Yoga warmup for tango

A guest post by Veronika Kruta, verokrutayoga.com

Warm up before dancing with this 10-minute full-body yoga routine.

How strange that tango dancers rarely warm up their bodies before dancing! You would for other types of challenging dance.

The “warming up” I’ve seen might be dancing a low-intensity tanda (maybe a Calo or Canaro) with someone you have danced with before and know well, so as not to ruin your chances of impressing someone if they ask you to dance before you have warmed up.

Several years ago I began a practice of tuning in with myself and my body before going out to a milonga. I put on my heels at home and danced by myself for 10 minutes. I didn’t want the state of my body and mind to betray me when I got on the dance floor for that first tanda.

Often what I discovered in those 10 minutes would surprise me. Some days it seemed I had no balance whatsoever. My shoes didn’t feel right. My mind felt distracted. The clothing I was wearing was all wrong. I was being self-critical. Or the opposite would happen. I was pleased by the stability I felt, or by how expressive or creative my solo dancing seemed. How light and free I felt in my movement or how focused I was. These states of being change and can catch us unawares until we get into our bodies.

The same thing happens when I get on my yoga mat. This is often the first time of the day when I allow myself to tune in to what’s going on inside, the sensations I feel in my body, where my thoughts are, and what emotions I’m feeling. Many times I discover something I was not expecting.

Later, I started adding on to this practice of tuning in before dancing by spending a few minutes watching a video or two of some dancers who inspire me and then filling up on the excitement I felt from watching them. My dance seemed to transform. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever watched a performance at a milonga and felt like your own dance came alive after the performance, your inspiration and creative juices flowing through you and giving your dance a completely different, more raw and soulful expression.

There are many ways to get present in your body before you dance, and what a gift this is to your partner.

If you want to learn more about how presence can change your embrace, check out my blog post How Attention to Breath Can Enhance Your Tango.

Today I want to share with you a 10-minute, full body yoga warm-up you can do before dancing. You can even do this in your tango clothes. I recommend doing it barefoot or in street shoes, unless you want the added challenge of being in your dance shoes. When you don’t have time to do a full yoga practice before dancing, this is a great way to spend a few minutes to stretch, strengthen, energize, and become present in your body.

Warm up with yoga before dancing tango.

This brief sequence begins by getting grounded and warming up the joints. Then it moves into opening up the feet, spreading the toes and bringing awareness to how you distribute the weight across the whole foot.

Next, a few poses to warm up the front and back body, opening shoulders, stretching the side-body, and warming up the major muscle groups. (Similar to the purpose of Sun Salutations A and B in a Vinyasa practice.)

Then we open the hip flexors to promote a nice tango stride, and activate your twist to help torsion. Finally, we go into a deeper twist and hamstring stretch—also facilitating your stride, and finish with a little core warm-up to assist with balance, get the blood flowing, and energize the body in general.

Wrapping up, we take a few moments to bring the attention inward, focus on the breath, and tune in to our thoughts, emotions and state of being before heading out onto the dance floor.

I encourage you to use this sequence as a guideline and add or omit poses that you feel your body needs or does not need to warm up before dancing. If you are doing this sequence at home, in comfortable clothing, you may also add some floor poses, which I have not included here so that the routine can be done in your tango clothes in any space you find yourself.

For more information on how to compliment your tango dancing with a yoga practice or to try out some free yoga classes designed specifically for tango dancers please visit my website verokrutayoga.com or feel free to get in touch. I am always open to questions and feedback of any kind!

Happy Dancing!

Elements of improvisation

I will touch on four aspects of what I consider important to improvising dance (in general, and not only Argentine tango).

Solo practice

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.

Learning figures

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 …

Using pieces

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:

Exercise 1.
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.

Variations.
Require a specific leg be the crossing one. Change target to a Back or Open step.

Exercise 2.
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.

Exercise 3.
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.

Escalate your movement skill

Do you ride escalators up and down instead of walking them or using stairs? Did you say you are an Argentine tango dancer?!

Escalators full of standing people, while stairs go empty

I know, the moving stairs are usually filled with other people riding them, letting a machine do their work instead of using their own body in a great, simple exercise. So we’re stuck.

Walking up and down stairs makes a great exercise for dancers and everyone. We lift (or lower) almost our full body weight through a good range of motion. We strengthen our ankles, the joint through which all our body weight above connects to our base of support, our feet.

