Embracing mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What am I forgetting?

When do I tend to forget? Let these situations trigger heightened awareness.

  • Dancing with or for the teacher?
  • Dancing with someone perceived to be of much higher or lower status or skill.
  • Dancing with someone who presents challenges, good or bad.
  • When I am feeling judged.
  • When I’m tired.
  • When it’s the same old, same old.
  • When I’m too eager.
  • When I haven’t thoughtfully warmed up.
  • When I feel distracted.
  • When I am showing off.

I seek always to remember to:

  • Connect with the music, including the pauses and energy and mood changes.
  • Connect with my partner. Giving time to finish movements, express intentions. Protecting their and my own axis. Matching energy.
  • Build and test our connection over time. Don’t assume.
  • Reconnect with my partner. Recognizing as soon as things go less than good.
  • Use all the dimensions of dance: size, speed, elevation, dynamics, big-small, fast-slow, loud-quiet.
  • Draw (not pull!) my partner into spaces with energy and intention. Step fully into my axis between movements. Pivot fully to my partner. Pivot! Don’t allow feet to get stuck pigeon-toed.
  • Lead and follow with my “heart-light”.
  • Allow my embrace to slide and expand-contract with elasticity to accommodate movement.
  • Use moments of simplicity and quiet, still, small, and simple to dramatic effect.
  • Help my partner to feel safe and comfortable in mind and body (even when challenged).
  • Dance for, as well as with my partner, and they for us.
  • Make our shared experience feel rewarding (even when challenged).

One step only

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

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

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

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

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

Just dance

A good friend (to everyone) and fine tanguero, Gary Horton, Jr. wrote a question on Facebook.

JUST.DANCE. Certainly well-intended advice, as I’ve heard it often from many teachers over the years. Unfortunately, the idea continues to remain meaningless and therefore useless to me. Leaders, would you please offer what you understand about ‘Just dance’? What do you feel like or imagine when you ‘Just dance’? Thanks!

A terrific, important question, Gary.

Short answer: being in the moment, involved only with our partner, the music, and la ronda. Setting aside the fear, worry, doubt, aspirations, classes, agenda. Just (!?) being with our partner.

But how?

Argentine tango can serve as a wonderful exercise in mindfulness, being in the moment, a moving meditation. For me the Argentine tango culture, apart from just dancing, has opened new and expanding awareness of other people’s hopes, fears, drives, dreams, weaknesses, and strengths.

Our dance can also be fraught with manifold distractions. “What was that latest pattern/adorno I learned?” “Why won’t that person dance with me?” “What caused that?” “Why do we feel so disconnected?” Emotional energies that we put into worry, fear, doubt, or agendas; Mental energies that we put into trying to recall classes; Physical energies we put into nonproductive tensions — all take away from being in the flow in the moment.

A key to feeling the flow as we “just dance” is having confidence in our training and practice, AND dancing within our current level of accomplishments, which, paradoxically and wonderfully, can result in our dancing beyond anything we’ve achieved to that point.

I see two aspects to the mindful preparation we want. First, we want an effective program of learning and practicing. Last month Iona May Italia wrote a lengthy guest article on this for Tango Tribe, and I’ve written a number of articles. (Put practice in the Walking About search bar.) The key here, just as for “just dance”, is mindfulness, having an intentional approach to how your work. Planning your work, documenting your progress, noting what you want to accomplish and where you need help, getting help.

Secondly, we can some, many, all of us at some time or another use help in getting “out of our head.” Mental and emotional turmoil large or small can beset even the most talented and gifted. There are a number of mind-body practices and methodologies, and books that have interested and helped me. I’ll conclude by listing several.

NLP – Neurolinguistic Programming. Understanding our own and other people’s maps of reality, and how we can influence those with language and physiology.

Alexander Technique – Mind-body usage. Natural uses of the body. Understanding choices. Avoiding end-gaining.

Feldenkrais – Awareness Through Movement. Gaining body intelligence by observing it during the course of (seemingly) simple exercises.

