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

Embracing mindfulness

A couple dancing, viewed from the leader's back, featuring the follower's face in quiet repose.

How much attention can I give to my partner? A meditation on the Argentine tango embrace.

Why do I feel curious about this moment?
(A meta-question. Instead of directing oneself to hold curiosity about each moment, perhaps a question about feeling curious will more often or more deeply provoke such feelings?)

What might cause our hands to embrace even more comfortably or more intimately or more effectively, one within the other? Try them. What kind of dance do hands make together? Can hands feel curious about their partner?

Can I feel my partner’s body through this hand?

Do you remember when you last tried on shoes? How long did it take before you realized that they were perfect, or that less than perfect, they had some unexpected tightness, pinch point, inflexibility, sloppiness? What could your foot have told you about that shoe, had you been willing to listen mindfully?

Can I feel in my hand-wrist-arm-shoulder what my partner’s hand-wrist-arm-shoulder feels? How can my parts express their care for my partner’s parts?

It is not softness, as such. It is not firmness, as such. What does my hand’s quality of listening say to my partner?

Should we expect perfection in an instant? Hardly. How may my parts communicate quietly, respectfully what might make them even happier?

For what reason did we start this embrace on the hand-side? How much more invasive and impatient might an arm-side approach seem? Where a hand-side approach might seem more exploratory, where might an arm-side-first approach seem fitting, suitable?

How did our bodies come together? Who approached whom? Did my partner have a choice? Did I?

Do my body parts feel comfortably, reliably stacked one atop one another? Do I feel the slightest tension anywhere, holding parts in a certain way? How much more energy, mind and body, can I have available to our dance when none of it leaks away to tension, mind or body?

As our hands embrace each other in an intimate, comfortable, relaxed-even-while-alert way, in how many ways do our arms around their body enjoy the same qualities?

What qualities of touch tell our partner that I am comfortable being with you and I trust you, and I want to gently, quietly explore our arrangement to feel how we might make it feel and function even better?

How much time will I give my partner to feel that they, and I, and we both feel well connected, comfortable, and alert, ready for an amazing trip together?

Now as we move together, where are my partner’s parts? Can I feel each of their feet through our connection? Can I feel where they may carry any tension in their body? What can I do to dispel that?

Can I feel my partner’s dismay when I abandon some attention to the embrace, the foundation for our movements together? How can I comfortably, quietly, calmly restore that fine embrace?

Then, when we come to the end, as alas we must, how does my partner sense our reluctance, yet our willingness to part, to silently express our thanks as we say good-bye for this moment to the experience that we created together?

Holding space

Argentine Tango as giving, taking, . . . and holding space

This began as a teaching article, and you’ll find some of that, but then I got distracted.

In my Einsteinian, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler” view of Argentine tango we find but two basic moves: changing weight from one foot to another, and pivots.

Yes, that’s simple, and how do we go from that to movement across and around the floor? By using, stepping into or taking away space. When I step toward and into my partner’s space they retreat into the open space behind them. Vice-versa, when I step backwards giving space in front of me, my partner steps into that space to continue confronting me.

Sometimes we both move together into a space, as in the salida.

When I want to create a curving movement I use space differentially, opening up space on one side while closing it on the other side.

I can also use that differential opening/closing technique to suggest a longer/shorter movement than mine when we step together into a space. For example, in the salida if I rotate my torso toward my partner I will close off space, suggesting that they step not quite as far as me.

In a molinete around me I continuously take one side away from my partner, opening space in that direction. In a molinete around my partner I continuously turn in toward them, without collapsing in on them, keeping them centered in my perambulation.

Floorcraft has each couple in la ronda managing their space between the couples fore and aft. We either move around the space underneath us as a couple, or we move into available space ahead, leaving space behind us.
Not terribly profound, maybe not even terribly useful. But for a beginner with limited vocabulary it can serve as a lifeline to simply know how to keep moving–simply. For an expert who transcends vocabulary, it expresses the way.

It became somewhat profound when, as my thoughts gathered, the expression holding space for another arose.

Holding space, the gift of being fully present for another person. “You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination.” (Lynn Hauka).

When holding space for another we meet them with unconditional regard, offering unconditional support, giving our heart and our willingness to be fully with them. We breathe together. We allow. We ground ourselves.
Holding space challenges us by its intimacy yet its need for a certain distance and respect to let the other person be themselves, not our expectations nor our desires.

