I will touch on four aspects of what I consider important to improvising dance (in general, and not only Argentine tango).
Solo practice video recorded, with music and strongly visualizing your partner. Benefits:
- Learn specific songs and learn to recognize recurring structures in music.
- Prepare your body to respond to music, both with figures and with adornments.
- Discover and store little movement sequences that nicely express certain musical idioms.
Regularly review your video to see if the outside view matches what you feel inside. If you like what you see, do more of that. If you don’t like what you see, try something different.
For a comprehensive program of learning figures, with rhythmical interpretations, I am a big fan of the DVIDA (Dance Vision International) program for Argentine tango (and other dances). They are offering their entire streaming library for FREE (no credit card needed!) for a month during the Covid-19 time of physical distancing.
Here’s the value of figures. These are sequences of moves that dancers have over time discovered they nicely fit together. They flow. These are good starting points to see what movements there are and how they can combine nicely. Pay particular attention to how you get into (that is, start) the figure and how you resolve (end) it. You will find these starting and ending moves get used many times, and you will begin to discover how they “prime the pump” for movements to follow.
Another value is the context that a figure gives you to discover how you want to move yourself to make the figure flow nicely. Each element of a figure: ochos, cruzadas, alterations, and on and on, are things you can reuse in different combinations. You want to learn how to flow into and out of a particular movement from many different starting and ending points.
But it can be mind-numbing and confusing to learn many figures all at once. Learn one, master it so it flows smoothly. Then experiment with fitting it into your usual repertoire. Use it in lots of different styles of music to play with the dynamics of each movement within the figures.
Then you can begin experimenting with breaking it into pieces and recombining the pieces in different ways. “If I can do it in this direction, can I also do it in the other direction?” “If I do this to my partner, can we change it so they do it to me?” “What if we do more/less of these movements?” “What if I end the figure early?” “What if I start the figure later in the pattern?”
That leads nicely into …
Recognize that at Every Single Step my partner and I have a few, fairly simple choices: Wait, Change weight, or Pivot.
The most simple of those, we can simply wait in place for our partner to complete their movement or for a new phrase of music to begin. Even though simple it can be challenging to wait while still holding energy and attention.
Either or both of us can change weight from one foot to the other. A weight change can be in place or over a distance. It can be permanent or momentary.
If the weight change includes a step, that can be around or ‘through’ our partner. With my light leg I can step around my partner on either the hand side or the arm side of the embrace. In one direction the step will be an open step; in the other direction it will be either a front-crossing or back-crossing step. My partner has the same choices.
Either or both of us can pivot: matching, mirroring, or mismatching.
Having experimented with the elements of figures. We will begin to recognize the richness of all these possible choices. We can begin to play with these in a variety of games/challenges to gain a facility for finding useful opportunities whenever they arise.
The Tango Keypad article has a system for generating challenges from any random string of numbers. But many will consider this too geeky or complicated. There are simpler games.
Mauricio Castro has a number of interesting exercises in his TANGO DISCOVERY book and DVD. Here are three, for example:
As partner stands with weight on one leg, demonstrate Open, Front-crossing, and Back-crossing steps. Change legs and repeat. “1-2-3-4 Front” exercise. Lead partner in any four steps, then a Front. Count out loud.
Require a specific leg be the crossing one. Change target to a Back or Open step.
Now leader should occasionally make an intentional mistake to see if follower catches it. “That wasn’t a front cross.” At more advanced levels step faster.
At count 4 the follower will call for next step: front, back, or open.
My partner’s energy
The first point about solo practice is in part about how I (and each of us individually) develop my own clear and creative energy to bring to a dance partnership. My great hope and great joy when I find it is that my partners will have done the same sort of work to bring good energy to our dancing together.
When I dance with a partner who is well connected to themselves, well connected to the music, well connected to me, and using the floor in powerful ways, it can feel like magic. We can find ourselves doing things we’d never dreamed of in any class or lesson. We can find ourselves wondering afterward, “How did that happen!?” That is when our investments in Practice, Patterns, and Pieces come together in a magical flow of improvisation.