We hear so much about the importance of stretching after exercise that when I started going out to milongas, I was a bit dumbfounded about how to incorporate stretching into my tango practice (the milonga being a social space, it’s not really a space for stretching)
So I would stretch after I got back home and later learned that this is not a good idea.
Actually, when I started digging into the art of stretching, I realised that a lot of the things we often believe about stretching are not good for us…
When dancing, we want flexibility, lean muscles, and strength. The right type of stretching can give us that, but the wrong type can seriously harm us.
So here is the lowdown on the three types of stretching and the one tango dancers should go for.
Why is stretching important for tango dancers
Stretching reduces muscle soreness caused by strenuous exercise, for one thing, and decreases our risk of injuries. It increases our range of motion, which is good for our health in general and also for our dancing: we can dissociate more, do more giro, play with decorations…. And, as we will see below, it can increase our strength, which helps us be more stable, in the walking for example.
The three types of stretching
So now that we know that we should stretch, let’s look into the three types of stretching. There are plenty of stretching exercises, but they basically fall into the three following categories.
1. Ballistic stretching
What is it?
This is the stretching you often see joggers in the park do before or after their runs. Usually it involves bouncing and using the body weight to force the muscle into a greater range of motion.
The bouncing triggers the ‘myotatic reflex’ (or knee-jerk reflex), which is a pre-programmed response by the body to a stretch stimulus in the muscle. When the bouncing is performed, an impulse is immediately sent to the spinal cord and a response to contract the muscle is received.
Is it good for us?
Ballistic stretching is used a lot yet can be dangerous: it forces the limb into an extended range of motion without giving enough time for the muscle to relax into the new position.
Because it makes the muscles tighten up (myotatic reflex) instead of stretch, repeated ballistic stretching can cause injury. So, absolutely avoid it.
Tango Dancing Focus:
Ballistic stretching also tends to ‘bulk’ the muscles – which is the opposite effect of what we want (stretch) – so it is not only dangerous for our muscles, but also not recommended for dancers who want strong, elongated muscles.
2. Static stretching:
What is it:
The typical ‘stretch and hold’ position: stretching when the body is at rest. You get into your stretching position and stay there, not moving, and not tightening the muscles. Static Stretching elongates the muscles but does not strengthen them.
Is it good for us?
In rare cases (if you are extremely tight), yes.
The problem with static stretch is that it elongates the muscles but does not reinforce them.
There is even a school of thought that says that static stretching actually makes the muscles weaker (for example as demonstrated here: How Active & Passive Stretching Affect Muscle Tissue) (I know my ballet teacher was adamant I should never do it.)
Also note that static stretching can lead to overstretched ligaments, which fragilizes them and increases the risk of injury. Because of that, it is better to avoid them.
Tango Dancing Focus:
When dancing, we want to be flexible, but mainly we want to be able to hold the position. During all the moments of suspension in the music (a pause for example), our muscles need to be elongated but strong. Tango seems soft and gentle but actually requires a lot of strength, so we need to protect our muscles!
So, because static stretching actually decreases strength, it is not recommended for tango dancers.
3. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching
What is it?
PNF stretching corresponds to a mix of stretching and contracting the muscle (at the same time or in sequence). It is a method of stretching that comes from physiotherapy techniques, developed to restore range of motion (ROM) and strength in patients who have sustained damage in soft tissue (soft tissue = tendons, ligaments, skin, muscles…)
The most common PNF method is contract-relax (CR): the muscle to be stretched is contracted for up to 10-15 seconds then stretched.
The contraction causes the nerve endings to prevent the muscle from contracting (which is what happens in Ballistic stretch), thereby allowing for greater ROM to be achieved during the subsequent stretch phase.
It seems the Autogenic Inhibition, (which occurs during the contraction) causes the muscle to relax, which explains the increased elongation of the muscle fibers (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3588663/)
Is it good for us?
PNF stretching is safer and more efficient than Ballistic and Static Stretching. Furthermore, it improves both strength and flexibility, which is even better for us.
Tango Dancing focus:
PNF stretching is the most useful type of stretching for tango dancers because it works both on the elongation and the strength of our muscles.
This means that in addition to a wider range of movements, we will have a better control of our axis, including when the dancing is very slow (during pauses for example).
What muscles should you stretch after tango dancing?
Even though ideally we would stretch all the muscles in the body, this is not easy to incorporate into our modern lives.
After a tango session, be it a class, practice or milonga, the most important muscles to stretch are:
- The intrinsic muscles of the feet
- The upper legs muscles and calves
- The upper body parts that are most active in the embrace: the trapezius
For more dedicated work, you can also improve dissociation with a spinal rotation.
- Exercise for PNF Self-Stretch doing a Spinal Twist
Reminders about stretching correctly:
- Before undertaking any form of stretching it is important that a thorough warm up be completed: do not stretch if you are not warm
- Avoid bouncing (Ballistic!)
- Don’t force and stretch too hard: it is better to do a bit every day rather than stretching too hard once a week. You will be surprised how rapidly muscles lengthen when you incorporate stretching into your daily routine
- Hold the PNF stretch long enough: Stretching really improves when you hold the position longer. NHS recommends holding your stretches at least 10 to 15 seconds, which is a good start. Personally, I hold them for one to two minutes
- Make sure you are breathing while you are stretching
- As with any type of new movement, if you are not sure how to stretch or would like to go back to it safely, ask your teacher or your doctor
There you have it, the three types of stretching (Ballistic, Static, PNF), and the one you should choose for both elongated and strong muscles for tango dancing.
Yet there is still plenty to say about stretching, so we would love to hear from you: have your stretching changed since you started tango dancing? Do you have any tips to share on how to incorporate stretching into our busy tango lives? We look forward to hearing from you.
PS: Further reading: