Twisted Body Dance Theory of Argentine Tango

by Igor Polk, June 5, 2016 - May 19, 2014

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Book:  Dance Theory of Argentine Tango
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Origins of Movements in Torso

Torso area above navel has two distinct twisting areas: Upper Torso and Lower Torso. Lower torso is a lower part of the rib cage. Upper torso is on the level of and related to shoulder girdle. It is NOT shoulders, it is a top part of the rib cage. A dividing, "dissociation" plane is approximately above the level of solar plexus. Torso center is located in this plane. On the picture you can see the graphical abbreviations of body parts. Upper torso twists in relation to lower torso and lower torso can twist in relation to pelvis, dissociating in the waist area (not explicitly shown on this picture, see later).

To check that upper torso twists in relation to lower torso, one can hang on a tree branch with both arms then try to turn to the left and to the right. The clear distinction between upper torso and lower torso areas can be observed: a body is twisting there. This twist is the source of energy for movements, from climbing the trees to dance and martial arts.

To facilitate the torso twist in other than by hanging from a tree, a dancer stretches one arm directly up and another arm directly to the side. The goal is to twist the torso, not to extend arms: arm stretch is only a help. So the stretch should be to the maximum as if a dancer is hanging from a tree. Stretching arms up and to the side is one of the extreme ways to make the body work. Through this, one can understand how the body works. In dancing, especially tango, arms are not always moved. But the body should work in the same way as if they do: stretching to the certain direction. Of course, arms are free to move with any kind of creative graciousness. Charged and provoked by body energies they will always move, feel, and look right.

Here is a practice sequence of 5 possible torso positions. The picture on the left illustrates 3 of them.

One position is not shown on the picture. It is the Neutral position with no twist. It is when both arms are stretched to the sides. Stretching arms still gives a lot of tonus and the right shape for the torso, so it has to be practiced diligently. In the Neutral position arms are not down, they both are stretched to the sides.

The other 2 positions are when Lower Torso and Upper Torso are twisted contrary like on the first two diagrams. On the left side of the picture is a "photograph" of the body shape. A dancer stands on his L leg with his back to you.

On the right side of the picture there are abbreviations as defined previously. They are implemented as viewed from above. You can see a line added to one side of the upper torso symbol. It reflects which arm is up. Correspondingly, another arm is to the side. The "nose" symbol defines the direction, and therefore the L arm and leg are on the left, and R ones are on the right. Pelvis is shown untwisted.

The last two positions are when upper and lower torso are twisted in the same direction. Only one position twisting to the L is shown on the third diagram. Twist to R is omitted, it is similar. To achieve the twist, starting from the previous position, with a change of the arms (!) a man turns the body to the left extremely so that his "nose" looks to his back. Legs stay in the same place. Weight remains on the same leg. This graphical abbreviation does not express the extremality, though. Practicing this transition, it should not be forgotten that the upper torso is twisted even more than the lower one, so there is twist, torque between them in the same direction. The overall twist is very large. This is an easy way to "overtwist".

As for the abbreviation, to maintain uniformity, it is shown with the nose positions in the same way like in the other two. It is indeed possible to obtain an overtwisting position of torso while looking in front like on this additional picture on the left of this paragraph. This pose is familiar to some. Stretch of an arm back should be extreme so that you feel that the lower torso is twisted in the direction of the arm.

It is important that even though both lower and upper torso are twisted in the same direction, there is a small twist between the upper and lower torso themselves. It is reflected in the abbreviation picture. This twist is small in size but not in power. It is a powerful source of the dancing energy.

Note that these diagrams do not show the actual geometrical direction of body parts, they only show the relative positioning, relative twisting. So the upper torso may be turned to the right in relation to lower torso, but directed strictly forward since the lower torso itself is twisted to the left. Lower torso itself may be twisted by the waist area, which is below Lower torso. Waist area is an abdomen area between the rib cage and pelvis. In tango, a rule of the thumb is that usually upper torso is directed toward the partner and this defines the directions of all other parts. It is possible to make a walk, F or B, when shoulders which reflect the position of the upper torso will be constantly immoveable, while the lower torso is actually twisting in both directions: the upper torso position is preserved in space, but other parts twist. If there is no twist, there is no gracious movement, no dance, and there is no power. In this case, if necessary, the direction of the center toward the partner is maintained by the adjusting with abdominal twist. Overall design is complex which makes the "forward walk" the most difficult figure of Argentine tango. The complete structure will be given in the next articles.

