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.
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.
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?”
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.
Deal with the positive first and repeatedly, giving it overwhelming attention.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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  …
Focus on possible problems before seeing any examples of them?  [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?  [P8]
Insist that theirs is the one and only right way to do things?  [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? 
This article suggests where and how we want to focus our attention when  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.” 
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.  [P1-3]
So why throw a spotlight on teaching Argentine tango as an example of this universal  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)”  [P6]
I deeply, deeply want this article to carry a positive, helpful message. So let me first give as concise  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?  [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? 
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  (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  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  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,  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).
Ask yourself, “What do I need to better understand this situation? How can I improve it?”
Recognize negative feelings in your body, and first act to calm them. Deep belly breaths and relaxed shoulders help.
Your positive intentions come first and foremost.
Sometimes it helps a person to know why you feel that a certain way is the desired way.
Give attention to disliked ways of doing things ONLY if you have seen them, and more than once.
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.
Catalog common diagnoses and possible cures, such as: cuing, imagery, recognition signals, exercises, explanations (brief!!), props, demonstrations, switching roles, working backward, isolation.
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.
Students come to dance class to move! Keep it simple and get them moving again.
 Although this article focuses on teachers, it applies as well to partners offering feedback to one another.
 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  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.
 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.
 I enjoy when Jason Laughlin – Tangophilia.com – says, “That’s another way to do it, but that’s not how we are doing it right now.”
 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.
 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*?
 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.
 Yet another irony. I passed “concise” some time ago. Sorry.
 In a conservation with Adam and Tilly – AdamAndTilly.com – 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.
 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.
“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.
If something is hurting you–physically or emotionally, make it stop!
If something is unclear to you, from either your partner or your teacher, ask questions.
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.
When there is a problem with a step, it probably began with the previous step.
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.
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.
It is okay to glide/slide your free leg over the floor to assist with your balance.
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.
It can help when learning a movement to open up to a practice hold–in agreement with your partner.
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.” 🙂
(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.
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?
So now you have a good excuse not to put your bag away between tango festivals trips!
This is a companion piece to the Bandoneon imagery article. As useful as good imagery can be – some people click into the right image like magic – many of us will find even more useful the playing of games that gives us a direct experience of the quality sought. Experiences allow us to begin calibrating our range of responses, making awareness and neuro-muscular connections about our most resourceful states.
A well designed experiment let’s us test and make useful discoveries. For dance I like to design (or learn and discover from others) games or exercises that produce useful experiences. Games serve discovery and interplay; then exercises provide practice drills to refine and strengthen our capabilities.
Here are some games. For now, just a collection of titles and maybe a few words. Use these to spark your imagination, and play with your creativity to make useful games. Let us know when you find something interesting.
Frequently switch off with your partner who starts movement. Sometimes work in silence, maybe even with eyes closed, to enhance sensing. Always share with your partner what you are learning. All of these are palm-to-palm. They can be done in an embrace and not. Keep the presence of the palm connection midway between the coronal planes (front-back) of the partners, or slightly closer to the side of the initiator of movements. Experiment with single hand connections and crossed-hand connections.
Lean together, hang apart.
Calibrate those. A useful scale might be (hang) -5 to +5 (lean), where 0 is just barely touching, and -/+5 is ‘all’ your weight.
Do it in extremes of dancer body and partner configuration.
Palm-to-palm moving the hand, and following it.
Palm-to-palm moving the hand by way of the spine, and following it.
Play with extremes. How light can your touch be and still follow the moving hand, even at extremes of speed and distance? How heavy can your touch be and your partner still feels comfortable and unrestricted?
Remote control. Putting our partner on one foot or the other by way of the hand, now cause the partner to pivot forward/backward, with no apparent motion of the hands. Change feet. The hand presence acts like an on-off switch. When it is ‘On’ there is motion.
Do remote control fast/slow, big/small. Experiment with the speed and/or the power with which the presence turns on.
Here’s one image that might be useful fun. Think of your arm-hand like those long skinny balloons for balloon animals. What inflates this? How fast-slow can you inflate-deflate this? How fast do you need to inflate-deflate it? If your arm is a balloon, what are your hand and fingers? What qualities would you use to describe your partner’s hand? Can you feel your partner’s arm as separate from their hand? Their joints? Their body? What qualities do you guess your partner would give to the feel of you?! (Some ideas to expand the possibilities: Hard, weak, rigid, squishy, board-like, floppy, clammy, insistent, caring, gentle, calm, confused, . . . )
Remember when dealing with a partner (which can be your own internal self), to be truthful and kind, knowing that it’s not what you are but what you are doing that counts with others. Enjoy!