The Franklin Method – Books: CONDITIONING FOR DANCE, DANCE IMAGERY

MOVING TO HIGHER GROUND by Wynton Marsalis

THE INNER GAME OF MUSIC by Barry Green

A SOPRANO ON HER HEAD by Eloise Ristad

RELAXED AND FORWARD books and blog by Anna Blake

INDIRECT PROCEDURES and INTEGRATED PRACTICE by Pedro De Alcantara

THE MUSIC LESSON by Victor Wooten

Shaping behavior

One day a while ago, after chatting with one of her friends as they were loading up the car to go to an Agility Trial, my wife told me, “You know, you’re much nicer since being in Argentine tango.”

I’m sure she meant ‘sociable,’ but maybe not. The Argentine tango dance and our tango community has changed me in lots of ways.

My wife is a professional dog trainer and competitor. After we married and moved to our first home I bought her a Dachshund puppy. She took Henry to the Capitol Dog Training Club classes and fell in love with the activity that some wag dubbed as “training two dumb animals.” She became a volunteer trainer and later an independent teacher. She has won many awards and championships in Conformation (the dog world ‘beauty’ contests), Obedience, and Agility (running an obstacle course against the clock).

Jennifer leads Robbie to race over the seesaw.

I feel much love and great admiration for how her passion for working in partnership with dogs has taken her to so many achievements in teaching and competition, as well as for her contributions to community, taking the dogs to visit the Children’s Hospital, reading programs, and first responders.

That admiration extends to a deep appreciation for how working–and playing–with animals (dog, horses, …) so closely resembles — no, not resembles, is — what we want in a relationship with a dance partner.

I’ve participated in my wife’s world of dogs a teensy bit (plus sharing our home with them and helping to exercise them). I did early obedience training with one of our dogs, we’ve done joint puppy training, and now we’re doing remedial work with our latest, a beautiful bearded collie who is a joy to be around with her exuberance for life; setting aside her penchant for playing “Keep Away.”

My wife has been more generous in sharing her energy in my passion for Argentine tango, but in the end, working with dogs is much less emotionally fraught.

Intention

It’s the Agility world that really got me thinking about how akin the lead-follow of an Agility Run is to the Lead-Follow of a dance. The Agility partnership seeks to make a clean run through the obstacles in as short a time as possible. The handler must give fast, clear directional intentions, and they mustn’t be too far ahead of or behind their partner.

Thankfully, we dancers are moving with the music, not racing against it (even if at times it seems that way for some dancers). The Leader must make their intentions for the Follower in a clean, clear, consistent manner, and convey them with good timing for their partner. The Follower responds with purposeful, intentional movement. And so the cycle continues.

Our view of the interplay between dog or dancer seeks to build comfort, clarity, and confidence. We want partners that will enjoy, that will desire to work with us. A fearful or timid animal cannot give their full attention, energy, and joy to the activity.

Shaping

Insightful trainers know that when two animals interact, always, one shapes the behavior of the other. Could be in either direction; could depend on the activity or the moment. Shaping by successive approximations creates reproducible, consistent behaviors by breaking down a behavior into tiny increments, and reinforcing the animal at each incremental step until achieving the full behavior. 

If I have no clear intention (whether following or leading), then my partner must fill in the gaps. A highly resourceful partner may be able to make something good even with a weak, unsure partner. But if I leap immediately into an advanced behavior or movement I risk creating confusion or worse for my partner.

Argentine tango gives us a structure for shaping a wonderful partnership no matter the level of each partner. With a non-verbal animal–remember, no talking while dancing–we shape behavior with our own behavior. We make simple asks and evaluate the answers we receive. As we each gain confidence in the other, the questions can grow harder (Rule 7), the answers richer.

Whether Animal-Trainer, Student-Teacher, Follower-Leader, Me-You, or two persons on the street, we can accomplish so much more with each other by taking our other person as we find them in the moment, letting our behavior answer and influence their behavior in a kind and caring–even when challenging!–manner.

I love my wife. I love Argentine tango. I love my partners. They have all shaped me into a better, nicer me.

