Breaking out of the shell

I so much admire my singing teacher Gene Raymond. Were it not for his patience, creativity, and support I would never have made it (such as ‘it’ is) singing, coming from such a deficit. And so, oftentimes our sessions will diverge to topics of teaching and learning, where we share ideas and experiences from our learning and our teaching, he teaching singing, and me teaching Argentine tango.

Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
emergence (5) by dubh, a Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

We spoke today about the inhibited student, the one so fearful of a perceived sense of censure (by self, by others?) that rather than try they just shut down. Over the weekend I had observed a class exercise where such a student stolidly refused to move. Multiple people tried, and no amount of cajoling, no clever NLP language (“Well, if you DID know what that was like, how would that look?”), nothing worked.

A key element comes from the teacher as a person. Does your teacher/partner come across as a caring, genuine person? Someone who believes in you. Someone you can trust and feel safe with.

Gene’s grandmother encouraged him as a young boy to sing at family gatherings. Gene was shy, so she would have him stand behind a tall rocker so he wouldn’t have to see an audience. She created a safe place for him.

Gene described how as a new teacher, and an introvert, he would feel nervous anxiety at the beginning of each semester, and he found he could get himself beyond that by mentally taking on a character. Acting as if he really were that confident, smart, successful teacher. Indeed, he became his character.

He had other good ideas for me.

Your student is afraid to fail? So encourage them to fail! Make it a challenge to see how big they can fail. That is, make it a game. It is okay to fail. There is no wrong answer. We have no need to be sorry (unless we’ve actually hurt someone) for ‘mistakes’. All the different ways we can discover to be less than perfect are exactly the things that move us toward being somewhat less imperfect than we all are.

“If you make a mistake, do it like it was everyone else who made the mistake!” He gave the example of a drum major that missed a turn and walked away from the rest of the band. That person had the confidence to own the moment, stepping in time, making a smart turn, and returning in an orderly fashion. I could relate to that one. Many years ago at a summer ballroom dance camp at BYU, in a choreographed performance I missed a cue and took my partner and myself in the direction opposite to the group. Disaster? Well, it kind of seemed that way in my embarrassment at the memory of it, but in the moment I treated it as our solo, enabling us to smoothly rejoin the group without losing our place.

As a teacher (or dance partner) I can help by taking any blame on myself. The student/partner perceives a mistake. “No, not at all. If I had chosen a better exercise, movement, timing, … we (We are in this together!) could do better.”

Are there times when you have to point out a mistake so the person can make progress? Well, in the Tango Tribe teaching philosophy, saying “Don’t do x” where x is some kind of less than desired performance, is like a double negative in speaking. It takes a bit of mental effort to turn it into the positive thing you DO want us to do. So why not start, and stay, with the positive.

I can take an example from my childhood, “Don’t slouch!” The subliminal message I receive is, “You’re a sloucher. Don’t be what you are!” Maybe another, positive approach would work better, also giving a model of what we want TO BE. “Stand tall and proud, like the way you are made.”

Bottom line: see our learning-teaching partner as someone we love and care for, and in that way we create a safe place where we both grow from the experience.

A different way to demo

Photo: Port of San Diego, Big Bay Ballroom – Swingtime on Broadway by Dale Frost. CC

Synopsis: Instead of the tradition of teaching a pattern by having students follow along behind their respective leader/follower teacher, you can win better results by having all students first dance as followers to your visual lead facing them. After that’s going smoothly you reverse, having all students “lead” you as you back-lead them in the follower’s position. We give procedure details, and list benefits.

Leaders behind Marco; followers go with Maria.

How often have you seen this in a dance class? The instructors want to teach a dance pattern, so they have the leaders follow along behind the guy teacher and the followers follow along at the other end of the room, behind the gal teacher. Disregarding the sexist segregation of the roles, this also isolates important information that both partners need.

Some few exercise class teachers turn their back on the group and ask them to follow along, but generally they do it a better, easier way. They have the students mirror their actions.

Here’s a better way for dance teachers, and why it does more good…

Tell the class you are going to demonstrate the figure once, and that they might want to watch where the partners’ bodies move relative to each other and to the room.

Then start with the follower’s role in the figure. Why? Because this is what both follower and leader want to produce. The follower wants to produce it, and the leader wants to evoke it — regardless of their own footwork!

Put the teachers facing line of dance in front of and facing the group of all students (whether they follow or lead). Depending on the size of the class and the room dimensions, it may work best to create two groups, one beyond the other with a teacher in front of each group, instead of having all students abreast.

Announce that you teachers will visually lead the movement, and that all students are to follow along in the follower’s role. If the size of your room and size of your class allow it, position the teachers as leaders facing line of dance, with the followers in the normal position of backing line of dance. Room orientation provides valuable memory cuing for students.

The teachers dance the part of the leader and the students dance the part of the follower, visually following the teacher in front of them. The lead teacher can also use verbal cues to aid clarity.

  • All students get to feel how and where the follower wants to move.
  • All students get a preview of the leader’s movements.
  • (I contend that) It is usually easier to appreciate how you want to use your body when you observe an example from the front. That is, you can tell more about a body’s alignment and movement by observing it from the front.
  • All students gain an appreciation for where and how a follower needs extra time or cuing for a movement.
  • It encourages in followers the attitude of acting as empowered dancers versus merely reacting.

Repeat until most students follow your lead in a reasonably easy, smooth manner. (Suggestion: when you move back down the room to lead it again, have you and your students move as dancers, rather than lumbering back into place.)

Now announce that they are switching roles. The teachers exchange positions with the students, so that the teachers are now backing the line of dance, and the students are “leading”. The teachers as followers will back-lead the students. Again, verbal cues may help.

  • Either partner may be the one that better remembers what happens where and when. When both partners know the details of both roles they can better help each other with leading, following, cuing, and feedback.
  • The students are now seeing—facing them—the follower role they just learned. They can anticipate what comes next for the leader, the part they are now doing.
  • The students see the follower (the teacher in front of them) as an empowered dancer moving independently, instead of as a body they as leader must “move” into place.

In both of these segments, follower then leader, the students are observing the excellent technique of the teachers in front of them, in the same positions that their dance partners will take (albeit in embrace). They will be better prepared to give each other useful feedback.

Now put the couples as partners in la ronda, circling the room in line of dance, and let them work independently while the teachers walk among them giving assistance as needed. Please, please don’t position yourself in front of couples and tell the leaders to follow along with you. This causes problems.

  • Leaders must split attention between teacher and partner.
  • Followers give attention to teacher for the lead instead of to their partner.
  • Couples try to follow along at the pace of the teacher, instead of working at their own pace.
  • Teachers with their back to the group, even if they have a wall mirror, have a harder time observing the students.

Even when I work with individual couples, I’ll generally dance separately with each partner to help sense where the incomplete understanding or misunderstanding lies. Then I first ask the key partner to dance with me in their opposite role as I talk through their usual role and the effect that has on their partner.

Yes, this approach takes more time in the moment. But I contend that in the end it produces dancers with a deeper, richer understanding and production of the dance.

Dance, especially Argentine tango, is first and foremost about the kinesthetic, the feeling body sense. I create empathy and understanding with my partner when I first feel what they want to feel.

A positive prescription for guiding a person

A tray of mini pancake canapes, each topped with a piece of fruit and a toothpick
Each one lovely, in its own way.
Whether we teach a class or a lesson, or dance with a practice partner, and even when we self-talk about our own practice, we can act in a way to give a more useful, happier result. First, nine ideas for producing a positive outcome, followed by an optional essay on how I came to produce this list.

The prescription

  1. Begin immediately using self talk questions to frame how you see situations. “What would improve this?” “How can I create deeper understanding about this?” “What else could I do or ask in order to truly understand what comes after (or before) this?”
  2. Start recognizing the physical sensations in your body leading up to you giving feedback. It could be anywhere, and commonly may arise in the gut, in the chest, or in the head (face, scalp, ears, neck). For some individuals the body reactions can feel so strong that it ties their gut in knots, or makes it hard to breath. The tension transmits to the students who in turn get tense and less able to respond resourcefully. Gifted teachers come across with warmth and relaxation, with great focus on what will help, so that the student feels embraced with the knowledge. Such a teacher’s body reaction can produce in the student a warm, comfortable feeling that says, “I’m okay. I’m with a person who embraces me.” (See the parallels with calm, patient dance partners versus tense ones?) Your body reaction signals you to, “Pay attention!” You stand at the threshold of either doing something in a negative way, or in a caring and creative way.
  3. Deal with the positive first and repeatedly, giving it overwhelming attention.
  4. Give attention not only to the desired outcome, but also to the considerations, the whys and wherefores of the body mechanics that lead to a certain way as the more desirable. (While taking care to avoid over long, over analytical talk.)
  5. Give attention to disliked ways of doing things ONLY if you have seen them in evidence, and more than once in the situation at the moment.
  6. If you ever feel that you must give an example of a disliked way, first be certain to label clearly and multiple times which is the preferred way and which is the disliked way. (It helps to label with both visual cues and words.) DO NOT show the disliked way as the worst example that you imagine you’ve ever seen it. Instead show it as a “not quite as good as the preferred” way. Show the preferred way first and last.
  7. In your teaching practice begin formally cataloging common diagnoses and possible cures. What things have you found helpful in the past, such as: cuing phrases or touches, imagery, recognition signals, exercises, explanations (keep it brief!!), props, demonstrations, switching roles, working backward, isolation.
  8. Think and feel yourself as a Michelangelo, not a mechanic. The mechanic fixes broken parts, but You the artist seek to refine that beautiful piece of marble to release the dancing spirit inside, whatever shape it takes.
  9. Students come to a dance class to move! Get them moving early and often. Keep it simple and get them going again.

Preface

This article was a long time coming. First, in the sense that its genesis began long ago when I started recognizing unhappy, unproductive patterns in dance classes, leading me to begin exploring good teaching and learning practices. Second, I did a lot of rewriting and pondering. I found myself guilty in my writing of taking the same negative approach I was decrying. Indeed, the article started out with the title, Are we teaching TO the errors?

The essence of this article comes in the nine point prescription above. Do feel free to skip what follows. I include it to satisfy my sense of exposition, to let you know where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, and to share some bits and pieces I’ve found along the way that some of you, too, might find interesting.

The numbered brackets refer to: [#] end Notes with more information, and [P#] Prescription points.

Disclaimer

Just as we encourage continual improvement for our dance students, we want to seek it ourselves as teachers. Some teachers may see themselves in these remarks, but my impressions don’t represent any single teacher, and my remarks are intended to teach myself as much as offer suggestions for anyone else. I base these observations on a wide ranging and large sampling of teachers across the United States and in and from other countries. The desirable points represent many teachers much of the time. The disliked remarks reflect some teachers some of the time.

Introduction

Has it ever bothered you or made you wonder when teachers [1] …

  • Focus on possible problems before seeing any examples of them? [2] [P3] [P5]
  • Spend more time talking about problems—what they don’t want—than what they do want? [P1] [P3]
  • Confuse you with whether they are demonstrating the right way or the wrong way to do something? [P6]
  • Manipulate a student’s body parts, as if they were an object? [3] [P8]
  • Insist that theirs is the one and only right way to do things? [5] [P8]
  • Grossly parody the wrong way so that students doing that either reject the call out or feel humiliated? [P6]

Are we mechanics that fix others, or are we guides that help them make discoveries for themselves? [6]

This article suggests where and how we want to focus our attention when [7] we give others feedback.

