Flying over the floor

Last night at the pr├íctica at La Pista in San Francisco I said to my delightful partner, “It feels like my steps are cut short. I have plenty of room at the beginning, and when I am ready to push with my supporting leg the movement has already come to an end.” Then she told me she was following my ‘refrigerator walking model’ as I describe it on the Tango Tribe web site.

Oops! Caught by my own words.

This illustrates the importance of working with live teachers (in addition to all the other resources available) who can see and feel what you are doing then work creatively to give you the examples, imagery, exercises, and anything else that will help you make the desired mind-body connections.

Did you realize that birds and humans have about the same number of genes (23,000) and share about 65% of their DNA?

Frontal view of human skeleton on left and bird skeleton (enlarged to comparable size) on the right, with points of comparative anatomy marked by labeled arrows
Comparison of human and bird skeleton
When there is safe space in the room and the music directs me, I love to fly across the floor, really moving to cover ground. My earliest memory of dreaming as a child was of soaring high above the countryside on outstretched wing-arms. I recreate that feeling when I am skiing or skating or … dancing! That feeling of gliding above the surface below. (And perhaps that is part of why I had such a challenge for so long in being ‘grounded’ in my dancing?)

So what does this have to do with the Refrigerator model? Keep the body positioning, the strong connection, the reaching of the free leg, and the sensations of muscle usage. Add to that an essential element, regardless of the size of the stepthe glide. This is the phase of movement that results from the push of the respective leader-follower supporting legs.

Think-feel that moment when you are on skates, skateboard, scooter or any kind of glider you push (knowing that you can push in either a forward or rearward direction). As you push with the supporting leg the extended free leg moves a little (or a lot) beyond the place where it would have stopped if you’d only stepped. This I feel creates a key difference between merely walking and really dancing.

When we just step from foot to foot (again, regardless of the size, big or small, of that step) it creates, I feel, a flat, somewhat wooden affect. When the spirit of the music impels us to add an extra energy from our body, to express the music that moves us, then we become the other orchestra instruments who are the dancers.

Jack and Jill went up (and down) the hill

Looking up the sidewalk on a steep San Francisco street
Facing uphill, whether walking forward or backwards (careful!) seems useful for tango walk practice and strengthening.
Summary: We can best practice well-grounded walking by going forward uphill and backward downhill. A fairly steep pitch emphasizes the qualities we want in tango.

Caution! As with all advice, tango and otherwise, use only what makes sense to you, what seems useful or interesting. Use your common sense. Please don’t tumble down a hill and wind up breaking something, like Jack did.

Early in my tango career, when I needed lots of help with grounding (the notion that we want to be well ‘rooted’ in our stance and in our movement, propelling ourselves with power and stability), a teacher told me to imagine that I was walking down a ramp, going into the earth.

They said that image came to them from a well known, highly respected teacher of Argentine tango. Now I could well have misunderstood, misheard, or misinterpreted the advice, but I could never make a useful connection to it.

Looking down a steep sidewalk toward Sacramento and California cross streets.
No. Facing downhill doesn’t seem useful as tango walking practice.

Metaphor and imagery have power to create understandings in our mind-body. I came to see another, better way of viewing that “ramp”.

On a visit to the wonderful walking city of San Francisco, with hilly streets up and down everywhere, I had an opportunity to not just think about, but to also put into practice this concept…

When going uphill you walk forward. When going downhill you walk backward (which also gives you good dissociation practice, to make sure you’re not backing into something!). In both cases, whether walking forward or backward, you are facing uphill.

Why? How? First the counter-example: Picture yourself walking downhill facing forward. The natural tendency is to lean back, keep the knees bent, and walk hesitantly to be sure of your footing, because the ground falls away from you.

But now walking forward uphill, you have to drive off the supporting leg to move your weight up the hill. You lean into the hill. The ground rises up to meet your foot, which lands solidly.

And when walking backward downhill, again you lean into the hill that you face, the desirable direction. (Leaning backward would make one tend to tumble quickly backward in short steps.) You reach your free leg well back to find the ground behind and below you. You absorb your weight into that new supporting leg.

The supports my thesis that forward and backward walking are precise analogs of each other, just done in time reverse order! It’s as if you made a video of ideal walking forward, and then run it backwards. You might actually try that to see if you can tell any difference.

Our home city of Austin, Texas has some fair hills here and there, and there are always parking structure ramps (be careful out there!) or wheelchair ramps. You don’t need to just visualize this, get out there and actually do it. For good balance, both mentally and physically, work both forward and backward directions, regardless of your preferred dance role. See if it doesn’t produce a really nice effect in your dancing on the level pista.

Love the one you’re with

And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with

–by Stephen Stills

Used to be, I had all kinds of excuses: they’re too short, they’re too tall, they’re balance is poor, I don’t like this music, and on.

Early on, I’d set a challenge for myself to find something I could use in every lesson that I took from any instructor, teacher. I think it paid off. And now my challenge is to cabeceo the first prospect I lay eyes on, and to enjoy every tanda with whoever asks me or accepts my invitation.

I’m grateful to Andrew Sutton of Dance Ninjas (danceninjas.com) for fostering the notion that we ought to be able to create an enjoyable dance with anyone. Now sure, there will be preferences, and some exquisite dance partners. But do we want to have mediocre dances simply because we don’t have the ideal partner, music, setting, etc.? Andrew has both wonderful dance methods, and highly useful things to say about reframing experiences to give them new meaning.

The one type of partner who still challenges me is someone who has accepted my invitation (seemingly of their own free will!) but then proceeds to dance as if they have no connection to me or the music.

In this situation I employ two states of mind. First–and although I hate using this expression, it seems to make the idea immediately clear–there is the “resting bitch face”. That is, regardless of what I might think I perceive in their look, posture, energy, attention, etc.; I can’t really know what is going on inside. All I can really control is myself in trying to create the best dance experience I know how.

Secondly, I view my partner as if they’ve gifted me with a puzzle. One of my favorite work/life experiences was when as an undergraduate I served as a “User Consultant” helping faculty, staff, and students from all departments, all across campus, using any kind of computer language. I helped them debug their programs. Working with them to explore what they wanted and what they thought they were doing, they frequently discovered the solution for themselves as we talked.

By exploring the music and the movement possibilities with my partner, seeing what works well or not, what seems to provoke a (good!) response, what results in a feeling of calm, then we are able as a team to find that good place in dance.