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.

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.

“Fixing” people

Epigram seen in an architect’s office: “There is no greater passion in the heart of man, neither love nor hate, than the desire to edit the work of another.”

Why is it, one wonders, that teachers, instructors, partners, strangers — actually, (most, many?) people in all walks of life — feel that it is their job to find fault with and correct others?

But my interest here is with Argentine tango. Oh, but wait a moment! What am I doing here; am I calling out teachers for doing something wrong? Well that’s not right! I’m saying that as we help others achieve more of their potential in dance, we have better ways of doing that when we can accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

In my car I’m listening to the book THE ART OF POSSIBILITY by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. “Presenting twelve breakthrough practices for bringing creativity into all human endeavors.” The current chapter is “Giving an A”, about how much more likely we are to have successful, uplifting relationships with others – and ourselves! – when we take a success-minded viewpoint. Like sculptor Michelangelo, not adding on, rather, chipping away only the minimum marble to release the angel inside. We want to see the perfect possibilities in ourselves and in our students, then help to discover how to manifest those possibilities.

Instead of judging the actions of ourselves or others as good or bad, we gain in understanding when we merely observe how well our actions serve us.

I caught myself – too late – saying, “Nice correction,” to a student when they spontaneously improved a performance element we had noted earlier. A correction implies that something was wrong. What they were doing was not wrong; rather, it did not serve them as well as a modification would. So now I am installing in me an anchor (a la Alexander Technique) to recognize – much the way a Leader or Follower wants before an action to take an instant of reflection – when I am about to offer a “correction” OR compliment, to frame it as “better” or conversely “not as useful as, because …”

Fixing, correcting, right, wrong – these terms all imply something broken, something to be *made* right. Versus the old Sears store grades of “Good, Better, Best.” Here is a difficulty with telling someone that what they are doing is wrong, no matter how nicely we try to put it, we are saying that they are broken and we can fix them. It creates a negative, rejection reaction in a person. When you “fix” something, that is a passive activity for the object of your concern. They haven’t done anything internally to understand why and how. Such “fixes” are likely to be frustratingly (for teacher and student) short-lived and requiring frequent reminders.

How much better when a student or partner discovers for themselves how and why a modification to technique might serve them better? Then it becomes not a judgement of “you are doing something bad; you are wrong” but rather a calibration along the scale of okay, good, even better.

So here’s a practical example. Think how often we get told, or we tell others, “Your arm’s too stiff!” Perhaps you can feel, even just reading this, the sting of being corrected. Now imagine your reaction to the question, “How comfortable is your arm?”

Our brains are efficient question-answering machines. They are all the time trying to make meaning out of our experiences. (So, how much more powerful when we can give people good, positive experiences!) When you ask someone a question about how they feel, they immediately go inside themselves, seeking an answer to the question of how they feel, AND an answer to why they were asked the question, AND what effect any changes might have. They are creating meaning for themselves instead of being told how to act and think.

“Catch them doing something right.” That venerable old management advice is about giving everyone an “A” from the beginning, then seeing how we can work together to make it an “A+”!

Debriefing of Try Tango! class, 2015-09-04

Debriefing of Try Tango! quick start to Argentine Tango class, 2015-09-04

I enjoyed teaching last night’s Try Tango! quick start to Argentine Tango (see the outline here), a 45 minute introduction to the dance at the beginning of the practilonga. The class received polite applause at the end, and then through the night I appreciated a number of attaboy comments, and particularly the substantive feedback from an experienced dancer saying, “I believe I even learned some things, like that thing you said about how we walk.” [Walking, in an Alexander Technique point of view, is a series of overbalancing forward, “falling”, and recovering. We looked at the effect that way of thinking has on walking, and we viewed how walking backwards is a “video reverse” of walking forwards.]

I particularly value the things that people–teachers and students–reveal to me, and the things that I can discover on my own. A debriefing following “performances” helps me make discoveries.

Greetings

I made an effort to greet and connect with each arrival.

Dress

I was freshly washed and wore nice clothes that would pass muster at any milonga, setting a good example.

Wireless Microphone

Although the dance space was small enough that my big voice could easily have covered it, I’m glad I set up the wireless microphone (remember to attach the antennas!) with a headset mic. In this way I could speak in a calm, easy voice and be assured that everyone could easily hear me.

