Shoe talk

Getting minimalist shoes is something to think about – but certainly not a requirement.

I wrote this for a student with osteoarthritic knees. We’ve been working on correcting the way her leg bones spiral when bending and straightening. The correct direction of spiral removes the pain completely. This has been going well, so I felt it was time to address the subject of her so called “healthy shoes”, ultra padded running shoes replete with motion control, arch support and a hidden 1.5-inch heel lift.

To get the knees to work better, it’s going to help if the feet and ankles can do their job in the most unfettered manner possible. When we go barefoot, the foot can change shape and adapt more flexibly to different surfaces and different physical demands. The intrinsic muscles of the foot get strong and flexible. The forefoot and rear foot have the freedom to counter twists appropriately between inversion/pronation and eversion/supination, depending on the stage of the gait cycle. This means that ground reaction force moves up through the body in a way that creates powerful stored elastic tension and spares the joints from pain and wear. Restrictive shoes might jack up the heel, limit foot motion via arch support, control pronation, squeeze the toes, among a few of the  impositions on natural movement.

We tend to think of our hands as sensitive intelligent instruments and our feet as bricks that we shove into padded casing. Your foot has 26 bones and 33 joints. The sole of the foot is a rich landscape of sensory receptors. Our feet have evolved to move in a myriad of directions and relay a rich schema of environmental data to our brain. In shoes with very padded soles, our sensory feedback is diminished. In the absence of good data, the brain protects the body by tensing the feet, ankles, knees, and everything above.

You can test this out. Wear only one sock and have one barefoot foot. Walk around your house. Notice the difference in how your two legs move. Which leg is freer and more fluid? Which foot feels secure? Which leg do you trust? Which limb feels pleasurable to use? If your answer is the side that’s barefoot, you have just discovered the impact of better proprioceptive data on physical movement.

You can assist this process by using a foot roller or other implement to wake up the sensory receptors in the skin of your feet. If you google wooden foot roller, you’ll get dozen’s of results.

Minimalist shoes offer less support and protection to the foot, and can take a while to get used to. I recommend starting with only an hour or two at a time to help the intrinsic muscles of the foot adapt to the new level of work demand.

Personally, I like

Flip flops, although they appear minimal, can be a problem because it’s necessary to squeeze the toes to keep the shoe on. Same thing with clogs. You want your toes to only have to do the work they were meant to do.

And hey, summer is coming. Time to go to the beach and feel the sand between your toes.

P.S. As a final note, it is possible to use your feet well, or at least better, while wearing fashionable shoes. This is the sort of thing that I help my acting students work with. It’s reasonable to choose aesthetics over function to survive in our culture from time to time. I tend to save my fashionable shoe time for tango or the occasional date night. The rest of my life, I like to let my feet roam free.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash


in sickness and in health

Harboring virus

Harboring virus

This shameless “selfie” doesn’t look like I’m harboring infectious agents, but I am.

Although I had been called to Oakland for the weekend to take care of a vomiting family member, I had managed to pick up another amazing $10 Besty Johnson dress at the Alta Bates Hospital thrift shop. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. It was Sunday, and I planned to go to Studio 1924 in the evening.

I snapped the photo after delivering sizzling rice soup to my relative. I had been released to spend the afternoon at a Breema and “Non-Duality”  conference at a client’s gorgeous redwood decked view home in the Berkeley Hills. This meant lying around on ornate Persian rugs with strangers who gently and passively lifted my arms and applied rhythmic pressure to my abdomen. Then we engaged in an earnest and heated discussion about the non-dual nature of reality and the illusion of separate selves – the sort of conversation I haven’t had since I was a stoned undergraduate.

I left feeling a buzzed. I didn’t realize it was the electricity of fever.

Something was wrong at 1924. I couldn’t balance despite my sturdy Souple’s and my sweat had a strange rank smell. I made it home, downed a ton of vitamins, and went to bed.

An hour later the Nausea set in. I told myself that it was the vitamins, but I knew that even though I had washed my hands at least a 100 times while care-taking, I had succumbed. Despite the non-reality of a separate “I”, my “I” was stuck in a body that was sick as hell.

There is nothing quite as humbling as leaning your hot forhead on the cold toilet seat as you crouch shivering at 3:00 am after vomiting for maybe the 7th time. Still, a part of me was in yoga head, monitoring sensation and thinking, “Wow, amazing that my body knows how to do this.”

The vomiting stopped at 5:30 am. And at 8:00 am I had to call Berkeley Rep. It was the first day of my new Alexander Technique class. I was not going to make it.