In regular walking in the general population, you are going to find people ‘falling’ from one step into the next, unable to seize their axis as the hips come over the foot. Worse still, they may not even bring their hips over the foot, but stagger a little side-to-side.

Let’s face it, our bodies are lazy. They will do as little work as they can get away with. So our minds and spirits that have aspirations must assert control and demand better performance. To avoid little-by-little performance degradation, we can challenge ourselves in lots of little everyday ways.

I have a few exercises that can help.

  • Walking slowly through the axis position, where the light leg swings directly under the hip and brushes past the other leg.
  • Changing up forward, backward, sideways the direction of steps.
  • Static heel raises. Think how often you are standing around watching something or waiting for something. Press the heels into each other, with the forefoot turned out to a comfortable degree. Rise up slowly off your heels, and lower slowly, keeping your weight forward, over the balls of the feet, so that the heels just kiss the floor.
  • Harder heel raises. Pressing the heels into each other, rise up on only one foot, with the other one floating beside the working foot. Repeat on the other side.
  • With each step, pretending that you are stepping up onto a short, next level plaza. We flex our ankle, pressing down through the ball of the foot to lift our entire body up to and above the next level. We can have that same feeling when walking on a constant level. With each step, I am “stepping ‘up'” and holding my weight there, in readiness for a next step or a pivot in place.
    In actual dancing we don’t want to bob up and down, so we flex the ankle and use a relaxed (but not bent) knee to absorb the lifting. This will keep our head at a nearly constant height as we swing through our axis, the ‘lifting’ point of each step.
  • Standing leg circles (lápiz). Standing on one leg we extend the other leg as far as it reaches to the front, then swing it in a large half-circle to the back, keeping the toe in light contact with the floor. Important: keep the size of the arc the same on the back and the front. Feel your active gluteus muscles on the back. Do five to ten times starting to the front, and then repeat starting to the back. Now repeat the whole thing on the other side.

Please give this a try and let me know if you have any questions or interesting experiences with it.

The secret to powerful pivots

Activate both internal and external hip rotator muscles for a powerful, smooth, controlled pivot, by pressing one heel into the other in the direction of pivoting.

David gives warm-up exercises, an explanation of the operation of the hip rotator muscles, and an explanation and examples of using this technique.

Index

0:00 Introduction
0:26 Warm-up exercises
0:41 Heel raises
1:09 Importance of ankles
1:31 Single-leg heel raises
2:09 Freeing heels without raising up
2:38 Double-leg foot twists
3:05 Hip twists
3:36 Torso twists
4:03 Whole leg and hip work, side-to-side steps
4:23 Importance of energy
4:47 Forward-and-backward steps
5:16 Importance of getting over axis in back step
5:39 Typical instruction for pivots: dissociation
6:08 More important muscles: hip rotators
6:22 External hip rotators
6:48 Internal hip rotators
7:40 Tip to help internal hip rotators for backward pivots
8:15 External and internal hip rotators working together
10:05 Concise summary of The Secret — pressing the heels together in the direction of pivot
11:29 Conclusion, an invitation to try it and comment

Transcript

Hi, this is David and I’m coming to you from the Tango Tribe studio in Austin, Texas. Today, I would like to share with you a secret that we use to help students produce powerful, controlled, smooth pivots, forward and backwards.

Let’s start off with some warm up exercises that will both prepare the body for work and inform the body about how to move in a way that produces those pivots.

We’ll start off with heel raises. With our heels together, our feet turned out or not, to whatever angle is comfortable, producing a nice base underneath us. We’ll move our heels up and down in a smooth, slow, controlled manner that gives us the best muscular exertion.

The ankles are so important because they are the connection between all of the rest of our body, and the base that is supporting our body that is our connection with the ground. So this is something that we ought to be working all the time.

We can make it harder by doing one foot at a time. And we can make that more controlled by anchoring one heel against the other. So the heavy leg is doing the work of raising the heel, while the light leg anchored against it is just floating free.

Then we can switch legs. Again, the light leg heel will anchor against the heavy leg.

Now of course, we don’t want to be popping up as we’re dancing an Argentine tango. We’d like to keep a nice level line. So what we will actually be doing is flexing the knees slightly forward to release the heels just enough that the foot can skim over the floor.

