Of Silk Purses and Sows' Ears.
When I started dancing tango, I had constant problems with my balance. Actually, all tango did was make the problem with my balance more obvious to myself and others. I've always had terrible balance. Much of the problem came from the way that I walked. Both of my ankles and both of my knees have been seriously injured at different times in my life, and as a result I have excessive supination of my ankles and feet. Basically, I walk on the outside edges of my feet. (Read: a little bow-legged.) Not only does it look bad (especially when I'm dancing), but it makes me feel unstable to my partner. Almost more frustrating than that was that I could never seem to express the music the way I was feeling it. I couldn't answer my partner with my body. I felt clunky. Uneven. Ungraceful. And before I looked into correcting my lack of solid technique, it was also making it quite painful to dance. My knees and back were paying the price for poor alignment of my ankles and feet. Different teachers, first Mardi Brown and Stephen Shortnacy from Georgetown Tango, and then Daniela Arcuri in Austin, took up the task of correcting my walk.
Daniela in particular is famous for her foot and posture exercises. She immediately set to work on my feet. First she gave me a series of strengthening exercises for my back, legs and feet - even my toes, that brought more balance to my walk and made me feel much more stable. Then she started on adornments. At first I balked since I didn't have any interest in adornments when my walk was still, to me anyway, a little iffy. However, as I worked on them - even though I very rarely used them - I noticed that being able to place my feet in an intentional way was enough to counteract the habit of turning them under.
Learning embellishments gave me control of my feet, which is what she intended. The stronger my feet and legs got, according to leaders I danced with, the easier I became to lead. I was also able to express my feeling for the music in more nuanced ways. I responded more quickly to my partners and to unfamiliar music. And when things went wrong, when I misstepped, or slipped, or ended up in a different place than my partner intended, I could recover almost effortlessly. (Actually, I'm almost sure that the majority of adornments came from something gone wrong. "Silk purses out of a sows' ears".)
So in classes, practicas and at home, I work very hard on my adornment technique. I do strengthening exercises and stretching to make my feet (and legs) stronger and faster. However, when I'm dancing at the milonga, I let go of all that and just dance. I used to feel the need to apologize for working on what seemed like "the looks" of the dance, but not anymore. The feedback I get from my partners is that I'm more stable and manueverable than ever. After speaking with my podiatrist and my regular physician, I'm pretty sure I will always battle weak ankles and the tendency to turn my feet under, but at least I have some tools (granted, rather pretty tools) to address it.