A simple rule for a great connection

Match energy. If you can think-feel just one thing in your dancing, I recommend you make that Energy. (By the way, do you agree with me about how it often serves us to focus on a single thing?)

Okay, there it is, the whole “secret” right in the first two words of this article. You’re welcome! I, too, value highly concise, wonderfully helpful advice.

A girl on the left and a boy on the right play tug of war with a rope.
How to Play Tug of War by WikiHow, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

What’s that? You’re not sure what match energy means, and even if you have an idea what it means you’re not sure you agree? Well my guess is that even if you were to guess at some interpretation of match energy and seek to apply it in your dancing, you would find benefits of mindfulness, calm, clear intention, and connection with your partner.

Despite what computers would tell us, we don’t live in a binary, 1s and 0s, yes/no, right/wrong world. We live in a panoply of possibilities, each with a continuum, a range of choices (and non-choices!). Consider, tension in the body (and tension in the mind!), pressures with our partner’s body parts, timing of movement with (or not) the music, size of steps, elevation, etc. How can we begin to comprehend, to be aware of and respond well to such a complex system of interrelated possibilities? We can begin (and sustain) by adhering to a simple rule that feels intuitive to our mind-body: Match energy.

What to do if there is a mismatch — Matching and leading

But, David, what if I can’t exert that much pressure or don’t like it? What if they don’t know how to use their body to step with the same sustained energy I like for this kind of music? What if we each prefer a different degree of closeness or style of embrace?

Do you Lead or Follow? Does it matter? I reject the traditional and widespread notion that the dance is el hombre’s dance, because “he” has so many more responsibilities, then the follower must adapt to the leader. In my dance world,

  1 + 1 + 1 > 3
  The energy of the Music & Me & Thee makes wonderful dance.

Calibration. How can I know if it is me or my partner causing a mismatch? Consider the ballet barre. It makes for a perfect partner in that it pushes (or pulls) against you with exactly the same force as you use on it! (The ballet barre has a bit of give to it, much like a well organized, energy matching body.) That can give you a feeling for matching, and then how can you know if you are matching when you dance? Check that you and your partner’s body parts stay in a well organized, rather fixed relationship to each other (that will vary as dance geometry dictates). If the hand side of the embrace is drifting toward one of the partners, or up or down, then extra force is coming from somewhere.

I’ll start out in my body’s preferred placement and organization of parts. If my partner’s parts placement seems to be asking for or giving something different, then if it’s within my acceptable comfort and operational parameters, I’ll accept and adapt to it. If my partner is hurting me I will say something, perhaps non-verbally at first, with a shake or a shrug of that part, then verbally if I must.

I will seek to match my partner’s energy indications in as many respects and to as great a degree as possible. I will even seek to match intangible qualities, such as style and expressiveness (or not) of dance. Notice! I must remain alert to the possibility that I misread them, or perhaps unawares I gave them some early signal that led them to dance in something other than their naturally preferred manner.

In any case, once we feel we have done a good job matching our partner, we may then begin leading (whether we are leading or following) our partner to our preferred, most resourceful, natural, and powerful place of dance. We do this by shifting our energy at a rate that they can adjust to.

May I reiterate more simply? Match energy to the extent possible and non-injurious. By the way, you do realize that match energy applies to more than just your partner, right? We seek as a couple to match the energy of the music, and even to la ronda–the other couples dancing along with us. And if not match, to at least be aware of these energies so that we can make intentional choices.

All the energy that we can put into sensing what is happening in the music, in the room around us, in our partner, and in ourselves — will give our partner more to work with and against, and help us create a more wonderful dance.

Voice Lessons for Parents

Nobody loves me but my mother,
And she could be jivin’ too.

–B. B. King, “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”

Seen in VOICE LESSONS FOR PARENTS — What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen by Wendy Mogel, PhD (OCLC WorldCat, Amazon). How wonderful to think that we have an ability to learn and grow in wisdom throughout our lives, even if we may regret that the lessons come after we could have used them. (Experience is a hard teacher; the test comes before the lesson.)

Our daughter grew into a beautiful person with a warm, generous spirit . . . despite my manifold mistakes as a parent. The result is a testament to the good influences of her mother, my wife. Daughter left the homestead ages ago, but seeing as how there is a child (or several) inside all of us, and as I seek to enhance my communication effectiveness — with myself, my wife, daughter, relatives, friends, partners, associates, students, and strangers — this book struck a responsive chord for me.

These are some of the lessons I took from it:

  • Always be modeling the best of what you want for the other.
  • Respect the autonomy of the other.
  • View the other as an individual, not as a representative of a class, nor as someone to compare to others.
  • Use authority to protect and to serve, not as a way to control or feel superior, nor as a way to impose your views.
  • Hold space for others, where they may express themselves. But do not demand their attention or communication.
  • Don’t take it personally. I like the advice I read ages ago when I was a software developer, about how to build robust software that plays well with other software. Be tolerant of the things you take in, and scrupulous about what you give out (Postel’s law, the robustness principle).
  • Maintain a friendly, businesslike atmosphere. Approachable, pleasant, purposeful, practical, unemotional.
  • Just as with the claims that body language can say more than our language, when communicating we want to exercise mindfulness and good intention with our tone and pitch, facial expression, tempo, timing, and setting. (Also consider Craig Ferguson’s “1) Does this need to be said? 2) Does this need to be said by me? 3) Does this need to be said by me now?”)

