If you’ve taken tango classes – or any type of dance class for that matter – you’ve probably heard about core muscles a few times. We’ve heard so much about abs, crunching and 6-pack abs that I remember being quite confused about what core muscles are…. I tended to over-contract my abs muscles instead of gently activating my core, which made for pretty tense dancing..  So now that I know, I can share! Here’s a description of what core muscles really are and how to use them when dancing.

1. What are core muscles?

They are everywhere today – we hear about them all the time, from fitness blogs to chiropractic sessions to dance classes.  Yet the concept became popular only in the 90s, and today there is still no universal definition of what the core muscles are and what their exact role is.

Usually they include the deep back and abdominal muscles which run along the spine and keep it stable – the transverse abdominis and the multifidus– along with the pelvic floor.

Core muscles group – picture from www.corebalancetherapy.com/

But some practitioners also include the diaphragm muscle – kind of the “lid” of the “core muscle box”, and others the hips and shoulder girdles and the muscles of the bottom.

Core muscles group with diaphragm

For the sake of clarity I will focus here on the three main set of core muscles (Transverse abdominis, Multifidus, and pelvic floor muscles), but bear in mind that your teacher might have a broader definition.

To be very clear: these muscles are not the 6-pack abs you can see when you do crunches, these are deep – very deep. The Multifidus runs along the spine. The Transverse abdominis is hidden below 3 muscles: the External abdominal oblique, the Rectus abdominis and the Internal abdominal oblique. And the pelvic floor… well, you know where it is….

Abdominal muscle group

2. Their role in tango dancing

These core muscles are strongly associated with the stability of our spine. The spine is made up of 26 small to tiny bones, all set along 4 curves: it’s one of the most flexible set of bones in our body, and it wouldn’t hold tight without core muscles constantly stabilizing it. You see, this set of muscles is made to work on ‘endurance’: at a low level of activation, but over a very long period of time (all day long, until we rest lying).

The thing about the stability of the spine is that it basically determines the stability of our whole body – which is key in tango.

One of the key elements of tango dancing is understanding and controlling where our axis is: we need to be able to play with it through subtle movements to communicate as precisely as possible with our partner. By stabilizing the spine, core muscles allow us to control where our axis is: we can keep it precisely at the center of our body, subtly move it, decide on the dynamics of its movements…

That’s the main reason why core muscles are so important in tango. You know this wavering you get when you try to pivot or to project? That comes from weaker core muscles – nothing a bit of strengthening can’t fix. Your core will allow you to keep a strong balance when walking backward, dissociating or pivoting…

And once you find stability in the main movements, you can start improvising and find your tango freedom.

So, the beauty of the core muscles group is that it will give you:

  1. Protection of your back throughout the dance (and during any other movements)
  2. Control of your movement, especially when dissociating and pivoting
  3. A stable centre of gravity
  4. A stable platform for more powerful dancing.

3. How to strengthen your core

Don’t crunch: that’s not what we are talking about here. Core muscles are deep inside the body, and the 6-pack type of ab exercises won’t even reach them. A Pilates course is the place to really develop core muscles, but you can do a simple exercise at home that will work wonders: the plank.

 

 

Now, everybody knows what the plank is, but there are a few things to bear in mind when planking:

  • Once a day: If you’re starting out with the plank, I recommend getting into the plank for 20 seconds, then relaxing and doing another two sets of 20 seconds once a day*. This will have quite an impact on your tango already.
  • Body alignment: your shoulders, hips and feet should be on one diagonal line. Make sure your bottom is not sticking up nor that it is too low.
  • Wrists vs. elbows: You can plank either on your elbows or on your wrists. Use the elbows if you tend to have wrist pain, as the joints in the wrist are fragile and shouldn’t be overused.
  • Upper body alignment: your wrist (or your elbow, depending on how you are planking) should be directly below your shoulders, and at shoulder’s width apart – not wider.
  • Your elbows need to be relaxed, not locked. Bend them a bit if you need to.
  • Using the right muscles: It’s tempting in plank to use the shoulder muscles instead of the core muscles: if you feel that you are putting too much strain on the shoulders, pull your belly button up towards your spine. This should shift the training focus.
  • Breathing: Don’t forget to breathe throughout the whole exercise. When muscle training, it is more important to focus on quality than on quantity

*You’re lucky: 3 times 20 seconds isn’t much. I had a teacher who used to make me plank throughout the whole Mulan song “I’ll make a man out of you” …. (Yes, that’s more than 3 minutes of planking. Try it if you’d like 🙂 )

There are plenty of interesting exercises for developing core muscles for tango: we share our favourite in our online course for intermediate dancers.

