All posts by David Phillips

Notes on the Tango Lexicon

Notes on Tango Lexicon Bootcamp
by Mitra Martin and David Lampson of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles
August 19-21, 2016

Notes by David Phillips, published January 24, 2017

Published with generous permission from Mitra and Dave, who feel that the tango communities will get the most benefit from these ideas when more dancers know them and can practice them together.

Revised with notes from email exchanges and a second bootcamp delivered in Austin, Texas, January 20-21, 2017.
Friday, Ben Hur Shrine Temple, 7pm
Saturday, Balance Dance Studios, 1-6pm
Hosted by Tango Tribe

Tango Lexicon bootcamp – Mitra & Dave
Mitra Martin <>
David Lampson

Facebook Event
Tango Lexicon

Oxygen Tango, Los Angeles
12811 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, California 90066
[ They have since moved to 12958 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90066
(310) 737-8438 ]

Workshop 1: The Five Parallel System Translations – Friday, 8pm
Workshop 2: The Four Crossed System Translations – Saturday, 1pm
Workshop 3: The Six System Changers – Saturday, 3:45pm
Workshop 4: The Nine Sacadas – Saturday, 5:30pm
Figures as one significant element of all that is tango.

First day, all Parallel System PS

[ Definitions

  • The sagittal plane is the one dividing our bodies into left and right halves. For dance purposes we also consider this plane as extending through our and our partner’s vertical midline.
  • A cross-step is one that crosses the sagittal plane. A front cross-step crosses our midline in front of our body, while a back cross-step crosses our midline in back of our body.
  • An open-step, in contrast to the cross-steps, does not cross our midline. (The out-of-fashion term for this, because it is misleading, is ‘side step’.) They suggest another way of telling whether a step is open or crossing. Say your partner is stationary and you step around them. The direction in which you can only step once, is an open step. The step in the other direction, where with pivoting you could step either behind or in front of yourself around your partner, is a crossing step.
  • The parallel system (PS) is where the dancer’s legs move together in train track fashion, that is, both leg’s on the hand-side of the embrace (leader’s left, follower’s right) or both leg’s on the arm-side of the embrace (leader’s right, follower’s left) move together.
  • The cross system (CS) is where the dancer’s legs move in cross body fashion, that is, the leader’s left leg moves with the diagonally opposite follower’s left leg, and the leader’s right leg moves with the diagonally opposite follower’s right leg. In other words, the hand-side leg of one partner moves with the arm-side leg of the other partner, and vice-versa.
  • A cross direction movement is one in which the dancers move in opposite directions to each other, rather than together in the same direction. They call this a “chasing” step, with each going after the other around a common axis. They call a step that sends the partners’ paths across each other, such as the Americana – a front-cross x front-cross – a “colliding” step.


Any step can be defined as a weight change (ranging from large to small to in place) that is one of:

  • Front-cross F fc
  • Open O o (a step that does not cross our midline)
  • Back-cross B bc
            | F | O | B |
       L  F |   |   |   |
       e  --+---+---+---+
       a  O |   |   |   |
       d  --+---+---+---+
       e  B |   |   |   |
       r  --+---+---+---+

    In parallel system, which of these Leader-Follower step combinations can be done as ‘normal’ steps, that is, together in the same direction?

        PS  | F | O | B |
       L  F | y | ? | y |
       e  --+---+---+---+
       a  O | ? | y | ? |
       d  --+---+---+---+
       e  B | y | ? | y |
       r  --+---+---+---+

    The “?” combos must be done in Cross-Direction (not the same as Cross-System) and circling, CW or CCW. In other words, Sacadas.

    For PS we will choose a name signified by a life “role”, where the first letter of the name signifies the leader’s F, O, or B step, while the number of syllables in the name corresponds to the follower’s 1) F, 2) O, or 3) B step.

    The (name) roles corresponding to the “?” squares above are special. We will designate them by magical roles.

        PS  | F     | O        | B         |
       L  F | Fool  | (Fairy)  | Fisherman |
       e  --+-------+----------+-----------+
       a  O | (Oz)  | Orphan   | (Oracle)  |
       d  --+-------+----------+-----------+
       e  B | Boss  | (Buddha) | Bartender |
       r  --+-------+----------+-----------+

    [ Odd dancer out? Let them practice with a pair of walking sticks! ]

    Some dance sequences:

  • Oracle – Fisherman – Oz
  • Fool – Fairy – Orphan
  • Fisherman – Buddha – Boss

Now, practice routines with the Follower doing the sacadas. For example, Fairy, and we are on our hand-side feet. I can invite my partner to step open, while I sacada forward, under their trailing leg, or I can step forward, while inviting my partner to step open, under my trailing leg.

Some moves we consider ‘colliding’, such as Fool, where the Forward-Forward would collide, but we turn that into a side-by-side Americana.

Some move we consider ‘chasing’, such as Fairy, where our Forward step chases after our partner’s Open step.

A principle: interspersing Opens in a sequence smooths out the flow.


  • Superscript\S = Leader’s sacada Ls
  • Subscript/S = Follower’s sacada Fs

Consider also the many ways one could change the character of a move by changing its size or direction. Mini-steps. For example, crosses.

Notice all the different ways of doing the same Open step. You have a 180-degree semicircle in which to direct your step. (From forward in line with your partner, to diagonally forward, to side, to diagonally back, to straight back. How to tell if a step is open or cross? Leaving your feet in place, turn toward your partner. If your legs twist tighter you are in a cross step. If your legs open wide you are in an open step.)

Notice also how if you pivot one or both feet at the end of a move, you can not only change the look of the move, but also makes it easier to flow into the next move. Consider Orphan-Bartender. If at the end of our open step in one direction, we then pivot our feet into the opposite direction, does it look something like we’ve crossed? Then see how easily it sets us up, while we both have both feet on the ground, for the mutual back-cross?

Now consider Cross-System (CS), in which the dancers move with legs from opposite sides of the body/embrace. That is, hand-side to arm-side and vice-versa.

In cross system, which of these Leader-Follower step combinations can be done together, that is, in the same direction?

    CS  | F | O | B |
   L  F | ? | y | ? |
   e  --+---+---+---+
   a  O | y | ? | y |
   d  --+---+---+---+
   e  B | ? | y | ? |
   r  --+---+---+---+

In other words, just the inverse of the parallel system matrix.

The “?” combos must be done in Cross-Direction (not the same as Cross-System) and circling, CW or CCW. In other words, Sacadas.

For CS we will choose a name signified by an animal, where the first letter of the name signifies the leader’s F, O, or B step, while the number of syllables in the name corresponds to the follower’s 1) F, 2) O, or 3) B step.

The (name) roles corresponding to the “?” squares above are special. We will designate them by ‘winged creature’ names. (Flying is sort of magical.)

    CS  | F       | O         | B           |
   L  F | (Finch) | Ferret    | (Flamingo)  |
   e  --+---------+-----------+-------------+
   a  O | Ox      | (Ostrich) | Octopus     |
   d  --+---------+-----------+-------------+
   e  B | (Bat)   | Baboon    | (Butterfly) |
   r  --+---------+-----------+-------------+

Note. This is only a tool for exploring creativity in practice.