I learned from this book about Common Sense Media, a media review and advocady site (movies, books, TV, games, apps, and websites) dedicated to the well-being of kids of all ages. The one minute reviews are terrific, and you can search for media by age group appropriateness and by message or lessons imparted.

Whether or not you are a parent, I highly recommend Voice Lessons for Parents for its valuable communication life skills.

Five most common moves of tango

This explanation forms the WHAT of my understanding of Argentine tango. Now as to the HOW, well that’s where the real fun begins.

From my answer to the question on Quora, “What are the five most common moves of tango dancing?”

Five most common moves of Tango dancing? Well I say there are really only two most basic movements that make up all the rich complexity of Argentine tango. Changes of weight and Pivots are the bases that form the DNA of tango’s life.

Change of weight — moving our balanced weight from over one foot to over the other foot.

We have many ways to modify the character of a weight change. The size of the movement can range from in place (with a few inches of movement in your upper body and none in the feet) to a distance of several feet. The direction can be forward, backward, or sideways. The duration can be a total change (as in walking), a momentary change (as in rebound, ‘rebote’), or the longer moment of a rocking step (‘cunita’). Additionally, you can vary the speed and dynamics of the movement.

Pivot — with our weight over one or the other foot, we twist the body, pivoting our standing foot to point in a new direction. (A gross over simplification of the movement, which can be found covered in a great variety of great detail all over the Internet. I admire the clear and concise demonstrations in the Howcast series by Ana Padron and Diego Blanco How to Do the Argentine Tango | Howcast and Vanessa Gausch has a wonderful YouTube series of explanations and exercises Tango Practice by Vanessa Gauch. And see a local teacher!)

Changes of weight move us in an orthogonal direction (forward, backward, left, right), while pivots reorient the direction of that grid. We may combine pivot with change of weight, creating a curving step.

At the next higher level of consideration, we have three basic relationship movements between partners. (So maybe two basic movements plus three relationships is your asked for five.) Each partner can move (or not move at all) in three fundamental relationships with their partner. Open step — stepping with legs apart (also called Side Step), Front-cross step — where the free, moving leg comes between me and my partner, and Back-cross step — where the free leg moves behind me, on the side away from my partner. This is all explored in great detail in A version of the Tango Lexicon with numbers instead of names.

Changes of weight over a distance (zero to as far as you and your partner can comfortably, elegantly step), Pivots to change direction, and the movement relationships Open, Front-cross, and Back-cross steps are what I consider the most fundamental movement elements of Argentine tango. A person could spend a lifetime exploring and mastering those movements, creating wonderfully musical, expressive, and creative dance.

Sally Ride

Astronaut Sally Ride in NASA uniform in front of bank of switches in the Space Shuttle
Sally Ride (1951-2012) USA Astronaut
“I wish that there had been another woman on my flight. I wish that two of us had gone up together. I think it would have been a lot easier.”
~Sally Ride

In 1983, Sally Ride was the first USA woman in space. From a TED-Ed presentation of a 1983 interview with Gloria Steinem.

Tango is a dance of connections, with the music, with our partner, with the other dancers, even with the spectators. As a teacher, life for me keeps making connections to tango — and vice-versa.

There is something different about woman to woman (as well as man to man) connections and relating. Not necessarily better but often easier for being “in your channel.” In the origins of our tango in Argentina and Uruguay, where man-man and woman-woman instruction was the norm due to the wide disparity of numbers of men and women (possibly as much as 50 to 1!), there was a native, even if inadvertent, wisdom to same sex learning.

With the goal of becoming good enough to earn dances with members of the opposite sex, the process was to train with your own sex, learning first to follow, then to lead.

Process leads to goals

At Tango Tribe, with our process of training everyone from the start to both follow and to lead as the way to become fully capable dancers, we make necessity a virtue with any gender or role-preference class imbalance. All our classes will include any combination of men and women leading and following. In future articles we’ll talk more about the many benefits of learning to both lead and follow from the first.

Do you fear learning to dance, let alone learning both roles? Well that brings us to two other Sally Ride quotes.
“All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.”
But with a process of well planned training,
“We were able to overcome being overcomed.”

Your tribe loves you.

Acting as if

[ From a Facebook post from June 25, 2015, with an additional note about a possible solution. ]

I have begun recognizing a common debilitating – I think I’d have to call it attitude or maybe mindset that interferes enormously with that student’s ability to allow their body to simply respond in its own way “just to see what happens.” (Common, but thankfully low in numbers.) To me it seems as if they have been somewhat “crippled” kinesthetically, such that instead of seeing someone perform an action, then empathizing in their body with how that might feel, they instead try to mentally reproduce the action by moving their body to match the visual aspects that they notice. Instead of letting their body discover natural movement for a purpose, they try to mind direct it.
The problems, pretty obviously, are that the mind doesn’t and can’t act quickly enough to positionally control the body in a natural and effective way, and that they can’t even see or correctly interpret every aspect of what they take in visually.

