Elements of improvisation

I will touch on four aspects of what I consider important to improvising dance (in general, and not only Argentine tango).

Solo practice

Solo practice video recorded, with music and strongly visualizing your partner. Benefits:

  • Learn specific songs and learn to recognize recurring structures in music.
  • Prepare your body to respond to music, both with figures and with adornments.
  • Discover and store little movement sequences that nicely express certain musical idioms.

Regularly review your video to see if the outside view matches what you feel inside. If you like what you see, do more of that. If you don’t like what you see, try something different.

Learning figures

For a comprehensive program of learning figures, with rhythmical interpretations, I am a big fan of the DVIDA (Dance Vision International) program for Argentine tango (and other dances). They are offering their entire streaming library for FREE (no credit card needed!) for a month during the Covid-19 time of physical distancing.

Here’s the value of figures. These are sequences of moves that dancers have over time discovered they nicely fit together. They flow. These are good starting points to see what movements there are and how they can combine nicely. Pay particular attention to how you get into (that is, start) the figure and how you resolve (end) it. You will find these starting and ending moves get used many times, and you will begin to discover how they “prime the pump” for movements to follow.

Another value is the context that a figure gives you to discover how you want to move yourself to make the figure flow nicely. Each element of a figure: ochos, cruzadas, alterations, and on and on, are things you can reuse in different combinations. You want to learn how to flow into and out of a particular movement from many different starting and ending points.

But it can be mind-numbing and confusing to learn many figures all at once. Learn one, master it so it flows smoothly. Then experiment with fitting it into your usual repertoire. Use it in lots of different styles of music to play with the dynamics of each movement within the figures.

Then you can begin experimenting with breaking it into pieces and recombining the pieces in different ways. “If I can do it in this direction, can I also do it in the other direction?” “If I do this to my partner, can we change it so they do it to me?” “What if we do more/less of these movements?” “What if I end the figure early?” “What if I start the figure later in the pattern?”

That leads nicely into …

Using pieces

Recognize that at Every Single Step my partner and I have a few, fairly simple choices: Wait, Change weight, or Pivot.

The most simple of those, we can simply wait in place for our partner to complete their movement or for a new phrase of music to begin. Even though simple it can be challenging to wait while still holding energy and attention.

Either or both of us can change weight from one foot to the other. A weight change can be in place or over a distance. It can be permanent or momentary.

If the weight change includes a step, that can be around or ‘through’ our partner. With my light leg I can step around my partner on either the hand side or the arm side of the embrace. In one direction the step will be an open step; in the other direction it will be either a front-crossing or back-crossing step. My partner has the same choices.

Either or both of us can pivot: matching, mirroring, or mismatching.

Having experimented with the elements of figures. We will begin to recognize the richness of all these possible choices. We can begin to play with these in a variety of games/challenges to gain a facility for finding useful opportunities whenever they arise.

The Tango Keypad article has a system for generating challenges from any random string of numbers. But many will consider this too geeky or complicated. There are simpler games.

Mauricio Castro has a number of interesting exercises in his TANGO DISCOVERY book and DVD. Here are three, for example:

Exercise 1.
As partner stands with weight on one leg, demonstrate Open, Front-crossing, and Back-crossing steps. Change legs and repeat. “1-2-3-4 Front” exercise. Lead partner in any four steps, then a Front. Count out loud.

Variations.
Require a specific leg be the crossing one. Change target to a Back or Open step.

Exercise 2.
Now leader should occasionally make an intentional mistake to see if follower catches it. “That wasn’t a front cross.” At more advanced levels step faster.

Exercise 3.
At count 4 the follower will call for next step: front, back, or open.

My partner’s energy

The first point about solo practice is in part about how I (and each of us individually) develop my own clear and creative energy to bring to a dance partnership. My great hope and great joy when I find it is that my partners will have done the same sort of work to bring good energy to our dancing together.

When I dance with a partner who is well connected to themselves, well connected to the music, well connected to me, and using the floor in powerful ways, it can feel like magic. We can find ourselves doing things we’d never dreamed of in any class or lesson. We can find ourselves wondering afterward, “How did that happen!?” That is when our investments in Practice, Patterns, and Pieces come together in a magical flow of improvisation.

Escalate your movement skill

Do you ride escalators up and down instead of walking them or using stairs? Did you say you are an Argentine tango dancer?!

Escalators full of standing people, while stairs go empty

I know, the moving stairs are usually filled with other people riding them, letting a machine do their work instead of using their own body in a great, simple exercise. So we’re stuck.

Walking up and down stairs makes a great exercise for dancers and everyone. We lift (or lower) almost our full body weight through a good range of motion. We strengthen our ankles, the joint through which all our body weight above connects to our base of support, our feet.

In regular walking in the general population, you are going to find people ‘falling’ from one step into the next, unable to seize their axis as the hips come over the foot. Worse still, they may not even bring their hips over the foot, but stagger a little side-to-side.

Let’s face it, our bodies are lazy. They will do as little work as they can get away with. So our minds and spirits that have aspirations must assert control and demand better performance. To avoid little-by-little performance degradation, we can challenge ourselves in lots of little everyday ways.

I have a few exercises that can help.

