Relaxation and Tension In Beginners and Experienced Dancers

Discussion between Igor Polk and C., 2005 June 9

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In response to the Looking in the Mirror - Physical Basis of Tango article, I have received several responses. Here is the conversation about the topic related mostly to Relaxation-Tension dilemma in tango and especially regarding beginners. It has a glimpse at Boleo technique. It is a discussion, watch how we come to new conclusions.


Hi Igor,

About your tango article:

I think your focus on communication between partners
is helpful and most especially your emphasis on
directing our awareness inward, which is such an
important and valuable point. But (perhaps
unintentionally) a lot of what you said about body
awareness seemed to suggest that we should INCREASE
the tension in our muscles and sinews in order to
dance tango better. I feel that could be a misleading
suggestion. In my experience, a softening, relaxing,
and "heavying" of my body really helps me to feel
momentum, inertia, stasis, rebound, etc.--it makes me
*become* the dynamic of the movement. Tensing or
hardening my muscles or joints makes me less
sensitive, more easily shocked and jolted by each
movement (not a nice feeling, and I'm sure it ain't a
pretty sight). Relaxing helps me feel the nuances of
my partner's movements, and gives me more freedom and
flexibility to respond smoothly to surprises and
changes in dynamic.

I'm practically always a follower, but I feel this
applies to leaders as well. When there's a lot of
tension or "high oscillation" energy in my partner, it
can be very distracting and difficult to follow him;
he feels more like a set of tense, shaky body parts I
have to respond to rather than a central core of
clearly directed energy or dynamic flow.

Yes, of course, muscles and reflexes are used in
tango. But to me it's more helpful to think that the
*dance* is using my muscles and reflexes (just as much
as it needs and not more than that) rather than that I
am using my muscles and reflexes to dance. Even when
I'm leading. So I'd suggest you take another look at
the phraseology of your article in this regard.

An analogy: If you want to enjoy the feeling of
caressing the face of someone you love, do you do so
with rigidly extended fingers or with relaxed fingers?
You might get more sense of *doing* with a tense hand,
but you'll definitely get more
*feeling* with a relaxed hand.

Maybe the words *tone* or *fullness* rather than
*tension* might be a better way to convey what you're
trying to get at, which is (I think) that there is a
feeling of solid connection among the relaxed body
parts. On the orchestral analogy, tone or fullness
would be the quality that allows the parts to work in
concert, even when some of them remain silent or in
the background (like, for example, in a boleo, where
the leg travels and returns while the upper body
doesn't take the same trip).

Okay, that's enough input from me! Thanks for sharing
your tango ideas and your writing with us. Bravo, and
happy dancing,


Dear C.,

My focus is on communication between partners. Directing attention inside is important, especially as an instrument to discover abilities of the body and receive pleasure of individual dancing, but in relation to Tango it is not as important as an instrument to improve quality of interaction between partners through connection, and make yourself an orchestra interesting for an advanced dancer. During a Tango dance, attention must be directed to the connection with the partner. This is of utmost importance.

I definitely do not want to say that INCREASING tension leads to dancing tango better. I want to say that application of the idea of VARIOUS LEVELS of tension leads to dancing better ( all dances, not only Tango ). Here I emphasize that controlled(!) increase of tension level leads to better ability to convey internal dance to the partner and ability to make faster moves.

It looks like you have mastered control of the tension on low levels. It is not relaxation which leads to your "feel of momentum, inertia, stasis, rebound", but the ability to control it. Relaxation helps to feel better the effects of rotational movement, which is the characteristic of Tango Nuevo. Actually, when you are relaxed and make wide moves like ochos, ganchos, and boleos in Tango Nuevo style, you muscles are tensed not by you yourself, but by that rotational force - the centrifugal force. Tensed means felt. They are tensed, but not by you! That make it feel so wonderful as your parts are dancing themselves. However when you do not have rotational movements it make the dancing boring to you, you feel nothing in yourself and have difficulties to listen to your partner. To fix it you only have to tense muscles yourself. In the right way to the right level. And this it.

