Flexion, extension, and muscle contractions

Now that I’m making the switch to strict anatomically-correct terminology, I want to spend some time writing to passholders about each element. This post focuses on flexion and extension, specifically with regard to how we participate in the embrace and how we use our legs. The February 2014 Deep Technique Workshop covered the use of flexion and extension for acceleration and deceleration. Next I’ll be examining compression, seeking to specify it in anatomical terms.

The embrace

The position of the embrace needs to change all the time to accommodate specific movements. It even slides and adjusts when we are dancing in the closest embrace. The joints and muscles need to be soft and flexible to readjust to the tiny and large changes in the relative positions of the partners.

I’ve been calling the sensation I want in the embrace ‘stretching’ into the embrace. As usual, subjective terminology makes perfect sense to some people, and none at all to others. One problem I kept getting when people tried to stretch the embrace is that their elbows would tense and lift. This problem is solved by the instruction to externally rotate the shoulder joints. But the term ‘stretching’ is still problematic.

The sensation we want in the embrace feels light and supportive, but without tension or stiffness. A lot of what makes this happens is generated in the lower body, but if the arms are either stiff or floppy they can forfeit the work we are doing with legs and core. And the embrace is much more than function. It can create a delicious tender sensation, or an unpleasant one. (example: pulling the partner toward you).

So how can we have adjustability with tender support?

Let’s review flexion and extension. Flexion is the reduction in the angle of a joint. Extension is the increase in the angle. When the shoulders are fully flexed, the elbows will come close to the body. When the elbows are fully flexed the hands will come close to the body.

There are a few moments in tango when we will find one of our arm’s joints in nearly full extension. (Very big sacadas, very open double-giros, and crossed ganchos are some examples.) But generally both elbow and shoulder joints have some flexion.

The key to the lovely embrace is that regardless of the level of flexion at the moment, we keep our joints working (very subtly and gently) in the direction of extension. 

Of course, we will at times need to modify the embrace, increasing the amount of flexion, but when we get to the new position, we again engage the muscles to gently extend the shoulder and elbow joints. Just a couple mm of extension is enough.

This extension creates a feeling of gentle tautness with the partner so that we we can easily feel everything our partner is doing, and so that the power we are creating with our body meets the partner half way, rather than drawing them to us.

Reminder: When the mark closes the embrace, he moves his heart closer to the partner, allowing his arms to slide closer. He does not pull her toward his body.

Legs and core

Now that you’re getting to know TangoForge, you know that our mantra is “Trust Your Legs!” It’s quite complicated to talk about what exactly the legs of a strong tango dancer are doing, but anatomically correct language is helping me to be much more precise about it.

Of course the first rule is that the base leg has from hip to foot at all times. (I used to call this “corkscrew legs”. Ballerinas call it “turn out.”) external rotation is when the limbs are rotating toward the back of the body. internal rotation is rotating toward the front of the body. It is very hard for the leg muscles to work in internal rotation. (In pilates, we do some strengthening exercises in internal rotation, but only when we are lying down, so that we are not supporting the weight of the body in the joints at the same time.) internal rotation puts the weight of our body into our joints, which can result in injury. external rotation requires the use of muscles that support and protect the joints. These muscles help to connect the muscles of the upper and lower body so that we can move in an integrated manner.

Flexion of the base leg prior to a step is crucial. Flexion of the hip joint creates stability and allows us to communicate about intention/projection without falling into the step already. As we develop more muscle control, we can use less flexion to achieve these results. Flexion of the knee joint determines the length of the coming step.

At the beginning of a step, before projection, we use flexion of the knee, hip, and ankle joints to prepare our muscles for the step. We maintain this flexion during projection. Up to this point, the hip joint is the one to give extra attention to, making sure you keep it flexed. (When flexing the hip, be sure that you do not arch your back as this can cause pain and can also separate your leg muscles from your core muscles.)

The transfer of weight is nothing more than the controlled extension of all three joints of the old base leg. In front and side steps, the ankle joint is the one to give extra attention to. (Anatomical terminology gives a special name to extension of the ankle joint, ‘plantarflexion’.) As you extend the ankle joint fully in front and side step, you will activate all the muscles of the foot to push off from the floor, including all of the toes. In back steps, it’s the knee that controls extension, while the hip and ankle maintain quite a lot of flexion so long as the old base is working, and only extend when the old base becomes free. (Note that in back steps, the ankle joint flexes rather than extending during transfer and we push off the heel.)

Hip flexion provides the stability and power to create a strong arch of connection between steps.

Different ways of using your muscles

Now how do we make sure that the extension into the step is controlled?

And how do we create a light sensation with our muscles?

If you’ve ever done any exercise with weights, you probably remember an exhortation to work your muscles as you are releasing the weight, not just as you are lifting it. When you lift a weight, you feel the main working muscles make a hard concentric contraction. When you return the weight to its starting position, you feel relief, and often in this relief you just relax your muscles. The weight may go down very fast. Your trainer exhorts you to work the muscles on the way down, and insists that the return should be as slow (or slower) than the lift. That’s because the trainer wants your muscles to work in eccentric contraction. It’s hard to know if you’re using eccentric contraction or not, but the key point here is not to release your muscles. Keep your muscles working so that movements are more smooth and controlled.

When we drive into a step, we don’t just want to release the muscles we have been using to stay on the base. We want our muscles to work so that we have lots of control over the timing of the step and so that we can stop it any time in a parada, or bounce out of it in a rebote.

My experience

I am finding great ease in my dancing as leader and follower by using these concepts because they are so straightforward.

A a mark:

  • I remind myself to keep my left shoulder in extension. This makes my support to the revel more consistent as I had the tendency to lose track of that shoulder joint.
  • In close embrace, flexing my hip enables me to move from one side of the revel to the other. A great example is the difficult exit from an outside wrap into cross system. Flexing the hip gives space to move around the follower, keeping my chest pressed against hers. (It’s crucial to maintain while flexing the hip!)
  • As a mark (and when coaching marks), paying attention to the of the left leg as I arrive on to it resolves the disconnection that often happens when the mark walks in three or four track on the open side of the embrace.
  • The toughest thing in tango for marks seems to be leading the revel to project back in the basic walk without projecting his own foot. Reminding the mark to extend the base leg’s knee while flexing the hip enables him to push on the arch of connection while maintaining his strength and not yet projecting. Extending the old base leg’s joints fully facilitates his stability and helps him to lead her projection before being tempted to make his own.
  • In fact, flexing the base leg’s hip seems to be the solution to most of the my students’ problems. Whenever they are weak, don’t have enough space, or are moving too soon, flexing the base leg’s hip fixes it!

As a revel:

  • When I project back I remind myself to use hip flexion as the point source for my connection. This ensures that I don’t use tension in my arms, or too much flexion in my knee.
  • When I transfer through a front step, my step is more consistent in its quality of motion when I verify extension of all three joints.
  • In the embrace, I remind myself to keep extension of elbow and shoulder joints regardless of what my mark is doing. This is the easiest method I’ve found to combat my tendency to mirror the mark’s arms. It’s easy to pay attention to extension than to trying on my own to generate a sensation that he’s not participating in. Because extension is soft and gentle it doesn’t prevent me from following change of embrace and changes of tension in the embrace.


I want you to know that you are not alone…

… neither in your dreams for tango nor in your frustrations.

My deepest desire is the same as all my students and friends … those who have yet to start dancing and those who dance a lot.

It’s partnership.

One thing I’ve learned on this quest, we need to:

Stop Waiting for Partners, and start Building them.

I’ve written a 10-step Action Plan.

Are you ready to find the Partners you want?



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