Does it seem clear that in order to hold space for others You must first hold space for yourself, accepting yourself as is?

Give your partner only as much as they can handle. (Test but don’t stress.) Empower, don’t limit your partner. Keep your ego out of it. Be in the moment. Make them feel safe enough to fail. Allow them to make different decisions and have different experiences than you would.

From the moments of taking up and settling into an Argentine tango embrace, can you feel from your partner, and do you give to your partner the feeling that, “I trust you. Whatever we do, wherever we go, I’m with you.”

Ways to explore and practice

Wooden traffic sign with the words NEW SKILLS pointing to the right
New Skills image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Always work with a notebook and camera. Every time you make a good or interesting discovery, video record it so you don’t lose what happened, then in your notebook record the date and time, who you worked with, whether you recorded it and where, and annotate the sequence for quick reference.

Keep it concise! Whatever you work on and whatever you produce for your video and written log, make it short and sweet. When we combine too much material at once we make it difficult (impossible?) to discern where we need to work and what changes make the greatest improvements.

For any tango element or sequence you work on, identify the key point(s) that make it work or make it interesting.

Take the latest pro performance video that has captured your attention. View it with your partner and make a time log of the sequences or movement dynamics you want to explore. (Use the space bar for an easy stop/start.) Work through them one at a time until you feel a level of mastery. Video record and log what you’ve done.

Taking any tango element or sequences, what are all the various ways you could enter, begin the element or sequence? Which ones seem to work better? Why? Could a slight change be made to make an awkward one work better?

Taking any tango element or sequences, what are all the various ways you could resolve, end the element or sequence? Which ones seem to work better? Why? Could a slight change be made to make an awkward one work better?

Reversals

  • Instead of forward direction, go backward.
  • Instead of leader to follower, do it follower to leader.
  • Instead of to the hand-side (HS) of embrace, do it to the arm-side (AS).

Cadenas

  • Can we made this into a repeating, chain figure?
  • Can we make this travel down the line of dance (LOD)?

Circular/Linear

  • Can we make this circular figure travel in a line?
  • Can we make this linear figure move in a circle?

The Tango Keypad
Using a random number generator or phone numbers from your Contacts list, do the moves dictated by a three-digit (or longer) sequence.

  • Try the sequence starting from each of the four possible starting points: Parallel System (PS) with weight on AS or HS, and Cross System (CS) on AS or HS.
  • Which starting points work best?
  • Does the sequence (or part of it) remind you of anything you already know?
  • Does the sequence work as a good starting or ending point of anything you already know?
  • Where movement seems awkward, how can you make that flow, and can you apply what you learn from that to other, similarly awkward movements?
  • Code a sequence you already know in keypad format. Does this give you ideas to generalize the movement or to make substitutions?
  • By the way, an understanding that every weight change (either in place or over a distance) is an Open, Front-crossing, or Back-crossing step facilitates our ability to create entry/exit steps from any other sequence.

Take any tango element or sequence you know, and at each step explore what would happen if one or the other partner changed weight (such as with a quick cross or step-together).

Take any tango element you know and explore how the result or dynamics change when leader:

  • Directs partner’s step toward themselves, away from themselves, or somewhere in between.
  • Directs their own step toward their partner’s new leg (the one arriving on a new axis) or old leg (the one leaving the old axis) or somewhere in between.
  • Make this analysis with each step.
The word "practice" filled with words about practice, repeated four times and stacked on top of one another
Practice image by John Hain from Pixabay

All of the above seems mostly oriented to learning or discovering new movement patterns, but we should not neglect movement dynamics, movement quality, and musicality!

  • Review videos of yourselves with an eye to clean, clear, crisp, final placement of each step, pivot, or other movement. We tend to focus on ourselves. View again and give your partner feedback on what you feel. Practice and redo the video until you feel satisfied that you have a publication worthy example. (Remember the advice up top to keep it concise.)
  • Similar to how above we explore foot placements, symmetries, and more, we also want to explore movement quality: larger/smaller, faster/slower, strong/weak, regular/irregular timing, higher/lower, I move them/they move me/we move ourselves, changing linearity/circularity.
  • Much as we did for our latest favorite pro video, pick a favorite song and write a time log of musical inventions and fragments that particularly catch your attention or entertain you. Explore (and video/log!) ways to interpret these in your dance.

