In this process, if one pays attention, one can discover a lot about excess tension in one’s body, as well as which joints lack range and which parts of the musculature need to become more flexible.
As compared to other aspects of good body coordination, balance is relatively easy to test. Here are some simple ways:
- being able to stand on one foot for a long time;
- being able to balance on a very slippery surface, both on one and on two feet;
- being able to balance on balance boards, which have become common in recent years, both on one and on two feet;
- being able to balance on top of a rubber medicine ball, both on one and on two feet;
- being able to balance on the balls of the feet, both on one and on two feet;
- being able to do all of the above with eyes closed;
- being able to walk in slow motion, to slow down one’s weight transfers;
- being able to do ochos without holding on to anything;
- being able to do front and back voleos repeatedly in succession without holding on to anything;
- being able to follow a tango partner without leaning, “hanging”, or resisting;
- being able to dance on a very slippery floor without losing balance;
- being able to easily slow down or stop in the middle of any step of any tango figure.
All the above tests are also ways to develop good balance – I practice some of them on a regular basis. But in my experience, relaxation, flexibility – increasing range and freedom in the joints, – and particularly grounding (to be discussed next) are the biggest keys to balance.
Balance relates directly to the experience of stillness. Stillness within movement or moving in stillness has opened to me the most amazing dance experiences, though so far they have been rare. To attain stillness is to open the way for true spontaneity and freedom. Stillness should not be confused with holding – everything should be released and suspended. It is best achieved through intention and correct work on the body. True stillness can only be achieved through true balance, relaxation, and correct alignment. In most people nowadays many big external muscles which are meant to mobilize the body are too involved in holding the body upright. Ideally, the anti-gravity mechanism which keeps the body upright and balanced is independent from walking and dancing. That is when the body is capable of stopping without locking or holding any joints and keeping the same suspended state while moving. I do not think it is a good idea to try to become aware exactly which muscles are doing what. It is more useful to simply know that the independence of moving and balancing is potentially possible and intend it, while also working on relaxation, grounding, and flexibility separately.
Grounding is a notoriously enigmatic concept which has been on the tongue of many tango teachers. “You have to get more grounded, walk in a more grounded way,” – they say, often without explaining what that means. I will try to demystify this issue slightly. First, let us say a person is standing, and receives a slight push. If the body is stiff, the person is likely to tilt, “rolling off” his base of support:
Tilting off Balance
But if the body is relaxed and flexible, it can accommodate the push, and keep the base of support entirely on the ground:
A More Grounded Response
The latter would be a more grounded situation. Already we see that grounding is very much related to relaxation and the freedom in the joints.
Now let us consider walking. I say repeatedly that good natural movement forms the basis for tango. By this I mean that at best, no special technique, no manipulation of the joints of the legs is used. But even good natural movement is not all the same. There is natural walking, but there is also natural running, as well as everything in-between. One can make big natural steps or small natural steps. What makes walking different in principle from running is that there is a phase – let’s call it “mid-step” – when both feet are on the ground.
Let us look at some different ways in which a person can be found in mid-step:
Which stick figure is most grounded? The correct answer is (c) – this figure has the best base of support, both feet are entirely on the ground. At least for male dancers, this is the main way to get more grounded – simply keep both feet in contact with the floor as much as possible and as fully as possible, meaning the heel and the toe at once. There is even an expression in the English language: “to have both feet on the ground” which means to be well balanced in life, to feel secure and steady. The old-timers have told me repeatedly not to show the soles of my shoes, not to lift the heels too much. Theoretically, it makes perfect sense: of course you are going to be more balanced on the whole foot than just on the toes or just on the heel. One’s walking is much better balanced if one’s ankles have enough flexibility to place the whole foot on the ground right away, and especially to keep the back heel on the ground until all the weight is on the other foot. Try walking very slowly and you will see how much steadier that is than rolling from heel to toe while some weight is on the foot. This is why all martial arts teach this kind of walking – one never lifts the back heel until the weight has been transferred.
Whenever any part of the body weight is supported by a foot, that ankle must be relaxed so that the foot is entirely on the floor. This way, as I showed in the beginning, one does not “roll off” the base of support, but translates in a balanced way. That is also when the refinement of effort can move to a whole new level. When I finally understood this, it was nothing short of a revelation. This revelation was forced on me, in fact. On one of my trips to Buenos Aires I had bought new tango shoes and decided to wear them to the next milonga. Dance floors are slippery over there as it is, but on top of that I was wearing new shoes with completely unused soles. I felt like I was on ice, and at first I could hardly dance at all. But then my body relaxed and “snapped” into an entirely new type of movement in which my feet slid on the floor almost without lifting. Suddenly, I was dancing better than ever before in my life. It felt like most of my weight had drained into my feet, and the rest of my body became incredibly light and supple. I was able to connect better to my partners and dance with more spontaneity and rhythm than ever before. I knew beyond any doubt that I had discovered something very important, for it made sense to me on many different levels, intellectually as well as experientially.
