The key to improving your tango, we’re often told, is practice. But what precisely is the best way to practise: the one most likely to lead to rapid and sure improvement?
Practice versus Social Dancing
The first key thing is that practice is not exactly the same as dancing.
Dancing socially does provide some of the benefits of more structured practice. Done with awareness and care, social dancing enables us to become more deeply familiar with the music—especially if we attend milongas in which the DJs base their choices around a solid repertoire of Golden Age standards. It can help us to gain confidence in both leading and responding to leads. And there is no other really effective way to improve our floorcraft than to go out there onto the pista often and gain a familiarity with the lane system, a sixth sense of the directions in which leaders in front of and behind us are likely to move and when we will have room to stride out and when we need to arrange our dance in a small, tight circle (every leader should learn to enjoy those circular, on-the-spot movements in which the partners chase each other’s tails like playful puppies—don’t get caught up in an urgency to progress around the dance floor, in a deep need for a linear walk: that way frustration lies.)
But, when we’re simply dancing, it’s all too easy to slip into our comfort zones. In fact, when we’re dancing socially, we often should actively seek those comfort zones. Leaders, in particular, should not experiment with new moves at the milonga, followers shouldn’t try wild decorations that they have not yet learned to control: we need to give our social dance partners our most polished performance, our most practised movements. But this also means that we can fall into repetitious sequences that quickly feel as though we are dancing them on autopilot, with sloppy footwork and sagging postures. We can relapse into bad old habits, and find ourselves executing that flopped in front of Netflix, eating Doritos style of dancing, that awkward cuddle shuffle. Comfortable. But baggy.
Practice, then, is of extreme importance. And yet it’s quite an art.
Does Practice Make Permanent?
First though, there’s one fear I’d like to dispel. There’s a myth circulating that practice makes permanent and only perfect practice makes perfect. A lot of dancers are wary of practising because they fear they will be practising the wrong thing and simply acquiring new bad habits to replace the old. This is why conscious practice is so important. What we need is not to automatize movements—so that we can repeat them by rote, without thinking—but to incorporate them into the body, fully conscious at every stage of what and how we are moving. Not overthinking things, but not moving in a kind of trance either. The main thing we need to develop through conscious practice is greater proprioception: i.e. awareness of where our body is in space and how it is moving. We need to listen in extremely carefully.
The process should not feel like someone driving to work, shifting gears and flicking on indicator lights without even knowing she is doing so, listening to NPR perhaps, her conscious mind occupied with the latest news or preparing a mental shopping list for dinner later, her feet on the pedals and hands on the wheel working in the background unnoticed, so that, once she reaches the office, she scarcely knows how she got there.
Dancing can feel that way. Sometimes, when I’m really dancing, I feel as though I am in a bubble of stillness and it’s the world which is moving around me. Sometimes, I don’t feel I am even hearing the music: instead, I’m following the miniature tale which is the lyrics, listening to the meanings behind the words, constructing the story of a jilted aging Frenchwoman starving in a porteño garret or a heartbroken bachelor lovingly repairing an abandoned bandoneon in my imagination and I scarcely know what my feet and body have done to express the notes of the song and respond to the leads I’m feeling. This is blissful. But it isn’t practice.
Practice feels more like someone manoeuvring a mountain bike down a narrow path along a mountainside, like someone slaloming down a steep steep Alpine slope. It’s less like driving to work and more like a Formula 1 race—without the speed, but with that sense of intense focus on the actions you are making, intense awareness of your movements. You are learning how to be aware of how you are moving and to control and modify your way of moving, as necessary.
If you can do this, then it is not so important what you learn. The skill you are honing is how to learn. Just as a flautist who can consciously control the movements of his mouth can play legato or staccato at will, so you can correct things of which you are aware. If you are choosing, for example, to twist your hips first in a giro, before turning the upper body, you are (to my mind) choosing wrongly. But if it’s a conscious choice of which you are aware, you can change it. It’s when those hips are swivelling around without your knowledge, when you don’t realise what you are doing that it becomes much harder to alter. So if you practise consciously, even if the movement you are practising is incorrect, you are making it easier for yourself to adjust it later. Always aim to incorporate, but not to automatize.
How can you achieve this? Let’s look at some tools you can use and some concrete things you should focus on.
It is important, eventually, to incorporate some speed drills into your dance: to be able to respond quickly and fluidly (you’ll need to push yourself). But, for most dancers, most of the time, one key to practising is slowing movements right down. In tango, the point is not to get from one place to the other: it’s entirely about how you get there.
