All posts by David Phillips

Slouching toward greatness

SUMMARY: Make everyday living your practice time.
The point isn’t that we fail; that’s an essential part of human choice, striving, and learning. The point is to celebrate all those times we try. And when we try on a regular basis, as part of our lifestyle, to embody the spirit and the impeccable technique of what we want to achieve, then we move toward greatness.

OVER A MEAL with a group of teachers discussing practice habits, I told how I suggest to students that rather than (or better yet, in addition to) the sometimes difficult goal of carving out dedicated practice time in a busy schedule, we can make practice of tango technique part of our daily life.

But one of our group opined, “They won’t do it. Except for a very few highly motivated students, they don’t practice, even if you make it as simple as that.”

But that isn’t the point, now is it? The point isn’t how many students can’t, don’t, won’t embrace useful advice, but rather how many can, do, and will, even if only sometimes!

You’re walking around the house, going from the house to the car and back, going from the car to the store or office and back. How much time would it add if rather than ambling from place to place we instead power walked with exquisite tango technique? I’m thinking we’d actually get places faster. How many strange looks or even comments would we get from observers, and would we care? I’m thinking we might occasionally meet interesting people and strike up good conversations.

Instead of stepping around the corners and doorways of our home and office, how much more fun could we have if we turned with nice dissociation and a sharp pivot, perhaps with an enrosque or boleo thrown in for relish?

Heck, it can be even simpler than that. You’re in a private lesson or a group class or a workshop for an hour or more, and just think how often you see people either standing around listening or moving about repositioning to make another practice pass, get to a clear space, or restart a pattern sequence. Does it make sense to start a figure from a standstill; do you do that when dancing? When you find yourself boxed in or facing out of the line of dance at a milonga are you going to shuffle yourself and your partner around to reposition?

In my spirit the dance floor is akin to the martial arts dojo where, as you enter you make a sign of respect, and all the time you are on the mat/dance floor you behave with respect, to the art and yourself and your others. You move at all times (every time you remember) as if you were on display as a model for the best example of what you want to become. You provide an impeccable example for others, because whether you are the teacher or a student, others are watching and learning (whether for good or ill) from you.

But now the point isn’t about insisting that our students or we ourselves must practice or move with such awareness and intention throughout our day. If we berate ourselves for missing a practice or forgetting to be mindful about our movements, that associates negative feelings with the activity. Negative feelings hurt, and we are hardwired to avoid pain. As often as anything we can wind up suppressing altogether the practice or activity or intention, just so we don’t create negative feelings.

The point is to CELEBRATE and thoroughly enjoy those times that we DO become aware of and act on our good intentions. I am now sitting at my computer with a nice tango posture all the way from the crown of my head down to my sit bones, no longer slouching; “Hey, cool! This is how I want to look when I am dancing. This is how a tanguero looks. Yay for me!”

Walking around the corner of my desk I feel a jolt of inspiration to spiral my body to a full turn pivot with enrosque. “I am so lucky that I have these opportunities to innocently and creatively play with myself throughout the day. Yay me!”

So, leave your students (and readers) with good ideas, whether or not a few or even any use them often, seldom, or never. At the very least you are helping yourself by reinforcing good, even enjoyable habits.

Abrazos, mis amigos.
–David

The “refrigerator” walking model

“The long line this creates feels so elegant!”

What a wonderful way to express her understanding and appreciation for one aspect of what we were learning about walking.

Two men move a white refrigerator through a doorway. Both men wear orange colored "forearm forklifts" to life the refrigerator, with one man walking forwards, the other backwards.
Our refrigerator partner
May I share with you a model, a mind-body image that my students find hugely helpful for creating various, important sorts of awareness in their body? It models a way of walking–both forward and backward–that not only functions in a naturally powerful way, but also looks and feels like tango.

You have a person-sized “refrigerator” in front of you, on casters that roll easily.

When I am the partner walking forwards it is as if I am moving my refrigerator up a walkway inclined upwards ahead of me.

When I am the partner walking backwards it is as if I am allowing my refrigerator to roll safely, under control so that it doesn’t run over me, down a walkway, inclined downwards to my back.

Also, the casters on my refrigerator roll only in a straight line forward-backward. Furthermore, the caster base of my refrigerator is under the center of and more narrow than my person. If I don’t direct my force straight ahead or back, then I can cause my refrigerator to tip over.

Deeper discussion

For more advanced students: As I develop more sophistication and awareness in my walking, it is also interesting to note that the steepness of the walkway varies by how large or how dynamic a step I want to take. It seems strange or paradoxical, but the longer or more powerful and dynamic a step, then the steeper the walkway. And that means I must put more control into my grounding and into my movement, whether forward or backward.