One can think of it this way: if one could have the same base of support in walking as one does in standing, keeping it all rather than rolling off of it, why wouldn’t one have it? Well, I can attest that it is possible – I have seen it done many times in Buenos Aires, and I have learned how to do it, not yet perfectly well, but much better than before.
The validity of this principle is also supported by our visual sense of what tango looks like – in most professional photographs of tango dancers, both of the man’s heels are on the floor, even if he cannot keep them down while dancing. (I will shortly explain why it is somewhat different for the woman.)
Only when the ankle is relaxed and the whole foot is in contact with the floor can it feel like a “root” which they talk about a lot in Tai Chi:
The trouble is: most people nowadays lack the proper range in the joints of the legs in order for such grounded walking to feel natural. I still have trouble with it unless I am making relatively small steps. It is an example of the confusion between the natural and the habitual. Most people will find it very natural to roll from heel to toe even as the weight is on that foot, and will often be found in positions “b”, “d”, or “e”. In forward walking, it is the back heel that lifts prematurely, and in backwards walking it is the front toes. This is why people love wearing thick rubber soles – one can roll on the foot all day and it won’t hurt. Try walking barefoot, like our ancestors! An average person nowadays moves in an unbalanced way. It would hurt to walk like that barefoot on rough ground, and it is inappropriate if at the same time one has to perform a precision task such as wrestling, fencing, or connecting with a dance partner. In grounded walking the whole foot stays in contact with the ground until all the weight of the body is on the other foot. Yet, to most people this will feel unnatural, at least initially. For most people, it takes a lot of stretching and loosening the tendons and muscles of the legs in order for the whole foot to feel like staying on the ground.
A question that usually comes up when one begins to pay attention to the feet is: where on the foot does the weight fall? If we had to name one point, it would have to be somewhere in the arch, which in its proper state is not even in contact with the floor. Another way to answer this question is that the weight should be evenly distributed through the foot, so that the base of support is always as large and as even as possible. Mechanically, that is what ensures the greatest stability. This is somewhat more difficult for the women in tango – they find themselves pivoting a lot, which is hard to do without lifting the high heel off the ground. The best solution would be to wear lower heels, put leather instead of rubber caps on them, and try to keep them down even during the pivots. If she has to lift it, it is best to do it by only a hair, just enough to be able to pivot, and to put it back down as soon as the pivot is over. But in general, if a woman feels like dancing with her heels off the floor, it has much less of an effect on the stability of the whole couple than if the man does it. It is much more important for the woman to achieve stability in the middle of a step, to be able to slow down the weight transfer. For most women, this is much easier to do if she is on the balls of the feet. The important thing for both men and women is not to change how high the heel is off the ground (the woman’s high heel actually helps that; it is also why some men like a higher heel for dancing). In other words, the metatarsal region should not be used as an extra joint to bend or extend the leg. Keeping the heel on the same level is the main thing that ensures smooth, steady walking without “lurching” or “falling”. It is when the base of support is kept constant. The main thing that makes the walking un-grounded is the rolling on the foot, raising and lowering the heel or the toes. This means that the second most grounded stick figure is actually (a). A man could also dance on the balls of the feet, keeping his heels up a constant distance from the floor – that would be steadier than “rolling” (Some professionals actually did something like this in the late 80’s, but it was quickly abandoned). For most men, that would greatly diminish the ability to balance on one foot and the ability to support and lead the woman.
The other aspect of good grounding is a good ability to sink. Most physical power of the body to do anything comes from sinking the center closer to the ground. This principle is well understood in Tai Chi. It is like loading the spring for action. Sinking through a light flexion in the legs – once again, without rolling off of the base of support – is a big part of both good leading and good following. One can even say that the communication between the partners passes through the ground in some sense. To sink well is to do it with integrity, meaning without feeling any joints articulate, without bending forward, and without picking up the heels. There will be some articulation, of course, in the ankles, the knees, the hips, possibly some movement in the spine, but if the musculature is well integrated, it is all experienced as a whole-body “spring” – there is no sensation of individual joints.