I hallucinate that these are people who have never learned to “let go”, or perhaps more accurately, they were taught** at a young age to keep themselves under tight wraps. It’s the kind of attitude where, when someone introduces a game or exercise (in a dance or other setting), the person seems to see it, not as a fun activity to explore, but rather as some form of test.

I wonder about your experiences in this regard, and whether you’ve developed fruitful approaches to help people “forget themselves” and “let go”?

** Ah, schooling, the molder of minds and bodies. We’re taught to behave, and, “An average child who starts school at the age of five and leaves at the age of 18 will probably have sat for more than 20,000 hours during that time.” –The Alexander Technique Workbook. Hey, by that measure and Malcolm Gladwell’s criteria, they are experts twice over in sitting!

A helpful idea? We could use the NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) injunction to, “Act as if.” So we say, “Observe the teacher, or some person, or think of someone you’ve seen who does this really well. We’re not yet at a level where we can copy what they are doing, and our unconscious body can help us get better and better at this. So instead of copying that person, allow yourself to be that person with all the capabilities that this body (gesturing to their entire body) has in it. Act as if you are that person.


“How does that work?” From the class you took, or the video or performance you saw.
“Why isn’t my partner doing . . . ?”
“How come you (me, we) are doing . . . ?”

Things to try:

* Working slowly.
* Stopping at inflection points.
* Working backwards.
* Me doing solo what I want my partner to do, so that I can feel in my body, what I would need to feel if I were them.
* Having someone who knows the move well lead me through it.
* Backing up only two movements before the trouble spot.
* Asking someone who knows, for help.
* Asking someone who might know, for help.
* Make a review a video of yourselves trying the move.
* Trying intentional variants of the desired move.
* Using the “I want more …” and “I want less …” formula for feedback. Where ‘…’ is a ‘measurable’ sensation. For example, “weight on my hand,” “pressure on my back,” “space in which to move.”

Notes on the Tango Lexicon

Notes on Tango Lexicon Bootcamp
by Mitra Martin and David Lampson of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles
August 19-21, 2016

Notes by David Phillips, published January 24, 2017

Published with generous permission from Mitra and Dave, who feel that the tango communities will get the most benefit from these ideas when more dancers know them and can practice them together.

Revised with notes from email exchanges and a second bootcamp delivered in Austin, Texas, January 20-21, 2017.
Friday, Ben Hur Shrine Temple, 7pm
Saturday, Balance Dance Studios, 1-6pm
Hosted by Tango Tribe

Tango Lexicon bootcamp – Mitra & Dave
Mitra Martin <mitra@oxygentango.com>
David Lampson

Facebook Event
Tango Lexicon

Oxygen Tango, Los Angeles
12811 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, California 90066
[ They have since moved to 12958 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90066
(310) 737-8438
connect@oxygentango.com ]

Workshop 1: The Five Parallel System Translations – Friday, 8pm
Workshop 2: The Four Crossed System Translations – Saturday, 1pm
Workshop 3: The Six System Changers – Saturday, 3:45pm
Workshop 4: The Nine Sacadas – Saturday, 5:30pm
Figures as one significant element of all that is tango.

First day, all Parallel System PS

[ Definitions

  • The sagittal plane is the one dividing our bodies into left and right halves. For dance purposes we also consider this plane as extending through our and our partner’s vertical midline.
  • A cross-step is one that crosses the sagittal plane. A front cross-step crosses our midline in front of our body, while a back cross-step crosses our midline in back of our body.
  • An open-step, in contrast to the cross-steps, does not cross our midline. (The out-of-fashion term for this, because it is misleading, is ‘side step’.) They suggest another way of telling whether a step is open or crossing. Say your partner is stationary and you step around them. The direction in which you can only step once, is an open step. The step in the other direction, where with pivoting you could step either behind or in front of yourself around your partner, is a crossing step.
  • The parallel system (PS) is where the dancer’s legs move together in train track fashion, that is, both leg’s on the hand-side of the embrace (leader’s left, follower’s right) or both leg’s on the arm-side of the embrace (leader’s right, follower’s left) move together.
  • The cross system (CS) is where the dancer’s legs move in cross body fashion, that is, the leader’s left leg moves with the diagonally opposite follower’s left leg, and the leader’s right leg moves with the diagonally opposite follower’s right leg. In other words, the hand-side leg of one partner moves with the arm-side leg of the other partner, and vice-versa.
  • A cross direction movement is one in which the dancers move in opposite directions to each other, rather than together in the same direction. They call this a “chasing” step, with each going after the other around a common axis. They call a step that sends the partners’ paths across each other, such as the Americana – a front-cross x front-cross – a “colliding” step.


Any step can be defined as a weight change (ranging from large to small to in place) that is one of:

  • Front-cross F fc
  • Open O o (a step that does not cross our midline)
  • Back-cross B bc
            | F | O | B |
       L  F |   |   |   |
       e  --+---+---+---+
       a  O |   |   |   |
       d  --+---+---+---+
       e  B |   |   |   |
       r  --+---+---+---+

    In parallel system, which of these Leader-Follower step combinations can be done as ‘normal’ steps, that is, together in the same direction?