Focus on the desired outcome

I pursue a mission, a mission to improve myself, and perhaps to help a few others along the way. A sort of “Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative.” [8]

Just as the study and practice of Argentine tango has taught and continues to teach me so many valuable life lessons, it has made a deep impression with regard to the relative value of pointing out problems versus giving positive directions in creative ways.

Even though I enjoy a happy go lucky, upbeat attitude most of the time, I recognize and regret those instances where I put my attention and emphasis on the problems I saw—in my opinion—and on what I wanted, versus the things that mattered — such as foremost, a good, positive connection with our partners (spouse, partner, child, parent, sibling, neighbor, citizen, teacher, student, fellow creature sharing the journey on this planet).

I believe that the drive to edit and correct others derives from some kind of functional wiring in our DNA that expresses itself to a greater or lesser degree in individuals. It serves us by creating feelings of discontent with the way things are, and imbuing us with the drive to improve. So I respect and value this drive, the feelings that it creates. My thesis holds that we want to allow those feelings to arise and inform us, BUT, before immediately latching on to them, we want to take moments of reflection to see how we might convey deeper meaning and value in whatever feedback we give. [7] [P1-3]

So why throw a spotlight on teaching Argentine tango as an example of this universal [9] tendency. Because I feel that as teachers (of any subject) we miss a great opportunity when we latch onto the obvious, the easiest thing to observe. The “problem” that we see expresses only a *symptom* of some understanding that the student has created in their body-mind, whether consciously or not.

In my estimation, merely replacing the phrase, “Don’t do X” with “Do (the opposite of) X” carries not only the same literal meaning but also the same connotations of a mistake to be corrected, a problem to be fixed. For example, “You dropped your shoulder.” That’s abrupt and rough, and we can easily recall common worse examples. “You keep dropping your shoulder.” “When you take that step you do this… (recreate, or as likely, parody their performance)” [10] [P6]

I deeply, deeply want this article to carry a positive, helpful message. So let me first give as concise [11] a synopsis as I can think of for what we do want, and then I feel compelled to point out the problem teaching behavior just so that it can be recognized.

As with our dancing, we want to take a mindful approach with a clear intention BEFORE we act. More important than accurately, concisely, and kindly recognizing a problem, more important even than offering good suggestions for the correct behavior, our best course lies in reflecting for a moment on a number of questions:

* How often does this arise? Is it even worth mentioning? [12] [P5]
* Under what circumstances does it arise? Maybe that tells me something about a misconception the student has formed. [P1]
* Have we covered this behavior recently? Perhaps I need to use different words, images, concepts, exercises? [P7]
* What was happening BEFORE the problem behavior? How can I help the student routinely recognize the situations that lead up to the behavior? [13]

And the problem . . .

A teacher describing a pattern or movement says the desired behavior. But before or after that they may spend twice the time and energy covering possible problems. Worse, the examples may tend to parody or give a caricature of the supposed fault. Suppose that someone has a physical disability. Can you even conceive of mocking that, something that is part of them? So why would we do it with people who have a temporary disability in their understanding of how to use their body? [P5-6]

But more than that. Why do teachers actually spend more time describing and demonstrating the wrong ways of doing things? Sometimes they do this before the dancers have even demonstrated a defect! What do we want students to fix in their minds, the wrong way or the right way? And by the way, oftentimes in classes, due to poor acoustics, poor labeling by the teacher, moments of student inattention, or whatever, students may be quite unsure whether at the moment the teacher is showing the right or the wrong way to do something! [P6]

Seth Riggs, the developer of Speech Level Singing [14] (a concept that has informed my naturalistic approach to learning dance) has something to say about this. “Don’t give vocal iniquities the time of day.” That is, don’t be giving attention to the things you don’t want. Andrew Sutton of Dance Ninjas [15] has a big influence on my views and approach to teaching dance. In this matter he has a positive approach. You show both the ideal, perfect technique way of doing a thing, and then you show a somewhat less but not very much less good way of doing the same thing. You ask the students to tell you the difference and the importance in the difference. Both of his demonstrations could be acceptable depending on where the student is in their current level of achievements. [P6]

So instead of giving overwhelming attention to what NOT to do, we give all our attention to acceptable ways of doing a thing.