The best way to develop grounded walking is to practice it separately. I have found the Tai Chi form very helpful in this, for it stresses the principle of keeping the whole foot on the floor. However, in the Yang style Tai Chi form, one almost never steps in a straight line, so just practicing slow balanced walking is a useful exercise. It is what many older tango instructors recommended. While walking slowly, one can gradually develop the necessary range in the joints of the legs so as to keep the feet on the floor without rolling on them. Taoist yoga called Nei Kung has worked for me as the most powerful grounding exercise – most postures involve lowering one’s body while keeping the feet entirely on the floor. In the first and most important posture – the horse stance – one stands still with knees bent for a relatively long time, essentially “growing into the ground”. Most people will find that an additional flexibility through stretching must be developed by in order to get more grounded. By trying to improve the two fundamental grounding tasks – sinking and walking without rolling off the base of support – one can discover exactly where in the body more flexibility is needed, which areas of the body may need to be stretched out. Another very useful exercise, which is at the same time a good test of grounding and relaxation, is walking barefoot, preferably on rough natural terrain. There one can experiment and discover for oneself the advantages of not rolling the weight prematurely on to the toes and not dropping it immediately on to the stepping foot.
While dancing, one should not go so far as to forcibly press the heels down. Not only does that interfere with relaxation, but it also usually throws the weight of the body on to the heels. It is better to intend to relax the whole foot to the floor, and gradually it will start happening, especially if one does the stretching on the side. Another simple solution (for the men) is making smaller steps – that makes keeping the foot down a lot easier.
How does one know if one is more or less grounded? First of all, if one pays attention, one can feel whether the foot is relaxed comfortably to the floor, or whether one is lifting the heel or the toes prematurely. With enough attention, one can also feel if one is “falling” on to the stepping foot, or placing it down softly – I list this as a test of balanced walking, but it also tests grounding. In general, the more grounding, the more balance. A man who is well grounded feels very stable as a partner and can easily support the woman if she happens to lose her balance. One can also test one’s grounding by whether one can slow down the weight transfer. As I mention in the Balance sub-section, many people “fall” on to the next foot and are not able to control how fast the weight is transferred on to it. Another great test is the tango choreography itself: most sacadas, for example, will feel too rough and uncomfortable if the man rolls on to the toes of the back foot and “falls” on to the stepping foot. This is why most dancers nowadays avoid sacadas, while most dancers of the 1940’s did them routinely as part of such classic figure as the 8-point turn, for example. In my experience, better grounding is important for all other aspects of this dance, but particularly for being able to do a variety of figures in a close embrace. Finally, a great test of grounding is the ability to pause at any phase of the dance, in the middle of any figure. For the man, it is about not just stopping oneself, but also effortlessly slowing down the partner in the middle of any step.
Centeredness of the body, which means the organization of all movement around the center of gravity in the lower abdomen, is notoriously important in many physical disciplines. To let all movement come from the center is one of the fundamental principles in Tai Chi. Both true balance and true spontaneity depend on centeredness. It is another one of those darn things that wild animals do naturally, but we have to relearn. Why would a body move not from the center? One simple reason is that we often live entirely in our heads. We identify ourselves with the mind, which is thought to live in the head. In reality, the intelligence of the body is in the center.
It is very hard to test one’s centeredness. Experienced Tai Chi and dance instructors can sometimes tell by looking at people’s movement if it is centered or not. I am still not sure how centered I am. I can only tell that sometimes I am more centered than other times. I think that many of the balance tests which I have listed are also centeredness tests at the same time. From the inside, a more centered state feels…well, more centered. There is less sensation of intermediate body parts. The hands and the feet seem to be connected more directly to the center of the body and to respond to one’s intent more immediately and precisely. The source of all effective intention is in the center of the body. All true lead comes from there and is received there. In some of the best dance states which I have experienced, the hands and the chest seemed relatively still, while the lower abdomen and the pelvis were taking care of all dancing and leading at once.
The only way to develop centeredness that I am aware of is to intend it in all one’s physical activities. Putting one’s mind in the center is practiced routinely in many Eastern arts. It is essential to center one’s breath – this can be practiced in still poses such as sitting, lying, or standing. If one breathes mostly with the upper chest and does not let the abdomen and the diaphragm take part in it, one will probably move from the chest as well, which means moving in an unbalanced way. In tango dancing, moving from the chest instead of from the center is a common mistake, because many people are taught to lead with the chest. It is true that in tango dancing, the point of stillness in partner connection is on the level of the chest. However, the movement and the lead should still come from the center of the body.
Proper alignment of the skeleton and a good integration of the musculature and the tendons are two sides of the same coin. Alignment is often stressed because it can more easily be seen from the outside. But good alignment only happens when muscles and tendons have achieved their proper flow around the joints so as to let them bend properly. From the inside, we experience the proper state as the “no-thing” – no more sensation of individual joints or muscles, an experience of the whole body as an integrated, weightless field of energy.