Now, how do we combine Parallel and Cross systems? One or the other partner must take an extra step. Any size step, including in place, can work. Any such extra step (one partner changes weight but the other one doesn’t) will switch between cross-system (opposite hand/arm sides of the embrace) and parallel-system (same hand/arm side of the embrace).

The Six System Changers

Transition steps for weight changes between cross/parallel systems.

       Follower moves
     | F       | O         | B           |
       Eve     | Emma      | Eleanor
     | Leader moves
   F | Frank
   O | Oscar
   B | Benjamin

The Nine Sacadas refers to the “?” boxes in the matrices above, four in Parallel System and five in Cross System. These are the cases where the dancers are moving in cross direction, opposite to one another. They call this “Chasing steps”. Depending on the direction of the indicated steps, it can be a leader sacada, a follower sacada, or no sacada – where the chasing step goes around the partner’s trailing led, instead of under it. “Colliding steps” are where they paths would naturally cross each other. For example, Fool, the Front-cross x Front-cross step that produces an Americana.

For a Follower sacada who moves first? I say we give intention, and our partner moves first, as usual, because even though we have to make space for the follower’s sacada step, we must first prime them to move. Follower’s frequently hesitate to step into or between the leader’s legs (except for the well known back step that is #1 of the full 8-Count Basic).

A rock step or even only a pulse in the opposite direction can produce a rebound that propels the sacada step.


These are thoughts I added to my notes from the first Lexicon experience. Subsequently, after I shared my notes with Mitra and Dave, he and I had useful email exchanges regarding the system, and he incorporated some of this in the Austin presentation. In particular, he emphasizes that the names are but one approach to the concept of using the matrix as a way to inform (and even direct; more later on generating test or practice sequences) our tango practice. I found their presentation delightful, and it seemed to me that the fanciful names had the useful effect of taking us participants out of our usual tango work mode. The names acted as a social lubricant, even, where we were each reminding and helping each other. The rooms at every session were always buzzing with people exclaiming over discoveries, sharing ideas, questioning and helping each other, and more!

What we have with this system then, is both a way to generate movement challenges, and a nomenclature for recording interesting movement combinations. A nomenclature that is possibly more memorable than a series of abbreviations or letters or numbers. There is some redundancy, in that the 3 x 3 matrix is identical for cross or parallel system, you only need know which system you’re in. However, there is also some extra information encoded in the name choices, with magical role names telling you that you are in cross-direction territory of the parallel system, while flying ‘animal’ names give you this signal for cross-system. That extra information does not seem essential for recording sequences, but it might be helpful to dancers figuring out sequences.

On the other hand, memorizing 9 + 9 system names, plus 3 + 3 change system names, for a total of 24 names, seems like an undue burden on the memory. And even though the names carry explicit coding (first letter = leader’s move; number of syllables corresponds to follower’s move), one still must do the translation, unless they internalize not only the names but also their meanings.

Another consideration in any recording and encoding system is concision. Studying systems for recording chess positions or puzzles (e.g., Twitter format for reporting solutions to the Zobrist Cube) can be useful.

My interest in this project stems from the possibility for generating move challenges, to explore movements we typically don’t use, but which can be quite useful and interesting. So when I see a 3 x 3 matrix with nine possible values my mind immediately jumps to Rubik’s Cube!

At a Houdini’s Magic Shop in Las Vegas I happened to find a Rubik’s Cube with numbers instead of colors for each little cube. Here is a nice, fast example of such cubes: CuberSpeed Sudoku 3×3 Speed Cube.

You can use any one of a cube’s six 3 x 3 faces to represent the FOB x FOB matrix. Or (and!) you can use the numbers 1 .. 9 to also represent the matrix:

       | F    | O    | B    |
   l f | 1 Ff | 2 Of | 3 Bf |
   e --+------+------+------+
   a o | 4 Fo | 5 Oo | 6 Bo |
   d --+------+------+------+
   e b | 7 Fb | 8 Ob | 9 Bb |
   r --+------+------+------+

Is there any matrix of numbers more familiar to us that the digital keypad of phones and locks?!

[ Thoughts on the matrix nomenclature above. One, the layout above gives a nod to my pet teaching theory that the Follower’s actions are the first priority in understanding the movement we want to invite and giving a movement intention. As a leader, I can best understand a figure by first knowing how I would like my partner to move. So FOLLOWER comes first and in capitals!

Two, the map is not the territory. The cell designations, whether number, letter combo, or name are only placeholders for the action. We can use numbers, names, or letters as a shorthand for recording sequences of movements, and for generating designed or random challenges. (More on that in the final section of these notes.) Now, a bit of teaching pedagogy. Do you remember on high school SAT tests where they had you answer questions from a map by using the legend or key to look up information? It’s not an efficient operation for the human brain. Do you remember when someone said, “On the left,” and you’re wondering, “My left or your left?” “Facing which way?” “Which one is my left?” We work better, faster when we can move toward things we actually see, without having to interpret. That is why, I tell students to step to the hand-side or arm-side. (Except when referring to “Outside Position”, where it is ambiguous, depending on who is moving forward, to refer to ‘outside’ – the hand-side of the embrace, or ‘inside’ – the arm-side of the embrace; here I like using the unambiguous DVIDA terms, Right Outside Partner (both our right sides are together at step #3 of the Basic-8) and Left Outside Partner.) ]

You could also color the numbers (or maybe just 1, 5, 9; representing FF OO BB) on a couple of faces to add indications for leader or follower weight change to switch between cross and parallel systems. Red number: leader does a weight change using the movement indicated by the number; Green: it’s a follower weight change.

Regarding the “nine sacadas” it is possibly interesting to note that in the parallel system these sacada or cross direction movements are the ones with even numbers, while in the cross system it is the odd numbers. This could be a way to know in advance from looking at an encoded sequence, whether the couple moves in “normal” fashion or cross direction. Presumably, on actually attempting the designated movements, one could tell which type of movement was necessary to make the move work.

The lexicon as a way to encode observed figures. The atomic movements with names: roles, magical roles, animals, flying; does have a charm to it.

Parallel System 8-Count Basic

  1. 5 Orphan
  2. 5 Orphan
  3. 3 Fisherman
  4. 5 Orphan
  5. 4 Oz
  6. 5 Orphan
  7. 5 Orphan
  8. 5 Orphan

The numbers 55 35 45 55 provide information equivalent to the names, in a more concise form. But neither gives enough information to understand what is going on solely from the encoding.

A DVIDA description (but omitting most of its details) for the leader’s part of a Basic could be:

Parallel System 8-Count Basic

  1. Right foot back, B LOD (backing line of dance)
  2. Left foot side, Prep ROP (prepare right outside position)
  3. Right foot forward in the same track, ROP
  4. Left foot forward, ROP
  5. Right foot closes to left foot (F: Left foot crosses over right foot)
  6. Left foot forward
  7. Right foot side
  8. Left foot closes to right foot

But the somewhat nebulous nature of the Lexicon encoding is exactly the point! We have so much more freedom to move with various interpretations (for example, every step of the Basic can take a non-rectilinear direction) when we consider the atomic movements in their simplest, least constrained form.