Last on my list comes the teacher who seems to be upset with us when giving feedback! [P2] For whatever reasons—possibly inexperience, insecurity, frustration, fear of confrontation—they come across as tense, and that makes the student tense, and thus less attentive to possible meaning or value from the feedback. For me, two teachers model ideal performance in this regard. Cristina Ladas [16] comes across as warmly engaged in helping students become better. When she does intercede it is to clearly and succinctly offer one idea that can help the student do something better. I also seek to model my teaching on my singing teacher, Gene Raymond, [17] a man of great patience, warm support, and many tools to help even one with a tin ear and anemic vocal cords. He has a low key but notable way of regularly giving positive feedback to let a student know when they are on the right track. He has a wealth of experience to draw on when one approach to a difficulty isn’t working. He can demonstrate with a minimal but clear distinction between a desirable and a less than desirable production. He conducts short lessons in a brisk and businesslike fashion, with warmth and good humor.

Conclusion

No doubt about it, teachers have a harder time teaching to positive possibilities. When we can identify a fault at least we’re doing something. (Does that perhaps remind you of a dancer in constant motion, sometimes without regard to music, partner, or others? Oops, I think I just gave a negative caricature.) When we go for the root cause of a problem we must become detectives, seeking to find the bad actor behind it all, or maybe a doctor looking for the diagnosis that might lead us to offering a cure instead of merely a palliative to relieve the symptoms. Then even when we think we have a good diagnosis we must search our experience banks or create from whole cloth a possible guide exercise, image, exploration, etc. [P7]

Then multiply that effort by all the possible permutations that a class full of students can present to you. It is easy to see why we fall back on, “Well this I know for sure. Don’t do that.”

To reiterate the prescription for improving interactions with others (and ourselves).

  1. Ask yourself, “What do I need to better understand this situation? How can I improve it?”
  2. Recognize negative feelings in your body, and first act to calm them. Deep belly breaths and relaxed shoulders help.
  3. Your positive intentions come first and foremost.
  4. Sometimes it helps a person to know why you feel that a certain way is the desired way.
  5. Give attention to disliked ways of doing things ONLY if you have seen them, and more than once.
  6. If you ever feel that you must give an example of the disliked way, make it quite clear multiple times and multiple ways, which is the desired way and which is the disliked way. Show the disliked way in a “not as good as the desired” way, not in a gross parody. The desired way comes first and last.
  7. Catalog common diagnoses and possible cures, such as: cuing, imagery, recognition signals, exercises, explanations (brief!!), props, demonstrations, switching roles, working backward, isolation.
  8. Think and feel yourself as a Michelangelo, not a mechanic. The mechanic fixes broken parts, but You the artist help refine that beautiful piece of marble to release the dancing spirit inside, whatever shape it takes.
  9. Students come to dance class to move! Keep it simple and get them moving again.

Caminando feliz,
–David

Notes

[1] Although this article focuses on teachers, it applies as well to partners offering feedback to one another.

[2] Pilates pioneer Madeline Black has good advice about cueing students, not giving corrections early, but waiting for the good pancakes. MadelineBlack.com/teaching/the-pancake-theory-learning-like-pancakes. See also Dr. Noa Kageyama, The Bulletproof Musician, on a study that says too quick feedback can degrade learning. BulletProofMusician.com/how-being-too-quick-to-offer-feedback-can-degrade-learning He begins his essay by making the important point that we want to learn how to teach ourselves.