Now a different exercise. With the feet spread slightly so that the legs are still under the edges of the hips, let’s do the twist. I’m gonna keep my hips and torso facing forward while the legs twist independently underneath.

And after we’ve done that work, then I will keep the legs and the feet still, I’ll keep the torso pointing straight forward, and rotate only the hips. If it feels confusing, how does the body do this, think of working in opposition. So my opposite shoulder, I’m in effect pushing that forward as the hip goes forward.

And then we’ll keep everything from the hips down to the feet quiet while we rotate only the torso. I’ll keep my chin over the breast bone. I’ll keep my arms relaxed.

Good, so we’ve warmed up all of these connections. Let’s also do some whole leg and hip work. We can begin that most simply by doing side-to-side steps. And with those I’m going to emphasize rotating through the edges of the feet to give a strong grounding into the floor.

I always like to emphasize energy in my classes because it connects the dancer to the music, and to one’s partner no matter what their energy level is. If we have good strong energy available, then we can produce more powerful and clear movements and connect with our partner whatever their energy level is.

And let’s also do some steps forward and backward, again emphasizing rolling through the entire foot, pushing off the front of the foot to go forward. Pushing off the heel going backwards. Switching feet. This movement is important because as I step backwards I want to reach, providing room for my partner to step forward. And I want to get my hip fully over my axis, over the ball of the foot of the standing leg to enable it to pivot easily.

Okay, so what about this secret I talked about? Well, in most tango instruction, you’ll see emphasis placed on dissociation where the body parts twist in opposite directions. If I’m going forward pivot, I turn the shoulder away from that, and that’s going to pull the muscles, pull the hip around.

However, I think there are even more important muscles down below: the hip rotator muscles that we exercised at the beginning of our warm-up.

For external rotation which rotates the foot away from our center line, or if we’re standing on the ball of the foot, it rotates the heel to the front. There are six muscles that attach to the top of the thigh bone and then connect to the hip, and they run at a fairly horizontal direction.

For internal rotation which sends the foot towards the center line, or if we’re on the ball of the foot as we would be for pivots, it sends the heel back away from us. There are also six muscles but some of those are shared, and also they don’t run at a horizontal angle, they run more vertically, and attach both to the hips and to the spine. That makes them somewhat less effective.

For external rotation, we can go as much 140 degrees. Internal rotation as much as 110 degrees. It’s not as powerful going internal rotation, which is what we do for back pivots. That’s one of the reasons why back pivots are a little more difficult.

And here’s a tip, a little trick. If we tilt the pelvis forward, it puts those internal rotator muscles at a more advantageous angle. It also serves to send our weight more forward over the ball of the foot, freeing up the heel. So what we want to do is when we’re stepping for a back pivot is leading with that hip and keeping that hip back as we pivot.

But now, there’s more to it. We have external rotators, we have internal rotators. What if we could get the effect of both of those sets of muscles working together? We can!

What I want to do is if I’m going to the front, my heel is going to the front underneath my body. I am going to press it against the other heel. Firmly press the heels together, which in effect recruits the internal rotators of the other hip. So you get the effect of both muscles working synergistically together, the external rotators and the internal rotators.

To illustrate. So from standing still, it could produce almost a 360 degree turn. Going in the other direction, backwards, the heel is moving behind me away from me. In this case, I’m going to take the heel of the light leg, and push it firmly against the heel of the heavy leg. And of course it’s the very same thing on the other side.

Going backwards I press the light leg heel against the heavy leg. Going forward, the heavy leg is coming around, it presses against the light leg.

[Pausing to collect thought.]

Oh, so it takes longer and is more confusing to explain all of this than it is to actually do it. We don’t need to be thinking about okay, which side of the heel is going where if I’m going back? Is it the right one or the left one? Which one is coming?

All we need to think about is if I’m turning in this direction, I can even do it on two feet to figure it out if I don’t know, then this heel is going forward, this heel is going towards the other one. So that heel is going to press into the other one. If I’m going backwards, this heel is going away, so it’s the other, the light leg heel that’s coming towards the other heel. I’m going to press the light leg heel into the heavy leg.