An ideal embrace

As I started typing this post I first mistyped the title as “An idea embrace”.

You know, that actually works! In fact, this post isn’t about the mechanics of the embrace, rather, it’s about the idea, the thinking of, the physical and non-physical feeling of, the experience of the embrace.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. –George S. Patton

It’s trite and it’s true that there are as many embraces as there are dance partner and even music pairings. Teachers can give guidelines to help get started. (I’ll give you a suggested checklist at the bottom of this post.) But those guidelines can’t speak to the essential nature of what makes an Argentine tango embrace a beautiful experience in and of itself.

Milonguero and Pat

Years later, I still well remember my first tanda ever with Pat at a house milonga at Christmas time 2010. Her wholly committed embrace made me feel that she felt totally safe and comfortable, and told me silently and powerfully that she would feel happy with whatever unfolded over the next few dances.

As a quite new, raw leader it had a huge impact on me to learn that I didn’t have to be a sweaty, nervous person consumed with figuring out how to safely and effectively entertain my partner. Instead, I could simply be with them, experiencing them and the music and movement. Pat has been a long time, important force for ushering new leaders into our tango community.

David and Oksana, 2018 Austin Spring Tango Festival

Where Pat was the experienced, calming hand in 2010, the roles were reversed when I danced with Oksana in 2018. But I had no need to express a calming influence, for one can feel in her embrace a commitment to each moment, whatever it brings. There are no preconceived and no preoccupying notions of what should I be doing, what do I want out of this, who is watching, what are they planning? Instead, it is an embrace that says, “I feel you. I am with you.”

Although I’ve long understood and appreciated the value of meditation, or what today is popularly called mindfulness, I’ve never found it in stillness. For me, I want a moving meditation, where despite all the other people, we find those still quiet moments outside of ourselves in our connection to each other and the music.

A checklist for the Argentine tango embrace

  • Comfortable
  • Confirming
  • Firm yet flexible
  • Surrounding
  • Confining when needed, spacious when needed
  • Usually only skin deep pressure
  • Light whenever possible, active and firm when needed
  • Shoulders down and shoulder blades “packed”. (See also the Stand tall exercise.)

The hand side of the embrace

wikiHow to make an ocarina with your hands

Put your own hands in front of your chest at a comfortable level, with palms up and fingers facing away from you and somewhat towards the other hand.

Leaving the left hand as it is, place the right hand palm down over it. The hands meet at a right angle to each other. Now the thumb and fingers of each hand comfortably clasp the other hand. Fingers held together and quiet. This is just how you want to feel with a partner, leader in the left hand, follower in the right hand.

The hands at the hand side of the embrace held at about the shoulder height of the shorter partner.

Elbows relaxed and pointed toward floor.

The follower must support the weight of their own arm and not allow it to hang from the hand of their partner.

The arm side of the embrace

The leader’s hand, with fingers together, at the level of the lower part of the shoulder blade of the follower. Depending on both the movement of the moment and the relative heights and sizes of the partners, and it must also slide with the space requirements of some movements, the hand placement could go from as far as completely across the follower’s back, with the fingers gently cupping the partners back rib cage, with no pressure spots. At the other extreme it might go only as far as the near side rib cage of the follower. Placement may also vary by style, with Milonguero being more enclosing, Salon with the hand at the spine, and Nuevo with the hand on the near side of the rib cage.

The follower’s arm placement can vary widely depending on the relative heights and sizes of the partners, as well as on preferences. It must also slide with the space requirements of some movements.

The follower must support the weight of their own arm and not allow it to weigh down on top of their partner, wherever it is placed.

The follower arm may make contact with their partner’s arm along its length. Or the follower might choose, if heights and sizes permit, to drape their arm across the back of their partner in a close embrace. In a close embrace apart, the thumb and index finger web of the follower’s hand may rest in the groove of their partner’s deltoid muscle, with thumb on front side and fingers on back side of the arm.