[3] At the beginning of a lesson a teacher may describe in lovely and loving detail what they see as the ideal way to stand and move. But then most of the time and attention goes to pointing out and correcting mistakes, even to the point of hand manipulating [4] a student to put them in the right position—severe micro-managing. It largely fails to make a helpful impression because it makes the student a passive target of the comments or manipulations. The student isn’t building their own internal understanding.

[4] On the other hand, physical cuing, such as placing a hand lightly on a body area, can help a person sense how their body is positioned or is moving. Ideally the student uses their own hand, but sometimes it can help, such as in an area they can’t reach, to have a partner’s hand, to help with their body awareness.

[5] I enjoy when Jason Laughlin – Tangophilia.com – says, “That’s another way to do it, but that’s not how we are doing it right now.”

[6] I feel a lovely parallel exists here for dance couples, from the old mechanistic model of the leader as one who makes the follower work, versus a new view to the leader as a (lead, and not the sole) guide who helps the couple make discoveries.

[7] A feedback moment evaluation model: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it necessary that *I* say it? Is it necessary that I say it *now*?

[8] ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE. Words by Johnny Mercer, Music by Harold Arlen, Copyright 1944

[9] Political “discourse” offers a huge example.

[10] I recognize the irony of calling out teachers for a correctional approach to teaching, but I do hope that my positive examples and intent prevail.

[11] Yet another irony. I passed “concise” some time ago. Sorry.

[12] In a conservation with Adam and Tilly – AdamAndTilly.com – she offered a nice summary of how they decide when to intervene. “Is it a factual error?” Such as right versus left. And, “Is it a functional problem?” Such as failing to step onto axis.

[13] The concept of “inhibition” from Alexander Technique and other mind-body practices teaches us that in order to change a habit we must first recognize the cues that trigger that habit, for we can create change in ourselves only when we recognize the juncture where we have choices: to do what we usually do, to do something different, or to do nothing at all. By the way, this realization helps wonderfully when we get bored with patterns and movement choices in our dancing. We want to clearly identify the situations (all or many of them) that result in the habitual behavior. Then we can more easily begin making different choices.

[14] SethRiggsVocalStudio.com

[15] DanceNinjas.com

[16] TheOrganicTangoSchool

[17] OctaveHigher.com

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.

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.
–David

The “refrigerator” walking model

“The long line this creates feels so elegant!”

What a wonderful way to express her understanding and appreciation for one aspect of what we were learning about walking.

Two men move a white refrigerator through a doorway. Both men wear orange colored "forearm forklifts" to life the refrigerator, with one man walking forwards, the other backwards.
Our refrigerator partner
May I share with you a model, a mind-body image that my students find hugely helpful for creating various, important sorts of awareness in their body? It models a way of walking–both forward and backward–that not only functions in a naturally powerful way, but also looks and feels like tango.

You have a person-sized “refrigerator” in front of you, on casters that roll easily.

When I am the partner walking forwards it is as if I am moving my refrigerator up a walkway inclined upwards ahead of me.

When I am the partner walking backwards it is as if I am allowing my refrigerator to roll safely, under control so that it doesn’t run over me, down a walkway, inclined downwards to my back.

Also, the casters on my refrigerator roll only in a straight line forward-backward. Furthermore, the caster base of my refrigerator is under the center of and more narrow than my person. If I don’t direct my force straight ahead or back, then I can cause my refrigerator to tip over.

Deeper discussion

For more advanced students: As I develop more sophistication and awareness in my walking, it is also interesting to note that the steepness of the walkway varies by how large or how dynamic a step I want to take. It seems strange or paradoxical, but the longer or more powerful and dynamic a step, then the steeper the walkway. And that means I must put more control into my grounding and into my movement, whether forward or backward.