And so I crawled into bed and shivered with fever and aches for the next 5 days. And somehow, I remained not unhappy. My yoga head was still in operation, and I relaxed into watching, with a kind of blurred amazement, as my body burned with fever, my throat furred over, my lungs filled, and the coughing began. The machinations of an immune system in action.

I was back working on Monday, back in yoga on Tuesday with wobbly balances and weak chaturangas.  I felt suffused with joy. A walk down my hallway with a body not wracked by pain felt insanely pleasing. Taking yoga filled me with so much gratitude, I was in tears. Being outdoors, seeing flowers blooming…it all made me ecstatic.

That was the good part.

The bad part was that I binge watched 4 seasons of The Good Wife.  The wet mean sounding cough and exhaustion lingered for three weeks. My life settled into a schedule of work, yoga and Amazon Prime. That’s over 88 hours of television. I’m not proud.

A month has gone by and it’s over.

I feel like a strange wet puppy trying to resurface into my life. Tango? Tango? I’m trying to imagine myself in a pretty dress and heels. I’ve grown used to shuffling around the house in mismatching socks and old T-shirts.

I am still waiting for glamor to return.

a few Tango Escuela notes

In Tango Escuela last night, what I was dealing with was the nuts and bolts of follower’s technique:

That is, walking and waiting.

These notes are mostly relevant for followers, and more so for people like me with bowed legs and bunions. The bowed legs make bringing my knees together extra hard, and the bunion causes the big toe, the main source of support, to derail inward leaving an empty space where I am to step.

If I activate my fibularis longus (formerly know as peroneus longus), which has the sensation of a slight inward rotation of the calf muscles, my bowed legs spiral into straightness, my arches lift, my feet activate and get springy, and my big toes, while not exactly straightening, move a little more into the line of support.

For stepping, Amy Lincoln used the analogy of a mop (the stringy type). Your body is the pole, which as you lower down causes the mop strings to fan out. The fanning strings represent your free leg, which drops down, out, and away from your axis. But it doesn’t go far. The sensation is that the gesturing leg is weighted and reaching towards the floor. It can go in any direction (in your tango box). Meaning, it can go forward, sideways, or backwards. The spiral ocho steps are an illusion of your hips and torso. The spatial direction respects your box.

This sounds easy, but I struggled with doing too much with my free leg (mop strings only spread so far). The look of extension does not come from the free leg. The extended line is created by pushing off the standing leg.

I struggled with the paradox of being an active follower:

The follow, I, must collect and wait. At the first whisper of an impulse, I am to allow the mop string leg to extend with energy, but also quietly towards the earth. At the second impulse, I am to step with energy, pushing from the ground to execute the led step.  This is the basics of walking technique. Yet after many years, the wires are still crossed.

When I try to be an active follower (that is, providing 100% of my energy and “opinion” to the dance), my habit is to rush and I often do steps that haven’t been led. When I attempt to rein it in and follow clearly, my energy drops, and I often miss leads because I’m too hesitant.

When one of my leaders kindly pointed out my issues, I felt a flash of irritation. But I knew he was right, and managed to listen and learn. (Every relationship lesson can be practiced in tango).

Similarly, I was struggling with misunderstandings about my hip rotation. Do I always get my hips perpendicular to the leader, creating sharp angles and precision, or is my degree of hip rotation something that is led? My understanding, as of last night, is sharp angles.

From the previous classes, I felt better energy in my upper body, a firmer, more, “bus wheel” like embrace, more connections with my hands, and a better sense of the floor to ceiling spirals through the legs. Also, for once, my Alexander Technique primary control seemed to be kicking in, and I seemed to be able to control my balance from my head.

What did we do in class? An unusually complicated combination (Santiago and Amy tend to focus on the basics) with a bunch of sacadas. This presented major challenge to the leaders, who have to set it all up.

The evening finished with a little glad insight into using the gesturing leg to aid balance. From modern dance, I have a habit of thinking I need to avoid dragging my feet on the floor. But in tango, the gesturing leg can glide along the floor and help with balance as it reaches out like a tentacle gathering information into the body. Mind you, there’s no weight on the free leg. But the sensitive contact with the floor is just one more bit of kinesthetic feedback to aid my teetering high-heeled stance, and compensate for my “missing” big toe.



hone the mind body connection and discover the power of thought

Recently, someone asked me to come up with a few, “one-liners” that describe my work as an Alexander Technique Teacher.