        PS  | F | O | B |
       L  F | y | ? | y |
       e  --+---+---+---+
       a  O | ? | y | ? |
       d  --+---+---+---+
       e  B | y | ? | y |
       r  --+---+---+---+

    The “?” combos must be done in Cross-Direction (not the same as Cross-System) and circling, CW or CCW. In other words, Sacadas.

    For PS we will choose a name signified by a life “role”, where the first letter of the name signifies the leader’s F, O, or B step, while the number of syllables in the name corresponds to the follower’s 1) F, 2) O, or 3) B step.

    The (name) roles corresponding to the “?” squares above are special. We will designate them by magical roles.

        PS  | F     | O        | B         |
       L  F | Fool  | (Fairy)  | Fisherman |
       e  --+-------+----------+-----------+
       a  O | (Oz)  | Orphan   | (Oracle)  |
       d  --+-------+----------+-----------+
       e  B | Boss  | (Buddha) | Bartender |
       r  --+-------+----------+-----------+

    [ Odd dancer out? Let them practice with a pair of walking sticks! ]

    Some dance sequences:

  • Oracle – Fisherman – Oz
  • Fool – Fairy – Orphan
  • Fisherman – Buddha – Boss

Now, practice routines with the Follower doing the sacadas. For example, Fairy, and we are on our hand-side feet. I can invite my partner to step open, while I sacada forward, under their trailing leg, or I can step forward, while inviting my partner to step open, under my trailing leg.

Some moves we consider ‘colliding’, such as Fool, where the Forward-Forward would collide, but we turn that into a side-by-side Americana.

Some move we consider ‘chasing’, such as Fairy, where our Forward step chases after our partner’s Open step.

A principle: interspersing Opens in a sequence smooths out the flow.


  • Superscript\S = Leader’s sacada Ls
  • Subscript/S = Follower’s sacada Fs

Consider also the many ways one could change the character of a move by changing its size or direction. Mini-steps. For example, crosses.

Notice all the different ways of doing the same Open step. You have a 180-degree semicircle in which to direct your step. (From forward in line with your partner, to diagonally forward, to side, to diagonally back, to straight back. How to tell if a step is open or cross? Leaving your feet in place, turn toward your partner. If your legs twist tighter you are in a cross step. If your legs open wide you are in an open step.)

Notice also how if you pivot one or both feet at the end of a move, you can not only change the look of the move, but also makes it easier to flow into the next move. Consider Orphan-Bartender. If at the end of our open step in one direction, we then pivot our feet into the opposite direction, does it look something like we’ve crossed? Then see how easily it sets us up, while we both have both feet on the ground, for the mutual back-cross?

Now consider Cross-System (CS), in which the dancers move with legs from opposite sides of the body/embrace. That is, hand-side to arm-side and vice-versa.

In cross system, which of these Leader-Follower step combinations can be done together, that is, in the same direction?

    CS  | F | O | B |
   L  F | ? | y | ? |
   e  --+---+---+---+
   a  O | y | ? | y |
   d  --+---+---+---+
   e  B | ? | y | ? |
   r  --+---+---+---+

In other words, just the inverse of the parallel system matrix.

The “?” combos must be done in Cross-Direction (not the same as Cross-System) and circling, CW or CCW. In other words, Sacadas.

For CS we will choose a name signified by an animal, where the first letter of the name signifies the leader’s F, O, or B step, while the number of syllables in the name corresponds to the follower’s 1) F, 2) O, or 3) B step.

The (name) roles corresponding to the “?” squares above are special. We will designate them by ‘winged creature’ names. (Flying is sort of magical.)

    CS  | F       | O         | B           |
   L  F | (Finch) | Ferret    | (Flamingo)  |
   e  --+---------+-----------+-------------+
   a  O | Ox      | (Ostrich) | Octopus     |
   d  --+---------+-----------+-------------+
   e  B | (Bat)   | Baboon    | (Butterfly) |
   r  --+---------+-----------+-------------+

Note. This is only a tool for exploring creativity in practice.

Now, how do we combine Parallel and Cross systems? One or the other partner must take an extra step. Any size step, including in place, can work. Any such extra step (one partner changes weight but the other one doesn’t) will switch between cross-system (opposite hand/arm sides of the embrace) and parallel-system (same hand/arm side of the embrace).

The Six System Changers

Transition steps for weight changes between cross/parallel systems.

       Follower moves
     | F       | O         | B           |
       Eve     | Emma      | Eleanor
     | Leader moves
   F | Frank
   O | Oscar
   B | Benjamin

The Nine Sacadas refers to the “?” boxes in the matrices above, four in Parallel System and five in Cross System. These are the cases where the dancers are moving in cross direction, opposite to one another. They call this “Chasing steps”. Depending on the direction of the indicated steps, it can be a leader sacada, a follower sacada, or no sacada – where the chasing step goes around the partner’s trailing led, instead of under it. “Colliding steps” are where they paths would naturally cross each other. For example, Fool, the Front-cross x Front-cross step that produces an Americana.

