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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Let’s work from the feet up to our torso, so as to place emphasis on good grounding.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For front pivots the heel of the standing leg twists into the heel of the free leg, pushing it around the standing leg.
For back pivots the heel of the free leg twists into the heel of the standing leg, pushing it backwards.
In last Monday’s class Mauro was teaching about back ocho technique, pointing out that this was primarily a Follower move, although Leaders use it in the back sacada. When, for demonstrations, he had me lead him in back cross, back sacadas (i.e., both of us doing back crossing steps) they were the smoothest, easiest back sacadas I’ve ever experienced.
We can’t say it was because he provided an easier target with long legs. (😉, amigo.) If I were asked to explain it as simply as possible, I’d say he was fully activated, aware of possibilities. He required no pulling into position from me, nor did he pull me. He stepped around me at a perfect distance, and he kept his own balance. He did not collect his legs automatically. He provided a stable base to act against/with to power my pivot and our mutual flow.
I don’t know the story behind Mauro learning to follow. He follows (and leads) quite well. For me, I learned to follow (quite well) in order to feel what I needed to produce a comfortable, clear lead. From ballroom dance days decades ago, on into recent years of Argentine tango, it has always seemed useful to study both “follower” and “leader” technique to grow as a dancer.
Early in my tango journey I was told by a surprised teacher, “You follow better than you lead!” Unhelpful but accurate at the time; possibly still true. Leaders of every gender and orientation, from just beginners to maestros, after leading me in dance have reacted with surprise and delighted joy at what they were able to accomplish in the dance. No brag, just fact.
What do I bring to a dance partnership when I follow?
Good balance to support myself and help my partner if needed
Great energy that amplifies my partner’s intentions
Great energy matching
Awareness of many movement and interaction possibilities, such that I make them easy for my partner, and I take advantage of them when offered (such as follower sacadas)
A calm mind (“I have no need to prove myself. I can simply be myself, and be with my partner.”)
Aside: In a class I appreciate the importance of responding to leads as honestly as I can so that they learn the effect of their leading, while in a social dance situation I am actively seeking to contribute to our mutual success in creating a wonderful dance experience.
So, wow, yeah, that was a heck of a long (and self-aggrandizing) preface to my thesis: Learning to lead can make you a better follower. Of course, the converse is also true, learning to follow can make you a better leader, but most everyone accepts that premise without question.
Everyone will benefit from learning both roles in Argentine tango because it leads to empowerment of a more fully developed dancer. Not only our learning but also our teaching will benefit when we move away from both gender-identified roles, as well as from role-identified dance.
I am not belittling or saying to do away with role-specific style or movement preferences. But being aware of what our partner does and wants gives us access to a greater range of useful, mutually beneficial responses.
When we can think in terms of two dancers moving with each other it gives us access to greater creative possibilities. “If I can do this to them, and we reverse it, then they can do that to me.” “If I am moving forward, I am the one in the power position.”
It’s a Yin-Yang thing. At different moments of the dance throughout the dance both partners will, ideally, exercise leader and follower intentions. I realize that the way I prefer to dance, with an equally powerful and aware partner isn’t to everyone’s preference. Nevertheless, learning both roles gives you access to any style and power balance that you and your partner want.
Argentine tango typically calls for a long, elegant posture with a tall torso and relaxed shoulders. In classes and workshops you commonly see one of these two warm-up approaches to encourage that posture.
(1) “Raise your hands high above your head [and forward, often], pulling your shoulders and everything else upward. Now let your arms and shoulders drop while keeping everything else up.” This is my least favorite approach. It specifically calls for raising the shoulders, which we specifically don’t want when we dance. I feel it also invites other unwanted posture defects, such as head and/or pelvis tilt forward.
(2) “With your feet in rest position, heels together and feet slightly turned out, rise up on your toes as high as you can. Now while trying to keep your head at this height, lower your heels.” I like this much better for organizing the body in a well stacked line, and the toe raise is a useful strengthening and balance exercise, though it may challenge some newcomers.
I use a different exercise cue.
Based on what I was feeling and wanted to feel in my and my partner’s posture, I developed a different cue and imagery. “Remember how you get out of the swimming pool by pressing your hands down on the edge of the pool while raising your body up? With your hands at about hip level pretend you are pressing down on the edge of the pool to pull your hips above the edge.” Video
You can make “get out of the pool” a partner exercise by having the helping partner hold their hands palm up at about their partner’s hip level. The working partner presses their hands palm down into their partner’s hands. This will also help those without a developed sense of mind-body awareness.