Another interesting move generator method, still using the Sudoku Rubik’s Cube, comes to mind. Using the arrangement of the numbers on a scrambled cube, you could, for example, go forward, backward, sideways, or diagonal as indicated by the relationship between sequential numbers, and if the numbers aren’t immediately adjacent, switch systems.

It might be interesting to encode some DVIDA figures in this way. Then without reference to the manual, see how a sequence of pure movements could be interpreted. Does it come out looking like the manual, or something more interesting?

Ways to create practice challenges

Have your partner pick any three names, and you repeat those movements. Three steps puts you back on your starting step for an easy repeat. Vary size, direction, and dynamics of step. Practice until it feels smooth.

Label the faces of a Rubik’s cube with the names. Assign each partner a system changer color. Scramble the cube, pick a face and do it.

Using numbers instead of names, use a smartphone random number generator. Tell it you want numbers 1..9, and how many you want.


You read all the way down here? Wow! I am impressed. Maybe I should have told you this up top of these notes. I’ve also created a simplified, more concise version of this. I call it the Tango Keypad.


The Tango Keypad

door keypadThis is a derivation of the Tango Lexicon developed by David Lampson and Mitra Martin of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles. I feel grateful for their inspirations: in the method itself, in their teaching style, and in their generous sharing.

What is this good for?

This deals with a single aspect of all that is Argentine tango: the fundamental steps, Open, Front-cross, and Back-cross. By looking at all the possible combinations for two partners, two feet, Parallel and Cross Systems (defined later), and just these three three unique steps, we get 24 combinations that can be strung together in an infinite variety.

These simple, fundamental movements that don’t require memorizing have helpful uses as:

  1. Glue to connect our memorized big figures.
  2. A lens to help us see new possibilities in the movements that make up big figures.
  3. Navigational elements to help us out of a jam.

  4. The fundamental steps

    David Lampson describes these this way. My partner is stationary in front of me. Standing with my weight over one leg, I can make a move to step around my partner by opening my legs apart; we call this an Open step. But if I try going around my partner with that same leg in the other direction, I have two choices. I can pivot and move my free leg across in front of me; we call this a Front cross. I can also pivot and move my free leg around behind me; we call this a Back cross.

    Open step — a step anywhere in an arc of 180-degrees, ranging through straight forward, forward and slightly side, sideways, back and slightly side, straight back, and anywhere between those.

    Front cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line from my middle to my partner’s middle. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)

    Back cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line behind me that came from my partner’s middle, through my middle and out the back. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)

    The Systems

    Parallel System (PS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on the same side of the embrace. Both partners together move their legs on the hand-side of the embrace, or both move their legs on the arm-side of the embrace.

    Cross System (CS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on opposite sides of the embrace. Hand-side to arm-side, and vice-versa. So the leg movement happens diagonally across the embrace.

    Now consider that at any time both partners have a choice of making an Open step, Front cross, or Back Cross. Let’s abbreviate those ‘O’, ‘F’, and ‘B’ and put them in a matrix to show all nine possibilities.

            | O    | F    | B    |
       l  o | 1 Oo | 2 Fo | 3 Bo |
       e  --+------+------+------+
       a  f | 4 Of | 5 Ff | 6 Bf |
       d  --+------+------+------+
       e  b | 7 Ob | 8 Fb | 9 Bb |
       r  --+------+------+------+
                   | 0 p/c|

    (Later, we introduce the ‘0 p/c’ as a parallel/cross system changer.)

    We put the Follower at top, in capitals, and list that movement first, because typically my intention asks my partner to step before me. (But you are free to reference the matrix by row before column.)

    As a shorthand for identifying the matrix combinations we can number the boxes like a telephone keypad.


    We assume that any sequence of movements stay in whatever system that we started in, PS or CS, until we change system.

    To change from one System to the other it requires that one, and only one partner takes an extra step. They can take that step as an O, F, or B. (Keep in mind that a simple weight change is merely an O step in place!)

    The 8-Count Basic figure in PS would be: 11612111.

    Forward ochos would be a switch into CS, then 222…
    Back ochos would be a switch into CS, then 333…

    A choreographed figure could be represented by a specific sequence of numbers 1..9, while a challenge sequence could be some random sequence.

    How to denote a System change

    In order to allow every step to be represented by single digit numbers we will add ‘0’ to indicate a system change. Then take the digit after the ‘0’ to indicate who does what kind of extra step. 1, 2, 3 for Follower’s O, F, B; and 4, 5, 6 for Leader’s O, F, B. Ignore anything else.

       Follower system changer
    0  1  2  3
       O  F  B
       Leader system changer
    0  4  5  6
       O  F  B

    So a CS 8-Count Basic would be: 1 1(04) 34(02) 1 1 1.
    (The parentheses just make it easier to read.)

    From the Leader’s perspective:
    1, 1 = Back, Left
    04 = Leader’s weight change in place, Follower holds position
    3 = Bo
    4 = Of
    02 = Forward intention invites Follower’s extra, (mini-front) cross step, leader holds position
    1, 1, 1 = Forward, Right, Close

    Tango practice challenges

    10-Sided Dice
    10-Sided Dice
    For random challenge sequences you could go to a teacher supply store and get a handful of ten-sided dice. Throw them, gather them in a row, then do the indicated moves in order. That way makes for a nice tactile, visual, auditory sensory experience.

    Even more simply, there are LOTS of random number generators available for smartphones. Pick a simple one that lets you specify the range of numbers, 0..9, and how many random numbers you want to generate.

    For exploring new possibilities in existing figures you know, walk through the figure with your partner and encode each movement. Now dance that code sequence using any of the many possible choices for direction, size, and dynamics of the movement.

    Where a figure doesn’t flow as nicely as you’d like, encode the three: Before, trouble movement, and After steps. Try varying foot pivots and geometry of foot placements to discover the nicest flow.

    Design notes

    I sought to make useful simplifications in nomenclature. Where Lexicon defines 24 terms with special characteristics to denote 9 possible movements in Parallel System, 9 in Cross System, and 3 possible movements for each partner to switch between systems, I have chosen to merely number the movement matrix with 1..9, then use ‘0’ in a simple convention with the numbers to indicate a system change, who does it, and how.

    Additionally, I took the liberty of rearranging the FOB movement order to OFB, with the thought that this goes in order from most simple to least simple movement. Note, this does break the pretty symmetry of sacada opportunities in the original, where the “chasing” steps for PS are the even numbered cells, while for CS they are the odd numbered cells. But I did away with any special consideration for sacadas, as they can be either Leader or Follower sacadas (a distinction the Lexicon doesn’t make either), or no sacada at all (since it is possible, though maybe not as elegant or interesting, or maybe more interesting, to simply step around your partner’s supporting leg). The dancers decide how to make their chasing step; the choice isn’t dictated.