You’ll need to break your movements down.
A forward ocho isn’t one single motion. In my technique at least (your mileage may differ), it involves first turning the upper body alone in towards your partner, then pivoting your base foot as needed to find the correct direction of travel, then taking a step, landing softly in the middle of your two feet, with weight evenly distributed between front and back feet, then transferring your weight fully onto the front foot as you spiral your upper body more deeply towards your partner. Then, once all your weight has been transferred, pivoting your base foot. Finally, you allow your free foot to come to axis and adjust your upper body at the same time to face your partner again.
Your forward ocho may be different. That’s OK. I’m not trying to teach you a specific forward ocho method here—that’s too cumbersome to do in writing; I would need to show you and, in any case, valid styles and techniques of ochos differ. But however you do your forward ochos, you need to be able to subdivide the movement into this level of detail and monitor how you are moving through every single stage. One of the greatest challenges facing every dancer is dissociation and, by that, I don’t just mean the upper-body-led spiral movements so frequent in tango but every type of movement that requires separating out the different parts of the body: moving the back here, but not the hips; the foot here but not the hip; the toes here but not the knee; the torso here but not the behind.
One of the main advantages of breaking movements down is to ensure that you are with your partner at every stage of the movement: not just beginning and ending together, but traversing the distance between one step and the next with complete coordination. One example of this which is worth practising for almost everyone is to both giro around a common centre, in practice hold. The idea of the exercise is to coordinate not just your footfalls but each part of each movement. You should arrive at the mid-weight point between steps together, transfer weight at exactly the same speed. Your upper body movements should complement each other so that, as the right hand side of your partner’s upper body (for example) turns in towards you, the right hand side of your upper body turns in towards her an equal amount, at an equal speed. If some imaginary god took a pair of compasses, like the illustration in Blake’s Milton, and traced a line, at lower shoulder blade height, around the outside of your two backs and through the air, the shape created would be a perfect, even oval. Only if you go slowly can you work on and eventually achieve this kind of harmony of motion.
Notice that, in tango, one side of your body is always further away from your partner’s than the other. Even in a two-tit milonguero embrace, the leader’s right and follower’s left sides are touching more closely than the other respective sides. Be careful of not holding the follower off too far to your right, leaders, and, followers, don’t snuggle into that side of his body, neglecting the more open side of the embrace. In linear movements, actively try to maintain a consistent distance, a consistent relationship between the follower’s right hand side and the leader’s left. In an ocho or other turning movement, you’ll also notice that one side of your body is closer to the partner, one further away. You need to actively seek them with the part of your upper body which is further away, curling your back in towards them on that side—that is the essence of dissociation. It keeps the sensation of connection there, the spiralling in.
Every movement needs to be free from any kind of excess tension or discomfort: both for yourself and for your partner. Leaders, in particular, be wary: if you feel uncomfortable in the embrace or obstructed in your movements, it may well be because of something you yourself are doing. Some movements require tone, but none should ever feel like a strain. This can be easier said than done—making your partner feel comfortable is not just about your attitude or desire. It’s also largely technique. He or she will never feel truly at ease if your posture is poor or your balance is weak.
Followers in particular should remember that the embrace should be sensual and snuggly, but it’s not a hammock in which to take a siesta. You need to be holding your own body upright against gravity. Your hands and arms should be touching the leader, but not applying pressure or resting with weight. Your upper back should be lifted, your spine stretched. This will take a little bit of effort, especially at first. Leaders, you need to keep repeating it like a mantra, keep reminding your subconscious mind: you don’t need to do things to the follower’s body: you make movements within your own body and trust her to respond.
A big part of comfort is stability. And, to work on that, you’ll need to do a lot of solo practice. You need to be able to execute almost any movement, confidently, without relying on the embrace for support or using it as a frame to push off against or hang onto (leaders do this as much as followers, though they are usually less conscious of it).
Followers, practise some decorations by standing on a pile of paperback books high enough that your free foot is dangling a couple of inches off the floor. Make sure you can move that free leg without wobbling and check in a mirror to ensure your shoulders and hips remain aligned throughout. (Disclaimer: be careful! Do this only if and when you can do so safely.)
Both partners: make sure you’re not using momentum to complete turning movements, that you’re never falling, but can stop, with control, at any point in a movement. Ensure your feet are firmly, squarely on the floor, especially your big toes and the joint immediately behind those toes. Don’t let them curl up and off the ground or roll outwards. Practice things that are more difficult than the movements you will actually need for the dance: relevé on one foot; overturn ochos through 360 degrees with one foot in the air. Gain mastery and control over your balance: it’s key.