For a Follower sacada who moves first? I say we give intention, and our partner moves first, as usual, because even though we have to make space for the follower’s sacada step, we must first prime them to move. Follower’s frequently hesitate to step into or between the leader’s legs (except for the well known back step that is #1 of the full 8-Count Basic).

A rock step or even only a pulse in the opposite direction can produce a rebound that propels the sacada step.


These are thoughts I added to my notes from the first Lexicon experience. Subsequently, after I shared my notes with Mitra and Dave, he and I had useful email exchanges regarding the system, and he incorporated some of this in the Austin presentation. In particular, he emphasizes that the names are but one approach to the concept of using the matrix as a way to inform (and even direct; more later on generating test or practice sequences) our tango practice. I found their presentation delightful, and it seemed to me that the fanciful names had the useful effect of taking us participants out of our usual tango work mode. The names acted as a social lubricant, even, where we were each reminding and helping each other. The rooms at every session were always buzzing with people exclaiming over discoveries, sharing ideas, questioning and helping each other, and more!

What we have with this system then, is both a way to generate movement challenges, and a nomenclature for recording interesting movement combinations. A nomenclature that is possibly more memorable than a series of abbreviations or letters or numbers. There is some redundancy, in that the 3 x 3 matrix is identical for cross or parallel system, you only need know which system you’re in. However, there is also some extra information encoded in the name choices, with magical role names telling you that you are in cross-direction territory of the parallel system, while flying ‘animal’ names give you this signal for cross-system. That extra information does not seem essential for recording sequences, but it might be helpful to dancers figuring out sequences.

On the other hand, memorizing 9 + 9 system names, plus 3 + 3 change system names, for a total of 24 names, seems like an undue burden on the memory. And even though the names carry explicit coding (first letter = leader’s move; number of syllables corresponds to follower’s move), one still must do the translation, unless they internalize not only the names but also their meanings.

Another consideration in any recording and encoding system is concision. Studying systems for recording chess positions or puzzles (e.g., Twitter format for reporting solutions to the Zobrist Cube) can be useful.

My interest in this project stems from the possibility for generating move challenges, to explore movements we typically don’t use, but which can be quite useful and interesting. So when I see a 3 x 3 matrix with nine possible values my mind immediately jumps to Rubik’s Cube!

At a Houdini’s Magic Shop in Las Vegas I happened to find a Rubik’s Cube with numbers instead of colors for each little cube. Here is a nice, fast example of such cubes: CuberSpeed Sudoku 3×3 Speed Cube.

You can use any one of a cube’s six 3 x 3 faces to represent the FOB x FOB matrix. Or (and!) you can use the numbers 1 .. 9 to also represent the matrix:

       | F    | O    | B    |
   l f | 1 Ff | 2 Of | 3 Bf |
   e --+------+------+------+
   a o | 4 Fo | 5 Oo | 6 Bo |
   d --+------+------+------+
   e b | 7 Fb | 8 Ob | 9 Bb |
   r --+------+------+------+

Is there any matrix of numbers more familiar to us that the digital keypad of phones and locks?!

[ Thoughts on the matrix nomenclature above. One, the layout above gives a nod to my pet teaching theory that the Follower’s actions are the first priority in understanding the movement we want to invite and giving a movement intention. As a leader, I can best understand a figure by first knowing how I would like my partner to move. So FOLLOWER comes first and in capitals!

Two, the map is not the territory. The cell designations, whether number, letter combo, or name are only placeholders for the action. We can use numbers, names, or letters as a shorthand for recording sequences of movements, and for generating designed or random challenges. (More on that in the final section of these notes.) Now, a bit of teaching pedagogy. Do you remember on high school SAT tests where they had you answer questions from a map by using the legend or key to look up information? It’s not an efficient operation for the human brain. Do you remember when someone said, “On the left,” and you’re wondering, “My left or your left?” “Facing which way?” “Which one is my left?” We work better, faster when we can move toward things we actually see, without having to interpret. That is why, I tell students to step to the hand-side or arm-side. (Except when referring to “Outside Position”, where it is ambiguous, depending on who is moving forward, to refer to ‘outside’ – the hand-side of the embrace, or ‘inside’ – the arm-side of the embrace; here I like using the unambiguous DVIDA terms, Right Outside Partner (both our right sides are together at step #3 of the Basic-8) and Left Outside Partner.) ]

You could also color the numbers (or maybe just 1, 5, 9; representing FF OO BB) on a couple of faces to add indications for leader or follower weight change to switch between cross and parallel systems. Red number: leader does a weight change using the movement indicated by the number; Green: it’s a follower weight change.

Regarding the “nine sacadas” it is possibly interesting to note that in the parallel system these sacada or cross direction movements are the ones with even numbers, while in the cross system it is the odd numbers. This could be a way to know in advance from looking at an encoded sequence, whether the couple moves in “normal” fashion or cross direction. Presumably, on actually attempting the designated movements, one could tell which type of movement was necessary to make the move work.

The lexicon as a way to encode observed figures. The atomic movements with names: roles, magical roles, animals, flying; does have a charm to it.