The torso twists practicing sequence is this. Pose numbering here will start from Neutral which is Pose 1. (Weight remains on the same leg. For practice positions while standing on another leg, simply reverse the left and right descriptions.)
  1. Start by taking the neutral position (when both arms are stretched side) (Pose 1, not shown on the picture above);
  2. Go to a position on the L leg, L arm up, R arm side ( Pose 3, this is the second pose on the diagram above );
  3. Change the torso twist putting L arm side and R arm Up. While doing so look behind to the left (this is Pose 4, the third pose on the picture above), keep the Lower Torso at the same position in space like at Pose 3;
  4. Go back to pose 3 again;
  5. Change the torso twist putting the L arm side and R arm up. Continue looking directly in front of you ! (Pose 2, this is the first pose on the picture above);
  6. Change the torso twist putting L arm up and R arm side. While doing so look behind to the right (This is Pose 5, not shown), keep the Lower Torso at the same position in space like at Pose 2;
  7. Go to the 2 position;
  8. Go to the Pose 1 and repeat

Note about execution of pose 2 and 3. While going into twist, feel the lower torso, i.e. lower rib cage turning to the side with a great stretch, torque inside. Remember, lower torso twists to the direction of the arm which stretches up. Whole upper torso (i.e. upper rib cage), not just shoulders, must stay facing the front. It must be completely immoveable. You should feel a great stretch and torque inside. Shoulders must not move in relation to upper torso, not a millimeter. Another common mistake is when shoulders stay but upper torso follows the lower torso turning to a side. Do not allow this. Shoulders always follow upper torso while arms can move freely. Control yourself by placing the hand of the arm which goes to the side in the middle of your upper rib cage in the "pectoralis major" area.

Here is the table summarizing torso twists:

Pose Name Upper torso twisted to
( in relation to Lower Torso)
Lower Torso
twisted to
Left arm
stretched to
Right arm
stretched to
Nose
directed to
1. Neutral No No Side Side to the front
2. Twisted to the Left L Right ! Side Up to the front
3. Twisted to the Right R Left ! Up Side to the front
4. Overtwisted to the Left L L Side Up to your L behind you!
5. Overtwisted to the Right R R Up Side to your R behind you!

The pose names are taken by this consideration. Twisted to the Left pose makes the partner in front of you go to your left. Twisted to the Right pose makes the partner in front of you go to your right. Overtwisted means you feel yourself twisted a lot.

Practice the changes between these positions

A. Standing

  • on L or
  • on R leg.

B. With the free leg extended ( 5 directions where the free leg can be extended )

  • F;
  • to open Side;
  • B;
  • to another side crossing in Front of the standing leg. Direct the toes to the front;
  • to another side crossing Behind the standing leg. Direct the toes to the front.

50 types overall. Pelvis must stay immovable toward front in the same fixed position in space. This takes a lot of effort: you will feel a lot of tension inside the pelvis area.

C. Moving from leg to leg with each change.

Twist of Head in Relation to Upper Torso

A head can turn in relation to upper torso. In one of the forms of Argentine tango, dancers dance with upper torso to upper torso very close. Upper torso are attached together in a tight embrace and do not move in relation to each other. Heads also do not move in this extreme "cheek-to-cheek" dancing . But upper (upper!) torso does move in relation to head! To the left and to the right. And so does the lower torso. I said upper torso moves, but not the head since the tango dancer's heads are attached during the whole dance session which can last for many hours, and the overall direction of movement is relative to the heads. So for an overall dance, let us take heads as the point of reference, an origin in the relative system of coordinates of the partner dance. It is the cheek, or rather the right side of the head of the partner, that actually defines the main direction. For simplicity of abbreviation let us choose nose.

For now, all we need from this is the notion that upper torso is moving in relation to the head. Twisting, in our terms. That is why the "nose" on the graphical abbreviations is important. It represents the head direction. In case we need to show a special direction of the head in relation to upper torso, it can be reflected with the "nose" symbol turned left or right. On the left picture the head is turned to the left, toward the left arm extended side. On the right picture the head is to the right in otherwise the same pose. Note that on this picture I show the lower torso untwisted, but the upper torso and the "nose" ( means "head") are. It means the lower torso is untwisted in relation to pelvis, but it is twisted in relation to upper torso.

Torque

Torque is a turning, twisting force which may produce twists which are rotational displacements of one part in relation to another. If there is no twist, a torque may still exist and be set and ready to act. In this case it is compensated by a torque of the opposite direction. Twisted parts MAY have torque when appropriate muscles are energized. When the twist is maximized in a certain direction, it makes some moves available and limits or prevents other moves, therefore influencing the POSSIBILITY, thus creating the structure. Twists and torques define the moves and therefore define the dance. The twist creates opportunity for a torque in a certain direction to be large and therefore INFORMS the dancer about the possible movements resulting from that torque, making the possibility visible to the audience.

I have to add here an important moment: twists in the opposite directions of the nearby parts may visibly compensate each other so that the overall twist is not visible. It does not mean that the twists are absent, just that they are not visible to an uninformed eye, a disguise.