It is not easy to set a standard of good alignment precisely. A human body is not a machine, we are all slightly different. What’s important is to recognize when such differences represent a misuse of the body. The most immediate way that we can discern that is to trust our aesthetical sensibilities and our common sense. A well-aligned body looks and feels well-aligned. The legs seem straight, the feet are close to parallel while standing or walking in a straight line. The head, the ribcage, and the pelvis seem to be roughly on top of one another, with nothing sticking our backwards or forwards. The head is not pulled into the shoulders, the posture is not slouched. The ankles are somewhat backwards of the hips, so that the center axis of the torso passes through the arch. The tango embrace is an effective test of many of these attributes. When one tries to get close with the partner, it becomes immediately apparent if the heads or the hips meet first because they are in front of the chest, or if there is stepping on each other’s toes because somebody’s weight and center axis falls through the heels. People who dance “open” style forfeit this test of good body alignment. Proper alignment of the body is what more than anything else enables a centered connection in a close embrace. If the head, the chest, and the pelvis are aligned vertically in the way that is inherent in our design, then partners can stand right up against each other, facing each other, without the heads, the knees, or the toes touching. This is what allows for the execution of most tango figures without breaking a close embrace.
Good alignment enables the body to feel “on its axis”. This means that when the body rotates it does so around an axis which passes roughly through the middle of the body. When the torso is bent forward or slouched, the axis of rotation can be outside the body altogether in some places:
(a) - (d): poor posture
(e): better posture
In my opinion, good alignment/integration is the other half of tango’s elegance, in addition to relaxation or refinement of effort. One gets an aesthetical pleasure out of watching a body that functions in accord with its nature. Such a body will also need very little effort to perform even the more complex figures and to communicate with the partner.
It would be nice to have more precise tests of good alignment. Our common sense and our aesthetical sensibilities are easily corrupted, swayed by what is most normal – meaning common – away from what is natural. Even the standards used in kinesiology and physical therapy are affected by “the norm”. Yet, the more we pay attention to the design of the body and to what looks and, most importantly, feels good to us, the more our sense of the natural can be reawakened, the more we will be able to know what good alignment is.
The important part of working on one’s alignment is not to force it, not to try and put things in their proper place, as many are immediately tempted to do. F. M. Alexander said, “there is no right position, only right conditions”. Another famous saying is “form follows function”. All this means that one must look for an inner sense that the body is working properly, and use alignment only as feedback, to check if one is progressing in the right direction. Nowadays, it is all too common in various movement disciplines, from dance to martial arts, to manipulate body parts according to some mental picture of where they should be. Many teachers are adamant about “closing the ribs”, “lifting the chest”, “tucking the pelvis in”, “pushing the knee out”, and many other crude manipulations of the body. Most of the time, such directions create additional artificial patterns which take people even farther away from natural movement. Usually, there is a good reason that these instructions are given – the butt is probably too “out”, the knees are probably too “in”. We usually need someone to tell us such things in order to even become aware of the problem. But to try and simply put a body part in a different place is not the right way to correct such misalignments and can even lead to injury. Rather, one should look for a way to work with the body more as a whole, discover the problem and the solution from the inside. Things are usually misaligned because something is not letting them be in their proper place. The main task is to discover the root cause of such interference and begin to dissolve it. It could be psychological, or simply habitual. Usually, some joints need to be opened up, muscles mobilized or elongated. The resulting changes in alignment are to be used only as feedback, as a check that one is moving in the right direction. Do not try to put the feet parallel – work on the whole leg and watch the feet gradually become more parallel on their own. Do not try to change the shape of the spine according to what you think it should be – rather practice releasing it into length, work on the flexibility and the freedom in the legs, and the spine will gradually attain its proper function and, therefore, form. Do not push the knee out – rather look for such an integration of the whole leg that the knee feels like “nothing”. In fact, I found this a very important principle: the knee is to be protected above any other joint, for it is a hinge joint, meaning it only has one degree of freedom. If it is misused, it can be easily hurt, which is why one should try to eliminate any discomfort in and around it. If it does not work by direct intention, one can try adjusting something in the hips and the ankles – they can take a lot more abuse, for they are designed for more degrees of freedom.
In working on alignment, it is important to remember that, on some level, the body wants to “right” itself, even if some anti-natural habits are in the way – we just have to discover how to let it. I have already experienced clearly how better alignment results from developing better relaxation, centeredness, proper range and freedom in the joints. I no longer try to place parts of my body in their right places. Instead, I look for a better experience, sensation of the body from the inside, which ultimately is simply the “no-thing” – essentially “erasing” all the internal mechanics from our sensory awareness.
