Tensegrity, tango and giant bridges

Question: What does a tango dancer, a giant bridge and a geodesic dome have in common?

Answer: They are all subject to the same laws of physics pertaining to a specific kind of principle that I wish to talk about here.

Tango dancers have feet. Feet are basically foundations  and speaking about foundations it is tempting to move into the world of  construction and architecture, a world in which a solid foundation is invaluable.  The foundation is  the point from which everything else is decided.  It dictates the later possibilities, construction wise, of whatever is to be resting upon that foundation. We are talking about forces of physics here, of thrust and counter thrust, ground force reaction, balance and integrity of structure.

tensegrity-architecture-30-620x503

No one in their right mind would ever build a pyramid upside down (except perhaps in the world of Walt Disney where there was a story once where Scrooge was searching for an upside-down pyramid balancing on a giant diamond in the middle of the jungle). No matter how fascinating balance might be, in construction we tend to prefer stable objects which are able to carry their weight and distribute the forces of what is resting upon them in an even way.

When the foundation crumbles the results are often disastrous as might be seen in the collapsed sweatshops in some Asian countries. For a building to be solid a good foundation is a requirement. At the same time the forces working inwardly in the structure are equally importent. Enter the term Tensegrity

Tensegrity as a term is coined out of the two words tensional integrity. The man who created the term, Buckminster Fuller, used it to relate to a principle of engineering used in architecture describing structures in which the tension between the different parts of a structure make up the main supporting principle of it and not the individual strength or mass of each part.

In other words: the synergy of tension and compression distributed between the different parts of the structure is used actively in order to create structures that are both lighter, stronger and more stable than one would think possible. For instance the Kurilpa Bridge in Australia:

kurilpa_bridge_01

Notice how none of the poles are actually touching each other?

Here is an example of a building created on such principles. What you’re looking at is an example of a geodesic dome. For more info on these structures look here.

800px-Mtl__Biosphere_in_Sept__2004

and here is a second example of how these principles might be used in creating beauty:

Tens.rainbow_arch

Okay, so what is the connection between all of these incredible structures and the trials and tribulations of a tango dancer?

And the answer is:

Tensegrity!

Our bodies are in fact tensegrity structures, highly complex and balanced organisms where each part is dependent on the other in order to function correctly. Just as the poles and cables distribute stress and compression through a tensegrity bridge, our skeleton, muscles, sinews and last but not least our connective tissue make up a structure of mutually dependent elements were forces of tension and compression are distributed in an evenly manner.

Or so at least we would wish.

But unfortunately this is not always the case. Unlike a bridge we humans have a mind of our own and that mind is often occupied in adapting to a society and an environment less than ideally suited to our bodies and their needs. We have a highly developed ability to adapt ourselves to our surroundings, especially when there is pleasure involved.

Invaluable props

tangoskoAs tango consists of a lot of pivoting movements high heeled shoes has long been the mantra as it often is necessary to be on one’s toes. In this way the foundation of our axis (the central line of balance through our body from feet to head) is a small as possible. This makes it possible for us to twirl and do things like this (check out the twirls at 3.13 and onwards):

The price we pay, however, is high. Burning forefeet, bunions, hallux valgus or similar deformations of the foot causing pain and eventually diminished range of motion in the feet. Our heel bone is more than capable of carrying the weight of our body. The small bones in our  forefoot and toes on the other hand have less of this capability. They are not designed to carry the amount of weight that we stack upon them when our heels forces our entire bodymass forward hoovering above our toes which for the moment are trapped inside a beautiful pair of thight, pointy shoes.

hallux

In addition to that the heels underneath our “heels” tilts our body out of alignment making it necessary for the muscles in our calves, thighs, hips, back and shoulders to compensate in order to keep us in a vertical position.

Remember that tensegrity bridge from earlier? What do you think would happen if we removed one of those poles or slackened one of the wires? Would you be willing to cross it?

The tensegrity system of our body is based on our alignment without high heeled shoes strapped under our feet. In a way the heel acts as an additional pole adding an element of instability into our perfectly balanced structure. Unlike the bridge our bodies are able to compensate for this instability, the cost, however, is often high.

So what if you are unable to give up your heels, what if tango and the experience of twirling around on 10 inch heels is the one thing that keeps you (literally) up?

The next best solution

First of all: the awareness of what we are doing to our body and our feet is an important knowledge which might help us at least not to treat our feet as if they were made of titanium. They are (hopefully) going to last a lifetime so a little atention is not to much of a request.

Secondly: have you ever seen those artists that paints or play the piano with their feet and toes? The feet that they use are no different from yours except that they have been forced to use them actively instead of just shoving them into tight, unyielding shoes every day.

The good news: your feet are adaptable, exercises and stretches actually work so with no further ado here are two recommendations:

The MELT method by Sue Hitzman. This is a training programme including, among other things, small rubber balls and rubber bands of different texture and firmness used to work and manipulate the connective tissue in the feet and hands. A regular workout with these or just having a little session after each late night on the dancefloor does not seem much but has a surprising effect.

For anyone interested I recommend this link in checking it out. The kit costs about  $40 and is worth every cent.

Then there is the invaluable book “Every woman’s guide to foot pain relief” by bio-mechanist Katy Bowman, a true “Bible” when it comes to foot health and a great insight into how your feet are designed to work and exercises in order to make your feet feel a lot more happy. This goes far beyond giving yourself a little footrub now and then. At the moment Timani-founder Tina Margarete Nilsson is teaching a course based on, among other things, principles and excersises from this book in Oslo. If you did not make it then you still have the chance of buying this book

K bowmanand as always: buy it at Bookdepository.com. Great online bookstore with great prices and free shipping to Norway and a lot of other countries!

also: check out Katy Bowmans blog here for more info on feet and foothealth in general.

Interested in knowing more about the tensegrity of your body and how to play with it in stead of against it? Try a lesson in Timani! I give lessons in Timani for both musicians and non-musicians. Read more about it on my webpage here or in this post (only in Norwegian for the time being..)

2 thoughts on “Tensegrity, tango and giant bridges

  1. leelotchka44 says:

    “Remember that tensegrity bridge from earlier? What do you think would happen if we removed one of those poles or slackened one of the wires? Would you be willing to cross it?”

    wow! powerful metaphor! No, i wouldn’t cross that bridge –

  2. […] du vil lese mer om flere av temaene innen Timani så ta en titt på disse postene: om Timani og tango, om belastningsskader hos musikere, om temaer knyttet til nevrologi og […]

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