    When I am decoding a number I find it easier to place the number on the keypad in my mind’s eye, then look up for partner’s move, then left for my move. When I am encoding a movement I find it easier to get my movement from the row on the left, then look right for the column corresponding to my partner’s movement, to get the number at the intersection of that row and column. With extensive practice I expect for the number-movement association to become automatic.

Tell people what you want

Tell people what you want, not what you don’t want, and keep it simple.

From TOOLS OF TITANS by Tim Ferriss, “ACROYOGA – THAI AND FLY” p. 52

“I want more space in that direction.” Not, “When you rotate your upper body, your leading shoulder pokes forward.”
“I want this space pointing in the direction you want me to go.” Not, “You’re sending me away from the line you want.” (How, specifically?)
“I want to feel contained here.” Not, “Don’t let your elbow drift behind you.”
“I want to know when I invite you to step, that you will stay above that foot until my next clear invitation to pivot or take another step.” Not, “You keep changing your weight.” Not, “Don’t take extra steps.”

The difficulty of mentally processing double negatives. Say, “Do something wanted.” Not, “Don’t do something unwanted.” In the second, undesirable format, the last thing they hear is, “… do something unwanted!”

We want to leave them with a simple, positive image of the conditions they want to create. By avoiding specific instructions for what to do, how to move, what to feel, we instead encourage them to discover for themselves how they can use their body to create the desired effect.

Tango warmup play

Weight a minute!

I test you, you test me.

* For groups of two or more.
* Take a relaxed forearm-to-forearm hold [1][2] with your partner(s).
* Someone starts by giving a weight change intention.
* Together, you all make a weight change, which can range from in place, to small step, to large step in any direction.
* Everyone stands on one leg, with the free leg relaxed by its side.
* Now, with the intention to test but not destroy your partner’s stability, move your core weight around, up and down, with or opposite your partner. Wiggle, wobble, twist.
* The challenge is to see how well you can use your core muscles to resist your partner’s efforts to move you. Can you resist without touching your free leg to the floor or swinging it wildly?
* After a few moments of this, the next person takes a turn initiating a weight change, then testing stability.

Let’s twist again!

Round and round and up and down we go again! [3]

* For couple partners.
* One partner starts as the twister by placing their hands on the sides of the shoulders [4][5] of the twistee.
* The twister takes a step (open, front cross, or back cross) around their partner. Part of your challenge is to see that during this movement you keep your partner vertical over their standing leg.
* The twistee can respond in a variety of ways to activate a variety neuro-muscular awareness.
* Resist the twist, not allowing any part of your body to rotate.
* Allow only the upper body to rotate, attending to your vertical axis, not leaning in any direction and not breaking at the waist.
* Allow only the lower body to rotate, so that your partner’s pressure on the shoulders acts like a pressure switch — as long as there is pressure in a certain direction, it turns on the hip rotators.

Tango taps!

The kung fu master sees with the whole body.

* For couple partners.
* One partner will start as the sensor, with the other partner as the mover.
* The mover takes a relaxed forearm-to-forearm or other comfortable open hold with your partner.
* The sensor keeps their eyes closed throughout their turn.
* The mover gives an intention for a weight change. The intention can ask for one or the other to move, or both to move in parallel or cross-system, and in parallel or cross-direction.
* Release the hold entirely!
* Now the mover asks the sensor to touch some specified part of their body with some specified part of the sensor’s body.
* Your free leg taps my standing foot.
* Your embrace-side hand taps my hand-side.
* Your standing knee taps my free leg.

* Variation: the sensor initiates the movement–while keeping their eyes closed! The other partner still calls out what to tap with what. Try it with the sensor holding the mover.


Our understanding says that there are but two elements in the DNA of Argentine tango: Changes of weight and Pivots.

Change of weight means moving our weight supported by the floor from one foot to the other foot. This can include

* In place, with no movement of the feet.
* A step of any size. The cardinal directions for steps are forward, backward, and to the side (away from the standing leg). These are generally rectilinear (straight line) movements in an orthogonal (right-angle) direction, but they may include curved steps, slightly diagonal steps, and even steps across the line of the standing leg. A step may leave the weight over the new standing leg, or may displace the weight only temporarily, returning to the original leg.

Pivot means keeping our weight balanced in a straight column over the ball of one foot. But we don’t move as a solid column; we move in vertical segments. Generally a leader initiates the pivot through a twisting of their torso to indicated a desired pivot to the front or to the back. The leader may also indicate this be stepping around the follower. The follower senses the twisting in the torso, then spirals that energy down to the hips and legs, magnifying the amount of twist as it goes down. A pivot can also originate in the hips, often as an adornment. There are many more details, but for purposes of warming up, this will suffice.

We’d like to make play activities that will wake up our neuro-muscular system for tango for balancing and for torsion (twisting, contrabody) through the body. We also want to wake up our sensing of our partner, where they are in space and the space they occupy, where is their weight, how are their torso and their hips facing?


[1] Forearm-to-forearm hold. We want to keep the arms close to the core and relaxed.
[2] Feel free to experiment with other holds, such as hands at side of their shoulders, or even hands on each other’s rib cage.

[3] “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Originally “The Twist” by Hank Ballard.

[4] We don’t place our hands palm down on top of a partner’s shoulders because we want to keep weight off our partner, and we want our arms in a relaxed position with elbows toward the floor.
[5] If both partners feel comfortable with this, the twister can place their hands at the sides of their partner’s hips to produce different kinds of neuro-muscular awareness.

Breaking out of the shell

I so much admire my singing teacher Gene Raymond. Were it not for his patience, creativity, and support I would never have made it (such as ‘it’ is) singing, coming from such a deficit. And so, oftentimes our sessions will diverge to topics of teaching and learning, where we share ideas and experiences from our learning and our teaching, he teaching singing, and me teaching Argentine tango.

Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
emergence (5) by dubh, a Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

We spoke today about the inhibited student, the one so fearful of a perceived sense of censure (by self, by others?) that rather than try they just shut down. Over the weekend I had observed a class exercise where such a student stolidly refused to move. Multiple people tried, and no amount of cajoling, no clever NLP language (“Well, if you DID know what that was like, how would that look?”), nothing worked.

A key element comes from the teacher as a person. Does your teacher/partner come across as a caring, genuine person? Someone who believes in you. Someone you can trust and feel safe with.

Gene’s grandmother encouraged him as a young boy to sing at family gatherings. Gene was shy, so she would have him stand behind a tall rocker so he wouldn’t have to see an audience. She created a safe place for him.

Gene described how as a new teacher, and an introvert, he would feel nervous anxiety at the beginning of each semester, and he found he could get himself beyond that by mentally taking on a character. Acting as if he really were that confident, smart, successful teacher. Indeed, he became his character.

He had other good ideas for me.

Your student is afraid to fail? So encourage them to fail! Make it a challenge to see how big they can fail. That is, make it a game. It is okay to fail. There is no wrong answer. We have no need to be sorry (unless we’ve actually hurt someone) for ‘mistakes’. All the different ways we can discover to be less than perfect are exactly the things that move us toward being somewhat less imperfect than we all are.