I like this approach because it pulls the shoulder blades down and in as it activates the lats. It seems to encourage pulling the hips back to a neutral position, with the tail down. It anchors the feelings we want when actually dancing, without unwanted extras such as the toe rise or hand+shoulder rise. Plus, the feeling can easily be carried directly into dance.
Recently, reading AND THEN WE DANCED I learned that a form of this “get out of the pool” exercise was developed by Luigi Faccuito, an American jazz dancer, choreographer, and teacher best known for developing the world’s first standard technique for teaching jazz and musical theater dance, a ballet-based technique also used in rehabilitation. He developed it for his own rehabilitation after suffering a paralyzing car accident at age 21. His get out of the pool was “press down on an imaginary ballet barre.”
Luigi added a useful twist (literally) which I now use with my classes. “With one leg crossed tightly over the other, while standing tall, with hands at about hip height press down as if pressing down on a ballet barre, while at the same time twisting torso and hands into the front leg (i.e., dissociation). Now switch which leg is in front and repeat, twisting in that new direction.”
Let me know in the comment box below how this works for you! I’m always interested in new ideas for teaching, learning, training, practicing, coaching. Please share yours.
Recognition of opportunities is better than recall of patterns.
Framework for creating variations
Base movement: dynamic change of direction with lots of circular energy.
Variants: coming from in front and coming from behind.
Opening variant of El Gato.
Small space movement with big dynamics. (‘Pull’ with side furthest from axis vs push)
Techniques as a framework for creating variations on things we already know.
1. CS Alteration FO F2B, 2AS
We use the term alteration to refer to a movement that combines a rock step with a pivot, sending us off in a new direction. For example, demonstrate — with hand-side pointing down line of dance — Alteration front-to-back, going to arm-side. The rock step stores energy, and the pivot sends it off in a circular action to create a surprising change of direction.
Tonight we’ll start with this one particular alteration. We’ll learn what makes alternations successful, and at the end of the hour you will learn ways to make variations, and have a chance to explore them. We will also use this as a vehicle to explore the power of recognizing opportunities to fuel your dance creativity.
It’s a lot to cover, so pay close attention, make notes and connections however you can. I may also ask you to show your work
Now… You know the Americana? We open to the hand-side (only rarely, in old movies, to the arm-side) like a book, then both step through with the inside legs. But for this figure the leader steps through with the outside, left leg. So we are in cross-system, both stepping with left legs, in a shadow position.
How many different ways do you know or can figure out to get into that position, going from here (facing toe-to-toe), to here (little side rocks to position us, then step)? Give that a try for this song, and raise your hand if you want hints or help.
♩ Music ♫ Who has a slick way to get to this position? Demonstrate, please.
Followers — Filling out the frame-energy, occupy the space; Twist of legs together; Activate with energy of rebound from rock step; This is clearly a QQS timing-do that. This is a block movement for the pivot, not dissociation.
The important thing to notice is the matrix that starts the step. Here it is FO. My partner is in a front-cross leg position; I am in an open position. Even though it looks like my legs are crossed, too, if I turn toward my partner they open, but if my partner turns toward me their legs cross tighter.
The next thing to ask is, “If we back up one step, how do we get from that standing leg to this position?”
So our partner could be coming from in front of us, leaving a right leg somewhere in our NE-E sector, or maybe they come from behind us, say out of a molinete. For our creativity we can either create those conditions, or we can recognize when they just happen during our dancing and take advantage of them.
1A. Coming from in front
Simplest, merely lead a front ocho toward AS as you step back to create space. (You could do a neat little enrosque R behind L, to ready the L to rock forward.
1A’. Coming from in front, with a sacada
Alternatively, we would like that to be an overturned ocho, and we can nicely achieve that with a sacada to power the pivot. So… El Gato, FsR
1B. Coming from behind
A molinete will achieve this. How about a standard 2-3 ROP entry?
♩ Music ♫
Substitutions from the O/F/B matrix
Mirror images (F2B/B2F, L2R, R2L)
Varying N-E-S-W placement
♩ Music ♫
These alterations will generally but not necessarily be in CS, and it usually works better to have our partner’s legs in a F or B, and us in an O. With their legs twisted, and with the pivot moving toward the twist they can more easily keep them tight together. Since we’re leading the figure we can know to manage our legs, and we need the greater O flexibility to help create the pivot.
Speaking of O, can you figure out the adjustment you need to make for an O2O alteration to work? (Leader must step inside partner’s leg when going toward them.)