That’s what we need to remember is simply firmly pressing one heel [whichever one is moving toward the other heel] into the other. And it works not only standing still, but as we’re coming through our axis collecting, we get the same effect by pressing those heels strongly together.

So that’s our secret. I hope you give it a try, both for yourself in your own practice, and with your partners or if you’re teaching students. See what it does for you. In our experience with beginning dancers, and even never-ever dancers, the quick warm up, explaining of pressing the heels together as they pivot, it so quickly produces quality pivots.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you. Thank you for your attention.

The Alexander principle of choices

At each and every moment, if we but sense the opportunity, we have three choices. We can do what we’ve always done in that situation, we can do nothing, or we can do something different. The key is recognizing the opportunities to make a choice, and that comes at the moment-before-the-moment.

The BODY LEARNING book cover that shows a man holding a toddler standing upright in the right hand of the man.
BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb

Let’s say that you’ve come to recognize, or you’ve been told, that you do a certain move ALL – THE – TIME. (A cadencia turn, maybe?) You want to introduce variety into that situation. What sort of variety?

  • Do what you’ve always done. But! Can you change the character of the movement? Can you do it at a different cadence, rhythm, or speed? Legato versus Staccato? With styling?
  • Do nothing! Could this be a good time in the music, or in a constant flow of movement, to take a pause? Maybe some rhythmic weight changes in place, or adornos, or simply a quiet gathering of energy for what comes next.
  • Do something different. The cadencia turn makes such an easy change of direction and connector of other figures that we tend to overuse it. What would it take to introduce other creative ways to achieve a similar result with something new? (You might use the Tango Keypad as a tool to analyze existing moves and explore new moves.)

We all want to use our body in the right way, but due to inactivity, sitting, smartphones, desk work, injuries, and repetitive use, what feels right may be less than effective and even hurtful, and what works best may feel wrong.

Maybe we learn from partner or teacher feedback that at times, especially in certain types of movements, we tilt our shoulders, tilt our whole axis, create tension, push or pull, drop a hip, and on and on. The key to making a change comes from recognizing when the problem happens. But because this is what you have done habitually, it doesn’t feel wrong. So instead, we may more easily recognize the situations that lead up to the problem.

So I say to myself, “Ah! We are about to enter that move where I typically do X. Well now I am going to monitor that body part and do what I know to be right, even if it feels different.” Eventually, the better way comes to feel like the right way.

You could benefit nicely from studying all of the Alexander Technique, but you don’t need to know who F. M. Alexander was or what his discoveries and writings were about to benefit from this principle of choices:

  1. Learn and then recognize the situation that arises just before the thing you want to change; and
  2. Give yourself an instant at that moment-before-the-moment to consider and make a choice with intention.

Another principle in the Alexander Technique, and one highly important in learning and improving Argentine tango, is the avoidance of what he terms end-gaining. I plan to explore that topic in a future article.

Frederick Mathias Alexander was born in Tasmania (an island state of Australia) in 1869. He lived in the same era as the development and worldwide growth in the popularity of Argentine tango. In his twenties he became a professional reciter of dramatic pieces, a popular form of entertainment in those days. After almost completely losing his voice, and with no medical answers or help, he developed a method of use of his body in all positions and movements, and cured his vocal problems. [Adapted from THE USE OF THE SELF by F. M. Alexander.]
Library or Store

In addition to Alexander’s own book, I recommend BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb.
Library or Store

You can also find Alexander Technique practitioners and teachers around the world. Search for alexander technique [and your location].

Trust in tango

Trust in Argentine tango. The garden-variety trust that everyone wants to expect has our partners respect our needs for safety, comfort, respect, and mutuality.
Tango as a moving Trust Fall
We trust that they, too, want to commit to making a meaningful dance together. Trust that they won’t take advantage of an intimate embrace for unexpected, unwanted physical contact. Trust that they will practice safety awareness in giving weight and energy to another body, plus safety moving around other dancers and objects.

Another and different type of trust excites me when dancing.

It’s a trust particularly hard to find in novices who aren’t yet aware of what is possible, what can become resolved safely and comfortably if they but commit themselves to the movement their body feels.

It’s a trust that in more advanced dancers means dancing on the edge. It subsumes the previous elements while adding the element of matching: energy, intention, style. Like the novice, maybe we commit to a movement we haven’t seen or danced before and don’t quite understand, or maybe we haven’t danced with this kind of energy or style.

