Pilates and Alexander Technique: benefits for Tango

Blue illustrationIn my post about the little ball I use to prevent foot issues, I mentioned I’d learnt a lot of useful exercises for tango through the injury rehab I went through a few years ago. Here I talk about two approaches that I believe to be of great benefit to tango dancers: Pilates and Alexander Technique.

Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional and I’m not qualified to dispense advice. The thoughts contained herein are from my own experience and what has worked for me might not work for others. Please use caution and seek the advice of your GP before embarking on new forms of exercise.

All in the balance

I’ve found over the years that there are two keys to my feeling physically happy in tango: core strength and posture. Both help with balance, stability and confidence in movement. The latter in particular frees you up to experiment, to decorate and be more connected to the music. All also contribute to feeling less tired and having a generally happier experience.

Core strength: Pilates

For core strength, I think the number one is Pilates. It is astonishing how fast it enables you to gain useful core strength. Invented by Joseph Pilates during WW1, it is a system of exercises that utilises special equipment and mat-based work and focuses on breathing, muscle strength and flowing, supported movement. It is a very low risk form of exercise (injuries are rare) and thus perfect for anyone with limitations or niggling issues that prevent them from a full gym workout. (Also anyone who just hates the gym!).

For fast results, seek out a class or 1-on-1 sessions where you’ll get mat work and equipment (the Reformer and Tower), and stick at it for 6 weeks.

I was lucky enough to get 1-on-1 Pilates for nearly two years as part of my rehab and my talented teacher, Kendal Au, used a mix of mat work, equipment, TRX and NeuroMuscular Reprogramming. Her website has a useful explanation of the various approaches.

Find a Pilates class or instructor:
Pilates Foundation: find a teacher
Pilates Union: instructor directory

Also check the adult education programme of your local authority as many offer subsidised group classes.

Posture: Alexander Technique

By posture I don’t mean the “shoulders back, head up” nonsense. That’s not good posture; that’s standing to attention. Good posture is feeling light, having no tension in the spine, feeling lifted up as if a string were pulling your head up from the very top, and having all your joints and internal organs correctly aligned. For anyone like me with a chronic pain condition, good posture means physical freedom. It is also amazing for tango.

The moment we learn to crawl and walk we start to do battle with gravity. It really starts to show in our late twenties onwards. Unchecked, the constant pulling down becomes an impossible tug of war that results in back pain, neck pain, fatigue and stiffness. As adults we may sustain injuries, might sit all day, fight with stress and bad sleep and the resulting tension becomes a daily struggle. Alexander Technique is about how to tackle the pull of gravity and the grip of tension. It is a life changing experience with so many benefits.

Invented by F.M. Alexander in the 1890’s, Alexander Technique re-teaches you how to physically be. How to move, lift, sit, stand and rest. How to walk (with striking similarities to how we walk in tango). How to do these without tension. You re-learn how to breathe. It is a myriad of subtle changes and steps that repeated often add up to profound results. It is extremely low risk and its teachers undergo years of training and qualification so it’s not an industry prone to sham practitioners.

There are many books on Alexander Technique, and probably lots of YouTube videos, but it’s not something you can learn from a book or a video. You have to feel it through the hands of an experienced teacher to get it. AT lessons can be expensive but if you ever have the opportunity to get even just one lesson, take it. Some teachers do introductory group classes to give you a taste at a lower price.

Find an AT instructor:
Alexander Technique International: UK members list
Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique: teacher search

Find an introductory group class:
STAT list of group classes

For a similar practice, try Feldenkrais:
The Feldenkrais Guild: find a teacher

Posture: Mindfulness

As a footnote, I want to mention mindfulness. It’s something you naturally start to learn if you take AT lessons, but anyone can pick it up and it doesn’t have to cost anything. You can take a class or access it via learning meditation, yoga or t’ai chi but you can also just get a book from the library.

What does mindfulness have to do with posture, and with tango?

Once you’ve turned the corner of being more aware of what is going on in your head – your actions and decisions – you also become more aware of how you are physically, from moment to moment. You’ll notice tension and aches you didn’t know you had. You’ll notice automatic physical responses you weren’t aware you were doing.

When walking, you’ll notice your hips and actively release them. When sitting, you’ll notice when you slump and when your breathing contracts. When bearing weight you’ll notice that thinking about lifting with your core creates less tension (and less fatigue afterwards) than mindlessly going through the motions.

And so, when dancing, you’ll be able to ask yourself as you move around the floor, “am I tense in my neck?”, “does my neck feel long and light or forward and stiff?”, “is my core helping me?”, “am I clenching my jaw?”. (Along with of course all the other stuff going through our heads as we dance, like “I love this music”, “woohoo!” and “this leader/follower is amazing/terrible”!)

I know that sounds mentally exhausting but it does work. Over time, you might develop a mantra, a short command that reminds you what to do when you notice areas of tension that are holding you back.

My mantra is “feel light, think up, up, up!”. Sometimes when I’m tired I get tense in my weak right side. Impatient leaders will shake my right arm as if I’m a doll and tell me to relax. I smile politely and remind myself of my mantra. They don’t need to know my neck, shoulder and arm are injured and I battle chronic pain daily. I can’t switch my arm to “perfect” mode. But I can check my posture, and as if by magic it helps my shoulder and arm get back to a more relaxed state, and my neck to feel long and free. It always works.


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