Parallel System 8-Count Basic

  1. 5 Orphan
  2. 5 Orphan
  3. 3 Fisherman
  4. 5 Orphan
  5. 4 Oz
  6. 5 Orphan
  7. 5 Orphan
  8. 5 Orphan

The numbers 55 35 45 55 provide information equivalent to the names, in a more concise form. But neither gives enough information to understand what is going on solely from the encoding.

A DVIDA description (but omitting most of its details) for the leader’s part of a Basic could be:

Parallel System 8-Count Basic

  1. Right foot back, B LOD (backing line of dance)
  2. Left foot side, Prep ROP (prepare right outside position)
  3. Right foot forward in the same track, ROP
  4. Left foot forward, ROP
  5. Right foot closes to left foot (F: Left foot crosses over right foot)
  6. Left foot forward
  7. Right foot side
  8. Left foot closes to right foot

But the somewhat nebulous nature of the Lexicon encoding is exactly the point! We have so much more freedom to move with various interpretations (for example, every step of the Basic can take a non-rectilinear direction) when we consider the atomic movements in their simplest, least constrained form.

Another interesting move generator method, still using the Sudoku Rubik’s Cube, comes to mind. Using the arrangement of the numbers on a scrambled cube, you could, for example, go forward, backward, sideways, or diagonal as indicated by the relationship between sequential numbers, and if the numbers aren’t immediately adjacent, switch systems.

It might be interesting to encode some DVIDA figures in this way. Then without reference to the manual, see how a sequence of pure movements could be interpreted. Does it come out looking like the manual, or something more interesting?

Ways to create practice challenges

Have your partner pick any three names, and you repeat those movements. Three steps puts you back on your starting step for an easy repeat. Vary size, direction, and dynamics of step. Practice until it feels smooth.

Label the faces of a Rubik’s cube with the names. Assign each partner a system changer color. Scramble the cube, pick a face and do it.

Using numbers instead of names, use a smartphone random number generator. Tell it you want numbers 1..9, and how many you want.


You read all the way down here? Wow! I am impressed. Maybe I should have told you this up top of these notes. I’ve also created a simplified, more concise version of this. I call it the Tango Keypad.


The Tango Keypad

door keypadThis is a derivation of the Tango Lexicon developed by David Lampson and Mitra Martin of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles. I feel grateful for their inspirations: in the method itself, in their teaching style, and in their generous sharing.

What is this good for?

This deals with a single aspect of all that is Argentine tango: the fundamental steps, Open, Front-cross, and Back-cross. By looking at all the possible combinations for two partners, two feet, Parallel and Cross Systems (defined later), and just these three three unique steps, we get 24 combinations that can be strung together in an infinite variety.

These simple, fundamental movements that don’t require memorizing have helpful uses as:

  1. Glue to connect our memorized big figures.
  2. A lens to help us see new possibilities in the movements that make up big figures.
  3. Navigational elements to help us out of a jam.

  4. The fundamental steps

    David Lampson describes these this way. My partner is stationary in front of me. Standing with my weight over one leg, I can make a move to step around my partner by opening my legs apart; we call this an Open step. But if I try going around my partner with that same leg in the other direction, I have two choices. I can pivot and move my free leg across in front of me; we call this a Front cross. I can also pivot and move my free leg around behind me; we call this a Back cross.

    Open step — a step anywhere in an arc of 180-degrees, ranging through straight forward, forward and slightly side, sideways, back and slightly side, straight back, and anywhere between those.

    Front cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line from my middle to my partner’s middle. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)

    Back cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line behind me that came from my partner’s middle, through my middle and out the back. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)

    The Systems

    Parallel System (PS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on the same side of the embrace. Both partners together move their legs on the hand-side of the embrace, or both move their legs on the arm-side of the embrace.

    Cross System (CS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on opposite sides of the embrace. Hand-side to arm-side, and vice-versa. So the leg movement happens diagonally across the embrace.

    Now consider that at any time both partners have a choice of making an Open step, Front cross, or Back Cross. Let’s abbreviate those ‘O’, ‘F’, and ‘B’ and put them in a matrix to show all nine possibilities.

            | O    | F    | B    |
       l  o | 1 Oo | 2 Fo | 3 Bo |
       e  --+------+------+------+
       a  f | 4 Of | 5 Ff | 6 Bf |
       d  --+------+------+------+
       e  b | 7 Ob | 8 Fb | 9 Bb |
       r  --+------+------+------+
                   | 0 p/c|

    (Later, we introduce the ‘0 p/c’ as a parallel/cross system changer.)

    We put the Follower at top, in capitals, and list that movement first, because typically my intention asks my partner to step before me. (But you are free to reference the matrix by row before column.)

    As a shorthand for identifying the matrix combinations we can number the boxes like a telephone keypad.


    We assume that any sequence of movements stay in whatever system that we started in, PS or CS, until we change system.

    To change from one System to the other it requires that one, and only one partner takes an extra step. They can take that step as an O, F, or B. (Keep in mind that a simple weight change is merely an O step in place!)

    The 8-Count Basic figure in PS would be: 11612111.

    Forward ochos would be a switch into CS, then 222…
    Back ochos would be a switch into CS, then 333…

    A choreographed figure could be represented by a specific sequence of numbers 1..9, while a challenge sequence could be some random sequence.

