Although this was geared for dancers who had previous ankle, knee or foot injuries - the exercises are really terrific for protecting our lower extremity joints from injury, improving our balance and enhancing the communication between our brain and our limbs. Biggest takeaway to remember: Walk barefoot - as much as you are able, as often as you are able and on as many different surfaces as you are able. Wake up the muscles in the feet and get them doing what they were designed to do!
Exercise 1 - Wheelies
The first one, known as "airplanes" when I was growing up - is called "wheelies" by the newer generation. I screwed up both ankles as a kid, one in dance and the other in soccer. This exercise was something I learned to not only rehab the ankle joints and ligaments, but to develop the strength and stability far more than I had before. I do recommend doing this in a grassy, flat surface - and barefoot if at all possible.
Exercise 2 - Hot Lava (the Pillow Walk)
Do you remember the Hot Lava game from when you were a kid? Basically, much to the dismay of parents, the floor is covered in imaginary hot lava, and you have to walk around the room using, or walking on, only the furniture. (I'm still apologizing to my mom for the broken table that resulted from that game when I was about 7. ) This is an outstanding variation that will strengthen your lower extremities, improve your balance - and it's just fun. At home you can do this with pillows, but I had a limited selection of pillows, and a much larger supply of towels and blankets for the class. The idea is to use what you have.
Simply make a trail of pillows, blankets, and towels through your living room or entire house, if you're so inclined, and walk barefoot on them like a path. It's best to use as many different textures and padding as possible so your feet (and your brain) get as much stimulation as possible. Take it slowly at first to prevent falling or tripping. Really let your feet explore each of the steps, then take it as fast or as slow as you're comfortable with.
Exercise 3 - Retro or Backward Walking
This one requires a safe place and/or a partner to practice to prevent falling. Some great references on the benefits of walking backwards: Dr. Mercola, The Many Benefits of Walking Backwards, Retro Walking for Rehabilitation and Fitness, and finally, a video about backward walking using a treadmill.
Exercise 3 - Fremen Walk
. . . in which I use the nerdiest fiction reference in the history of dance . . .
The last game was probably the most silly the "Fremen (from Frank Herbert's Dune) - Walk without Rhythm" exercise. This isn't so much a game for your body as it is for your brain.
It's a combination of a game taught by Jorge Torres (and other instructors) on dance improvisation and problem solving, and a reference to Frank Herbert's novel, Dune. (In the novel, Fremen, a group of desert dwellers, walk in the desert without attracting giant predators, called sandworms, by walking apparently erratically, without rhythm across the sand.)
The trick is to walk constantly changing timing and length of step. The nice thing about this game is that you can do it on your own without an instructor. To add a new degree of difficulty, add music - and then keep varying the length and timing of your step - while staying in the music. For example, one step per beat, then three, or two, or drag one step, or stumble a syncopation - or take one step every two, or even three beats. You get the idea. Just play. Just don't repeat steps.
Tango instructors, like Torres mentioned above, often use dance improvisation and problem solving much the same way. While facing the group of dancers in a class, Torres would call out right, left, back or forward randomly to instruct us which way to step. Of course he would get faster and faster as he did this. Then he would start to move himself - in a completely different pattern than he was calling out. So if we had been using him to "follow" rather than waiting for the verbal command, we were immediately off. (In fact we got to the point where we couldn't even look at each other because more than half of the class was "off".) At first it was a frustrating exercise, but soon we got into the flow. The real benefit didn't come until later when we were in classes learning patterns or breaking down movements, and seemed to "get" the material so much faster and more naturally.
Why would this game, which isn't about memorizing a pattern or learning a "tango technique", be so crucial to our dance? Neural plasticity. That's what it's all about these days. What makes a social tango dancer graceful, spontaneous and musical on the dance floor, in large part is about how fast he or she can respond to changes - in the music, in the floor conditions, in his or her partner.
(To see the piece from the movie adaptation of Dune, click here.)
Interested on how dance games can affect brain plasticity? Check out what's been written about Dance Dance Revolution. It might also explain why I so royally such at DDR. :-/
"Studies have shown that the popular video game, Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), which requires players to coordinate their movements to the beat of music, may help improve balance and mobility in certain patient populations. Now, researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are the first to test the game's ability to help decrease the cognitive and physical effects of multiple sclerosis (MS)."
Your homework? Get barefoot (as you are able) and play!