Learning how to fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you have to say?