Postural Lessons from Buenos Aires: JEMS, tango and the plank

Those of you who know us well are aware that Kent and I met over a rumba at the Cardiff University Dance Club. It’s corny, but having manoeuvred to dance with each other having spotted each other literally from across a crowded room, I noticed that he happened to have a T-shirt on that said “Have you hugged your physio today? I’d been quite definite about not ending up with someone in my own line of work, but there you are. The man was willing to dance.

It has been a very long time since those days, but our recent trip to Buenos Aires to teach a JEMS course gave us the opportunity to take tango lessons with a wonderful teacher in the San Telmo district.

So many teachers of dance start with the mechanics, but the fabulous Mariana Docampo emphasised first the essence of tango, the sense of it, the necessity of fire in the chest, the negotiation between partners as a shared exploration of a moment – tango more as a conversation in motion than steps to learn.

Nevertheless, technique must be acquired, and this starts with the basic posture.

Tango posture is a real application of JEMS, in that it asks for a strong yet supple vertical axis through the body, lengthening upward and forward to bring the dancers’ upper bodies into a contact through which the “conversation” can unfold. Not so simple! Here we have the potential for every possible postural escape strategy – tipping forward from the waist, jutting the hips out behind, or over arching backward from the rib cage. Mariana’s hands on my ribs  encouraged  an “up and out” impulse while I attempted to relinquish the accumulated stress of the previous few weeks from my shoulders and arms. Soften, settle into yourself, settle into him, but carry yourself. Eso es, eso es… that’s it.

Finding that tilted trunk axis with upper torso connection: day one. Not perfect but better than an hour before!

Finding that tilted trunk axis with upper torso connection: day one. Not perfect but better than an hour before!

Without this, tango just can’t work well. The dancers’ contact through the upper torso is a major source of communication, and poise in motion depends upon a balance of pressure between partners.

This made me wonder – have we finally found an application for the plank as an exercise?

Hmmm. The essence of tango posture is a lengthening through the trunk. I need to be able to reach back into hip extension, so I need freedom in my hip flexors. I also need a sense of openness across my chest. Does the plank deliver this?

If you are already pretty strong, then maybe, but the loading involved in the plank is much higher than is necessary for the fine fluent control of tango.  In reality, in gyms all over the world, people are grimly aiming to stay off the ground by shortening the front of their bodies and gripping with the front of their hips, rather than achieving a deep long, strong control. This is not good for tango at all.

So alas, just when we thought that we might have found an application for the plank, it turns out not to be the case….

A more appropriate possibility would be this position, where you learn to keep the upper and lower body segments aligned, something that we call “zone stacking”. I have lifted my heels to tilt my body forward of the vertical, which in turn asks for abdominal control and awareness of spinal position as I maintain an equal length between the front and back of my body.




From here,  you can practise tilting the trunk further forward by bending the elbows, which will ask you for more abdominal control in order to maintain that axis through the body.

You can then practise moving from foot to foot, aligning your body in balance over each foot.  That’s important, as tango asks for alignment not just from front to back, but also for upper and lower body to remain stacked as you step sideways.

You can also practise that hip extension in this position, maintaining your body shape from front to back as you bend your front knee and stretch back with your foot.

Who knew that tango would be such an unexpectedly perfect vehicle for applying JEMS principles?


With Mariana Docampo, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

With Mariana Docampo, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

With thanks to Mariana Docampo, professional tango dancer, teacher and the organiser for Tango Queer Buenos Aires,

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