This is not, of course, to be rigid, or something.. You can call it "tone" or "fullness". I call it "alert", or to "be a spring" of the right parameters not necessarily constant in time.

You write "more easily shocked and jolted by each movement". It is so if you are not tense and ground enough, do not know how to control it and how to make pleasure of it. In addition to good work on high level of relaxation ( which is the same like low level of tension), you should ( well, it is up to you, but to be versatile.. ) learn how to work on the high level of tension. It is feels good too and very important for small and sharp movements which always necessary in crowded milongas and during Milonga dance. Find the right level of tension for every move, partner, and situation.

Well, tension is not enough. The art of being ground is equally important. This is a separate topic, but directly connected to ability to control tension and rebound.

Personally, I am more experienced in dancing on high level of tension, but I understand that good dancer should master the whole palette.

-- "When there's a lot of tension or "high oscillation" energy in my partner, it can be very distracting and difficult to follow him;"

It looks like this partner was not a good dancer. A good dancer will immediately feel that you do not know how to make a good connection for a fast, tense, high energy, but confined dance, and switch to the style more pleasant to you. This is it.

--- he feels more like a set of tense, shaky body parts I have to respond to rather than a central core of clearly directed energy or dynamic flow.

You do not have to respond to what you do not like. There is no respond in this sense. There is a dance by two dancers. You feel him, he feels you, and with enjoyment. Again - here he was not able to connect to you the way you like, ( if you was not able to connect to him the way he dances ). This is not a dance, this is a torture. Please, do not judge on this bad example the ability of controllable tension dance.

But you have to analyze yourself too. You say "a central core of clearly directed energy or dynamic flow". This is not a characteristic of Tango overall. It is the main idea only for the later Salon Style and Tango Nuevo. In other styles there is more complex picture. Definitely, there is "clearly directed energy or dynamic flow" idea, especially in Canyengue, but this is not it. There are so many other things. And sharp movements, and rebounds, and tension, and relaxation, and micro steps, and even shakes, and a lot, a lot, LOTS of cortes. Which you can call "rebounding energy", a distraction of "a central core of clearly directed energy or dynamic flow". And even accumulating energy in twisting and bending the body. All that contradicts the notion that "clearly directed energy or dynamic flow" is most important. There are many flows. They start and end at every moment, some of them long, some of them very short transforming into each other. Energy in tango oscillates.

Especially for dancing in very crowded Milongas, like in Portland, it adds spice if you master the sharp moves, frequent stops and rebounds. Forget about total relaxation. Continually relaxed limbs require wide space. Dancing in crowded spaces you will have to control your tension since fast and sharp moves require precise technique. And you need the fast and sharp moves to avoid obstacles.

You would like to go from a relaxed dance to more energizing dance and create "energy waves". And more energetic dance requires more tension in a tight place.

Again more tension does not mean making the dance heavier. No, the dance is still light. The key is in precision.

"clearly directed energy or dynamic flow" is an important art, not easy to achieve, requires a lot of experience, but this is only a little part of what happens in the complex dance.


-- .."when some of [movements] remain silent or in the background (like, for example, in a boleo, where the leg travels and returns while the upper body doesn't take the same trip)"

A wonderful example. A Boleo is not silent at all. Oh.. it is very loud! A Boleo is a big statement! This is a triumph of the symphony! I feel your Boleo in my chest, even if your chest does not move a micron. I feel everything! The way your feet drag on the floor. How your shins, hips, and buttocks move and rebound. And you yourself should feel the reflection of your own movements inside my chest. It is hard to explain, but this is not a metaphor, this is an actual physical phenomena, like waves reflect from a rock.

