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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.