Flexibility is traditionally valued by dancers, but I feel that it is often misunderstood. It is important as much as it allows for the proper range and freedom in the joints. Most people initially lack this proper freedom, which is why they usually have to work on their flexibility in order to dance better. But often people work on it blindly, without understanding why they are stretching this way or that. The main point of stretching is to allow for proper balance and walking. Being able to do splits or touch one’s forehead to one’s knees does not guarantee good walking. The work on flexibility should be connected directly to walking and balancing. For tango in particular, what I have described as grounding, balance, and alignment can be taken as the guidelines. For example, one needs to be able to comfortably step in any direction in such a way that both feet are entirely on the floor (this includes crossing over diagonally, which makes many tango figures much more doable):
As one practices these degrees of freedom, slow balanced walking, or general balancing, one can begin to feel which muscles need to be lengthened in order to allow for the necessary freedom in the joints. In this regard, Tai Chi and Nei Kung have helped me greatly, for most stretching inherent in those forms is done while standing or moving slowly with one’s feet on the floor. One essentially stretches “into” the step. However, some yoga poses have also helped me target certain areas more specifically.
Another test of useful flexibility is if one can squat comfortably with feet close together and parallel, without lifting the heels and without dropping all the weight of the body on to the heels. This is something that most people in the third world countries do routinely, but most first-world inhabitants cannot. (I still cannot do this well, but I have been able to get closer to it.)
Stretching of the upper body can also be necessary in order to allow for the proper freedom of the spine and the arms. Most tango dancers can use more twisting flexibility for all the pivots, voleos, and twisting leads. Here, too, it is important to use one’s senses and gradually feel out which stretching is helping to achieve proper freedom.
I feel that the work on flexibility is very personal – it depends on one’s specific problems with the body, overall physical shape and prior experience with physical disciplines. There are many ways to stretch, especially with the current popularity of yoga, and they may all work to some extent. But it is very important to use one’s senses, not push oneself too much or too little, not to expect quick results, and understand what one is actually trying to accomplish and why. I started out by thinking of my body in purely mechanical terms, thinking that if I simply pull enough on a muscle, it will eventually lengthen. It all turned out to be much more complex. I eventually realized that if I do not relax enough as I stretch, the muscles do not give. All muscles are connected to each other in some way, and if one carries an overall level of tension in one’s body, it works against any kind of lengthening. In this regard, the Alexander Principle has been a great help. The other obstacle to flexibility is the psychosomatic holdings. As I have mentioned already, they are patterns of chronic tension which we adopt subconsciously as reflections of our emotional blocks. One could be trying to stretch a tight area, but if one does not resolve a corresponding psychological issue, the body will keep shrinking back into the defensive holding. Bioenergetic therapy deals with such issues directly, as I will explain in more detail below.
The concept of rhythm brings us back to the intuitive, sensible understanding of good dancing. To dance well is to have good rhythm, among other things. It depends on good integration of the whole musculature, which allows for a natural spring in the whole body, and especially the legs, a so-called “cadencia” in all walking, stopping, and sinking. But rhythm cannot be analyzed very well. It is something that we experience and perceive as a whole. According to a popular belief, you either have it, or you do not. All the work on grounding, relaxation, etc., may not add up to good rhythm. But if the work is done correctly, aiming for the natural movement, the rhythm will improve. Breaking things down too much creates a danger of an approach to one’s body that is too mechanistic. It is very important to capitalize on one’s intuitive powers, not to lose sight of what seems like good dancing for no particular reason, or just because it has good rhythm. Useful body work goes in the direction of freedom of movement, reawakening of the natural body coordination, which in common terms should translate into good rhythm, when the body becomes able to spontaneously find resonance with the partner and the music. After all, the most classic definition of tango is “rhythm and elegance”.
Rhythm is also something very individual. Everyone has some rhythm, but no two dancers’ rhythms are the same. This is another reason that this dance is so exciting – dancing with a different person means dancing a slightly different rhythm, as long as one can somehow connect with it.
Working on the above aspects of good movement is complicated by the fact that many of them are not easy to test. How do we know how relaxed, grounded, rhythmical we are? Balance and flexibility are fairly easy to test, but not so with centeredness or relaxation. I will therefore summarize some clear standards or tests of good movement which can be used to monitor one’s progress.
- Walking In Line. Fundamental tango choreography itself is a great test of good movement. The very basic walking in line is difficult for most people. A well-conditioned body can walk comfortably in line with the partner while maintaining the optimal (close, free, centered, balanced, effortless) connection. This means that the bodies should be able to be right in front of each other with practically no gap, perfectly centered with each other, perfectly balanced individually, without touching toes, knees, or heads with one’s partner. This is a good test of balance, grounding, and alignment/integration.
- Advanced Choreography. More and more advanced tango figures are good tests of good movement, as long as good partner connection is kept. As good body conditions are developed, more and more complex figures become easily doable without sacrificing good partner connection. For example, all front sacadas can be done without separating from the partner. With extraordinarily good conditions, back sacadas can also be done with minimal separation. This is a good test of alignment/integration, balance, grounding, and flexibility.
- Dancing in Slow Motion. When better body conditions are achieved, it becomes possible to slow down the dance indefinitely. One of my teachers told me to practice dancing one step every four beats (meaning every 2 bars of the music!). But even that is not the limit of how slow one can go. This is especially difficult if one is to maintain good partner connection. It is a good test of balance, grounding, and alignment/integration.