But as a more advanced partner, we can take that moment of trust and add to it our ability to move in a highly effective manner. Feet well connected to the floor in pushing and in receiving it. Legs tracking with hip direction and swinging under and through our center of balance (axis) with each step. Body well structured, coordinated, and alive! with energy matching our partner and the needs of each moment. Body well-grounded, with each step placement intentional, looking out not only for our own but also for our partner’s stability. Giving our partner signals before movements, in suspensions or minute contra-preparations, for an instant to notice, prepare, and respond.

There exists so much personal value that we can give one another: Love, gratitude, understanding, time, empathy, respect, attention, and more.

For me, trust must rank among the highest values in what we can give to another. While typically a thing that a person earns (or loses) over time, it’s something that we dancers do in a few moments of taking up an embrace and moving a few steps with a stranger. It’s something we give, even knowing that we can be hurt if our trust is misplaced, misused.

We willingly suspend our fears, feeling that when we place our trust in the right person, in the right moment, then we shall share mutual rewards.

The hand side of the Argentine tango embrace

David describes the ideal hand embrace for Argentine tango
See also, An ideal embrace.

Transcript for “The hand side of the Argentine tango embrace”

Hi, let’s talk a little bit about the hand side of the Argentine tango embrace.

Will you do a little experiment with me? Clasp your hands together in front of your chest, with you right hand over the left hand. Now, if we move these out to the side, that should look familiar like the hand side of the embrace, where the leader offers their hand out to the side with the palm facing their partner, and their partner places their hand in the leader’s palm, forming a nice, comfortable grip.

Let’s look a little bit about some characteristics of the grip. If we turn to the side, the first you’ll see is that the thumb of the follower encircles the base of the leader’s thumb. And the fingers likewise wrap around it, with the second joint of the fingers draping comfortably over the webbing of the leader’s hand. The hands are not twisted or rotated, not twisted to the side. They are in comfortable alignment with the forearm, and not bent back as in the so-called Milonguero grip.

Let’s take a few quick moments to look at some embraces that I think don’t function as well, and in some cases actually feel unpleasant. The worst of these is where the follower gives only their fingers to the leader. This forces the leader to have to grip onto the fingers to have any form of connection or control on that side. In another form, the follower keeps their thumb tight to their fingers, and they will drape their fingers over, but they do not give any connection with the thumb. Or, they may place it on the middle joint of the leader’s thumb, which is not quite so bad. But I’d like to show you how it’s more functional wrapping the thumb around your partner’s thumb.

But before that, let’s talk just a moment about the Milonguero grip, where the follower’s hand is bent back unpleasantly and uncomfortably. Some dance partners, both leaders and followers, say that this is necessary in order to get locked in, to have a very firm connection with your partner. I’m going to suggest that with the comfortable embrace that we’re looking at here, where the thumb and fingers wrap around the base of the leader’s thumb, draped nicely over the partner’s hand, where neither partner is squeezing the other but they’re just comfortable embracing, that this will produce a nicely locked-in embrace that gives all the control that’s necessary. And we can do a couple of experiments to demonstrate this.

First, let’s look at the lead-follow connection, what it means for the leader to give an intention and for the follower to respond using their own energy to that intention. So for this first experiment, I would like for the follower to be completely passive to allow their hand to be moved by the leader. So we could even, the follower could relax their hand grip so they’re not actually even gripping their partner’s hand and just feel what it’s like for the leader to move your hand around. What is it like for the leader to be moving a passive partner?

Now let’s try the second way, the way that we would want to do it, where the follower uses their own energy to respond to the intentions of the leader. The leader, in this case, will not tightly grip the follower, will not be pulling on the follower. In fact, for the purposes of the experiment, the leader could actually have their hand completely relaxed, while the follower has their hand encircling the leader’s hand. Now when the leader moves, the follower is using their attachment to the leader to move themselves.

In my opinion, this is the natural way that we want the dance to function, where the leader gives an intention or a signal of how they want to move, they move coherently in their own body, and the follower’s connection to the leader allows them to sense where the leader is moving and then use their own energy to move with the leader.