The bandoneon as imagery for equal and opposite presence.
Some call it ‘tone’, others ‘structure’. Most teachers dislike hearing it called ‘pressure’, and definitely not pushing and pulling. We’re talking about the sensation of your partner’s hand or torso or arm against yours.
At the hand side of the embrace this presence can, depending on our movements, be felt on the palm side of the hand, when we are opening up from each other, and on the back of the hand, when we are closing up with each other. (Think of pivots away and pivots toward one another.)
Even when we are perfectly capable and do power our pivots with our own body instead of needing help from our partner, we still rely on that sensation of equal and opposite ‘presence’ to communicate or sense how fast/slow big/small to make our movements.
Now here’s where a problem arises. When we talk to students who haven’t yet grasped and embodied this concept, they tend to one extreme or the other, too little or too much, or, they don’t modulate that presence as the situation and their partner requires.
Too light and you lose a sense of where your partner is. It also gives one a feeling of psychic as well as physical disengagement. Too much and the arm or hand or body feel stiff and unresponsive. Unmodulated to match your partner and the lead/follow signals become confused.
How to give a sense of this presence without triggering an over response?
Consider the bandoneon (or accordion, or squeezebox). If the player’s hands don’t move toward (or away) from each other with the same speed and the same level of energy, what happens? Well clearly the instrument won’t stay centered. It will go swinging off in the direction of low push energy or high pull energy.
Consider, too, how the instrument can go from silence to soft notes to hard notes. Even in silence the player’s hands are relaxed yet still engaged by holding the instrument between them. With fast notes or loud sounds the player must move the hands together or apart powerfully. Slow and soft notes require only gentle effort.
So, maybe the bandoneon isn’t just to play our beautiful music, but also to help our dancers know how to sense each other.
Last night at the práctica 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?
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 step — the 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.
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.
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.
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.
Preparatory exercise: Saying “No”
Standing both legs, each leg, organized body, loose body. Moving.
Slow walking, with observable sensation-based feedback
Taking turns with follower’s eyes closed.
Slow walking with follower missteps, leader missteps
Review findings – strategies for protecting your axis and staying with your partner
NOT “changing the shape” of the axis. I.e., dropping a hip or curving in the vertical.
NOT swiveling the hips. (Turns our belly button “centerline” away from partner and line of travel, and leads to crossing our tracks.)
Keep a toned (not rigid, NOT loose) body, with an active ankle.
Reposition feet. E.g., quick shuffle steps to a better place, while leaving myself on the same original leg.
Turning the belly button to the partner. I.e., keep the pelvic “bowl” level and pointing in the direction (or 180-degrees) of travel.
Putting down the kickstand. Using free leg for support or counter-weight.
Releasing the partner. Give them their axis/Let them find their axis in a bigger space.
With all that in mind, let’s dance.
Second session, 7:30-9:00pm, Improvisation and interpretation
Tonight’s topic: Cambio de Frente variations. Exchanging places with your partner.
Here we will apply what we learned in the previous session about our axis, adding the element of major pivoting.
How many different ways can I change places with my partner, especially in a small space? Which of those are useful? What would I have to adjust to make the easy ones better and the hard ones easy? How can I easily multiply the possibilities?
We’ll start with ideas for how to work with a partner, exploring together and sharing observable sensation-based feedback.
We’ll work in groups exploring ideas, bring good ones back to everyone to share, learn new ones or perfect old ones.
Review findings – strategies for exploring with a partner the creation of new movement figures
With each of the options (indicated by “/”), know that movements may be easier/harder and require adjustment in one or another.
Two-way feedback throughout with observable sensory-based feedback.
Both contributing ideas.
Working in pieces, like snapshots of positions, can help.
Moving slowly / with momentum.
Work in open / close / flexible embrace.
Work from the end to beginning. Can be employed for creativity / at any sticking point.
I move around partner’s axis / partner moves around my axis / we move around a third axis.
Stepping to open (hand) / closed (arm) side of embrace.
Stepping in parallel-system / cross-system.
Stepping in parallel-direction / cross-direction.
Step with left / right / no foot (i.e., I remain in place while leading a step via contra body movement).
Step / lead step around / parallel / away from.
Pivoting before stepping.
Step with rebound / full step.
Move together / hold in place – myself / my partner.