“If you make a mistake, do it like it was everyone else who made the mistake!” He gave the example of a drum major that missed a turn and walked away from the rest of the band. That person had the confidence to own the moment, stepping in time, making a smart turn, and returning in an orderly fashion. I could relate to that one. Many years ago at a summer ballroom dance camp at BYU, in a choreographed performance I missed a cue and took my partner and myself in the direction opposite to the group. Disaster? Well, it kind of seemed that way in my embarrassment at the memory of it, but in the moment I treated it as our solo, enabling us to smoothly rejoin the group without losing our place.

As a teacher (or dance partner) I can help by taking any blame on myself. The student/partner perceives a mistake. “No, not at all. If I had chosen a better exercise, movement, timing, … we (We are in this together!) could do better.”

Are there times when you have to point out a mistake so the person can make progress? Well, in the Tango Tribe teaching philosophy, saying “Don’t do x” where x is some kind of less than desired performance, is like a double negative in speaking. It takes a bit of mental effort to turn it into the positive thing you DO want us to do. So why not start, and stay, with the positive.

I can take an example from my childhood, “Don’t slouch!” The subliminal message I receive is, “You’re a sloucher. Don’t be what you are!” Maybe another, positive approach would work better, also giving a model of what we want TO BE. “Stand tall and proud, like the way you are made.”

Bottom line: see our learning-teaching partner as someone we love and care for, and in that way we create a safe place where we both grow from the experience.


Summary — After presenting the problem we give two exercises to help both leaders and followers discover how to wait in quiet anticipation.

“Anticipation” by Carly Simon could serve as an anthem for Argentine tango dancers. Check out the lyrics at that link. See her perform it here. We’ll wait . . .

A common refrain from leaders and followers has them complaining or wondering, “Why can’t they/I wait for the lead/follow?” Three factors figure into this failure to wait in readiness:

  1. We’re just so darn eager to please. They’ve agreed to dance with us! Now we want to show them that they made a good choice. Leaders rush on to the next great move before their partner has fully finished the last thing. Followers don’t want to keep their partner waiting, so they rush on to what they expect comes next. But, hey, like Carly says, we can never know what comes next. In a fully improvised dance even the leader experiences it moment to moment. The anticipation, wondering what will happen next, can create as much magic as the actual doing.
  2. We fall into habitual, patterned movement. This can particularly arise in classes or practice where a couple drills a movement repeatedly, then when the leader moves on to something else without warning, the follower wonders what happened. Even in our social dance both leader and follower create expectations in their partner from habitual responses. In a class or práctica an alert can come as a verbal, “Okay, how about now we try combining this with the other class material?” At the milonga we can give a non-verbal “warning” by becoming particularly intentional and grounded on the step before the transition. That is, as leader we want to be thinking about doing something different before the last step of the pattern we’ve created. That’s two moments before the actual transition!
  3. We fail to fully seize our axis. A common example arises in the back cross, such as in the molinete. Whether due to lead or follow or both, the step may move away from your partner. If no one makes an adjustment, it leaves possibly both dancers in an unbalanced position, where they will likely “fall” into an open step. Do you remember that Voguing dance from the 1980s? Think of tango like that, where every step is a pose, complete and fully realized in itself, with feet and body set just so, with any and all future possibilities available to flow from there. Note: We don’t want to limit creative possibilities by insisting that our axis must be over one foot with the other foot collected. Our weight could be split between two feet, together or apart; or over one foot with the other leg away; or even outside of our footprint. The key consideration comes from both leader and follower knowing where we intend to place the axis, and what can flow from there.


1. Follower waits on leader.

In a randomness of fundamental movements — movement (step or pivot), not patterns — before making any movement the leader (and follower, of course) takes a moment, that can range from an instant to quite long. Then they invite each movement with varying direction, size, and dynamics. The leader can increase the intensity by moving themselves into “non-standard” orientations with their partner before marking the next movement. Leaders can see this as a challenge to shake up their habitual way of moving. Followers can see this as a challenge to become comfortable with, even coming to enjoy the not knowing; to be quietly listening with their body, and prepared to move anywhere, without feeling the least anxiety or care for where or how or when that might be.

2. Leader waits on follower.

As in exercise #1, the partners move in a randomness of fundamental movements, but this time the follower dictates the duration of the stillness and where their next step goes. The challenge for the leader is to follow their follower, to become comfortable with both giving the follower the time they need or want, and with moving to accommodate whatever happens in the dance. From this exercise the follower discovers a world of possibilities for their movement, where they can control the direction, size, and dynamics of their movement. They can know the power of a follower’s intentional movement, and how such movements can make the dance easier or harder or more interesting for their partner.

Note: Take moments of stillness, not to become inert lumps, but as times for mind and body to continue dancing in that stillness. Energy expanding or contracting, size growing or compressing, gaze intensifying or shrinking.

Two situations might suggest that you use these exercises in your practice time. One, you feel that you are dancing in a habitual or perfunctory way. Use the exercises to shake up your awareness of all the possibilities for movement. Two, you feel that you or your partner aren’t fully connected with each other. Someone’s not listening, or someone’s just going through the motions without considering the power that each pose can bring into the dance.

Final note: Can you bring these exercises to the milonga? I sure hope you realize that yes you can, as either leader or follower, without verbally expressing it, you can bring the exercise intentions into your social dancing when you recognize that you want more from yourself.

Tango Tribe signature block

A different way to demo

Photo: Port of San Diego, Big Bay Ballroom – Swingtime on Broadway by Dale Frost. CC

Synopsis: Instead of the tradition of teaching a pattern by having students follow along behind their respective leader/follower teacher, you can win better results by having all students first dance as followers to your visual lead facing them. After that’s going smoothly you reverse, having all students “lead” you as you back-lead them in the follower’s position. We give procedure details, and list benefits.

Leaders behind Marco; followers go with Maria.

How often have you seen this in a dance class? The instructors want to teach a dance pattern, so they have the leaders follow along behind the guy teacher and the followers follow along at the other end of the room, behind the gal teacher. Disregarding the sexist segregation of the roles, this also isolates important information that both partners need.

Some few exercise class teachers turn their back on the group and ask them to follow along, but generally they do it a better, easier way. They have the students mirror their actions.

Here’s a better way for dance teachers, and why it does more good…

Tell the class you are going to demonstrate the figure once, and that they might want to watch where the partners’ bodies move relative to each other and to the room.

Then start with the follower’s role in the figure. Why? Because this is what both follower and leader want to produce. The follower wants to produce it, and the leader wants to evoke it — regardless of their own footwork!

Put the teachers facing line of dance in front of and facing the group of all students (whether they follow or lead). Depending on the size of the class and the room dimensions, it may work best to create two groups, one beyond the other with a teacher in front of each group, instead of having all students abreast.

Announce that you teachers will visually lead the movement, and that all students are to follow along in the follower’s role. If the size of your room and size of your class allow it, position the teachers as leaders facing line of dance, with the followers in the normal position of backing line of dance. Room orientation provides valuable memory cuing for students.

The teachers dance the part of the leader and the students dance the part of the follower, visually following the teacher in front of them. The lead teacher can also use verbal cues to aid clarity.