If I do not feel Boleos like that - you are not doing it right. How to make it been felt for me? You should find an appropriate and variating in time level of tension in your body from the toe up through the leg, butt, back, to the chest. Make your body a spring! And make a channel for transmission of forces to me. To make it all you have to do is to push from the floor with your standing leg projecting the force right into my chest.


Hi Igor,

Thanks for sharing your careful analyses of "tango
energy." That's another thing I love about the dance:
it really furnishes us with so many rich ways to think
(and then think again) about how to make connections
with the music, with our partner and with the other
dancers sharing la ronda, and with our own bodies. It
seems to provide so many metaphors for the rest of
life--though I suppose that's true for any pleasure
when you're inspired by it.

I think I basically agree with the *essence* of
practically everything you said, and I really enjoyed
reading your e-mail. I think you've clarified your
ideas further and come up with some very useful ways
to convey some really crucial concepts (that is,
phrases you could use when explaining tango to
students, if you're teaching). The phrases that I
liked best were:

"be a spring"--YES, exactly! (As long as your students
understand that means a springiness of energy between
the two partners and a cushiony space in all our
joints and NOT that they should bounce up-down like a
spring with each step! But that's the problem with
words in any language; they are so easily

"There are many flows. They start and end at every
moment, some of them long, some of them very short,
transforming into each other."--That's a beautiful way
to say it. Yes, yes! This helps me understand what you
really mean to say when you use the word
"oscillation," but I think this is a better way to say
it, much less likely to be misinterpreted. Others may
misread it the way I did, as something like "hold your
muscles so hard and tense that you physically
vibrate." Oh dear!

"make a channel for transmission of forces"--Hurrah!
This, too, really captures the essence of
communication, pleasure, and art in the dance. A very
practical matter.

And I especially agree with what you said, in various
ways, about the art of tango being richer the more we
are able to play with and vary the dynamic and energy
flow and amplitude etc. (I still don't like the word
"tension," my prejudice). Yes, being able to make
these transformations gives us more opportunities to
interpret the music and create different spaces and
moods and carry on a lively conversation with our
partner, discovering the dance each moment instead of
following a script. (Dance "Quejas de Bandoneon" or
"Flor de Montserrat," or whatever, five or fifty times
with the same partner and make it a completely
different story each time.)

That's it in terms of feedback on your tango analysis.
I dance traditional tango in close embrace, what some
people call "milonguero" style. Of tango, vals,
milonga, the dance that comes to me most instinctively
is milonga. In other words, I'm more built for speed
and rhythmic little movements than for lyricism or
long sweep.
my major challenge and holy grail has been to
work more and more on relaxing, incorporating slowness
as well as quickness, on weightedness (grounding) as
well as lightness, so that I can really interpret the
full range of opportunities offered by the music and
by my partner. I've come a good way, I guess, but
there's always a long way still to go. My main work
has been on *reducing tension* in my body, because
it's all too easy for me to be one of those
high-strung, nervous birds who tends to flap her wings
as soon as the breeze blows before she even knows what
direction the breeze is coming from. That excited
little bird is a disaster for tango!

So you can see why I'm so in favor of reducing
tension. A relaxed heaviness helps create a "traction"
with my partner so I can respond as quick as necessary
or as slow as necessary, so I can feel the huge time
that exists between steps (even quick ones) and really
make something of it, so I can play with the dynamic
of the movement, taking my partner's energy and
choosing to playfully mirror it, amplify it, or reduce
it, giving him my own energy so that he can play with
it too.

But, aha, here's where your point comes in, Igor! I
suppose there are people whose natural energy flow is
more of a melting thing, and for them, yes, I guess
they'd have to add tension in order to dance well, as
you say.

(Ah, it's possible that you misread my word
"relaxed" the way I misread "oscillation." Maybe you
thought I meant "limp like a dishrag." No, I meant
relaxed: "calm, centered, grounded and resiliently
responsive, alert and sensitive, not stiff.")



Got it!