The head (shown with "a nose"), upper torso, lower torso, and pelvis can all be twisted in relation to each other. Therefore, there could exist torque between these parts. Twisting of two parts in relation to each other may influence the overall twist and torque of a third part. It is shown graphically on the picture below.

Torque is generated when needed. It may grow or disappear without any moves. It may release its energy into a move. Torque is felt by a partner. It is what is called an intention.

On the diagram, the central line unifies the parts and gives the frontal direction. It is not related to spine. This is the view from above.

I do not know the exact mechanism how twists and torques are created, what particular muscles are connected to spine, to ribs, to pelvis, to hips and how they work. There are a lot of muscles in the human body, but for the purpose of this article it is sufficient to consider only the resulting torque or twisting forces between body components. What is important is to learn how the resulting force and energy can be used to produce dancing movements and how this influences the shaping of the dance.

These resulting possible forces are shown with arrows on the picture between 3 major body parts: upper torso, lower torso, and pelvis. When a body part is twisting in one direction, the torque (read "muscle tension", positive one, the one which is able to propel) to another direction is "created" or "enabled to be created". Muscles are "charged", "stretched" accumulating energy for movement to the contrary direction. These torque forces which are able to twist the body parts can fall into oscillation, exchanging energy between body parts and therefore creating a phenomenal internal feeling of the dance. It happens in many of the Argentine tango figures. A dancer is like a snake. I'd like to mention that since there are many torques and they are charged in opposite directions, the "snakeness" of the dance does not show to an inexperienced eye. The spectator is only amazed with graceful movements, energy taken seemingly from nowhere, noble posture and walks, light-speed reaction and powerful hits. In rest or equilibrium, the torques should be compensated by forces of opposite directions and then they may be released producing movement.

Notice the possible torque between lower body and pelvis. The twisting, dissociation plane is the waist. It can work in two ways: twisting lower torso and twisting pelvis. They are not the same, but they are created in about the same area. Creating one of them, will reflect in feeling of the opposite twist in the other.

I'd like to specifically direct your attention to make note that first of all, the diagrams are depicting torque, the torque which can be achieved with or without actual body part movements.

Abbreviation for Torque

Torque is usually represented by a vector perpendicular to the plane of rotation. It is not quite convenient for all readers of this article. I will abbreviate torque as it is shown here. For a twisting couple, as in upper torso and lower torso, the torque is shown as a pair of spiral arrows. There is a symbol in the middle like T. T means upper part, a T turned upside down - lower part. Arrows symbolize a direction where the part will move or the torque is ready to be released. Upper and lower parts are to be released into opposite directions, therefore the two abbreviations are equal. They represent the same torque between a couple of twisted parts! When the symbol T is omitted, it shows the direction of the twist of the upper part. The symbols here are equivalent to the torque in Pose 3 mentioned above (Tsuki with R, see later).

Several Notes, Disclaimer

1. Note about execution. While taking a pose, you should stretch arms up or side, as much as possible to obtain the torso twist. Stretch up with the whole of your body! However and this is an important note, extending arms is not necessary to obtain the desired twist. In tango, dancers usually do not move or stretch arms. But torso twist might be difficult to see and learn without corresponding positions of arms. I use the expression of the arms as a suitable and convenient mechanism of explanation and representation as well as practicing. Stretching the arms is a way of twisting the body when the skill is not acquired yet. But no one prevents a dancer from moving their arms, like it is done in other dances. It is beautiful!

2. The process of learning a pose, and finding body alignment for the correct pose is at first facilitated by several changes in the pose. It makes the muscles work more, making it more visible and understandable, but be careful. Twists of the body are extremely powerful. So powerful that they can damage your body, especially when you are unprepared and do not expect such a great power in a seemingly small innocent move.

Attention ! Dangerous !!!

The author does not take any responsibility for any actions or results of the exercises described in and resulting from this article.
It is recommended that you exercise under guidance of an experienced trainer after thorough warm up.
The power generated by your body may greatly surpass your imagination and be harmful. Beware !

3. Movements in torso, stretches, torques, and twists directly affect pelvis position and thus correspond to the obtaining of a more convenient position of the free leg. What is going on in torso calls for a subconscious response in the lower body and legs. This is the source of the famous Lead-and-Follow principle of Argentine Tango: everything can be and is led and followed. The situation in the leading part can be read by a partner who follows, she then understands what the leader is preparing for in his own movements, and than she acts accordingly by following him. I mean this: if a man is perfect in what he is dancing, and the woman is perfect in her own dancing and skills of following, a man does not need any special effort to "lead" a woman. For him the dance becomes very easy. The dance just happens as if they are both guided by God. They do not need to lead and follow, they have been adopting to each other at their first touch and step. They just dance together. This book describes all means of movements and rhythms to become such a great leader and a follower.

It is common that the lead comes from torso, but it can come from pelvis as well, see later.