  • All students get to feel how and where the follower wants to move.
  • All students get a preview of the leader’s movements.
  • (I contend that) It is usually easier to appreciate how you want to use your body when you observe an example from the front. That is, you can tell more about a body’s alignment and movement by observing it from the front.
  • All students gain an appreciation for where and how a follower needs extra time or cuing for a movement.
  • It encourages in followers the attitude of acting as empowered dancers versus merely reacting.

Repeat until most students follow your lead in a reasonably easy, smooth manner. (Suggestion: when you move back down the room to lead it again, have you and your students move as dancers, rather than lumbering back into place.)

Now announce that they are switching roles. The teachers exchange positions with the students, so that the teachers are now backing the line of dance, and the students are “leading”. The teachers as followers will back-lead the students. Again, verbal cues may help.

  • Either partner may be the one that better remembers what happens where and when. When both partners know the details of both roles they can better help each other with leading, following, cuing, and feedback.
  • The students are now seeing—facing them—the follower role they just learned. They can anticipate what comes next for the leader, the part they are now doing.
  • The students see the follower (the teacher in front of them) as an empowered dancer moving independently, instead of as a body they as leader must “move” into place.

In both of these segments, follower then leader, the students are observing the excellent technique of the teachers in front of them, in the same positions that their dance partners will take (albeit in embrace). They will be better prepared to give each other useful feedback.

Now put the couples as partners in la ronda, circling the room in line of dance, and let them work independently while the teachers walk among them giving assistance as needed. Please, please don’t position yourself in front of couples and tell the leaders to follow along with you. This causes problems.

  • Leaders must split attention between teacher and partner.
  • Followers give attention to teacher for the lead instead of to their partner.
  • Couples try to follow along at the pace of the teacher, instead of working at their own pace.
  • Teachers with their back to the group, even if they have a wall mirror, have a harder time observing the students.

Even when I work with individual couples, I’ll generally dance separately with each partner to help sense where the incomplete understanding or misunderstanding lies. Then I first ask the key partner to dance with me in their opposite role as I talk through their usual role and the effect that has on their partner.

Yes, this approach takes more time in the moment. But I contend that in the end it produces dancers with a deeper, richer understanding and production of the dance.

Dance, especially Argentine tango, is first and foremost about the kinesthetic, the feeling body sense. I create empathy and understanding with my partner when I first feel what they want to feel.

A positive prescription for guiding a person

A tray of mini pancake canapes, each topped with a piece of fruit and a toothpick
Each one lovely, in its own way.
Whether we teach a class or a lesson, or dance with a practice partner, and even when we self-talk about our own practice, we can act in a way to give a more useful, happier result. First, nine ideas for producing a positive outcome, followed by an optional essay on how I came to produce this list.

The prescription

  1. Begin immediately using self talk questions to frame how you see situations. “What would improve this?” “How can I create deeper understanding about this?” “What else could I do or ask in order to truly understand what comes after (or before) this?”
  2. Start recognizing the physical sensations in your body leading up to you giving feedback. It could be anywhere, and commonly may arise in the gut, in the chest, or in the head (face, scalp, ears, neck). For some individuals the body reactions can feel so strong that it ties their gut in knots, or makes it hard to breath. The tension transmits to the students who in turn get tense and less able to respond resourcefully. Gifted teachers come across with warmth and relaxation, with great focus on what will help, so that the student feels embraced with the knowledge. Such a teacher’s body reaction can produce in the student a warm, comfortable feeling that says, “I’m okay. I’m with a person who embraces me.” (See the parallels with calm, patient dance partners versus tense ones?) Your body reaction signals you to, “Pay attention!” You stand at the threshold of either doing something in a negative way, or in a caring and creative way.
  3. Deal with the positive first and repeatedly, giving it overwhelming attention.
  4. Give attention not only to the desired outcome, but also to the considerations, the whys and wherefores of the body mechanics that lead to a certain way as the more desirable. (While taking care to avoid over long, over analytical talk.)
  5. Give attention to disliked ways of doing things ONLY if you have seen them in evidence, and more than once in the situation at the moment.
  6. If you ever feel that you must give an example of a disliked way, first be certain to label clearly and multiple times which is the preferred way and which is the disliked way. (It helps to label with both visual cues and words.) DO NOT show the disliked way as the worst example that you imagine you’ve ever seen it. Instead show it as a “not quite as good as the preferred” way. Show the preferred way first and last.
  7. In your teaching practice begin formally cataloging common diagnoses and possible cures. What things have you found helpful in the past, such as: cuing phrases or touches, imagery, recognition signals, exercises, explanations (keep it brief!!), props, demonstrations, switching roles, working backward, isolation.
  8. Think and feel yourself as a Michelangelo, not a mechanic. The mechanic fixes broken parts, but You the artist seek to refine that beautiful piece of marble to release the dancing spirit inside, whatever shape it takes.
  9. Students come to a dance class to move! Get them moving early and often. Keep it simple and get them going again.


This article was a long time coming. First, in the sense that its genesis began long ago when I started recognizing unhappy, unproductive patterns in dance classes, leading me to begin exploring good teaching and learning practices. Second, I did a lot of rewriting and pondering. I found myself guilty in my writing of taking the same negative approach I was decrying. Indeed, the article started out with the title, Are we teaching TO the errors?

The essence of this article comes in the nine point prescription above. Do feel free to skip what follows. I include it to satisfy my sense of exposition, to let you know where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, and to share some bits and pieces I’ve found along the way that some of you, too, might find interesting.

The numbered brackets refer to: [#] end Notes with more information, and [P#] Prescription points.


Just as we encourage continual improvement for our dance students, we want to seek it ourselves as teachers. Some teachers may see themselves in these remarks, but my impressions don’t represent any single teacher, and my remarks are intended to teach myself as much as offer suggestions for anyone else. I base these observations on a wide ranging and large sampling of teachers across the United States and in and from other countries. The desirable points represent many teachers much of the time. The disliked remarks reflect some teachers some of the time.


Has it ever bothered you or made you wonder when teachers [1] …

  • Focus on possible problems before seeing any examples of them? [2] [P3] [P5]
  • Spend more time talking about problems—what they don’t want—than what they do want? [P1] [P3]
  • Confuse you with whether they are demonstrating the right way or the wrong way to do something? [P6]
  • Manipulate a student’s body parts, as if they were an object? [3] [P8]
  • Insist that theirs is the one and only right way to do things? [5] [P8]
  • Grossly parody the wrong way so that students doing that either reject the call out or feel humiliated? [P6]

Are we mechanics that fix others, or are we guides that help them make discoveries for themselves? [6]

This article suggests where and how we want to focus our attention when [7] we give others feedback.

Focus on the desired outcome

I pursue a mission, a mission to improve myself, and perhaps to help a few others along the way. A sort of “Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative.” [8]

Just as the study and practice of Argentine tango has taught and continues to teach me so many valuable life lessons, it has made a deep impression with regard to the relative value of pointing out problems versus giving positive directions in creative ways.