- The Tests of Balance. Balance is the easiest aspect to test, as I have already mentioned. I will once again list the good tests of balance, most of which also relate to grounding:
o being able to stand on one foot for a long time;
o being able to balance on a very slippery surface, both on one and on two feet;
o being able to balance on balance boards, which have become common in recent years, both on one and on two feet;
o being able to balance on top of a rubber medicine ball, both on one and on two feet;
o being able to balance on the balls of the feet, both on one and on two feet;
o being able to do all of the above with eyes closed;
o being able to do ochos without holding on to anything;
o being able to do front and back voleos repeatedly in succession without holding on to anything;
o being able to dance on a very slippery floor without losing balance.
- Walking without Lifting the Heels. This is a test which will initially seem anti-natural to most people. I cannot pass it yet myself, though I have come closer to this ability. On a smooth surface, a well-conditioned body should be able to walk without lifting the heels at all. It is how anyone would tend to walk while on very slippery ice (try it if this seems dubious). The only problem is that this ice walking will feel awkward to anyone with less than optimal body conditions. Ultimately, in good tango dancing, the lifting of the heel is also minimized. This test relates mainly to grounding and flexibility.
- Stepping in Various Directions without Lifting the Heels. As I mentioned in the Flexibility subsection, a good test of it is the ability to step in different directions without losing one’s good grounding – without lifting the heels:
- Sinking without Lifting the Heels. A body that has sufficient freedom in the joints is able to sink with feet together or in mid-step in any direction (see figure above) without lifting the heels and without giving up the upright posture. How far one must be able to sink like that is yet unclear to me, but it must be at least 3 inches or so. I do not mean to say that one should sink as much as possibly while dancing tango, but the ability to do it is a good test of flexibility, alignment/integrity, and grounding.
SCHOOLS OF BODYWORK
The name is somewhat unfortunate, as many Alexander teachers acknowledge. It would be better to call it “the Alexander Principle”, for there is very little in the way of technique in it. In fact, it is an effective antidote to all kinds of anti-natural techniques. Some people have called it “Zen for your body”, for it is based on undoing rather than doing. Of all the body-based disciplines which I have been exposed to (and I am only mentioning the ones which I liked) the Alexander principle has been the most revelatory for me. Though I no longer take lessons in it, I keep coming back to it in all my body work. It is like a beacon that brings me back on the right track again and again.
The Alexander principle is very hard to describe in a nutshell, but I will try to give a general idea of it. At the root of it is the belief in the intrinsic, instinctual knowledge of the body of how to function properly. The Technique aims to let that knowledge manifest by identifying and getting rid of obstacles – for the most part, reflexes developed by the neuromuscular system as a response to stressful situations or inefficient uses of the body picked up for whatever reason. The way it deals with the obstacles is the most ingenious part of it.
The inventor of the Technique, F. M. Alexander was an actor who began losing his voice on stage. Doctors failed to help him, so he embarked on an independent exploration of his problem. He eventually realized that the problems with his voice were directly related to certain postures he adopted as he spoke and to tension patterns associated with them, mostly in his neck. At first, he thought it was all about finding the correct position of his head, but his voice still kept breaking. It took him about 9 years, but eventually he realized that it was more about the right condition of the musculature, the absence of tension in the back and the neck. His breakthrough discovery was that he could release the undue tension by giving himself directions, thinking of a more released condition in his body, rather than trying to actively do anything. He realized that the relationship between the head and the spine was a key factor which largely determined conditions in the rest of the body. The back of the neck is where most people hold their fear and their worry; releasing that part through “directing” oneself helps the whole body achieve a more harmonious functioning. With these new insights, Alexander quickly eliminated the problems with his voice. He eventually refined his method, began teaching it and wrote about it in detail. He emphasized two main parts of the right approach: inhibition and direction. Inhibition means not responding to stimuli in the habitual way, and direction means projecting a mental intention for a more released, less contracted functioning. The most important direction used by Alexander practitioners is to “release the head away from the spine”, which tends to undo the common contractions in the neck area. The deep wisdom of this approach is that one cannot undo tension with tension, cannot eliminate an anti-natural neuromuscular pattern with another muscular manipulation. It turns out that the body can respond to a simple thought, an image, a simple request for more freedom and lightness. Alexander teachers also know how to encourage it with a light touch of their fingers, but the core of the work is in one’s own learning to direct oneself.