    How to denote a System change

    In order to allow every step to be represented by single digit numbers we will add ‘0’ to indicate a system change. Then take the digit after the ‘0’ to indicate who does what kind of extra step. 1, 2, 3 for Follower’s O, F, B; and 4, 5, 6 for Leader’s O, F, B. Ignore anything else.

       Follower system changer
    0  1  2  3
       O  F  B
       Leader system changer
    0  4  5  6
       O  F  B

    So a CS 8-Count Basic would be: 1 1(04) 34(02) 1 1 1.
    (The parentheses just make it easier to read.)

    From the Leader’s perspective:
    1, 1 = Back, Left
    04 = Leader’s weight change in place, Follower holds position
    3 = Bo
    4 = Of
    02 = Forward intention invites Follower’s extra, (mini-front) cross step, leader holds position
    1, 1, 1 = Forward, Right, Close

    Tango practice challenges

    10-Sided Dice
    10-Sided Dice
    For random challenge sequences you could go to a teacher supply store and get a handful of ten-sided dice. Throw them, gather them in a row, then do the indicated moves in order. That way makes for a nice tactile, visual, auditory sensory experience.

    Even more simply, there are LOTS of random number generators available for smartphones. Pick a simple one that lets you specify the range of numbers, 0..9, and how many random numbers you want to generate.

    For exploring new possibilities in existing figures you know, walk through the figure with your partner and encode each movement. Now dance that code sequence using any of the many possible choices for direction, size, and dynamics of the movement.

    Where a figure doesn’t flow as nicely as you’d like, encode the three: Before, trouble movement, and After steps. Try varying foot pivots and geometry of foot placements to discover the nicest flow.

    Design notes

    I sought to make useful simplifications in nomenclature. Where Lexicon defines 24 terms with special characteristics to denote 9 possible movements in Parallel System, 9 in Cross System, and 3 possible movements for each partner to switch between systems, I have chosen to merely number the movement matrix with 1..9, then use ‘0’ in a simple convention with the numbers to indicate a system change, who does it, and how.

    Additionally, I took the liberty of rearranging the FOB movement order to OFB, with the thought that this goes in order from most simple to least simple movement. Note, this does break the pretty symmetry of sacada opportunities in the original, where the “chasing” steps for PS are the even numbered cells, while for CS they are the odd numbered cells. But I did away with any special consideration for sacadas, as they can be either Leader or Follower sacadas (a distinction the Lexicon doesn’t make either), or no sacada at all (since it is possible, though maybe not as elegant or interesting, or maybe more interesting, to simply step around your partner’s supporting leg). The dancers decide how to make their chasing step; the choice isn’t dictated.

    When I am decoding a number I find it easier to place the number on the keypad in my mind’s eye, then look up for partner’s move, then left for my move. When I am encoding a movement I find it easier to get my movement from the row on the left, then look right for the column corresponding to my partner’s movement, to get the number at the intersection of that row and column. With extensive practice I expect for the number-movement association to become automatic.


Record album cover for ANTICIPATION with Carly Simon standing, legs astride, arms out wide holding onto large gate leaves.

Summary — After presenting the problem we give two exercises to help both leaders and followers discover how to wait in quiet anticipation.

“Anticipation” by Carly Simon could serve as an anthem for Argentine tango dancers. Check out the lyrics at that link. See her perform it here. We’ll wait . . .

A common refrain from leaders and followers has them complaining or wondering, “Why can’t they/I wait for the lead/follow?” Three factors figure into this failure to wait in readiness:

  1. We’re just so darn eager to please. They’ve agreed to dance with us! Now we want to show them that they made a good choice. Leaders rush on to the next great move before their partner has fully finished the last thing. Followers don’t want to keep their partner waiting, so they rush on to what they expect comes next. But, hey, like Carly says, we can never know what comes next. In a fully improvised dance even the leader experiences it moment to moment. The anticipation, wondering what will happen next, can create as much magic as the actual doing.
  2. We fall into habitual, patterned movement. This can particularly arise in classes or practice where a couple drills a movement repeatedly, then when the leader moves on to something else without warning, the follower wonders what happened. Even in our social dance both leader and follower create expectations in their partner from habitual responses. In a class or práctica an alert can come as a verbal, “Okay, how about now we try combining this with the other class material?” At the milonga we can give a non-verbal “warning” by becoming particularly intentional and grounded on the step before the transition. That is, as leader we want to be thinking about doing something different before the last step of the pattern we’ve created. That’s two moments before the actual transition!
  3. We fail to fully seize our axis. A common example arises in the back cross, such as in the molinete. Whether due to lead or follow or both, the step may move away from your partner. If no one makes an adjustment, it leaves possibly both dancers in an unbalanced position, where they will likely “fall” into an open step. Do you remember that Voguing dance from the 1980s? Think of tango like that, where every step is a pose, complete and fully realized in itself, with feet and body set just so, with any and all future possibilities available to flow from there. Note: We don’t want to limit creative possibilities by insisting that our axis must be over one foot with the other foot collected. Our weight could be split between two feet, together or apart; or over one foot with the other leg away; or even outside of our footprint. The key consideration comes from both leader and follower knowing where we intend to place the axis, and what can flow from there.