Partners

Dance, at least the one we care about here, and many (most?) others, is about connecting with a partner. Making that sort of connection is probably the big draw for many people. Then it felt as if the solo work was running long. It was fifteen minutes, I think. A full third of the class. And yet, it seemed to produce good results. So often I see people paired up immediately, and the first thing they do is get weirded out over walking either with someone immediately in front of them or with walking backwards. With this solo part I wanted to emphasize two things.

  1. Walking is a natural thing we do all the time, and we want to bring that natural quality into our walking with a partner.
  2. There is opportunity and great value to practicing solo.

Ah! I remember now one approach to this I’ve considered: have couples walk side-by-side, hand in hand.

Problem Based Learning – Motivation

We make stronger learning connections, I believe, when we discover (preferably) or have revealed to us the solutions to problems we’ve actually encountered. I was hoping that during the walking people would encounter traffic jams and then wonder what to do in that situation. We had a good number of people, and the size of the dance floor turned out to be quite adequate. The students were quite good at maintaining spacing, so there were no blockages except for the ones I created.

I wanted this a motivation for learning/figuring out what to do on a spot, when you couldn’t be moving across the floor. I wanted to teach about the “rose and vine” (hat tip to Helaine Treitman for that image) nature of tango movement over the course of a song. We covered the concept and the answers, of course, but it didn’t seem to have the same impact as if they’d actually experienced the ‘real’ situation. …Aha! The reason they didn’t encounter the situation is because they were dancing solo! Partner couples, even experienced ones, don’t manage to maintain their spacing that well.

Hm, have to think about this one. I wanted them to have that experience of moving in place (which includes the important weight change) or on a spot before they got partnered up.

Dissociation – and Walking Inside/Outside Partner

We did some dissociation work, like the dressage “shoulder-in” (and “shoulder-out”) walking, as if your partner was to one side or the other of you. But we did not specifically do walking inside/outside of partner. It strikes me now that this would have been useful and desirable. Such work, walking to the outside (on either the “hand” or the “arm” side of the embrace) of a partner is a useful prelude to the motivation for the cross. (We did not cover the cross in this class.)

Designating Leader, Follower, 1st Leader

In my school of thought, everybody learns all the movements – at least at the beginner level – from the beginning–not: leader learns this, follower learns that. When it came time to create initial partners I asked them to form an outer circle and then an inner circle. (I forgot that I was going to ask that all those new to tango go to the inner circle, so that they would be paired with an experienced dancer. I think it worked out that way nonetheless. Hm, maybe I did say that and forgot.)

Then I designated the inner circle as “A” partners, and the outer circle as “B” partners. But it struck me then, as it has in the past observing other teachers designating partners by using non “lead” “follow” language, that this creates a hierarchy, even if only notional. Better would be to use two unrelated terms that are easy to say and distinct to hear, such as: A-1, 5-J, golf-soccer, samba-chacha.

He-She, Leader-Follower

I am proud that throughout the night I never referred to gender, and only once or twice I think, did I fall into leader-follower talk. My new standard for describing what dancers do is to establish the point of view, then talk about “you and your partner”. If I am talking about my demonstration–and I did precious little of that–I refer to I/me/my and my partner.

Pivots

It was gratifying to hear a student exclaim, “Huh! We actually do pivots in ordinary walking,” after my simple “real life” demonstrations [changing course when someone behind calls you; turning a corner]. It feels important to me to instill the feeling that Argentine tango need not be, indeed is not some otherworldly thing, but rather a use of natural body movements that we already know and do routinely.

The Action is Up Here

“I was watching your feet and they were going every which way!” I was demonstrating the molinete (more on that in a moment) as an application of stepping, then pivoting. (The foundational theme of this class, and my way of thinking about Argentine tango, is that fundamentally the movements are ‘merely’ some form of stepping and some form of pivoting.) I saw myself surrounded by heads tilted down, all eyes on my and my partner’s feet.

I pointed out that, yes, most everyone watching a lesson or demonstration pays close attention to the feet, because that’s where all the action seems to be, and in reality, everything happening below is motivated by what is going on up top. It is the relationship between the partner’s torsos that really tells the story, and we know that legs are under each shoulder (as leaders are told when learning sacadas). If you only think about and work with the relationship with your partner, then the legs and feet will take care of themselves.

