Experience games for Presence

This is a companion piece to the Bandoneon imagery article. As useful as good imagery can be – some people click into the right image like magic – many of us will find even more useful the playing of games that gives us a direct experience of the quality sought. Experiences allow us to begin calibrating our range of responses, making awareness and neuro-muscular connections about our most resourceful states.

Ten hands forming a heart shape.
Hands and Heart

A well designed experiment let’s us test and make useful discoveries. For dance I like to design (or learn and discover from others) games or exercises that produce useful experiences. Games serve discovery and interplay; then exercises provide practice drills to refine and strengthen our capabilities.

Here are some games. For now, just a collection of titles and maybe a few words. Use these to spark your imagination, and play with your creativity to make useful games. Let us know when you find something interesting.

Frequently switch off with your partner who starts movement. Sometimes work in silence, maybe even with eyes closed, to enhance sensing. Always share with your partner what you are learning. All of these are palm-to-palm. They can be done in an embrace and not. Keep the presence of the palm connection midway between the coronal planes (front-back) of the partners, or slightly closer to the side of the initiator of movements. Experiment with single hand connections and crossed-hand connections.

Lean together, hang apart.

Calibrate those. A useful scale might be (hang) -5 to +5 (lean), where 0 is just barely touching, and -/+5 is ‘all’ your weight.

Do it in extremes of dancer body and partner configuration.

Palm-to-palm moving the hand, and following it.

Palm-to-palm moving the hand by way of the spine, and following it.

Play with extremes. How light can your touch be and still follow the moving hand, even at extremes of speed and distance? How heavy can your touch be and your partner still feels comfortable and unrestricted?

Remote control. Putting our partner on one foot or the other by way of the hand, now cause the partner to pivot forward/backward, with no apparent motion of the hands. Change feet. The hand presence acts like an on-off switch. When it is ‘On’ there is motion.

Do remote control fast/slow, big/small. Experiment with the speed and/or the power with which the presence turns on.

Here’s one image that might be useful fun. Think of your arm-hand like those long skinny balloons for balloon animals. What inflates this? How fast-slow can you inflate-deflate this? How fast do you need to inflate-deflate it? If your arm is a balloon, what are your hand and fingers? What qualities would you use to describe your partner’s hand? Can you feel your partner’s arm as separate from their hand? Their joints? Their body? What qualities do you guess your partner would give to the feel of you?! (Some ideas to expand the possibilities: Hard, weak, rigid, squishy, board-like, floppy, clammy, insistent, caring, gentle, calm, confused, . . . )

Remember when dealing with a partner (which can be your own internal self), to be truthful and kind, knowing that it’s not what you are but what you are doing that counts with others. Enjoy!

Flying over the floor

Last night at the práctica at La Pista in San Francisco I said to my delightful partner, “It feels like my steps are cut short. I have plenty of room at the beginning, and when I am ready to push with my supporting leg the movement has already come to an end.” Then she told me she was following my ‘refrigerator walking model’ as I describe it on the Tango Tribe web site.

Oops! Caught by my own words.

This illustrates the importance of working with live teachers (in addition to all the other resources available) who can see and feel what you are doing then work creatively to give you the examples, imagery, exercises, and anything else that will help you make the desired mind-body connections.

Did you realize that birds and humans have about the same number of genes (23,000) and share about 65% of their DNA?

Frontal view of human skeleton on left and bird skeleton (enlarged to comparable size) on the right, with points of comparative anatomy marked by labeled arrows
Comparison of human and bird skeleton
When there is safe space in the room and the music directs me, I love to fly across the floor, really moving to cover ground. My earliest memory of dreaming as a child was of soaring high above the countryside on outstretched wing-arms. I recreate that feeling when I am skiing or skating or … dancing! That feeling of gliding above the surface below. (And perhaps that is part of why I had such a challenge for so long in being ‘grounded’ in my dancing?)

So what does this have to do with the Refrigerator model? Keep the body positioning, the strong connection, the reaching of the free leg, and the sensations of muscle usage. Add to that an essential element, regardless of the size of the stepthe glide. This is the phase of movement that results from the push of the respective leader-follower supporting legs.

Think-feel that moment when you are on skates, skateboard, scooter or any kind of glider you push (knowing that you can push in either a forward or rearward direction). As you push with the supporting leg the extended free leg moves a little (or a lot) beyond the place where it would have stopped if you’d only stepped. This I feel creates a key difference between merely walking and really dancing.

