Tango Barre Workout

For years, people have said that my dance background probably has made me a better tango dancer. It isn’t about the skills involved; it is mainly about strength and flexibility. I have strong feet and ankles, good balance, a strong core, a flexible back, etc. These come from a lifetime of dancing. I started thinking about how I could use that experience to help other dancers. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to try teaching a tango barre workout.

Specifically, it is a class that draws on ballet barre exercises and applies them to tango. (It is not like all of the pilates-based “barre” workouts, many of which have nothing to do with ballet.) Like all new classes, it is taking a while for me to get the feel of the class just right, but I am getting there. It’s a pretty simple approach:

  • Strengthen feet and ankles
  • Improve posture
  • Improve balance
  • Practice fluid motion
  • Build muscle memory
  • Build body awareness
  • Stretch

I think ballet has a lot to offer tango dancers. It is fun to play around with the intersection of ballet and tango, to explore ballet exercises that are so familiar to me and approach them as a tango dancer. Of course, many of these exercises are inspired by conversations and classes with other dancers and teachers, so it isn’t as though I have invented them from scratch. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to play around with them!

If I pulled out my camera and started recording some of the exercises, would anyone be interested in seeing them?

P.S. Contrary to what is stated in a recent post by MIM, ballet does not teach you to lift the free hip. A good ballet dancer will drop the free hip, just like in tango. Unfortunately, this error is often overlooked by teachers and thus not corrected properly. You can lift out of the standing leg and drop the free hip, which allows a nice sway of the hips without “sitting” into the standing leg and ending up with salsa hips. On the other hand, there are differences in the quality of movement in ballet and tango, which is why my class is geared toward tango dancers and isn’t just a normal ballet class.

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Tanguera v. Ballerina

I grew up as a ballerina. For 12 years, one of my biggest dreams was to dance ballet professionally. I finally gave it up when I hit college — I knew I just wasn’t quite right for it. (Ballet is so much less forgiving than tango.) The dance world opened up to me at that point. Suddenly, it was more than ballet/tap/jazz. I discovered modern dance, post-modern dance, salsa, and eventually tango. But I have always been a ballerina.

With so many former ballerinas performing tango these days, it’s easy to see the benefits of ballet — the balance, poise, flexibility, and partnering skills it imparts. But ballet has a different soul than tango. The great ballerinas have always had depth to their dancing, but it isn’t the same as the depth found in tango. They are inspired by different things and manifest in different ways. Ballerinas always have an audience; in tango, I dance with the room but have an audience of one: my leader.

Last year, I had a private lesson with a well-respected visiting teacher who encouraged me to shed some of that ballet influence. In my notes, I wrote, “Dance more like a tanguera, not a ballerina dancing tango.” I had an example of what he meant (his partner, a classically trained dancer and gorgeous tanguera) but not a good sense of how to make the change in myself. Ballet was part of who I was a dancer; I didn’t know how to extricate myself from its influence.

Slowly, I found ways to make changes. One visiting teacher spent the entire weekend telling me nothing other than to put my heels down as I danced. Finally, I did. Another teacher told me to let my upper back relax. (Still working on that one.) Leaders mentioned how responsive I was in my torso, so I started focusing on the embrace and connection, looking for ways to be expressive without worrying about how it looked. I tried to relax my joints more.

I still dance like a ballerina, but I think I have shed some of the ballet style from my dancing. I still have great posture and poise. My balance is better than ever. I’m sure I still feel like a classically-trained dancer, but hopefully with a little more tango soul. I get compliments on my embrace and my immersion in the music, which mean more to me than anything else. Ballet is still part of who I am, but hopefully soon (now?) I can call myself a tanguera with just a splash of ballet.

Body v. Brain

I spend a lot of time in my head. I’m fairly cerebral and possibly too rational for my own good. I am also self-employed, which makes it easy to get very self-involved. This is why I love to dance—it gets me out of my head and into my body.

Twice a week, I teach contemporary ballet to adults. It is a recreational class, so I do my best to enjoy it along with my students. Almost every day that I teach, I wonder why I’m doing it. I think about how I could just stay at home, behind my computer, and work there. So I drag my feet. And then I get to class.

Not only do I love teaching, I also love ballet. I have danced ballet longer than any other dance form (i.e. almost my entire life), and it lives in me. Even after I decided not to try to become a professional, I still felt it in my bones. I’m not perfect. Far from it! But I love it, inside and out. And for an hour, twice a week, I get to leave the rest of my life at the door and just dance.

After starting tango, I neglected most other forms of dance. I still took the occasional modern class, or went out salsa dancing now and then, but mostly I focused on tango. I love how tango allows me to let go and share the present with my leader. But you know, the best part of a ballet class is how you can walk in and leave everything and everyone else behind. It isn’t about the other person; it’s about you. It’s about you moving in space to the music. And as the teacher, I get to decide exactly how we are going to move.

It is therapeutic and fun. And despite my foot-dragging, it is incredibly good for me. Every day I teach, I come home glowing!