Here’s the one that is true for me, and connects to my passion in the work:

“I help people hone the mind body connection and discover the power of thought to instantly free the body.”

However, if I’m lazy, I’ll say:

“I’m a movement coach for actors.”

Or, if I’m feeling really lazy, I say:

“I help people learn how to relax their necks.”

The latter two usually start a conversation.  Most people are secretly interested in the lives of actors, and almost everyone has neck tension!

I don’t worry about being too accurate. If we have a real conversation, I might go on to talk a bit about habit and choice, and try and tie these concepts in to who they are and what they do. For example, if I’m talking to a tango dancer who works as a computer programmer, I might discuss what it’s like to carry the habits of sitting crouched at a computer into a tango embrace. I might show them how I can help them out.

Often people will say to me, “You have such good posture, are you a Pilates teacher?”

That also gets a discussion going.

“The world is like the residue left from the telling of a story…”

“The world is like the residue left from the telling of a story…”

A bit of philosophical text to contemplate while practicing yoga on a sunny winter morning in San Francisco.

Once upon a time, I had a boyfriend who would linger at the end of a movie through all the credits. He was in a transitional space – not quite out of the movie, not quite back in the story of his life. I was not allowed to talk to him, or even touch him, lest I break the spell.

We get to see the effort we put into maintaining our stories when we practice Alexander Technique or meditation. We hear ourselves think, “I carry tension in my shoulders,” and realize that we can set it down.

Sometimes, the internal story is shocked quiet when we encounter great art, great beauty, or great tragedy. The transition is effortless. In the aftermath we perceive something else.

What happens after your story?


tango journey – follower’s perspective

I may have said to a friend that I was not on a tango journey. This was not true. I was trying to play off how much the dance had come to matter to me.

Everyone  says, ‘Tango is so sexy,” but that’s not my usual experience. More frequently, the awkward combustion of two strangers fitting their bodies together requires expansive compassion, sophisticated somatic knowledge and a healthy respect for newtonian physics.

Then there’s loneliness. There were evenings when those tango hugs from warm bear-like men saved me. Sometimes, “You want to go/Where everybody knows your name,” but without all the bar chatter, and where speech is a silent rhythmic vocabulary.

Tango answers a need for elevation in life. The black dresses with open backs, long limbs, high heels, the Argentine men with lustrous thick black hair tied back in casual pony tails…Oh, I see, it is sexy after all.

And every once in a while, you have a tanda (a set of 3 – 5 dances) where it feels as if you had wings.

The concentration needed to follow is the sort of in-depth mindfulness training that will knock you out of depression – that is, if tango itself is not the source of your depression. How could tango be the source of your depression? Even the most beautiful and skilled followers have the occasional evening of social decimation, sitting out and watching everyone else dance. No a follow cannot ask a lead to dance…don’t get me started. Of course, if it’s gender parity you are seeking, you can always go to an alternative milonga, or practice switch tango, or better yet, blues dancing, but for me, without sharp dichotomies, the dance looses its poesy. But I digress. How can tango lead to depression?  The ongoing discomfort of high heels, bunion toes, an aching back, late sleepless nights and groggy work the next day, or the endless politics of the dance floor, the people you haven’t slept with and wish you had, or the people you have slept with and wish you hadn’t…

But if the tango journey is really about beauty and sensuality, love and loss, gravity and flight, doing and non-doing, yin and yang, and any other dramatic polarity that you can imagine, it can be a good place to park your restlessness for a very long time.



Walking backwards in high heels

Elyse Shafarman

Reflections on Tommy Thompson’s Alexander Technique Workshop for Teachers, Oakland, CA April 14, 2013

I put on my Tango shoes and walked backwards in high heels.

I wobbled without a partner’s support. My low back arched. I was conscious of the crowd of Alexander Technique teachers watching…judging.

A teacher colleague began working with me. She did exactly what I would do with my own students, what I do with myself. She talked about releasing the hip joints and finding length in my legs. Her hands softened my lumber spine as she instructed me on how to distribute weight over my supporting foot…until Tommy Thompson stopped all the busy helpfulness.

He put his hands on my head.

Not much happened.


He asked me to repeat my tango walk.

There were no wobbles.

There was no doubt.

I was smooth and fluid through my whole body.

I heard the room gasp.

This sudden grace was achieved by touching on one of the key principals of the Alexander Technique: If we free the neck and allow the head to balance without tension, breath, body and being coordinate.

This was a strong reminder of the simplicity and power of the Alexander Technique.