When we just step from foot to foot (again, regardless of the size, big or small, of that step) it creates, I feel, a flat, somewhat wooden affect. When the spirit of the music impels us to add an extra energy from our body, to express the music that moves us, then we become the other orchestra instruments who are the dancers.

Jack and Jill went up (and down) the hill

Looking up the sidewalk on a steep San Francisco street
Facing uphill, whether walking forward or backwards (careful!) seems useful for tango walk practice and strengthening.
Summary: We can best practice well-grounded walking by going forward uphill and backward downhill. A fairly steep pitch emphasizes the qualities we want in tango.

Caution! As with all advice, tango and otherwise, use only what makes sense to you, what seems useful or interesting. Use your common sense. Please don’t tumble down a hill and wind up breaking something, like Jack did.

Early in my tango career, when I needed lots of help with grounding (the notion that we want to be well ‘rooted’ in our stance and in our movement, propelling ourselves with power and stability), a teacher told me to imagine that I was walking down a ramp, going into the earth.

They said that image came to them from a well known, highly respected teacher of Argentine tango. Now I could well have misunderstood, misheard, or misinterpreted the advice, but I could never make a useful connection to it.

Looking down a steep sidewalk toward Sacramento and California cross streets.
No. Facing downhill doesn’t seem useful as tango walking practice.

Metaphor and imagery have power to create understandings in our mind-body. I came to see another, better way of viewing that “ramp”.

On a visit to the wonderful walking city of San Francisco, with hilly streets up and down everywhere, I had an opportunity to not just think about, but to also put into practice this concept…

When going uphill you walk forward. When going downhill you walk backward (which also gives you good dissociation practice, to make sure you’re not backing into something!). In both cases, whether walking forward or backward, you are facing uphill.

Why? How? First the counter-example: Picture yourself walking downhill facing forward. The natural tendency is to lean back, keep the knees bent, and walk hesitantly to be sure of your footing, because the ground falls away from you.

But now walking forward uphill, you have to drive off the supporting leg to move your weight up the hill. You lean into the hill. The ground rises up to meet your foot, which lands solidly.

And when walking backward downhill, again you lean into the hill that you face, the desirable direction. (Leaning backward would make one tend to tumble quickly backward in short steps.) You reach your free leg well back to find the ground behind and below you. You absorb your weight into that new supporting leg.

The supports my thesis that forward and backward walking are precise analogs of each other, just done in time reverse order! It’s as if you made a video of ideal walking forward, and then run it backwards. You might actually try that to see if you can tell any difference.

Our home city of Austin, Texas has some fair hills here and there, and there are always parking structure ramps (be careful out there!) or wheelchair ramps. You don’t need to just visualize this, get out there and actually do it. For good balance, both mentally and physically, work both forward and backward directions, regardless of your preferred dance role. See if it doesn’t produce a really nice effect in your dancing on the level pista.

Love the one you’re with

And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with

–by Stephen Stills

Used to be, I had all kinds of excuses: they’re too short, they’re too tall, they’re balance is poor, I don’t like this music, and on.

Early on, I’d set a challenge for myself to find something I could use in every lesson that I took from any instructor, teacher. I think it paid off. And now my challenge is to cabeceo the first prospect I lay eyes on, and to enjoy every tanda with whoever asks me or accepts my invitation.

I’m grateful to Andrew Sutton of Dance Ninjas (danceninjas.com) for fostering the notion that we ought to be able to create an enjoyable dance with anyone. Now sure, there will be preferences, and some exquisite dance partners. But do we want to have mediocre dances simply because we don’t have the ideal partner, music, setting, etc.? Andrew has both wonderful dance methods, and highly useful things to say about reframing experiences to give them new meaning.

The one type of partner who still challenges me is someone who has accepted my invitation (seemingly of their own free will!) but then proceeds to dance as if they have no connection to me or the music.

In this situation I employ two states of mind. First–and although I hate using this expression, it seems to make the idea immediately clear–there is the “resting bitch face”. That is, regardless of what I might think I perceive in their look, posture, energy, attention, etc.; I can’t really know what is going on inside. All I can really control is myself in trying to create the best dance experience I know how.

Secondly, I view my partner as if they’ve gifted me with a puzzle. One of my favorite work/life experiences was when as an undergraduate I served as a “User Consultant” helping faculty, staff, and students from all departments, all across campus, using any kind of computer language. I helped them debug their programs. Working with them to explore what they wanted and what they thought they were doing, they frequently discovered the solution for themselves as we talked.