1. Follower waits on leader.

In a randomness of fundamental movements — movement (step or pivot), not patterns — before making any movement the leader (and follower, of course) takes a moment, that can range from an instant to quite long. Then they invite each movement with varying direction, size, and dynamics. The leader can increase the intensity by moving themselves into “non-standard” orientations with their partner before marking the next movement. Leaders can see this as a challenge to shake up their habitual way of moving. Followers can see this as a challenge to become comfortable with, even coming to enjoy the not knowing; to be quietly listening with their body, and prepared to move anywhere, without feeling the least anxiety or care for where or how or when that might be.

2. Leader waits on follower.

As in exercise #1, the partners move in a randomness of fundamental movements, but this time the follower dictates the duration of the stillness and where their next step goes. The challenge for the leader is to follow their follower, to become comfortable with both giving the follower the time they need or want, and with moving to accommodate whatever happens in the dance. From this exercise the follower discovers a world of possibilities for their movement, where they can control the direction, size, and dynamics of their movement. They can know the power of a follower’s intentional movement, and how such movements can make the dance easier or harder or more interesting for their partner.

Note: Take moments of stillness, not to become inert lumps, but as times for mind and body to continue dancing in that stillness. Energy expanding or contracting, size growing or compressing, gaze intensifying or shrinking.

Two situations might suggest that you use these exercises in your practice time. One, you feel that you are dancing in a habitual or perfunctory way. Use the exercises to shake up your awareness of all the possibilities for movement. Two, you feel that you or your partner aren’t fully connected with each other. Someone’s not listening, or someone’s just going through the motions without considering the power that each pose can bring into the dance.

Final note: Can you bring these exercises to the milonga? I sure hope you realize that yes you can, as either leader or follower, without verbally expressing it, you can bring the exercise intentions into your social dancing when you recognize that you want more from yourself.

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Learning how to fall

Downhill skier in red suit falling backwards.
From ski-injury.com The phantom foot injury.
“Stop! Just stop,” Jeremy said to me. He went on to explain that if we’re struggling with a movement at the end of a set, then our body will do whatever it can to help us succeed. That usually means shifting the body in some way – not a good way – to reduce the load on the part you want to work. Better to safely come to rest position, recuperate, then mindfully begin anew.

That put me in mind of the lesson I always gave first when teaching family and friends to downhill ski — how to fall. Starting on our knees, without skis, we’d practice falling forward and sideways, learning how to safely and comfortably spread the force. Then we’d graduate to standing with deeply bent knees. Finally standing on skis, learning the parachute fall to spread our weight over and into the ground, so as to quickly, safely come to a stop.

Why fall first? Because it is inevitable that it will happen, and consequently is a big and distracting fear for new skiers. When people don’t know how to fall and stop themselves quickly and safely, when they instead try to recover and save the situation, that’s when they are most likely to hurt themselves.

Why don’t we teach tango dancers how to fall safely? Well, not literally fall, of course. We hope! (Although, I’ve fallen to the floor with a partner. As the saying goes, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.”) When dancers feel awkward, out of position, out of balance, confused, and then they try to ‘fix’ the situation, the ensuing results usually wind up going downhill, and attention is incorrectly thrown on the ‘fix’ and not on what caused the problem.

What are the things we could alert new dancers to, as a way to help them ‘fail’ gracefully, without hurting themselves or others, and thereby help speed their progress? Here’s a list that comes to my mind.

  1. If something is hurting you–physically or emotionally, make it stop!
  2. If something is unclear to you, from either your partner or your teacher, ask questions.
  3. In a class or practice it is not only permitted but also helpful to give your partner or teacher feedback about what you are feeling. Examples:

    I feel too close here.
    I feel pressure here.
    I feel a push here.
    I feel a pull here.
    It feels like I don’t have space to go there.
    It feels like the space was opened intending me to go there.
    I feel rushed.
    I feel confused.

  4. When there is a problem with a step, it probably began with the previous step.
  5. When you feel yourself or your partner losing balance, give freedom for each to find their own axis. Loosening the embrace at different points in movements may be essential. If your partner is falling out of a step, it is okay to give them the space to do so. (It is also okay to provide some pressure to help stabilize a partner in a slightly wobbly moment.) Both of you turning your belly button toward your partner’s may be all that’s needed to save a bad step position.
  6. It is allowed to dab a foot or even to entirely reposition your feet to regain your axis or a more favorable position for a step to follow. Indeed, such repositioning can even be made as a musical element. In such repositioning, either partner who does it has a responsibility to know the intended supporting leg, ending on that leg and clearly communicating with a straight, strong axis where that supporting leg is.
  7. It is okay to glide/slide your free leg over the floor to assist with your balance.
  8. It is okay to work on a movement slowly and at your own pace–in agreement with your partner, without regard to the pace of the music or the teacher.
  9. It can help when learning a movement to open up to a practice hold–in agreement with your partner.
  10. It can help when learning a movement to practice it slowly, thoughtfully, by yourself.

And at the end of it all, if things are moving along okay, it can be fine to say to your partner, “Let’s just dance.” 🙂