As a student of not only Argentine tango, but also teaching, coaching, learning, and practicing, I am always looking out for good ideas. Do you have some? Please share.

Notes from Every Trick in the Book

Notes from EVERY TRICK IN THE BOOK by Charlie Dancey, Juggling chapter, Learning How to Learn Tricks, pp. 467-468

You can save yourself a lot of time if you pay attention to the learning process itself.

A trick means a move or sequence of moves that has been rehearsed for so long that it can be done automatically or subconsciously.

Human mind = conscious and subconscious. Conscious mind is not nearly as powerful as the subconscious. You cannot juggle [dance Argentine tango] by will alone, so you (You) have to teach the subconscious to do what you want it to.

It helps to think of your subconscious mind as another person entirely. A person that gets annoyed easily, and when it gets annoyed it will not do what you want.

☆ Ambitiously, we think the more hours we put in, the quicker we will acquire the skills we seek. Sort of, but you can also overdo and find that the more work you put in, the slower you learn.

☆ Make sure your subconscious is having a good time! Practice only as long as it feels like fun.

☆ Always end a practice session on a high note. If you just had a particularly good sequence, end right there, telling yourself out loud how good you are doing, turn off the music and resume work the next day.

☆ Your subconscious is very active while you sleep, and it will often turn over the events of the previous day, trying to make sense of them.

☆ Take a short pause for breath after making a mistake. Don’t reinforce the mistake by trying again right away. Instead, pause for a few moments while thinking about what went wrong. Then try again, changing your style in a small way. The new attempt must not feel like repeating the old one.

Tango Christmas tree

Spirals make up the structure of our natural world, from immense galaxies to our own minuscule DNA. Unlike primitive robots with joints attached at right angles and actuators attached in straight lines, our bones, with rounded joints and muscles that wrap around in spirals, move in spirals.

Musculoskeletal diagrams. Anterior view left, posterior view right.
The Spiral Line, from ANATOMY TRAINS

See that figure from the monumental work ANATOMY TRAINS by Thomas Myers? He calls that arrangement of muscles the Spiral Line, where they loop around the body in opposing helices (like our DNA) joining each side of the skull across the back to the opposite shoulder, then around the ribs to cross at the navel to the hip, and so on down to wrap around the foot.

St. Louis Arch

Notice the longer lines of muscles and limbs as you move down the body.
In our Argentine tango embrace the partners connect somewhat like a strong parabolic arch, apart at the ground level, reaching up in a long arc to connect up top.

In my preferred style, Salon Tango, the top connection is quiet and well structured. Part of the magic for me as both observer and dancer is the invisible transmission of information flowing back and forth across that top connection by pressures alone. Then, from our stable “base” up top, our energies spiral downward and outward — tiny movements (secret pressures) up top, large movements down below. Like the shape of a Christmas Tree!

When I am sending the signals of my intention from the pressures of my feet rooted to the floor, spiraling up through my body to my partner connection up top, it accomplishes a couple of things. A sensitive partner can feel my foot placement and pressure distribution, and the mass of the upper body and stable partner connection fine tunes the signal.

Graph of Time (X axis) against Amplitude (Y axis) showing Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release of sound.
ADSR Signal Envelope, from TeachMeAudio.com

The shape of the pressure “envelope” transmits your request for the shape of the response. A slow, light, sustained pressure would call for a cylindrical shape revolving slowly for a sustained time. A fast, sharp pressure would call for flaring out at the bottom. Variations in the Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release pressure, plus up and down pressure modifiers, call for some kind of matching response.

When we receive our partner’s intention pressures we respond by magnifying  the invisible signal we receive up top, with movement growing more powerful and bigger as it moves down the body. We, too, firmly root our standing leg to the floor so that our partner can in turn receive pressure information through our body, telling where our foot is and how we are standing on it.

So! Think of your head as a wonderful shining (huge) ornament atop a Christmas tree strung with spirals of beautiful garlands.

One step only

If as a follower you feel some intention from your partner for a step or pivot, but it is not quite clear where or how you should move, or you receive mixed signals, then I would invite you to take one step or pivot with full intention and Authority using good energy. But only a single step or pivot!