I have used the term "tension" in physical sense when it can range from 0 to maximum, or even below 0 ( in opposite direction ). This term is usually related to springs.

Regarding muscles the "Longman Dictionary of Scientific Usage" says
"tonus - a condition of partial contraction , or slight tension in a muscle.. normally in a state of tonus to maintain the posture.. to maintain the tension in the muscle".

So I thought what could be misleading in my writing, and I have got it after reading of your letter carefully!

You had tension not in muscles, but in your nervous system. I had the same problem. This is the tension we were fighting with! Over-tensed nervous system lead to chaotic contraction of muscles, it does not know what to do with them, trying to contract wrong muscles, which leads to rigidness in trying to achieve the desired movement. With experience it goes away.

Regarding resonance, activity of the wrong muscles create a background which muffle the main resonating components.

I would say most beginners are on pretty high level of overall tension, they are not able to control it. But at the same time they do not have right, clean tension where they should have it. They are not springs, they are balls of wire. In my writing I refer to the tension only in necessary parts which can vary from 0 to Max, while other muscles are relaxed to the certain extent not to interfere with movement or help it like in case with the "channel". That is why even strongest movement made correctly are easy and consume little energy. Energy is mostly spent on chaotic, not clean, wrong movements.

Overall nervous over-tension leads to high level of I would say "noise" in perception of the movements. It is not felt clean, it can not be done clean.

So the way is to relax. Aha. First of all this is related to nervous system, which leads to relaxation of muscles, and then one can start building springs in the body where it is necessary.

The only excuse for me is that I was writing for experienced dancers, who overcame that "beginners-tension-problem".

Wow, it can actually lead to the following: Tension in muscles can vary from 0-max, while tension in (experienced!) nervous system - emotions and the like also can vary from 0 to max, from relaxation to the peak of emotions. Hmmm... this should be developed..

I have to emphasize all that very clear. This is the whole new chapter, or even a book :)

I did not pay much attention to your experience you described so vividly.
Regarding to what you say "keeping my body relaxed and ready for everything". This is related to another thing. Alertness. You are relaxed, yes, relaxed to be ready for everything, precisely. But somewhere inside your nervous system and muscles you have developed a device with is very active at this moment. It senses and reacts to the slightest changes in situation and sends commands around. At the moment of relaxation, this device is on pretty high level of tension so to speak... I will develop this further later...

One more thing about this. Let me predict that you are not actually relaxed in terms of yoga when you say you are relaxed. While you are "relaxed" your muscles are at the optimal level of tension which allows fastest reaction to lead. You are used to it and do not feel it, because it is your normal state. (It is possible to use gravitation to help start initial movements.) And since you are experienced, your other muscles and nervous system is relaxed, since they are not needed at the moment, so you use very little energy and feel relaxation overall.

With beginners it is opposite. They are tensed where it is not needed and are too relaxed where they need it. All of them over-relax the free leg, so it can not react to the lead timely. And so forth...



Hi Igor,

Your latest comments really captured what I was trying
to argue on the "tension/relaxation" topic. Just as
you say, it was about how nervous tension creates
distracting "noise" that interferes with the dance.

I'm glad my comments and nitpicking helped you develop
your tango analysis even further. Our little debate
helped illuminate for me an important distinction:
"control" as a skilled, attentive modulation of body
energies (a freedom-increaser that dancers need to
develop and explore) versus "control" as an insidious,
inhibitive narrowing of body energies (a
freedom-limiter that many dancers like me need to
overcome). The latter "control" is really an
overcontrol that misuses the body, an inappropriate
reflex of fearfulness. Maybe it's as simple as saying
the body can behave confidently or fearfully, and that
we dance best when we set fears aside. Once again, I
have discovered the obvious after a lot of

Okay, it's fine with me if you publish anonymous
excerpts from my e-mails.



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My name is Igor Polk. I dance Argentine tango in San Francisco.

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