For our second and last experiment, the leader will have a passive hand and the follower will be actively moving it. The leader will actually offer resistance to the hand being moved toward the follower. The follower will drape their fingers over the leader’s hand. The thumb can be either loose or maybe even resting lightly on top of the leader’s thumb. And now I want the follower to pull against the leader’s resistance and see how that feels in the body.

Now I would like for the follower to actively encircle the thumb of the leader. And once again, to pull back against the leader’s resistance and see how that feels in the body. It should be the case that this extra recruitment with a powerful thumb gives you a better sense of connection, of being locked in to your partner, whether or not they are giving you any connection.

After you’ve thought about this, two questions might come to mind. First, what if the hands are very different in size? Is that going to make a difference? Well, I did an experiment out in the wild to test this. In front of a grocery store, I asked a woman and her very young daughter if they would assist me. Happily, it turned out that the woman was a dancer who actually danced with her young daughter. And when I mentioned Argentine tango, they were happy to help.

So I first asked them to do the experiment where they clasped their hands in front of their chest. And then without any prompting, I asked the mother if she would place her hand in mine. And she did, as we’ve been demonstrating. And then, again, without any prompting, I asked the young lady, the girl, if she would place her tiny hand in mine. And she also, with her small hand, encircled my thumb with her thumb and fingers. It felt quite natural to her, and it felt natural and comfortable to me with her hand resting on the mound of my palm and giving nice, full contact to both our hands.

A second question that might come up is how do we embrace a partner who may have a muscular or joint problem, or some other limitation that prevents them from placing a palm in the palm of their partner, where the palm is facing your partner, with the fingers draped over and the thumb around the partner’s thumb. Well, as always in tango, with the magic of making that connection in tango, we’re going to seek to make the best connection we can with whatever limitations we may find.

I’m going to show you a photo of my wife. When she was a very young girl, she decided it would be fun to ride a horse that was wild in a pasture, bareback. And when she was brushed off by a low hanging branch, the fall resulted in a multiple compound fracture of her forearm. In the picture, you’ll see two round scars in her forearm from that incident. The injury didn’t heal completely properly, so this makes it difficult for her to pronate her hand, that is to turn the thumb towards her midline. As a result, she has to approach the embrace with her hand turned vertically, somewhat vertically, or else it forces her elbow into an awkward position.

So when she embraces my hand, she will be more on my thumb than on the palm. However, since she embraces low down at the base of the thumb where it’s strongly connected to both hand and forearm, it feels quite comfortable and we both feel well connected.

If you have been dancing Argentine tango for any length of time, you will have heard teachers and experienced dancers say you can tell a lot about the dance you’re going to have from the embrace that your partner gives you. And the embrace is a gift that each partner gives to the other. We want our partner to know that we want to be with them, fully committed to what we’re going to create in this dance. The hand side is usually the first part of the embrace, and it sets the tone for everything that follows.

This is David at the Tango Tribe studio in Austin, Texas, and I thank you for your attention.

Feelings & Technique

Dear significant dance partner,

I may have come to an important realization.

You asked whether I thought I would go to another encuentro after my first experience where I felt that I had not experienced what I considered a sufficient number of sufficiently satisfying tandas.

As I was doing my garbage cart walk from the house to the street this morning I flashed on the realization that, while my desire is to have amazing, even when rarely “perfect” dance experiences; my two goals are to look nice (as a point of personal pride, accomplishment, and for recognition) and for my partners–whether leader or follower–to feel that they have amazing dance experiences with me.

Goals and projects for their attainment

While I have good intentions for my various improvement goals:
If I compete (a current project) it
o Helps provide structure, context, and motivation for my practice and learning;
o Gives me a yardstick for measuring progress; and
o Gives me arms-length, high level feedback;
I had (have) a selfish, even if worthwhile motive. The “valid, up to a point” thought is that the more I improve my dance the more others will see it, and that will get me more dances with equally accomplished dancers.

Without denying the importance of my technical performance goal, what if I raised the importance of my dance partner connection goal? What if I even used that as a key component of my technical work?

Connection: value and development

When I watch a dance performance of any kind (social, YouTube, stage), while the flash and technical quality first catch my eye, what makes a deeper, longer lasting impression is my sense of the connection of the partners to each other and to the music.

And for getting more partners, what’s likely to give the bigger payoff, onlookers maybe seeing how fancy you dance on a floor packed with other dancers, or having dance partners tell their friends how they feel when dancing (and socializing!) with you? I think we all know, word of mouth beats advertising.