This invitation has two points to make. First, both partners need good energy for creative, musical movement. The music has energy and we want to reflect that. Second, when you take more than a single step or pivot without clear a intention guiding each one, you risk losing your partner.

A dancer can make up for a single step that doesn’t fit their intention or expectations.  We can catch up and make something useful of that step or pivot. If, however, our partner goes off on some expectation that we have launched a pattern they know, then we can find it quite difficult to keep up with them.

Now some will usefully point to the molinete as a possible exception to this rule. In the molinete we understand that Forward and Backward cross steps are interspersed with Open steps. We do not expect our partner to keep urging us on for every step. We must, however, keep ourselves available at every single step for the pattern to change, or for the movement to take us out of the molinete.

So, whether you are leading or following, our dance is a movement at a time, where we must check in with our partner after each movement. As we gain skill, that checking in, each partner with the other, will turn into a seamless flow of beautifully fast, or slow, responses.

Guide Explorer

“Parents [tango teachers] try too hard to fix things.” “Let me make a mistake once.” “I’m just warming up. Give me a chance to discover what I’m meant to do.” –From the book Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Listen by Wendy Mogel, PhD.

I see it as the difference between a hierarchical superior/inferior, controlling/controlled, parent/child, teacher/student relationship versus a collaborative Guide/Explorer relationship. The guide knows the territory really well, and can also show you good examples of how they do things. They can answer questions, or show real expertise when they give you ways to discover your answer.

The guide works alongside the explorer.

To put it in a way closer to home, we want a student-teacher relationship like a good follower-leader dance partnership. The leader marks the territory, and the follower explores what is there.

A pivotal experience

“When do I pivot; right after taking the step or when my feet come together?”

Do you want my answer, or would you Enjoy a way of discovering your own answer?

Stand with your feet apart, as if you’ve just taken a step, either forward or backward. Choose a foot and twist it in any direction that feels most comfortable. Reset and move the old leg closer to the new leg. Notice whether you can now twist more or less than before. Continue testing until your feet are side-by-side.

If your balance and pivoting skills are not yet well developed, you may find it harder to pivot with your feet together. Even so, notice how far your foot could rotate if the rest of your body isn’t blocking it.


Lately I’ve been reading The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, author of the seminal work, The Inner Game of Tennis. A key facet of this method of teaching/coaching lies in the avoidance of over teaching, instead striving to help learners make discoveries, to teach themselves.

True, there are those whose learning style and preference is, “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it!” Plus, it takes more awareness, creativity, mindfulness, and possibly time, to on-the-spot devise and run an experience. So much easier to give an immediate, “Do this,” answer (maybe not even describing why).

As with most everything else about teaching, coaching, learning, practicing, growing, and life in general, it’s a balancing act of efficiency and effectiveness. My preference for empowering individuals to find independence and personal expression tilts me to using imagery, experiences, experiments, and games as the way to develop ourselves.

Pivot Power – the hip rotator groups

The hip rotator muscle groups (external for lateral rotation, internal for medial rotation) provide a powerful engine for tango pivots.

These muscle groups — and not only, not even primarily dissociation — provides the primary power source for pivots. This article explains how that works, describes how to apply it (differently) for front versus back pivots, and describes exercises to warm up and explore these muscles.

For the warm-up and exploration exercises, scroll down to the EXERCISES VIDEO descriptions.

For the ultra-quick explanation:
FRONT pivots — the heel of the STANDING leg pushes (by way of the leg+foot twist) into the free leg heel, pushing that side of the body around in front of the standing leg.
BACK pivots — the heel of the FREE leg pushes into the standing leg heel, thereby pivoting around behind the standing leg.

This has the advantage that the pivot occurs as the feet pass through the collection point. It must be acknowledged that this is but one of the many “training wheels” used in teaching Argentine tango, for at higher levels there are many ways in which pivots might happen with feet apart. The principle of medial/lateral rotation of the hip remains valid.

Pivots, front (forward) and back (backward), are the movement that powers ochos, molinetes, and other rotational movements. Pivots are one of the two foundations (the other is weight changes) of all tango movement. You can find MANY sources of all kinds explaining pivots in terms of dissociation as the power source.

The power of dissociation comes from the stretching-tightening of core muscles. But note that this twist happens around the spine.