4. The counterintuitive tip that makes all the difference

There is one very important thing to conclude on this article on core muscles, which is often overlooked.

They need to relax.

Muscles always need to be relaxed and stretched out after a training session. After a workout, our muscles heal better if we give them enough recovery time, and core muscles are no exception. But they are so deep that stretching them is not straightforward.

To relax your core muscles, lie down on your back, with your legs relaxed or your feet on the floor in semi supine position (knees raised bent upwards with the soles of the feet on the floor), and relax your core using your breathing. The hardest part here is accepting that your belly becomes floppy… Don’t worry, with planking once a day, it doesn’t last!

Now we’d love to hear from you.

Do you have a simple training you can share to strengthen these core muscles? Or a tip to keep a strong axis? Leave us a comment below and let us know!

Enormous thanks for sharing your tips with us.

Abrazos,

Anne

19 thoughts on “The Tango dancer’s guide to core muscles

  1. David Turner says:

    Excellent article and I speak from the point of view of being a doctor who used to teach tango. Pupils always wanted to learn sequences and "moves" and I always want them to perfect and strengthen core to enable better connection whatever partner was in their arms. It was often an uphill struggle.

    • Pablo Rodriguez says:

      Always good to get a doctor’s approval, thanks! AndyYes, after dancing tango for a while, we realise that new moves are not important, and that what matters is connection… but it often takes a while…
      x
      Anne

  2. Miranda Anderson says:

    When I taught dance, I told my students if they wanted to do cool stuff like jumping and pirhouettes, they had to "eat their broccoli", the broccoli part being plies and tendus and stretching. Can’t build a house on sand…

    • Pablo Rodriguez says:

      Agreed! Every teacher should develop some kind of ‘tango barre’ to build a strong foundation!
      x
      Anne (who loves broccolis (and pliés!))

  3. Ivonete says:

    So nice that you are NOT suggesting crunches as core stability training.
    I struggle with clients and teachers that come to me saying they have to tuck their tail bone to engage the core muscles.
    I like your illustration showing the position of the sacrum and the curves of the spine and how maintaining these curves is what gets the core muscles active, and NOT flattening the spine.
    It is important that we practice holding our spine or torso with good posture for all the activities we do including seating bending, walking, etc.. This will ensure we acquire the endurance that is essential to keep our posture, mobility and our musculoskeletal and organs health as we age.
    Your posture affect specially your lungs and breathing, but also your digestive organs, bladder and uterus. In addition your good posture affects what kind of chemicals are released in your body and how nutrients, synovial fluid and hormones are dispersed.

  4. Fritz Sands says:

    I found (much to my current pain) that even 20 seconds of this needs to be worked up to gradually for some of us who are older and/or are coming back from hernia surgery. My chiropractor got my ribs back in place and I am going to get back into these exercises much more gradually in a few days, after I can lie on my left side without acute discomfort. I guess at 62 "Pain is weakness leaving the body" is no longer an operational statement.

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  8. Dr Ann "Tango Annie" says:

    As a Doctor of Chiropractic, I recommend someone watching and observing . The shoulder blades are to be pulled together toward the spine and pulled down the back (flat) while the sternum and upper chest should reach up and out (“lifted”). There should be minimum muscle work from the chest and more between the shoulder blades and Latissimus muscles ( the Superman ones!). and the belly button in and up toward the shoulder blades.

    • Tango Space says:

      Hi Ann, thank you for sharing your knowledge! I too find that in dancing, 50% of the learning work is observing (teachers and performers, but also people of all levels dancing in milongas).

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