Axis is word that gets thrown around by some in the tango world and often by those who do not have a good “axis”. In terms of pure definition, axis is an imagery line about which a body rotates. This is fairly simple to understand by just thinking of the Earth rotating about its poles or a wheel around its axel. So, there is an axis when doing a move like a calesita where the follower is stood on the axis or a giro where the axis could be where the leader is standing or a common centre about which both the leader and follower rotate.
However, in tango, people have decided to confuse things by giving the word “axis” another meaning. This had led to terms like “you have to learn to hold your axis” and “shared axis” appear, but the question is what do they mean? Simply, people use “axis” in place of the word balance. So the “you have to learn to hold your axis” means “you have to learn to keep your balance and not fall over”. The way I look at it is to imagine doing a move and your partner suddenly vanishes, would you hit the deck, if no then you are on balance or on “axis”, if yes then…. Well then, some moves like volcadas and colgadas and tango styles such as Canyengue and Milonguero require you to counter each others weight and are therefore described as having a “shared axis”. However, in most instances you should not be relying on your partner to stop yourself falling over.
Most of us can walk without falling over, it would be a strange sight to see everyone reduced to babies and crawling around the streets. Tango does cause some issues with balance, there is a posture that requires a slight forward lean, therefore altering most people’s balance point. Also moving the chest in isolation tends to cause a centre of mass adjustment that alters the balance point. These changes, therefore, need to be addressed.
I’ve heard a number of people telling me how their teacher had spent a number of months teaching them balance and how to keep their “axis”. However, it should not take that long to teach someone balance, the fact it has taken months suggests something else has happened. These people often can’t explain what their teacher has done to improve their balance. To me this sounds like they have wasted lots of money and many hours on nothing and in fact have had their progress hindered. Consider this: humans can adapt surprising quickly, think of those who have re-learn to walk after losing a limb and you get the idea. Just going into a tango posture and having a go at dancing will improve your balance. This is because you are learning, your muscles are adapting to the movements and you are understanding subconsciously what to do when you feel the change in balance. After a couple of months, you will have adapted quite naturally with no input to your new balance points.
Of course, a good teacher can tell you ways to speed up this process. Over time you will naturally find a method that allows you to keep your balance while dancing tango, however here are a couple of ideas that will reduce the trial and error approach. The first of these relies of some very basic physics that you should all know from school: lower your centre of gravity. Without getting too technical gravity acts on the centre of mass of a body and if that centre is lower there is less chance that an action will result in the centre moving past a pivot point causing the object to fall over. So how does this apply to tango? Again, the answer is simple, you bend your knees, this not only lowers your centre of gravity but also acts as a shock absorber, so you can mitigate any unwanted movement which might cause to you fall off balance. Having some flex in your knees is generally considered good tango technique and for a leader is often covered by baggy trousers (look on YouTube at some of the great tango dancers to see how lose fitting their trousers are). Also, the flex in your knees helps prevent bounce in your walk and knee pain.
There is a second method that can improve your balance quickly and that is pulling up through the core. I’ll put a warning here that if this technique is done wrong, and I see if often from dancers who have attended low quality classes, it results in a posture with strain through the shoulders, awkward head positions and in extreme cases injuries. So, what is the correct technique? Well this technique is used by ballet dancers and relies on pulling up through the core (not the shoulders and head), which in terms of physics is the same as applying an upwards force. If you imagine a piece of string with one end attached to a table and you pull the other end up the string will become vertical. If you use your other hand to pull it to the side and pluck it, the string will return to vertical because the of tension caused by the upwards force. This, when done in dance will pull you back into balance. It is important you do not overdo this technique otherwise you become too stiff in the core to dance.
Either one of these techniques will improve your balance, however, using a combination of both techniques will allow you to progress much quicker. As I have already said, just practicing and dancing will mean you will develop these techniques without being taught but will take more time. Finally, I would suggest next time you do some ochos try thinking about both these techniques and try them out and see what happens.