On the inside of the hip joint lie the internal rotators -– tensor fascia lata, gluteus minimus, anterior fibers of gluteus medius, and adductors longus and brevis — which assist in keeping the balance of the hip while standing, walking, or running, and rotate the femur medially (toward the body’s midline; i.e., foot turn in).

On the external side of the hip, six rotator muscles -– piriformis, gemellus superior, obturator internus, gemellus, inferior, obturator externus, and quadratus femoris — are responsible for keeping the femur in its socket and for rotating the femur laterally (away from the body’s midline; i.e., foot turn out).

These groups of rotator muscles control lateral rotation of the femur in the hip socket, or looking at it from the ground up, they control rotation of the hip (with its attached body) around the femur!

Dissociation is primary in pivots only in the sense that the movement usually starts in the torso. From a standstill we can quite readily power a quarter turn pivot in either direction, front or back, with the hip rotators alone, with no dissociation.

In actual practice, of course, we use both dissociation and hip rotation to power greater than quarter turn pivots. We start with dissociation to wind up and provide a stable core, then when that energy is used up in pivoting, the hip rotators smoothly take over, when desired possibly rotating us past the torso rotation, where the process can repeat as a sort of ratcheting mechanism: torso-hips, torso-hips.

Here’s where I feel this article is important and fills a need. Every teacher who talks about pivots talks about dissociation. A far smaller number of teachers talk about the dissociation plus hip rotation ratchet mechanism for either greater rotation or for powering continuous rotation. But no teachers in my experience describe the mechanism of hip rotation and give exercises to help students understand and access that power.

I am happy to learn of teachers who DO explain the hip rotator mechanism, so that I can study and acknowledge their work.

See also: List of internal rotators of the human body and List of external rotators of the human body.

EXERCISES VIDEO

5:30 Video demonstrating each of the exercises below

Let’s work from the feet up to our torso, so as to place emphasis on good grounding.

Heel Bounces

Heels tight together, forefeet spread apart a comfortable distance. Rise up on toes and balls of feet. As you rise keep your attention on twisting your feet away from each others, which causes your heels to press together. Feel the effort on the inside of your legs, with most of the foot pressure on the triangle formed by big toe, ball of foot, and second toe.

Rise up slightly on your toes, then let your weight drop onto your heels. Do this in a Drop-Drop, Drop-Drop, quick one-two fashion. This will help organize your posture and wake up your neurophysiology.

Heel Raises

Same foot instructions as for Heel Bounces. Rise up slowly, high on your toes plus ball of the foot. Lower slowly, with the idea in mind of keeping the crown of your head at the same elevation. Imagine your upper body stretching longer. See also the Stand Tall Exercise.

Do The Twist

Spread your feet to shoulder width. Keep your posture tall, upright and centered side-to-side and front-to-back between your feet. Weight on the balls of your feet, twist both feet at the same time, right-left, right-left, …

Do One Twist

Again, keeping your posture organized, put your weight over one leg, with the other leg out to the side to help balance and stabilize you. Do the right-left twist back and forth multiple times. Now switch and repeat with the other leg.

Hip Twists

Feet centered underneath you, as for Heel Bounces. Place both hands over your sternum to monitor its unmoving position. Keep the hips level. Rotate just the hips right-left multiple times.

Torso Twists

Feet centered underneath you, as for Heel Bounces. Place both hands just below your belly button to monitor its unmoving position. Keep the hips level, facing forward, unmoving. Keep the torso upright, not tiling in any direction. Rotate just the torso right-left multiple times. As you rotate keep your chin over your sternum, so you head moves with your torso.

Step-Pivots

Static pivots have a place. We also do enrosque pivots, and two-footed split weight pivot and balance exercises. The best general exercise we’ve found for our students is a step, then pivot. The momentum of the step makes the work easier, and it gives a context for the pivot.

The directions below differ for front versus back pivots. Both start with hands placed lightly over the sternum (to give a sense of relaxed shoulders and arms, and take out momentum from swinging arms). The dancer takes a comfortable step, to front or to back, then pivots on the stepping leg, continuing with the front or back direction. We start with quarter turns, then increase to half or greater turns.

Front Pivot

For front pivots the heel of the standing leg twists into the heel of the free leg, pushing it around the standing leg.

Back Pivot

For back pivots the heel of the free leg twists into the heel of the standing leg, pushing it backwards.