Tag Archives: learning

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.” :-)

Bandoneon imagery

[Published simultaneously in Austin Tango Lab on Facebook on 14-April-2016, 9pm.]

The bandoneon as imagery for equal and opposite presence.

michael zisman, bandoneonista
michael zisman, bandoneonista

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.

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.