Even though I enjoy a happy go lucky, upbeat attitude most of the time, I recognize and regret those instances where I put my attention and emphasis on the problems I saw—in my opinion—and on what I wanted, versus the things that mattered — such as foremost, a good, positive connection with our partners (spouse, partner, child, parent, sibling, neighbor, citizen, teacher, student, fellow creature sharing the journey on this planet).

I believe that the drive to edit and correct others derives from some kind of functional wiring in our DNA that expresses itself to a greater or lesser degree in individuals. It serves us by creating feelings of discontent with the way things are, and imbuing us with the drive to improve. So I respect and value this drive, the feelings that it creates. My thesis holds that we want to allow those feelings to arise and inform us, BUT, before immediately latching on to them, we want to take moments of reflection to see how we might convey deeper meaning and value in whatever feedback we give. [7] [P1-3]

So why throw a spotlight on teaching Argentine tango as an example of this universal [9] tendency. Because I feel that as teachers (of any subject) we miss a great opportunity when we latch onto the obvious, the easiest thing to observe. The “problem” that we see expresses only a *symptom* of some understanding that the student has created in their body-mind, whether consciously or not.

In my estimation, merely replacing the phrase, “Don’t do X” with “Do (the opposite of) X” carries not only the same literal meaning but also the same connotations of a mistake to be corrected, a problem to be fixed. For example, “You dropped your shoulder.” That’s abrupt and rough, and we can easily recall common worse examples. “You keep dropping your shoulder.” “When you take that step you do this… (recreate, or as likely, parody their performance)” [10] [P6]

I deeply, deeply want this article to carry a positive, helpful message. So let me first give as concise [11] a synopsis as I can think of for what we do want, and then I feel compelled to point out the problem teaching behavior just so that it can be recognized.

As with our dancing, we want to take a mindful approach with a clear intention BEFORE we act. More important than accurately, concisely, and kindly recognizing a problem, more important even than offering good suggestions for the correct behavior, our best course lies in reflecting for a moment on a number of questions:

* How often does this arise? Is it even worth mentioning? [12] [P5]
* Under what circumstances does it arise? Maybe that tells me something about a misconception the student has formed. [P1]
* Have we covered this behavior recently? Perhaps I need to use different words, images, concepts, exercises? [P7]
* What was happening BEFORE the problem behavior? How can I help the student routinely recognize the situations that lead up to the behavior? [13]

And the problem . . .

A teacher describing a pattern or movement says the desired behavior. But before or after that they may spend twice the time and energy covering possible problems. Worse, the examples may tend to parody or give a caricature of the supposed fault. Suppose that someone has a physical disability. Can you even conceive of mocking that, something that is part of them? So why would we do it with people who have a temporary disability in their understanding of how to use their body? [P5-6]

But more than that. Why do teachers actually spend more time describing and demonstrating the wrong ways of doing things? Sometimes they do this before the dancers have even demonstrated a defect! What do we want students to fix in their minds, the wrong way or the right way? And by the way, oftentimes in classes, due to poor acoustics, poor labeling by the teacher, moments of student inattention, or whatever, students may be quite unsure whether at the moment the teacher is showing the right or the wrong way to do something! [P6]

Seth Riggs, the developer of Speech Level Singing [14] (a concept that has informed my naturalistic approach to learning dance) has something to say about this. “Don’t give vocal iniquities the time of day.” That is, don’t be giving attention to the things you don’t want. Andrew Sutton of Dance Ninjas [15] has a big influence on my views and approach to teaching dance. In this matter he has a positive approach. You show both the ideal, perfect technique way of doing a thing, and then you show a somewhat less but not very much less good way of doing the same thing. You ask the students to tell you the difference and the importance in the difference. Both of his demonstrations could be acceptable depending on where the student is in their current level of achievements. [P6]

So instead of giving overwhelming attention to what NOT to do, we give all our attention to acceptable ways of doing a thing.

Last on my list comes the teacher who seems to be upset with us when giving feedback! [P2] For whatever reasons—possibly inexperience, insecurity, frustration, fear of confrontation—they come across as tense, and that makes the student tense, and thus less attentive to possible meaning or value from the feedback. For me, two teachers model ideal performance in this regard. Cristina Ladas [16] comes across as warmly engaged in helping students become better. When she does intercede it is to clearly and succinctly offer one idea that can help the student do something better. I also seek to model my teaching on my singing teacher, Gene Raymond, [17] a man of great patience, warm support, and many tools to help even one with a tin ear and anemic vocal cords. He has a low key but notable way of regularly giving positive feedback to let a student know when they are on the right track. He has a wealth of experience to draw on when one approach to a difficulty isn’t working. He can demonstrate with a minimal but clear distinction between a desirable and a less than desirable production. He conducts short lessons in a brisk and businesslike fashion, with warmth and good humor.


No doubt about it, teachers have a harder time teaching to positive possibilities. When we can identify a fault at least we’re doing something. (Does that perhaps remind you of a dancer in constant motion, sometimes without regard to music, partner, or others? Oops, I think I just gave a negative caricature.) When we go for the root cause of a problem we must become detectives, seeking to find the bad actor behind it all, or maybe a doctor looking for the diagnosis that might lead us to offering a cure instead of merely a palliative to relieve the symptoms. Then even when we think we have a good diagnosis we must search our experience banks or create from whole cloth a possible guide exercise, image, exploration, etc. [P7]

Then multiply that effort by all the possible permutations that a class full of students can present to you. It is easy to see why we fall back on, “Well this I know for sure. Don’t do that.”

To reiterate the prescription for improving interactions with others (and ourselves).

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I need to better understand this situation? How can I improve it?”
  2. Recognize negative feelings in your body, and first act to calm them. Deep belly breaths and relaxed shoulders help.
  3. Your positive intentions come first and foremost.
  4. Sometimes it helps a person to know why you feel that a certain way is the desired way.
  5. Give attention to disliked ways of doing things ONLY if you have seen them, and more than once.
  6. If you ever feel that you must give an example of the disliked way, make it quite clear multiple times and multiple ways, which is the desired way and which is the disliked way. Show the disliked way in a “not as good as the desired” way, not in a gross parody. The desired way comes first and last.
  7. Catalog common diagnoses and possible cures, such as: cuing, imagery, recognition signals, exercises, explanations (brief!!), props, demonstrations, switching roles, working backward, isolation.
  8. Think and feel yourself as a Michelangelo, not a mechanic. The mechanic fixes broken parts, but You the artist help refine that beautiful piece of marble to release the dancing spirit inside, whatever shape it takes.
  9. Students come to dance class to move! Keep it simple and get them moving again.

Caminando feliz,


[1] Although this article focuses on teachers, it applies as well to partners offering feedback to one another.

[2] Pilates pioneer Madeline Black has good advice about cueing students, not giving corrections early, but waiting for the good pancakes. See also Dr. Noa Kageyama, The Bulletproof Musician, on a study that says too quick feedback can degrade learning. He begins his essay by making the important point that we want to learn how to teach ourselves.

[3] At the beginning of a lesson a teacher may describe in lovely and loving detail what they see as the ideal way to stand and move. But then most of the time and attention goes to pointing out and correcting mistakes, even to the point of hand manipulating [4] a student to put them in the right position—severe micro-managing. It largely fails to make a helpful impression because it makes the student a passive target of the comments or manipulations. The student isn’t building their own internal understanding.