About models in general

Yes, there is a real hazard, just as with every sort of modeling, whether by viewing, hearing, or feeling the teacher, where students intently seeking to understand and learn may take things too literally or out of context. In this model, for example, it’s common for the “refrigerator” partner in a pair working on this walking concept, to apply too much opposition, to become too heavy. But! This is a perfect opportunity to talk about matching your partner’s energy.

By the way, we talk about partners, not “leaders” and “followers” (and definitely not “he” and “she”) to convey the important concept that dancers will practice as both followers and leaders, as a way to more fully, deeply, and easily learn their chosen role.

The Argentine tango is all about connection — with the music, and importantly, with my partner. Yet here I am treating my partner as an object rather than a sensing being with whom I want to form a dancing relationship. How odd this must seem! Yes, and in the learning phase (of a three phase model of skill acquisition: Perceiving, Practicing, Performing) if I feel and deal with my partner as a person, then I am faced with an incredibly complex web of emotions, assumptions, imperfections of sensing and movement, misconceptions, preconceptions, and more.

Mathematicians, Meteorologists, Philosophers, Physicists — people who explore complex systems in, I suppose, any field you could name, in order to facilitate understanding the system, make simplifying assumptions. They create models which they can better control and understand, as a way to gain insights into the complex system. Well can you think of any more complex system than the mental-physical-emotional interactions between two people dancing the Argentine tango?

We use the model, not as a substitute for making a real connection with our partner, but as a way to creatively evoke certain feelings and awareness in the student.

About walking in general and refrigerators in particular

Did you mentally play with the refrigerator as you read about it? I hope you did! As I work it with students, here are some important aspects we discover.

Awareness of centers of gravity and power. My power and balance comes from driving through my center, located somewhere around the solar plexus, the area between the lower edge of the breast bone and the navel. And, I must also have an awareness of my partner’s center, sensing through feeling out the connection I make, where the center is for this shorter, taller, bigger, smaller, or similarly sized person. If I direct my movement too high, I can topple my refrigerator backwards; too low and it can tip forward on top of me!

Awareness of grounding. When I am stepping forwards, moving a heavy object up an incline, I must sink my weight fully into the standing-pushing center-hip-leg-foot tower of power. Powering up that tower and shifting toward the front of the foot signals my movement intention to my partner. Now when going backwards, receiving the weight of a heavy object rolling down an incline, my fear is of the thing rolling over me, so I immediately reach back with a leg to create a bracing position. Since I can’t see what’s behind me, I must feel it out with my foot, reaching first with the toe, then rolling down into the full foot. I ground and power up that reaching foot-leg-hip-center (note the reverse order!) to take the weight.

Completing the step, the forward walker over-balances past the end of the foot, then pushes off that now somewhat flexed leg, and that push ends with a straight leg behind, a somewhat flexed leg in front absorbing and controlling energy. For the backward walker, the leg now closest to their partner flexes somewhat, with the weight grounded in the front of the foot, then pushing off, while the previously extended back, bracing leg, absorbs the movement.

The thing that is so interesting to me is how in a highly functional (and tango-elegant) way, walking forwards and backwards are precise analogs of each other in reverse time sequence. That is, if you took a video of someone walking well, either forwards or backwards, then ran that video back and forth in the opposite direction, you shouldn’t be able to tell whether that person was originally walking forwards or backwards!

Practice

Would you please do me a favor by taking a moment to play with this concept and let me know how or if it resonates with you? Or maybe you find it confusing, or wrong! From a collected, standing start, go through the motions or either preparing to push the refrigerator up a slope, or let it roll down a slope as you control it. Take a step. Reverse that step. Do it in the opposite order of events. Really feel that phantom refrigerator’s weight as you power it up the slope (forwards), or control its weight descending the slope (backwards). I would truly enjoy hearing about your experience.

Tango Tribe

David teaches a mixed ability, mixed experience Argentine tango class on Tuesdays from 8:30-9:30 pm at the Balance Dance Studio #1 in Austin, Texas.
david@tangotribe.com

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.

“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+”!