It’s vital that you record your practice sessions. The video camera isn’t an infallible tool: you do have to train your eye to know what to look for and that is a skill in itself. But it will show you some obvious faults that you must correct. If you’re trying to deal with a stubborn postural problem, if one or both of you feels uncomfortable in the embrace or if you’re preparing for a competition or performance, I recommend filming yourselves and stopping after every song to watch the video. Dance one, watch the film of it, dance another, watch yourselves, etc.—for the entire practice session. It’s extremely effective. Look for slouched postures, jutting heads (very easy to spot) and sloppy footwork.
There is a very strong (though imperfect) correlation between how things look and how they feel. Stiffness and discomfort are usually very visible. And, if something feels good but looks ugly, if you can find a way to improve the way it looks that will almost certainly make it feel even better, too. Don’t neglect appearances, even if you have no intention of ever dancing for an audience. Looks are symptomatic. They are telling. You need to pay attention to what you see as well as what you feel.
Keep at least some of the videos you take, so you can track your progress over months or years.
To work on musicality, it makes sense to take a specific track—preferably a musically complex and rewarding one, for obvious reasons—listen to it several times and then begin to work on a musical interpretation. This is not about choreography: you shouldn’t decide which movements you want to do; what you need to identify is which moments in the music you wish to highlight together.
Begin this with phrasing. To emphasise the phrasing in a clear, intuitive, satisfying way, leaders, every sequence of walking, every figure needs to begin at the start of a phrase and end either at a mid-phrase pause (if it’s short) or at the end of the phrase. You can’t begin and end a giro, for example, at random. The follower’s final movement, as she curls around to meet you back in close embrace at the end of the movement, needs to coincide with the final note of the phrase. You can’t walk to cross at any moment: you need to ensure that you lead the cross such that the follower changes weight into cross just as the final note of the musical phrase sounds. This is harder than it seems. Try alternating between one phrase of walking and one phrase of giros. Music has a structure: your dance needs to have a structure too. It can’t just be a random series of events. The order in which you do things needs to have a motivation.
It’s really important that the follower is also listening and dancing to the music at every stage. In every single step. The feeling of dancing with someone who is accompanying you in interpreting the music and dancing with someone who is attempting to reproduce the timings you are dictating is qualitatively different by an entire order of magnitude. Followers, the leader needs to be able to trust your musicality: to feel you express what you are hearing. It’s a partnership.
As you practise, look for small details in the song that you want to have expressed in your joint dance. This means that you could lead and follow movements to those moments or the leader could decorate them or the follower could or you both could. Experiment with signalling to each other which choice you are making. Leaders, try to alternate between a looser, relaxed feel to your dance and a tiny touch of urgency that says get ready, there’s something exciting coming up and we are going to pounce upon it together. Followers, try to signal when you want to decorate to a specific moment. Use the natural preparatory movements of your body to show him: wait, I am going to do something here and I need you to be alert and receptive. Try these games with triplets, syncopations, 3-3-2 rhythms, countermelodies, fills and other musical details within the piece you’ve chosen.
To be a good practice partner requires a lot of patience. Dance is not primarily an intellectual activity: it’s not about amassing snippets of knowledge which, once memorised, have now been added to your store of information. You can comprehend something perfectly, but not be able to incorporate that information into your body. The journey from neurons to muscles can be a long, arduous and frustrating one. Most of the critiques you’ll have of your partner will be things he or she already knows: think of them not as instructions but as mantras. For the body to understand, we may need to repeat the guidelines many many times. You have to retain a sense of humour and be forgiving of both your partner and yourself. It’s a process.
Give feedback when asked; stay silent when your partner needs that. Think of it as an exploration and try to depersonalise. Be curious and amused by your body and the way it moves, a loving spectator of its occasional grace and frequent clumsy antics. As if you were watching a new-born foal stumbling on endearingly tangled legs, still wet from the womb, knowing that soon it will be a lovely streamlined blur, an elegant, perfectly coordinated collection of bone and muscle.
Don’t forget to dance
Finally, while you should commit to practising regularly (meeting little and often is better than infrequent marathon sessions), you also need to be able to cut loose, leave your inhibitions behind, silence your inner critic and lose yourself in the music, the enjoyment of your partner’s proximity and the joyful inhabiting of your own body. You mustn’t lose touch with the delicious state of flow. Don’t get so caught up in how you are dancing that you forget why.