By exploring the music and the movement possibilities with my partner, seeing what works well or not, what seems to provoke a (good!) response, what results in a feeling of calm, then we are able as a team to find that good place in dance.

Notes from Tango Tribe class Wednesday 1/27/2016

Dance International Studio
(David Phillips substituting for Jason Laughlin of Tangophilia)
Guided experiences to help you make personal and partner discoveries

First session, 6:00-7:30pm, Core concepts
Tonight’s topic: Your balance. Protecting your axis and telling your partner clearly where it is.

We do core concepts exercises from both sides of the embrace, in such a way that everybody can handle it.

Warmup exercises from Move Like a Champion

  • Put a Spring in Your Step (Bouncing on the Heels)
  • Run Baby Run (Walking and Jogging in Place)
  • Feet with Attitude (Shaping the Free Foot)
  • Barbie Feet (Standing on the Platform)

Preparatory exercise: Saying “No”
Standing both legs, each leg, organized body, loose body. Moving.

Slow walking, with observable sensation-based feedback
Taking turns with follower’s eyes closed.

Slow walking with follower missteps, leader missteps

Review findings – strategies for protecting your axis and staying with your partner

  • NOT “changing the shape” of the axis. I.e., dropping a hip or curving in the vertical.
  • NOT swiveling the hips. (Turns our belly button “centerline” away from partner and line of travel, and leads to crossing our tracks.)
  • Keep a toned (not rigid, NOT loose) body, with an active ankle.
  • Reposition feet. E.g., quick shuffle steps to a better place, while leaving myself on the same original leg.
  • Turning the belly button to the partner. I.e., keep the pelvic “bowl” level and pointing in the direction (or 180-degrees) of travel.
  • Putting down the kickstand. Using free leg for support or counter-weight.
  • Releasing the partner. Give them their axis/Let them find their axis in a bigger space.

With all that in mind, let’s dance.

Second session, 7:30-9:00pm, Improvisation and interpretation
Tonight’s topic: Cambio de Frente variations. Exchanging places with your partner.

Here we will apply what we learned in the previous session about our axis, adding the element of major pivoting.

How many different ways can I change places with my partner, especially in a small space? Which of those are useful? What would I have to adjust to make the easy ones better and the hard ones easy? How can I easily multiply the possibilities?

We’ll start with ideas for how to work with a partner, exploring together and sharing observable sensation-based feedback.

We’ll work in groups exploring ideas, bring good ones back to everyone to share, learn new ones or perfect old ones.

Review findings – strategies for exploring with a partner the creation of new movement figures

  • With each of the options (indicated by “/”), know that movements may be easier/harder and require adjustment in one or another.
  • Two-way feedback throughout with observable sensory-based feedback.
  • Both contributing ideas.
  • Working in pieces, like snapshots of positions, can help.
  • Moving slowly / with momentum.
  • Work in open / close / flexible embrace.
  • Work from the end to beginning. Can be employed for creativity / at any sticking point.
  • I move around partner’s axis / partner moves around my axis / we move around a third axis.
  • Stepping to open (hand) / closed (arm) side of embrace.
  • Stepping in parallel-system / cross-system.
  • Stepping in parallel-direction / cross-direction.
  • Step with left / right / no foot (i.e., I remain in place while leading a step via contra body movement).
  • Step / lead step around / parallel / away from.
  • Pivoting before stepping.
  • Step with rebound / full step.
  • Move together / hold in place – myself / my partner.

With all we’ve created, let’s dance.

The “refrigerator” walking model

“The long line this creates feels so elegant!”

What a wonderful way to express her understanding and appreciation for one aspect of what we were learning about walking.

Two men move a white refrigerator through a doorway. Both men wear orange colored "forearm forklifts" to life the refrigerator, with one man walking forwards, the other backwards.
Our refrigerator partner
May I share with you a model, a mind-body image that my students find hugely helpful for creating various, important sorts of awareness in their body? It models a way of walking–both forward and backward–that not only functions in a naturally powerful way, but also looks and feels like tango.

You have a person-sized “refrigerator” in front of you, on casters that roll easily.

When I am the partner walking forwards it is as if I am moving my refrigerator up a walkway inclined upwards ahead of me.

When I am the partner walking backwards it is as if I am allowing my refrigerator to roll safely, under control so that it doesn’t run over me, down a walkway, inclined downwards to my back.

Also, the casters on my refrigerator roll only in a straight line forward-backward. Furthermore, the caster base of my refrigerator is under the center of and more narrow than my person. If I don’t direct my force straight ahead or back, then I can cause my refrigerator to tip over.