Alexander thought that one of the main reasons that the modern human becomes stuck in many counterproductive patterns is our “end-gaining” as he called it. By this he meant an exaggerated reaching for the goals without due attention to the means of their pursuit. Alexander Technique is all about paying attention to the means by which we perform our everyday tasks – sit, stand, get up from a chair. It is even better if one has a steady physical practice of some sort, like dancing, for example, in which one can explore one’s functioning and gradually purify it, letting go of the unnecessary. I use the Alexander Technique not only in my dancing, but also in all the work I do on my body. I feel that it has accelerated my progress in all of it and has helped me avoid injuring myself. It has also been the chief method by which I have been able to eliminate a multitude of artificial techniques and mechanisms which used to plague my dancing (they still do so, but not nearly as much).
The Alexander method is a very powerful method for moving out of corrupt patterns and attitudes, but it is an extremely slow process requiring a lot of patience. All too often, I still fall into end-gaining, pushing or pulling something in my body in order to achieve certain results faster. In hindsight, I realize that most of the time it is not worth it – one is much better off approaching the dancing with the conditions of release and openness in the body.
Alexander teachers claim that just through the practice of inhibition and direction, one’s body will eventually “right” itself completely. But I have seen Alexander practitioners who have practiced for many years, who have achieved a great degree of lightness, but whose bodies have not recaptured a good natural coordination or alignment. I believe that nowadays, the corruption of our physical design are so severe, and we develop them so early in childhood that a stronger intervention is necessary. Some tissues need to be worked on directly, otherwise they may never achieve their proper length and mobility, which means that the joints may never achieve their proper range and coordination. In this respect, my practice of Nei Kung and Tai Chi has been most helpful. The main weakness of Alexander Technique is the lack of objective tests, by which one can reliably monitor one’s progress. This is a problem that plagues many schools of bodywork. For this reason, the Alexander Technique alone may not be sufficient to recover good natural body conditions. Nevertheless, it seems to be the most fundamental principle of working on one’s body, for it points away from attachment to fixed patterns.
“Body Learning” by Michael Gelb – a very accessible introduction to Alexander Technique.
“The Use of the Self” by F. M. Alexander – the classic work.
American Center for the Alexander Technique:
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Nei Kung means internal power. I have learned it from master C. K. Chu, who believes that for a modern person, it is a necessary supplement to the study of Tai Chi. His version of Nei Kung is 10 static or slow-moving postures, many of them also act as stretches. The first posture is the “embracing horse” stance, which is also known as the “horse-riding” stance, and is held for longer than any other posture. Experienced practitioners sometimes hold it for over an hour, but so far I am content with about 30 minutes. Similarly to Tai Chi, the benefits of Nei Kung are based on the concept of “chi” – the intrinsic life-energy of the body. Supposedly, both Nei Kung and Tai Chi opens up the channels of chi, so that it can better circulate through the body. Unblocking the flow of chi has all kinds of health benefits, too numerous to mention. But in addition to this, Nei Kung also trains the internal power of the body by restoring proper coordination and alignment of bones, muscles, and tendons. In addition to stretching, I believe that by prolonged static holding the wrongful coordinations of the musculature are simply tired out and begin to release, letting the correct coordination manifest. I cannot yet feel all the claimed effects with enough clarity, but some results of my Nei Kung practice are undeniable. I have been doing it for about 3 years almost every day, though I now practice a modified routine, combined with Tai Chi and several Bioenergetic esercises. Since I started practicing it regularly, I have been sick a lot less than before, I have more energy than ever, my allergy symptoms have become a lot less pronounced, and most chronic aches and pains have disappeared. In addition, I feel that Nei Kung, as well as Tai Chi, has had a direct effect on my dancing, improving my centering, my balance, my alignment, and especially my grounding. I must say also that just standing in the horse-riding position for about 20 minutes is enough to completely alter my mood, creating a light and peaceful disposition, and it seems to work every time without fail.
The few problems which I have had with Nei Kung have to do mostly not with what it is, but how it is taught. Master Chu has taught me many great things, and just handing down the ancient practice of Nei Kung, which was kept secret for a long time in China, deserves my sincere thanks – it has truly changed my life. But my teacher did not avoid the common mistakes which most instructors make nowadays, be it in dance or martial arts: some of the instructions had too much “end-gaining” inherent in them, like, for example some ways of reshaping the spine. I have seen many students become stuck in such techniques, never releasing into the natural grace and freedom of the body. I also ultimately felt that some of those techniques were hindering rather than helping my progress, and stopped using them. I will not discuss them here, those who end up studying with master Chu can talk to me directly. Most of what he taught me has had a great effect on my overall physical and mental well-being. I would simply advise to approach Nei Kung with the Alexander principle in mind, and, above all, with the attention to one’s own senses.