♩ Music ♫
Extra credit sacadas
CS BO F2B (for me) 2AS to provoke a follower sacada as I step across their path. That powers my L lápiz for a B-sacada.
Does a Recipe this rich and filling seem like something you would feed to a beginner??
This is what we are doing in group classes over August 2018 at Tango Tribe.
52. Alterations With Overturned Forward Ochos With Sacadas
by Christy Coté for DVIDA | Makes 2 phrases | One month of weekly two hours of classes | Gluten-free
Ochos (optionally overturned)
Sacadas (optional), including back sacada (more optional)
Tuck and lapiz (optional)
Nice dance floor
Dance shoes (or dance socks on shoes)
A Chef de Cuisine committed to help you succeed
Salida (#2) to LOP in CS
Walk, Displacement B/F (R2L)
Alteration f2b FO turning CW BO
Oo, F/F sacada with R
Overturned F ochos: F/Fo sacada with L, F/ Oo sacada with L, F/B sacada with L
Molinete CCW: O/O sacada with R then tuck and lapiz as: BOF
Parada, step-over Colgada to Gancho
FO to Parada
Brief warm up for ankles, hip rotators, and core, plus special attention to movements used in the evening’s special ingredient.
Demonstrate the final product.
Demonstrate the evening’s special ingredient.
Everyone shadow learns the follower’s part.
Everyone follows the part from a visual lead.
Everyone shadow learns the leader’s part.
Everyone leads the part from a visual back lead.
Pair up and practice.
Switch roles and practice.
Apply individual and group guidance.
Switch partners and repeat until done.
Experienced dancers have an opportunity to learn their opposite role in a systematic way.
Both followers and leaders experience equal attention to their role and to the complete dancer.
We encourage and teach partners how to give each other feedback and help in a supportive way.
We find that the richness of the material encourages close attention to instruction and practice work, without demands from the teacher.
The first class, Ingredients, pays attention not only to movement mastery, but also to options for entering and exiting, as well as modifying it. This lets novices focus on essentials, while experienced dancers expand their awareness of creative possibilities. Tuesdays 7:30-8:30 p.m.
The second class, Recipes, goes deep into dancer principles to successfully blend individual ingredients into a visually appealing product with a great feel. Tasty! Tuesdays 8:30-9:30 p.m.
Recommended: make your own notes after class.
Recommended: use the practice time Wednesday 7:00-9:00 p.m. at Tango Tribe (and/or other Austin prácticas).
This is what we are doing in group classes over August at Tango Tribe. Tuesdays 7:30-8:30 Ingredients
Tuesdays 8:30-9:30 Recipes
Wednesdays 7:00-9:0 Practice
I match energy with the music and with my partner.
I seek to confront (be with and chest facing) my partner.
At each step I may: 1) move my weight from one foot to the other over zero or longer distance, forward, backward, or sideways; or 2) pivot forward or backwards on the ball of my supporting foot; or 3) pause. I may step through or around my partner’s space. My partner may do something different.
We create dance sequences by opening space for our partner to flow into, or closing space to send our partner in another direction.
Between steps my body passes directly over my supporting leg, while my free leg wants to swing near and under my body to give me good balance and a small footprint for any possible next step or pivot.
I may test, but not stress, my partner.
I or my partner may intentionally bend or break any rule for special effect.
Not rules in the sense of codigos for behavior at the milonga social, but a framework, a set of principles for a way of being when dancing Argentine tango.
In eight rules and fewer than 150 words we have a complete system to express the rich complexity of Argentine tango. Well . . .
Until dancers reach some stages of unconscious competence, they tend to spend too much time in “System 2” of the mind (Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman), the slower, more deliberative, and more logical one. That’s good for disciplined practice time, but when we dance we want to be in the flow of “System 1,” the fast, instinctive, and emotional one. How to reconcile the complexity of the infinite possibilities of Argentine tango with the limitations of the novice mind-body? Simple rules give us an emotional and instinctive feeling for how we want to be when we are dancing.
Would you expand or reduce this set of rules?
Does any rule strike you as just wrong?
I’d love to hear your comments on how you express the Argentine tango system to the curious and to new dancers.
Inspired by Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by professors Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, about how we all use simple rules, shortcuts to manage the complexities of daily live, and how we can intentionally devise simple rules to help us grasp and manage complex systems, such as the dance of Argentine tango. We have a good example of this in the way that General Motors CEO Mary Barra replaced a 10-page employee dress code with two words, “Dress appropriately.”