If at first you don’t succeed …

If at first you don’t succeed, calm down, slow down, take a breath, assess yourself, assess your partner.

I wear hearing aids. When I don’t understand a person’s speech, two things help most. Paradoxically, turning down the volume helps me hear more of the nuances and frequencies that can become overridden and blurred by too much soundscape volume. Second, and it works the same way, when a person speaks slowly to me it helps my brain hear more and gives it more time to sort out everything that is perceives.

Galloping by Dóra Klenovszki
If your partner didn’t respond in the way you expected, do you get louder, bigger with your movements? Do you try doing something different to see if they understand that? STOP!

What is your default setting for evaluating your partner when things don’t go as expected?

  • They are being resistant.
  • They aren’t sensitive enough.
  • They didn’t hear, feel me the first time.
  • They don’t understand, but if I can make them do it, then . . .
  • They are slow, mentally or physically.

Let’s acknowledge that any of those things could actually be a factor. Now ask yourself, are any of those things helped by becoming, louder, more forceful, bigger, trying it a different way?

Well, actually, that last one, “try it a different way,” does actually help, if the difference is:

  • Become more quiet and still.
  • Listen to yourself.
  • Listen to your partner.
  • Have a crystal clear intention for The One Next Thing.
  • Express that one next thing with crystal clarity and simplicity in your own body.
  • Allow your partner to move with your body.

Here is a specific exercise and challenge for you. The next time you feel frustration with a situation, first catalog how your body goes about telling you to feel frustrated.

  • A tightness somewhere in your body — gut, shoulders, jaw?
  • A contortion in your body — raised shoulders or elbows, twisted or tilted head?
  • A change in temperature — flushed chest or face?
  • A voice in your head?
  • Something else?

Now anchor that feeling for future reference, so that you can recognize it sooner the next time, to start the changes that keep it from coming or reduce it.

Take a breath, calm down, assess. Does the frustration feeling diminish?

Make a choice.

  • Do something different now.
  • Do what you’ve always done.
  • Do nothing.

Celebrate that you do have choices. Then, we can surely hope, that you can go on to celebrate that by doing something different (or even nothing) that you receive more useful responses from your partner, which allow you both to go on building in connection and abilities from there.

Randy, Rowdy, and Uncouth

No, those aren’t the guys in The Original South Austin Jug Band. Randy, rowdy, and uncouth was what I thought of the writing in The Luv Doc columns of The Austin Chronicle those few shocking times I chanced to dip into it in the past.

But then something happened, I read an entire column, and wound up saying to myself, “Hmm, behind all that sound and fury there’s some really sound advice. I started reading it regularly and found that they all have a core of wisdom. The Luv Doc is now my second favorite advice columnist, after Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post, with smut added for salacious comic effect.

But to be serious for a moment and get to the point. that column boiled down to one sentence, “I would further guess that if you were to match his affections with those of your own, you might ease some of the insecurity that fuels his behavior,” that expresses a universal truth. Whether it’s dancing Argentine tango, negotiating a deal, having a conversation, or showing a partner affection, when we match each other we have greater chances of enjoying success.

Ad: A great way to learn about or reinforce and refine your understanding of matching intention in the hidden language of Argentine tango is the Melina & Detlef workshop coming to Tango Tribe February 23-25 in Austin, Texas. Limited to 12 couples, and registration is open now.


Record album cover for ANTICIPATION with Carly Simon standing, legs astride, arms out wide holding onto large gate leaves.

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

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

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

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


1. Follower waits on leader.

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

2. Leader waits on follower.

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

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

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

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

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Experience games for Presence

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.

Ten hands forming a heart shape.
Hands and Heart

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!

Love the one you’re with

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.