About models in general

Yes, there is a real hazard, just as with every sort of modeling, whether by viewing, hearing, or feeling the teacher, where students intently seeking to understand and learn may take things too literally or out of context. In this model, for example, it’s common for the “refrigerator” partner in a pair working on this walking concept, to apply too much opposition, to become too heavy. But! This is a perfect opportunity to talk about matching your partner’s energy.

By the way, we talk about partners, not “leaders” and “followers” (and definitely not “he” and “she”) to convey the important concept that dancers will practice as both followers and leaders, as a way to more fully, deeply, and easily learn their chosen role.

The Argentine tango is all about connection — with the music, and importantly, with my partner. Yet here I am treating my partner as an object rather than a sensing being with whom I want to form a dancing relationship. How odd this must seem! Yes, and in the learning phase (of a three phase model of skill acquisition: Perceiving, Practicing, Performing) if I feel and deal with my partner as a person, then I am faced with an incredibly complex web of emotions, assumptions, imperfections of sensing and movement, misconceptions, preconceptions, and more.

Mathematicians, Meteorologists, Philosophers, Physicists — people who explore complex systems in, I suppose, any field you could name, in order to facilitate understanding the system, make simplifying assumptions. They create models which they can better control and understand, as a way to gain insights into the complex system. Well can you think of any more complex system than the mental-physical-emotional interactions between two people dancing the Argentine tango?

We use the model, not as a substitute for making a real connection with our partner, but as a way to creatively evoke certain feelings and awareness in the student.

About walking in general and refrigerators in particular

Did you mentally play with the refrigerator as you read about it? I hope you did! As I work it with students, here are some important aspects we discover.

Awareness of centers of gravity and power. My power and balance comes from driving through my center, located somewhere around the solar plexus, the area between the lower edge of the breast bone and the navel. And, I must also have an awareness of my partner’s center, sensing through feeling out the connection I make, where the center is for this shorter, taller, bigger, smaller, or similarly sized person. If I direct my movement too high, I can topple my refrigerator backwards; too low and it can tip forward on top of me!

Awareness of grounding. When I am stepping forwards, moving a heavy object up an incline, I must sink my weight fully into the standing-pushing center-hip-leg-foot tower of power. Powering up that tower and shifting toward the front of the foot signals my movement intention to my partner. Now when going backwards, receiving the weight of a heavy object rolling down an incline, my fear is of the thing rolling over me, so I immediately reach back with a leg to create a bracing position. Since I can’t see what’s behind me, I must feel it out with my foot, reaching first with the toe, then rolling down into the full foot. I ground and power up that reaching foot-leg-hip-center (note the reverse order!) to take the weight.

Completing the step, the forward walker over-balances past the end of the foot, then pushes off that now somewhat flexed leg, and that push ends with a straight leg behind, a somewhat flexed leg in front absorbing and controlling energy. For the backward walker, the leg now closest to their partner flexes somewhat, with the weight grounded in the front of the foot, then pushing off, while the previously extended back, bracing leg, absorbs the movement.

The thing that is so interesting to me is how in a highly functional (and tango-elegant) way, walking forwards and backwards are precise analogs of each other in reverse time sequence. That is, if you took a video of someone walking well, either forwards or backwards, then ran that video back and forth in the opposite direction, you shouldn’t be able to tell whether that person was originally walking forwards or backwards!

Practice

Would you please do me a favor by taking a moment to play with this concept and let me know how or if it resonates with you? Or maybe you find it confusing, or wrong! From a collected, standing start, go through the motions or either preparing to push the refrigerator up a slope, or let it roll down a slope as you control it. Take a step. Reverse that step. Do it in the opposite order of events. Really feel that phantom refrigerator’s weight as you power it up the slope (forwards), or control its weight descending the slope (backwards). I would truly enjoy hearing about your experience.

Tango Tribe

David teaches a mixed ability, mixed experience Argentine tango class on Tuesdays from 8:30-9:30 pm at the Balance Dance Studio #1 in Austin, Texas.
david@tangotribe.com

Tango Tribe classes begin

Tango Tribe Classes
Tuesdays, 8:30-9:30 pm
Balance Dance Studios, 4544 South Lamar Blvd, Austin TX 78745
At Studio #1 in Building 200.

FREE through the end of 2015!
A no obligation way to experience the Tango Tribe way of learning beginning Argentine tango and improvisation.

Intended for beginners new to dance, experienced dancers new to Argentine tango, experienced tango dancers wanting to learn or practice the other role, and experienced tango dancers who want to help others learn while working on their own creativity through guided exercises.

