(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.
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?
So now you have a good excuse not to put your bag away between tango festivals trips!
Last night at the práctica at La Pista in San Francisco I said to my delightful partner, “It feels like my steps are cut short. I have plenty of room at the beginning, and when I am ready to push with my supporting leg the movement has already come to an end.” Then she told me she was following my ‘refrigerator walking model’ as I describe it on the Tango Tribe web site.
Oops! Caught by my own words.
This illustrates the importance of working with live teachers (in addition to all the other resources available) who can see and feel what you are doing then work creatively to give you the examples, imagery, exercises, and anything else that will help you make the desired mind-body connections.
Did you realize that birds and humans have about the same number of genes (23,000) and share about 65% of their DNA?
When there is safe space in the room and the music directs me, I love to fly across the floor, really moving to cover ground. My earliest memory of dreaming as a child was of soaring high above the countryside on outstretched wing-arms. I recreate that feeling when I am skiing or skating or … dancing! That feeling of gliding above the surface below. (And perhaps that is part of why I had such a challenge for so long in being ‘grounded’ in my dancing?)
So what does this have to do with the Refrigerator model? Keep the body positioning, the strong connection, the reaching of the free leg, and the sensations of muscle usage. Add to that an essential element, regardless of the size of the step — the glide. This is the phase of movement that results from the push of the respective leader-follower supporting legs.
Think-feel that moment when you are on skates, skateboard, scooter or any kind of glider you push (knowing that you can push in either a forward or rearward direction). As you push with the supporting leg the extended free leg moves a little (or a lot) beyond the place where it would have stopped if you’d only stepped. This I feel creates a key difference between merely walking and really dancing.
When we just step from foot to foot (again, regardless of the size, big or small, of that step) it creates, I feel, a flat, somewhat wooden affect. When the spirit of the music impels us to add an extra energy from our body, to express the music that moves us, then we become the other orchestra instruments who are the dancers.
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.
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.
What a wonderful way to express her understanding and appreciation for one aspect of what we were learning about walking.
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.
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-foottower 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!
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org