Deeper discussion

For more advanced students: As I develop more sophistication and awareness in my walking, it is also interesting to note that the steepness of the walkway varies by how large or how dynamic a step I want to take. It seems strange or paradoxical, but the longer or more powerful and dynamic a step, then the steeper the walkway. And that means I must put more control into my grounding and into my movement, whether forward or backward.

About models in general

Yes, there is a real hazard, just as with every sort of modeling, whether by viewing, hearing, or feeling the teacher, where students intently seeking to understand and learn may take things too literally or out of context. In this model, for example, it’s common for the “refrigerator” partner in a pair working on this walking concept, to apply too much opposition, to become too heavy. But! This is a perfect opportunity to talk about matching your partner’s energy.

By the way, we talk about partners, not “leaders” and “followers” (and definitely not “he” and “she”) to convey the important concept that dancers will practice as both followers and leaders, as a way to more fully, deeply, and easily learn their chosen role.

The Argentine tango is all about connection — with the music, and importantly, with my partner. Yet here I am treating my partner as an object rather than a sensing being with whom I want to form a dancing relationship. How odd this must seem! Yes, and in the learning phase (of a three phase model of skill acquisition: Perceiving, Practicing, Performing) if I feel and deal with my partner as a person, then I am faced with an incredibly complex web of emotions, assumptions, imperfections of sensing and movement, misconceptions, preconceptions, and more.

Mathematicians, Meteorologists, Philosophers, Physicists — people who explore complex systems in, I suppose, any field you could name, in order to facilitate understanding the system, make simplifying assumptions. They create models which they can better control and understand, as a way to gain insights into the complex system. Well can you think of any more complex system than the mental-physical-emotional interactions between two people dancing the Argentine tango?

We use the model, not as a substitute for making a real connection with our partner, but as a way to creatively evoke certain feelings and awareness in the student.

About walking in general and refrigerators in particular

Did you mentally play with the refrigerator as you read about it? I hope you did! As I work it with students, here are some important aspects we discover.

Awareness of centers of gravity and power. My power and balance comes from driving through my center, located somewhere around the solar plexus, the area between the lower edge of the breast bone and the navel. And, I must also have an awareness of my partner’s center, sensing through feeling out the connection I make, where the center is for this shorter, taller, bigger, smaller, or similarly sized person. If I direct my movement too high, I can topple my refrigerator backwards; too low and it can tip forward on top of me!

Awareness of grounding. When I am stepping forwards, moving a heavy object up an incline, I must sink my weight fully into the standing-pushing center-hip-leg-foot tower of power. Powering up that tower and shifting toward the front of the foot signals my movement intention to my partner. Now when going backwards, receiving the weight of a heavy object rolling down an incline, my fear is of the thing rolling over me, so I immediately reach back with a leg to create a bracing position. Since I can’t see what’s behind me, I must feel it out with my foot, reaching first with the toe, then rolling down into the full foot. I ground and power up that reaching foot-leg-hip-center (note the reverse order!) to take the weight.

Completing the step, the forward walker over-balances past the end of the foot, then pushes off that now somewhat flexed leg, and that push ends with a straight leg behind, a somewhat flexed leg in front absorbing and controlling energy. For the backward walker, the leg now closest to their partner flexes somewhat, with the weight grounded in the front of the foot, then pushing off, while the previously extended back, bracing leg, absorbs the movement.

The thing that is so interesting to me is how in a highly functional (and tango-elegant) way, walking forwards and backwards are precise analogs of each other in reverse time sequence. That is, if you took a video of someone walking well, either forwards or backwards, then ran that video back and forth in the opposite direction, you shouldn’t be able to tell whether that person was originally walking forwards or backwards!

Practice

Would you please do me a favor by taking a moment to play with this concept and let me know how or if it resonates with you? Or maybe you find it confusing, or wrong! From a collected, standing start, go through the motions or either preparing to push the refrigerator up a slope, or let it roll down a slope as you control it. Take a step. Reverse that step. Do it in the opposite order of events. Really feel that phantom refrigerator’s weight as you power it up the slope (forwards), or control its weight descending the slope (backwards). I would truly enjoy hearing about your experience.

Tango Tribe

David teaches a mixed ability, mixed experience Argentine tango class on Tuesdays from 8:30-9:30 pm at the Balance Dance Studio #1 in Austin, Texas.
david@tangotribe.com