= Tango Tribe principles =

+ Music has a spiritual impact on our physical bodies, meaning something different to everyone who experiences it.
+ Connection to another person in dance has a spiritual and physical impact on our well being.
+ Anyone, regardless of mental or physical ability, deserves the opportunity and has the ability to participate in a meaningful way in dance.
+ We learn best when we share our learning with others.
+ Argentine tango is one of many dances and activities with these benefits, and a rich resource for a lifelong exploration and development of these benefits.
+ We beneficially learn Argentine tango in a natural, functional movement way.
+ We have many ways of enriching our creative experience of the dance, including response to the music, connection to our partner, connection to the couples around us, style, inventive movements, and combinations of these and more.


I feel elated, excited, and a tad nervous to be kicking off weekly Tango Tribe classes. There were a couple of false starts (the Austin Men’s Tango Practice Group, which morphed into Austin Tango Lab on Facebook; and the community education class that didn’t make), and I’m certain that just as with my Argentine tango dancing, I have a world to learn about how to do this to the best of my ability, and how to create a rich experience of connection with my dance partners and with my learning partners.

I feel that beginner classes–in any field–can be the most difficult and the most important to do well. The beginner class takes persons with potentially zero experience in the terminology and physiology, the movement, and the appreciation for the movement, the music, the connections, the codes… Takes them from there to setting a direction and tone for their future development as dancers and as valuable members of our tango tribe.

I take this responsibility seriously, and I commit to every effort to do it well.

Grounded exercises

Aside from couch potatoes and astronauts, being grounded – well rooted by gravity, stable and in balance – serves pretty much all of us throughout our daily life. Being well grounded is a vitally important skill for Argentine tango dancers, and it’s a skill that will serve a person well in all aspects of their lives, through their life. Being a skill, it is a capability that can be trained, exercised, and developed.

Here are some general purpose and dance specific exercises that I’ve used for developing the skill to have a strong, stable base when standing still or moving on the dance floor. See if any of them resonate with you, and which ones you can easily fit into your daily activities.

  1. Do a lot of standing on one foot at a time. But not like a stork! With both feet on the floor, heels close to each other, feet angled comfortably away from each other, this forms a triangle, a highly stable base. Even when we commit our weight fully to one foot, if we keep a long leg by not allowing the hip to drop, we can keep both feet fully on the floor, even though only one has the weight. The unweighted one can still serve to help with balance.
  2. A useful exercise for this is to stand on one leg and do let the hip on the unweighted side drop down, then lift it up above horizontal, then play with it up and down, above and below horizontal, to develop a sense of where horizontal is?, all the while observing what is going on elsewhere in your body.

  3. Do a lot of natural walking, outside (safely!) where you can walk with ease both forwards and backwards. Add variety: of surfaces, size of step, speed of step. Part of your safety is in fully feeling the landing of each step to know that it is secure before you move your weight over it.
  4. Some tango instruction, particularly beginner instruction that focuses on style, can unintentionally pervert the idea of natural walking, plus, walking while you have someone immediately facing you doesn’t help matters. But now think about how babies learn to walk? They hoist themselves up to standing with the aid of furniture. If they overbalance to the rear, where they have only the small foot projection of the heel, they fall on their bottom. But they discover that when they overbalance to the front, and the body automatically acts to try to catch itself, and succeeds, then they soon start smoothing out this fall-catch sequence.
  5. Stop yourself at the moment of the fall-catch, and scan your body configuration. Bent joints and toned muscles in the catching leg. A long line with only relaxed (not bent) joints in the trailing leg. A horizontal, well balanced hip. When going backwards you want that same configuration as you begin the step. That is, the long leg reaching back, with the standing leg bent to power the push off.
  6. Grounding for a step. We talked about not allowing the hip to drop to one side in the weight change. The possibility of a hip drop becomes even more pronounced in the intention phase of preparing for a step, where we load all of our weight onto the supporting, powering leg. But by keeping the hip horizontal we engage all the core, sending power down to that supporting foot-leg.
  7. Do a LOT of catching yourself all the time, any time you can think of it. Walking to or from your car, walking in the store, walking at home: every so often, frequently even, catch yourself “unawares” on one foot and hold your balance there for a moment. Play this game with yourself all the time. With each grounding, feel your entire leg rooted to the floor, with the powerful leg and hip muscles all engaged to hold you in position.
  8. Lastly, play the catching game with tango music. And now you can add all sorts of movement in the privacy of your home or practice space. Add all the possible ways of stepping: weight change, sideways, forward-backward, rock steps, check steps (catch your weight but immediately return to your supporting leg), steps plus kicks, boleos, pivots. Then as you are dancing solo to the music, catch yourself – often – at various random, unexpected steps. Play with your body (kicks, twists, pivots, reaches with foot or hand, bend over, you name it) as all the while your supporting leg feels rooted to the floor.