Connections

In the Teacher Training Program at the 2018 International Tango Summit in Los Angeles, teachers Christy Coté and George Garcia expressed their mantra for good Argentine tango as:

  • Quality
  • Connection
  • Musicality

I agree with the importance of those points. Yet for me, Argentine tango feels all about Connnections:

  • Myself – How am I feeling now? How do I want to feel?
  • Music – Does this music speak to me? What is the story? Can I express it?
  • My Partner – A clear, comfortable, and consistent Lead and Follow. How and when can I move to give my partner their greatest freedom of expression?
  • La Ronda – Am I respecting the space for my partner couples fore and aft? The safety for all around us?
  • The Venue – How can I express my appreciation for the hosts and the DJ? How can I add to the spirit of community?

Partner practice pointers

I have these things going on in my current practice with a partner.

  • Regularly checking in with each other on comfort and clarity.
  • Periodic video review looking for clean footwork, nice lines, good technique, dynamic movement, and flow.
  • Going back through the DVIDA syllabus to identify sequence fragments I particularly like and movements I seldom use (but would like to) in my social and performance dancing.
  • Creating a compendium of movements, where I note performance standards and problems to watch out for, as well as suggested uses. This helps remind me of things to use, and it’s useful in my teaching.
  • Reviewing my performance videos and asking partners about things I do habitually, looking for ways to change up habitual movements (such as with dynamics, elevation, size, speed) and vary entrances/exits.
  • Sometimes identifying musical fragments where we want to explore nice ways to express those thoughts.
  • Sometimes identifying sequences or moves we really like in other dancers’ performance videos, working to making them part of our working syntax.
  • Making notes at every session on what we worked on, what we learned, and what we want to work on next session.

Helping a Partner Relax and Lower Their Hand

An excited or nervous partner** often pulls their hand (hand side of the embrace) up and in. This has the detrimental effects of increasing tension, weakening ability to send/receive signals, and misdirecting energy upwards rather than to grounding.

Oftentimes, too, a shorter partner will feel that they are being helpful or considerate to a taller partner by holding their hand well above their own shoulder in an effort to “meet” their partner. As a taller partner this makes me feel uncomfortable on their behalf, and it does not contribute to an improved dance. Rather, it takes energy away from movement, and it directs energy away from their core.

Generally the shoulder level of the shorter partner, with upper arm and forearm forming a roughly 90 degree angle, results in a relaxed, resourceful position for the hand.

We can in one of several ways cue our partner to relax and lower their hand. While recognizing that different partners may respond better to one cue or another, we want to consistently use the cue we choose for a partner for a dance.

Pressure and Release
A. Put gentle downward, outward pressure on the partner’s hand. Don’t jerk.
B. Keep steady pressure and release it as soon as they relax their hand, even slightly.
C. Then ask them (nonverbally! and as a suggestion, not a command) to lower the hand a little more, rewarding any downward movement with release.

Short Tugs
A. Give rhythmic and regular short tugs on the hand. The tugs should be gentle, more of an annoyance than a pull.
B. A natural reaction is to move in the opposite direction, away from the annoyance. If they pull their hand up, allow that, then continue with the gentle tugs.
C. As soon as your partner begins to lower their hand, even just a little, stop tugging and give warmth in your embrace.
D. Then continue tugging until the hand rests at a relaxed, comfortable level and distance from the body.

Back “Rubs”
A. With a relaxed, open hand at the arm side of the embrace give gentle, short downward pressure (not strokes) against the back or arm.
B. Beware of creating pressure points, such as with fingertips, that call attention to themselves and distract from the calming effect. Beware, too, that this not be seen as (or actually be) a too familiar or intimate move. This move differs from comfortable, clear dance connection only in its specific intention to feel as a calming presence.

We leave as an exercise how these cues might be adapted to address the related problem of a hand-side elbow that floats upward.

(Adapted from Storey’s Guide to training horses, by Heather Smith Thomas, pp 164-167)

** In this, as with most of our writing and teaching, we intentionally avoid speaking of Follower or Leader, for the advice applies to either role.