Plus, that intention to give a partner an amazing dance experience works equally well in all cases, whether leader or follower, beginner to pro.

What goes into an amazing dance experience? Certainly the technical aspects play a big part in that: the ability to control one’s axis/balance in all situations, as well as to be aware of and protect our partner’s axis/balance; the ability to accurately, clearly, and comfortably give and respond to movement intentions; the ability to navigate a floor safely, protecting our partner and others (and even eyes-closed followers can help this with their sense of space, safe movements, and accurately responding to a partner’s intention).

Beyond the technical attainments, what goes into a great experience of connection to a partner (and to the music)? Experience, of course. We’ve got to have lots of experience with a variety of partners (and music) where we come to feel deeply and consider our response to each other.

I reject the macho advice I so often received from mostly my early teachers who told me that to make my best, fastest progress I should seek to dance only with already good partners; that beginner or weak partners would bring me down. While I recognize the element of truth in that–particularly at that stage of my development, I also see it as one of those “training wheels” that need to come off. (J, reviewing this for me, adds that dancing with beginners and improvers is our way to give back to the community that has meant and done so much for us.)

Resolution

So I shall seek to embrace and make better use of all kinds of dance opportunities, including the encuentro, where one can find a lovely variety of dancers all with the intentions to create deep and satisfying dance connections with others.

Now here I am burdening your schedule with a welter of words, taking up time with my self-analysis session. I hope you will grant me leeway and not plot some retribution for me. 🙂

Thank you for helping me become a better dancer through our practice and your feedback and ideas. And a better person.

Un gran abrazo con meneo,
–David

Argentine tango competitions

The photo shows a stage in the background distance, and portions of a large auditorium filled to capacity with people watching a world competition of Argentine tango.

Human nature encompasses competition and cooperation.

The martial art of Aikido shares much in common with Argentine tango in spirit (with nage “leader” and uke “follower” as partners rather than combatants) and techniques (triangle, circularity, flow), and in generally eschewing competitions.

“The founder of Aikido, O-Sensei was reportedly against the concept of contests and competitions in Aikido. We seek instead “Masakatsu agatsu” or winning over yourself. In other words, the goal of Aikido is the mastery of one’s self to create harmony.” Source

There are a small number of Aikido competitions, mostly in a particular style. There also have been Argentine tango competitions en los barrios from its historical beginnings. Indeed, the dance was a form of substitute for lethal fighting. Even in the social dance today we have a competition for the best partners and attention.

The competition judge Claudio Villagra tells us, “Based on my experience, I considered the most important thing to competitors is to keep in mind that the competition is a big part of personal and professional growth. Competing does not always mean to ‘win’. The true competition is with yourself, every day in practice. Be confident, elegant, have cadence and a good interpretation of musicality.”

Yes, there will be some competitors who see competition as a stepping stone to recognition and professional advancement, and some may look to past competition results to find the secrets to success, and that could distort the individuality, the freshness, the “innocence” of the dance. (For example, breeding to win dog conformation contests has led to genetic weaknesses.)

But think now of all the other purposes competition can serve:

  • as goal and a context in which to pursue personal improvement and achievement;
  • as a means to guide development and bring purpose to practice; and
  • as a form of evaluation (complementing other forms of evaluation: internal, partners, teachers).

Why then do some Argentine tango dancers belittle competitions as “showing off” or somehow not in the spirit of the dance? It’s as if they think competitors are trying to show themselves as better than they are. Well, yes! That’s exactly the point. Dancers want to get better. They want to show what they have achieved in their dance, and they are willing to have it judged.

I see a strange, sad parallel between the “showing off” sentiment and those followers who say, “Oh, I could never do mirada. That would be like putting myself out there, wanting attention.” Well, yes! That’s exactly the point of mirada, of competitions. You are putting yourself out there for others to see and assess.

Many of us don’t like the uncomfortable feeling of being judged, but that’s how we grow. If you don’t assess your efforts today versus yesterday, how will you improve?

Many forms of motivation and evaluation exist. We don’t have to pick competitions for ourselves. Yet we can recognize the value of people finding and using lots of different good ways to motivate and improve their art. We grow not by diminishing others or their methods, but by helping others and striving for ourselves.

Links to competitions