[4] On the other hand, physical cuing, such as placing a hand lightly on a body area, can help a person sense how their body is positioned or is moving. Ideally the student uses their own hand, but sometimes it can help, such as in an area they can’t reach, to have a partner’s hand, to help with their body awareness.

[5] I enjoy when Jason Laughlin – – says, “That’s another way to do it, but that’s not how we are doing it right now.”

[6] I feel a lovely parallel exists here for dance couples, from the old mechanistic model of the leader as one who makes the follower work, versus a new view to the leader as a (lead, and not the sole) guide who helps the couple make discoveries.

[7] A feedback moment evaluation model: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it necessary that *I* say it? Is it necessary that I say it *now*?

[8] ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE. Words by Johnny Mercer, Music by Harold Arlen, Copyright 1944

[9] Political “discourse” offers a huge example.

[10] I recognize the irony of calling out teachers for a correctional approach to teaching, but I do hope that my positive examples and intent prevail.

[11] Yet another irony. I passed “concise” some time ago. Sorry.

[12] In a conservation with Adam and Tilly – – she offered a nice summary of how they decide when to intervene. “Is it a factual error?” Such as right versus left. And, “Is it a functional problem?” Such as failing to step onto axis.

[13] The concept of “inhibition” from Alexander Technique and other mind-body practices teaches us that in order to change a habit we must first recognize the cues that trigger that habit, for we can create change in ourselves only when we recognize the juncture where we have choices: to do what we usually do, to do something different, or to do nothing at all. By the way, this realization helps wonderfully when we get bored with patterns and movement choices in our dancing. We want to clearly identify the situations (all or many of them) that result in the habitual behavior. Then we can more easily begin making different choices.



[16] TheOrganicTangoSchool


Learning how to fall

Downhill skier in red suit falling backwards.
From The phantom foot injury.
“Stop! Just stop,” Jeremy said to me. He went on to explain that if we’re struggling with a movement at the end of a set, then our body will do whatever it can to help us succeed. That usually means shifting the body in some way – not a good way – to reduce the load on the part you want to work. Better to safely come to rest position, recuperate, then mindfully begin anew.

That put me in mind of the lesson I always gave first when teaching family and friends to downhill ski — how to fall. Starting on our knees, without skis, we’d practice falling forward and sideways, learning how to safely and comfortably spread the force. Then we’d graduate to standing with deeply bent knees. Finally standing on skis, learning the parachute fall to spread our weight over and into the ground, so as to quickly, safely come to a stop.

Why fall first? Because it is inevitable that it will happen, and consequently is a big and distracting fear for new skiers. When people don’t know how to fall and stop themselves quickly and safely, when they instead try to recover and save the situation, that’s when they are most likely to hurt themselves.

Why don’t we teach tango dancers how to fall safely? Well, not literally fall, of course. We hope! (Although, I’ve fallen to the floor with a partner. As the saying goes, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.”) When dancers feel awkward, out of position, out of balance, confused, and then they try to ‘fix’ the situation, the ensuing results usually wind up going downhill, and attention is incorrectly thrown on the ‘fix’ and not on what caused the problem.

What are the things we could alert new dancers to, as a way to help them ‘fail’ gracefully, without hurting themselves or others, and thereby help speed their progress? Here’s a list that comes to my mind.

  1. If something is hurting you–physically or emotionally, make it stop!
  2. If something is unclear to you, from either your partner or your teacher, ask questions.
  3. In a class or practice it is not only permitted but also helpful to give your partner or teacher feedback about what you are feeling. Examples:

    I feel too close here.
    I feel pressure here.
    I feel a push here.
    I feel a pull here.
    It feels like I don’t have space to go there.
    It feels like the space was opened intending me to go there.
    I feel rushed.
    I feel confused.

  4. When there is a problem with a step, it probably began with the previous step.
  5. When you feel yourself or your partner losing balance, give freedom for each to find their own axis. Loosening the embrace at different points in movements may be essential. If your partner is falling out of a step, it is okay to give them the space to do so. (It is also okay to provide some pressure to help stabilize a partner in a slightly wobbly moment.) Both of you turning your belly button toward your partner’s may be all that’s needed to save a bad step position.
  6. It is allowed to dab a foot or even to entirely reposition your feet to regain your axis or a more favorable position for a step to follow. Indeed, such repositioning can even be made as a musical element. In such repositioning, either partner who does it has a responsibility to know the intended supporting leg, ending on that leg and clearly communicating with a straight, strong axis where that supporting leg is.
  7. It is okay to glide/slide your free leg over the floor to assist with your balance.
  8. It is okay to work on a movement slowly and at your own pace–in agreement with your partner, without regard to the pace of the music or the teacher.
  9. It can help when learning a movement to open up to a practice hold–in agreement with your partner.
  10. It can help when learning a movement to practice it slowly, thoughtfully, by yourself.

And at the end of it all, if things are moving along okay, it can be fine to say to your partner, “Let’s just dance.” :-)

Rollerbag walking

(We’ve talked about imagery and games/exercises for teaching. This post deals with props. Actually, this prop is more like a test instrument…)

Every tango school should have a rollerbag with a set of noisy wheels.

Leader holding rollerbag
Leader holding rollerbag

You know how, when you wheel your luggage across the pavement on your way to the airport, the rollerbag wheels make that repeating ‘Ruugh’, ‘ruugh, ‘Ruugh’ sound? Maybe the sound varies slightly depending on which of your legs is stepping out?

This game-practice I call Rollerbag Walking. Applied conscientiously and practiced periodically, it can produce a controlled and powerful walk.

The game is to experiment solo until you find the manner of walking that results in a continuous, unaccented sound from the wheels. A ‘Ruuuuu…’ for as long as you want to or can keep it going.

I think you’ll find that it takes a powerful, well modulated extension-push from your standing leg. (Where does that force start? In how many places does your body feel it? Where most powerfully? Where least powerfully?! What happens when you place the origin of energy differently?) Then the swinging leg wants to, NOT land the foot, but find the ground and roll the foot smoothly onto it. There’s a continuous smooth shift of energy, and rolling from foot to leg to other leg to foot to leg.

The practice is to do it until it feels comfortable and natural, and you can recognize yourself using the walk in other settings, such as the dance floor! Note that this is not to say this is a style of stepping/walking that you will favor for the dance floor. As with everything in tango, it depends–on the music, your partner, la ronda. The purpose of this exercise is not to give you a style of walking, but to give you access to energy and control in your walking.

Add variations to the game by experimenting with the size of steps, the speed of steps, the direction of steps (can you do this with a series of side-together side steps?!), going backward–BE CAREFUL; you may need a spotter, walking in circles of different sizes clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Then for the pièce de résistance, walk in tango embrace while you or your partner tows the bag alongside. Does it make a difference which partner holds the bag? In which hand they hold it?
Follower holding rollerbag

So now you have a good excuse not to put your bag away between tango festivals trips!