This concept of watch the torsos and not the feet was a highlight of the class for me. Not only did that immediately divide the difficulty factor at least in half (two torsos moving slowly versus four feet moving quickly), but somehow the talk of keeping the relationship with the partners, even as they move about each other, conveyed the message of the heart to heart connection. My current partner, who had struggled with doing a back cross after the open step, was now squaring up to me on the open step, so that the back cross came easily. And, the happy results extended to all the students. It was almost magical.

Molinete

The molinete was to illustrate the utility of combining straight steps with pivots between each step. The simplest molinete has the leader stepping outside partner to the hand side of the embrace, such that the partner has done a back cross at the same time. Lead the partner to an open step across my path, then finish with a simple forward ocho. Repeat as desired.

This actually worked pretty well, even though in my experience the molinete isn’t taught until well into a beginner curriculum, and even though many of these students were never-ever dancers. I think some keys to success were: 1) assuming it would be successful, such that students had no feeling that it was a hard figure; and 2) simplifying it to the movement of one torso about the other. Indeed, as asserted, people’s legs and feet did take care of themselves.

Hm … I was going to question my choice of using the molinete, thinking that for a future class I might prefer to specifically include waking outside partner, on both sides, and then would make use of that with a cambio de frente move. But as I wrote that description, and reflected on the results, I like the way it turned out. In the practilonga that followed I observed people walking comfortably with each other, and using the molinete.

Impeccable language

I am struck (thankfully, only for a precious few moments a couple of times) by how easily a student can become confused by directions: they didn’t hear everything; they didn’t connect it with the context; they took something too literally; they don’t understand the referent (my left or your left?); etc. Of course the teacher can often be the source of the confusion by leaving out parts or making assumptions.

Right versus Wrong

It pleased me that I never found someone doing something “wrong”. I was always able to find some positive aspect in what people were doing, and then suggest ways to make it even better. Likewise, though the temptation is just as strong to do this, I never demonstrated “the wrong way” of doing something. I subscribe to the school that says if you want to show differences you can show a good way and a better way. This way, even if a student misses part of the message (“Now were they showing us what TO DO or what NOT to do?”) they will see a reasonable way of performing.

The Responsibilities of the Roles

I felt a bit chagrined that I had to refer to my outline to be sure I gave all five responsibilities the way I wanted to say them, nevertheless I was pleased at the way they were received.

Storytelling

I am remembering now that I wanted to do more of this. In the opening walk I did paint a picture of a typical milonga. And I believe I spoke throughout in terms of relationships and images and connections, without using prescriptive (“Do this!” “Don’t do that!”) language.

Timing

We started five minutes after the appointed time; we finished on time. People were mostly moving in some way with a minimum of standing and listening to me time.

Feedback

I encouraged each person to help each other person. “What can I do to make this more comfortable for you?” “I am feeling . . .” Despite all the things that can go wrong with it, I feel there is overriding value in peer learning. It builds community and sharing, and it instills the idea that we can all be teachers, beginning with teaching ourselves. Importantly, we want to instill the notion, and encourage development of the ability, for a student to assess the value of what they hear, see, feel. Whether it be from a teacher, another student, a partner, or even themselves!

Peer Review, Video Review

I am guilty of most often giving only lip service to the valuable concept that video review of oneself is a most powerful, fast acting way to internalize changes we want to make to improve our performance.

Regarding feedback (previous item), just as we use teachers and coaches to observe our performance and guide our directions for improvement in dance, we can and should do this for our teaching as well. I expect that many of our local teachers do this, at least informally, in the context of the various and many workshops with visiting masters that occur throughout the year. I wish now that I’d recorded this lesson so that I could have reviewed it with two of my advisers, Andrew Sutton of Dance Ninjas and Ted Maddry.

Encourage Followers, All to Give Ideas

Only Follower saying … “I need a pattern to go from.”
Only Leaders speaking up.

Conclusion

I enjoyed teaching this class, and I hope I have other future opportunities. Judging from what I saw on the dance floor during the practilonga that followed, and from the comments, it was a success. And by reviewing this review before my next outings, I hope to make them even greater successes.

  –David