Coaching wisdom from 50 year pro wrestling veteran George de la Isla, owner of America’s Academy of Professional Wrestling in Pflugerville. Wrestler Ricky Starks recalls George’s words on his first day there, “What I want to do is help you paint your picture how you want to paint it, but I want to show you how to use the paint, how to use broad strokes over here, the small strokes over there. Whatever you paint with it is up to you but let me show you how.”
This is a derivation of the Tango Lexicon developed by David Lampson and Mitra Martin of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles. I feel grateful for their inspirations: in the method itself, in their teaching style, and in their generous sharing.
What is this good for?
This deals with a single aspect of all that is Argentine tango: the fundamental steps, Open, Front-cross, and Back-cross. By looking at all the possible combinations for two partners, two feet, Parallel and Cross Systems (defined later), and just these three three unique steps, we get 24 combinations that can be strung together in an infinite variety.
These simple, fundamental movements that don’t require memorizing have helpful uses as:
Glue to connect our memorized big figures.
A lens to help us see new possibilities in the movements that make up big figures.
Navigational elements to help us out of a jam.
The fundamental steps
David Lampson describes these this way. My partner is stationary in front of me. Standing with my weight over one leg, I can make a move to step around my partner by opening my legs apart; we call this an Open step. But if I try going around my partner with that same leg in the other direction, I have two choices. I can pivot and move my free leg across in front of me; we call this a Front cross. I can also pivot and move my free leg around behind me; we call this a Back cross.
Open step — a step anywhere in an arc of 180-degrees, ranging through straight forward, forward and slightly side, sideways, back and slightly side, straight back, and anywhere between those.
Front cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line from my middle to my partner’s middle. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)
Back cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line behind me that came from my partner’s middle, through my middle and out the back. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)
Parallel System (PS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on the same side of the embrace. Both partners together move their legs on the hand-side of the embrace, or both move their legs on the arm-side of the embrace.
Cross System (CS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on opposite sides of the embrace. Hand-side to arm-side, and vice-versa. So the leg movement happens diagonally across the embrace.
Now consider that at any time both partners have a choice of making an Open step, Front cross, or Back Cross. Let’s abbreviate those ‘O’, ‘F’, and ‘B’ and put them in a matrix to show all nine possibilities.
| O | F | B |
l o | 1 Oo | 2 Fo | 3 Bo |
a f | 4 Of | 5 Ff | 6 Bf |
e b | 7 Ob | 8 Fb | 9 Bb |
| 0 p/c|
(Later, we introduce the ‘0 p/c’ as a parallel/cross system changer.)
We put the Follower at top, in capitals, and list that movement first, because typically my intention asks my partner to step before me. (But you are free to reference the matrix by row before column.)
As a shorthand for identifying the matrix combinations we can number the boxes like a telephone keypad.
We assume that any sequence of movements stay in whatever system that we started in, PS or CS, until we change system.
To change from one System to the other it requires that one, and only one partner takes an extra step. They can take that step as an O, F, or B. (Keep in mind that a simple weight change is merely an O step in place!)
The 8-Count Basic figure in PS would be: 11612111.
Forward ochos would be a switch into CS, then 222…
Back ochos would be a switch into CS, then 333…
A choreographed figure could be represented by a specific sequence of numbers 1..9, while a challenge sequence could be some random sequence.
How to denote a System change
In order to allow every step to be represented by single digit numbers we will add ‘0’ to indicate a system change. Then take the digit after the ‘0’ to indicate who does what kind of extra step. 1, 2, 3 for Follower’s O, F, B; and 4, 5, 6 for Leader’s O, F, B. Ignore anything else.
Follower system changer
0 1 2 3
O F B
Leader system changer
0 4 5 6
O F B
So a CS 8-Count Basic would be: 1 1(04) 34(02) 1 1 1.
(The parentheses just make it easier to read.)
From the Leader’s perspective:
1, 1 = Back, Left
04 = Leader’s weight change in place, Follower holds position
3 = Bo
4 = Of
02 = Forward intention invites Follower’s extra, (mini-front) cross step, leader holds position
1, 1, 1 = Forward, Right, Close
Tango practice challenges
For random challenge sequences you could go to a teacher supply store and get a handful of ten-sided dice. Throw them, gather them in a row, then do the indicated moves in order. That way makes for a nice tactile, visual, auditory sensory experience.
Even more simply, there are LOTS of random number generators available for smartphones. Pick a simple one that lets you specify the range of numbers, 0..9, and how many random numbers you want to generate.
For exploring new possibilities in existing figures you know, walk through the figure with your partner and encode each movement. Now dance that code sequence using any of the many possible choices for direction, size, and dynamics of the movement.
Where a figure doesn’t flow as nicely as you’d like, encode the three: Before, trouble movement, and After steps. Try varying foot pivots and geometry of foot placements to discover the nicest flow.
I sought to make useful simplifications in nomenclature. Where Lexicon defines 24 terms with special characteristics to denote 9 possible movements in Parallel System, 9 in Cross System, and 3 possible movements for each partner to switch between systems, I have chosen to merely number the movement matrix with 1..9, then use ‘0’ in a simple convention with the numbers to indicate a system change, who does it, and how.
Additionally, I took the liberty of rearranging the FOB movement order to OFB, with the thought that this goes in order from most simple to least simple movement. Note, this does break the pretty symmetry of sacada opportunities in the original, where the “chasing” steps for PS are the even numbered cells, while for CS they are the odd numbered cells. But I did away with any special consideration for sacadas, as they can be either Leader or Follower sacadas (a distinction the Lexicon doesn’t make either), or no sacada at all (since it is possible, though maybe not as elegant or interesting, or maybe more interesting, to simply step around your partner’s supporting leg). The dancers decide how to make their chasing step; the choice isn’t dictated.
When I am decoding a number I find it easier to place the number on the keypad in my mind’s eye, then look up for partner’s move, then left for my move. When I am encoding a movement I find it easier to get my movement from the row on the left, then look right for the column corresponding to my partner’s movement, to get the number at the intersection of that row and column. With extensive practice I expect for the number-movement association to become automatic.
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.
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.
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.