“The Book of Nei Kung” by C.K.Chu
Master C.K.Chu’s website:
Tai Chi Chuan, often referred to simply as Tai Chi, is a system of self-defense, which in the 17th and 18th centuries was considered superior to most other styles in China. Tai Chi masters were famous for defeating much larger and seemingly stronger opponents with ease. They were able to do it through the cultivation of effortless internal power of the body rather than through muscular strength, and through sensitivity to the opponent by which they were able to use his own force against him. The ability to do that depends greatly on the correct work on the body, for which the Tai Chi form is designed. It is this form that the art is largely known for nowadays. Because the practice of the form opens up natural powers of the body, it has numerous health benefits, which is the main reason it is practiced so widely. However, in order to receive the full benefit of it, it is also recommended to engage in “push-hands” – the interactive two-person form in which partners aim to push each other off balance, but to do it through softness and effortless sensitivity to each other. This practice acts as feedback on how correctly one is practicing the solo form, on whether one really is developing the powers which one aims for.
I started learning the Tai Chi form at about the same time as I started practicing Nei Kung, also from master Chu, but it took me a longer time to develop a regular practice of it (partly because it takes much longer to learn – Nei Kung can be practice effectively after the first lesson). I have been practicing it consistently for only about a year. But already I believe it has helped me with my dancing. The whole form is done in slow, balanced steps supporting self-defense hand movements. All the power is supposed to come from centering and “rooting”. Besides helping me learn better walking, the form also seems to be generally energizing. I feel that it has many benefits which I cannot explain yet for I have not practiced it long enough.
A fascinating thing about Tai Chi is how its principles of interaction with the opponent apply almost word-for-word to tango dancing. Such concepts as “sticking and yielding”, “centering”, “sinking”, “developing greater power through softness” which I learned in Tai Chi have resonated immediately with what I have experienced in good dancing and partner connection, and have brought new clarity to my understanding of the dynamics of tango. In my opinion, the general principles of effective interaction have so far been understood much better by Tai Chi practitioners than by tango dancers. A dancer can benefit greatly by studying it not only because of the clarity of principles, but also because the form is a great tool to develop better grounding, balance, and overall coordination.
As with Nei Kung, my slight problem with Tai Chi is in how it is often taught. I have seen more than one Tai Chi instructor, and I feel that sometimes they instruct students to manipulate their body parts in crude ways which, worse of all, contradict each other from school to school. To a Tai Chi student, I would recommend taking such things with a grain of salt, and using their own senses to decide how much to use them. Above all, I would recommend approaching Tai Chi, as any other body discipline, with the Alexander principle in mind.
“T’ai Chi Chuan Principles and Practice” by C.K.Chu
“T’ai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions” compiled and translated by Douglas Wile
Master C.K.Chu’s website:
Bioenergetics is the mother of most brands of body-conscious psychotherapy which exist today. It was co-founded by Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos, the two foremost students of Wilhelm Reich, who was the pioneer of incorporating body work on into the psychotherapeutic process. Alexander Lowen wrote most definitive books on the subject, which I highly recommend, especially “Bioenergetics”, “The Language of the Body”, and “The Manual of Bioenergetic Exercises”. The main idea of Bioenergetics is that all psychological “blocks” are expressed in the physical body through characteristic patterns of chronic muscular tensions. Experienced Bionergetics specialists can accurately diagnose a person’s psychological condition by simply looking at his body, without even talking to him. But aside from using the body to see the problem, they also use it in the therapeutic process. Physical action on a tight area can often bring the psychological problem to the surface, and sometimes speed its resolution. In addition to the traditional psychotherapeutic process, a therapist may recommend certain exercises to begin releasing patterns of tension (some of the exercises are remarkably similar to Nei Kung postures), or press on patient’s tight muscles, or ask the patient to express certain attitudes bodily – hit a pillow, kick a mattress, or scream. Sometimes this brings about sudden epiphanies and resolutions of inner conflict, but even if it does not, it brings about in the patient an awareness not just of the psychological side of the problem, but also how his or her physical being has been carrying it. The problem is thus approached from two ends at once – both psychologically and physically.
In my opinion, such awareness is essential for someone who is serious about restoring proper body coordination and pursuing an art form seriously. If left unexamined, a pattern of psycho-somatic tension can be a stumbling block in all one’s body work. Fear or anger lodged in the body may never let tight muscles release, may never allow for a harmonious function of the whole muscular-skeletal system. I have been fascinated by Lowen’s books for years, and have gone to several Core Energetics workshops (Core Energetics is similar to Bioenergetics, but incorporates spirituality and favors the group approach). This year I started working with a Bioenergetics therapist, and so far have found it very productive.
Books on Bioenergetics and Core Energetics:
“Bionergetics” by Alexander Lowen
“The Language of the Body” by Alexander Lowen
“The Way to Vibrant Health – A Manual of Bioenergetic Exercises” by Alexander Lowen and Leslie Lowen
“Core Energetics” by John Pierrakos
New York Society for Bioenergetic Analysis: