Be a body detective

“Oh, heck! I’ll never get.” “I’m not built right for this.” “I’ve always been too tight.” Versus, “Hm, I wonder why that happened?” “How come it was different that time? How can I do that again.” “How else could I do this to make it easier (or harder!)?”

One of my favorite jobs ever (and I’ve been blessed to enjoy fun and reward in all my jobs, especially Argentine tango), was as a user consultant for The University of Texas Computation Center. We fielded problems from every academic department on campus, helping people solve problems in their programs, often in programming languages we didn’t even know. By careful questioning we would help them explore what they wanted to happen and what was actually happening. Sometimes we’d have to suggest ways to instrument and test program behavior, or how to go about creating a fix. But just as often during this guided questioning they would discover the problem themselves!

It was rewarding detective work, with no messy crime scene (well, some of that spaghetti programming . . . ). It brought a great sense of satisfaction, spending time with a person, learning about their thought processes and intentions, and helping them discover a way through to what they wanted.

That lesson about acting as a detective, exploring, discovering, and applying information, has served me well in my own mind-body work, in business, and in teaching.

You do know that judgments are your way of making excuses for yourself, right? They act as a pass to not do the work, both the mental work of figuring out what is working, what is not working, and what you might change to produce better results, and they act as a pass to not do the physical work of helping your body to learn how to move and use itself.

Here are notes about how real detectives work (and how that can apply to our practice).

  • Some of the work is not exciting, it’s even boring. (Just get going. Getting started each time is the hardest part, from there you can continue with the help of momentum.)
  • Some is hit-and-miss. (Trying different things to see what happens.)
  • Most serious crimes are solved by information from the victim. (The detective can guide, and *you* have the information inside to help yourself.)
  • A lot of detective time is spent reviewing files and making reports. (Do you have a process for documenting the results of your practice? Do you have an objective measure of where you were two months ago versus where you are now in your results?)
  • Despite the image of detectives as having special reasoning skills, much of their results comes from ordinary people doing routine work in a conscientious manner. (In other words, mindful practice.)
  • Some detectives do role-playing as a way to discover possibilities. (I am Gustavo Naveira, I am Noelia Hurtado, I am …, and I am moving to this music!)
  • Detectives develop ‘profiles’ to lead to a result. (What do you know about the characteristics and important points of a specific result you want to achieve. How will you describe those to another person?)
  • Detectives recognize patterns. (What happens routinely that I don’t (or do!) want? What happens just before, just after? What am I feeling, and where in my body? Where am I sending my attention during this time?)
  • Detectives value creativity, coming up with different ideas when old ones aren’t working. (How else could I do or think about this? What would change the outcome?)
  • Good detectives know not to seize upon the first possible solution that arises. (That’s good, now what *else* can I observe?)

We want to ask a better question to get a better answer.

Oftentimes, when we leap to an answer (an excuse?) we short-circuit the possibilities for creating new understanding and awareness, and for seeing new possibilities, and for realizing new capabilities.

Our human minds have evolved and are trained by life to seek and create answers. Our brains automatically respond to questions. We can use that to our advantage! When we pose questions for ourselves our mind begins working to discover the answers for us. When we allow ourselves the time, the breathing, the relaxation, the respect for our body and mind’s need for time to process and assimilate, then we begin to grow beyond our dreams.

Slow and steady wins the race

Aren’t our bodies are the most incredibly wonderful, complex, and interesting systems? Now when we say body we really mean mind-body, because it’s all but impossible to separate the influence of the mind and nervous system on the body, and vice-versa!

Oftentimes we’ll hear a teacher or coach tell us to “Work slower!” Why should we listen to them? How will working slowly help? What if I want the capabilities that I’m working on available at high speeds?

Among the amazing things our mind-body does for us is try to make it easier to accomplish what we “think” is our goal. In Argentine tango, for example, we might think our goal is to balance on one foot, or maybe we’re working to pivot 180 degrees. But our goal in tango is NOT to achieve any particular end position or movement, rather, we seek to use our body is a well structured, smoothly coordinated manner, such that any particular outcome is readily, simply, comfortably, and quietly achieved.

When we work at speed we obscure so much of what is going on. Our mind can’t take in and assess what we are doing, what is working well versus what we might do differently to make it work better. Furthermore, we may be making accommodations that make things easier now, but which will limit us later.

Are we pushing off with the other foot?
Are we using momentum with our free arm or leg?
Are we tilting to use what seem like easier muscles?
Are we turning as a block, limiting our results?

Importantly, we are not *judging* our performance, instead, our mind is like a curious observer, taking in all the dials and gauges, wondering what might happen if we tweak this or that control. Vitally important is what kind of self-talk our mind makes with us. What we *don’t* want is absolutist judgments about our capabilities: “I don’t have good balance,” “I’m not as good as these others,” “I’m a slow learner,” “My body isn’t built for this.” What we DO want is a highly active curiosity about what is going on, what others have called a “Growth Mindset.”

Why am I feeling that muscle?
Should I be feeling this muscle?
What if I activate these muscles?
What if I do this with less, or with more, tension there?
If I do this, will that make it easier or harder?
Who can I observe well and model?
What do I see others doing with less desirable results, that I might also be doing??
How can I get more out of that?
What needs to happen, and where, in my body for this to start?
How did that one feel?
What do I feel in my body when it is working well?

Let’s return for a moment to that concern, “What if I want the ability to actually do this at high speeds?” Right! If you only practice at slow speeds you will actually inhibit your ability to perform at higher speeds. The slow speed work is to groove in your neurophysiology, i.e., the mind-body connections, to perform the movement in a coordinated, well structured way. From that point you can begin adding complicating factors to challenge yourself.

Can I do this on my toes?
Can I do it while my free leg is doing boleos?
Can I do it for one full turn, two full turns?
Can I do it with this preceding or following movement?

Always we will be ready to drop back, taking it more slowly or simply, to regain our solid performance, as we continue pushing for ever more complicated or simple, fast or slow, controlled, dynamic, and beautiful movement.

The Tango Keypad

door keypadThis 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:

  1. Glue to connect our memorized big figures.
  2. A lens to help us see new possibilities in the movements that make up big figures.
  3. Navigational elements to help us out of a jam.

  4. 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.)

    The Systems

    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 |
       e  --+------+------+------+
       a  f | 4 Of | 5 Ff | 6 Bf |
       d  --+------+------+------+
       e  b | 7 Ob | 8 Fb | 9 Bb |
       r  --+------+------+------+
                   | 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

    10-Sided Dice
    10-Sided Dice
    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.

    Design notes

    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.


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.

Tango Tribe signature block

Rollerbag walking

(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.

Leader holding rollerbag
Leader holding rollerbag

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?
Follower holding rollerbag

So now you have a good excuse not to put your bag away between tango festivals trips!

Jack and Jill went up (and down) the hill

Looking up the sidewalk on a steep San Francisco street
Facing uphill, whether walking forward or backwards (careful!) seems useful for tango walk practice and strengthening.
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.

Looking down a steep sidewalk toward Sacramento and California cross streets.
No. Facing downhill doesn’t seem useful as tango walking practice.

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.

Slouching toward greatness

SUMMARY: Make everyday living your practice time.
The point isn’t that we fail; that’s an essential part of human choice, striving, and learning. The point is to celebrate all those times we try. And when we try on a regular basis, as part of our lifestyle, to embody the spirit and the impeccable technique of what we want to achieve, then we move toward greatness.

OVER A MEAL with a group of teachers discussing practice habits, I told how I suggest to students that rather than (or better yet, in addition to) the sometimes difficult goal of carving out dedicated practice time in a busy schedule, we can make practice of tango technique part of our daily life.

But one of our group opined, “They won’t do it. Except for a very few highly motivated students, they don’t practice, even if you make it as simple as that.”

But that isn’t the point, now is it? The point isn’t how many students can’t, don’t, won’t embrace useful advice, but rather how many can, do, and will, even if only sometimes!

You’re walking around the house, going from the house to the car and back, going from the car to the store or office and back. How much time would it add if rather than ambling from place to place we instead power walked with exquisite tango technique? I’m thinking we’d actually get places faster. How many strange looks or even comments would we get from observers, and would we care? I’m thinking we might occasionally meet interesting people and strike up good conversations.

Instead of stepping around the corners and doorways of our home and office, how much more fun could we have if we turned with nice dissociation and a sharp pivot, perhaps with an enrosque or boleo thrown in for relish?

Heck, it can be even simpler than that. You’re in a private lesson or a group class or a workshop for an hour or more, and just think how often you see people either standing around listening or moving about repositioning to make another practice pass, get to a clear space, or restart a pattern sequence. Does it make sense to start a figure from a standstill; do you do that when dancing? When you find yourself boxed in or facing out of the line of dance at a milonga are you going to shuffle yourself and your partner around to reposition?

In my spirit the dance floor is akin to the martial arts dojo where, as you enter you make a sign of respect, and all the time you are on the mat/dance floor you behave with respect, to the art and yourself and your others. You move at all times (every time you remember) as if you were on display as a model for the best example of what you want to become. You provide an impeccable example for others, because whether you are the teacher or a student, others are watching and learning (whether for good or ill) from you.

But now the point isn’t about insisting that our students or we ourselves must practice or move with such awareness and intention throughout our day. If we berate ourselves for missing a practice or forgetting to be mindful about our movements, that associates negative feelings with the activity. Negative feelings hurt, and we are hardwired to avoid pain. As often as anything we can wind up suppressing altogether the practice or activity or intention, just so we don’t create negative feelings.

The point is to CELEBRATE and thoroughly enjoy those times that we DO become aware of and act on our good intentions. I am now sitting at my computer with a nice tango posture all the way from the crown of my head down to my sit bones, no longer slouching; “Hey, cool! This is how I want to look when I am dancing. This is how a tanguero looks. Yay for me!”

Walking around the corner of my desk I feel a jolt of inspiration to spiral my body to a full turn pivot with enrosque. “I am so lucky that I have these opportunities to innocently and creatively play with myself throughout the day. Yay me!”

So, leave your students (and readers) with good ideas, whether or not a few or even any use them often, seldom, or never. At the very least you are helping yourself by reinforcing good, even enjoyable habits.

Abrazos, mis amigos.