  • Walking slowly through the axis position, where the light leg swings directly under the hip and brushes past the other leg.
  • Changing up forward, backward, sideways the direction of steps.
  • Static heel raises. Think how often you are standing around watching something or waiting for something. Press the heels into each other, with the forefoot turned out to a comfortable degree. Rise up slowly off your heels, and lower slowly, keeping your weight forward, over the balls of the feet, so that the heels just kiss the floor.
  • Harder heel raises. Pressing the heels into each other, rise up on only one foot, with the other one floating beside the working foot. Repeat on the other side.
  • With each step, pretending that you are stepping up onto a short, next level plaza. We flex our ankle, pressing down through the ball of the foot to lift our entire body up to and above the next level. We can have that same feeling when walking on a constant level. With each step, I am “stepping ‘up'” and holding my weight there, in readiness for a next step or a pivot in place.
    In actual dancing we don’t want to bob up and down, so we flex the ankle and use a relaxed (but not bent) knee to absorb the lifting. This will keep our head at a nearly constant height as we swing through our axis, the ‘lifting’ point of each step.
  • Standing leg circles (lápiz). Standing on one leg we extend the other leg as far as it reaches to the front, then swing it in a large half-circle to the back, keeping the toe in light contact with the floor. Important: keep the size of the arc the same on the back and the front. Feel your active gluteus muscles on the back. Do five to ten times starting to the front, and then repeat starting to the back. Now repeat the whole thing on the other side.

Please give this a try and let me know if you have any questions or interesting experiences with it.

The secret to powerful pivots

Activate both internal and external hip rotator muscles for a powerful, smooth, controlled pivot, by pressing one heel into the other in the direction of pivoting.

David gives warm-up exercises, an explanation of the operation of the hip rotator muscles, and an explanation and examples of using this technique.

Index

0:00 Introduction
0:26 Warm-up exercises
0:41 Heel raises
1:09 Importance of ankles
1:31 Single-leg heel raises
2:09 Freeing heels without raising up
2:38 Double-leg foot twists
3:05 Hip twists
3:36 Torso twists
4:03 Whole leg and hip work, side-to-side steps
4:23 Importance of energy
4:47 Forward-and-backward steps
5:16 Importance of getting over axis in back step
5:39 Typical instruction for pivots: dissociation
6:08 More important muscles: hip rotators
6:22 External hip rotators
6:48 Internal hip rotators
7:40 Tip to help internal hip rotators for backward pivots
8:15 External and internal hip rotators working together
10:05 Concise summary of The Secret — pressing the heels together in the direction of pivot
11:29 Conclusion, an invitation to try it and comment

Transcript

Hi, this is David and I’m coming to you from the Tango Tribe studio in Austin, Texas. Today, I would like to share with you a secret that we use to help students produce powerful, controlled, smooth pivots, forward and backwards.

Let’s start off with some warm up exercises that will both prepare the body for work and inform the body about how to move in a way that produces those pivots.

We’ll start off with heel raises. With our heels together, our feet turned out or not, to whatever angle is comfortable, producing a nice base underneath us. We’ll move our heels up and down in a smooth, slow, controlled manner that gives us the best muscular exertion.

The ankles are so important because they are the connection between all of the rest of our body, and the base that is supporting our body that is our connection with the ground. So this is something that we ought to be working all the time.

We can make it harder by doing one foot at a time. And we can make that more controlled by anchoring one heel against the other. So the heavy leg is doing the work of raising the heel, while the light leg anchored against it is just floating free.

Then we can switch legs. Again, the light leg heel will anchor against the heavy leg.

Now of course, we don’t want to be popping up as we’re dancing an Argentine tango. We’d like to keep a nice level line. So what we will actually be doing is flexing the knees slightly forward to release the heels just enough that the foot can skim over the floor.

Now a different exercise. With the feet spread slightly so that the legs are still under the edges of the hips, let’s do the twist. I’m gonna keep my hips and torso facing forward while the legs twist independently underneath.

And after we’ve done that work, then I will keep the legs and the feet still, I’ll keep the torso pointing straight forward, and rotate only the hips. If it feels confusing, how does the body do this, think of working in opposition. So my opposite shoulder, I’m in effect pushing that forward as the hip goes forward.

And then we’ll keep everything from the hips down to the feet quiet while we rotate only the torso. I’ll keep my chin over the breast bone. I’ll keep my arms relaxed.

Good, so we’ve warmed up all of these connections. Let’s also do some whole leg and hip work. We can begin that most simply by doing side-to-side steps. And with those I’m going to emphasize rotating through the edges of the feet to give a strong grounding into the floor.

I always like to emphasize energy in my classes because it connects the dancer to the music, and to one’s partner no matter what their energy level is. If we have good strong energy available, then we can produce more powerful and clear movements and connect with our partner whatever their energy level is.

And let’s also do some steps forward and backward, again emphasizing rolling through the entire foot, pushing off the front of the foot to go forward. Pushing off the heel going backwards. Switching feet. This movement is important because as I step backwards I want to reach, providing room for my partner to step forward. And I want to get my hip fully over my axis, over the ball of the foot of the standing leg to enable it to pivot easily.

Okay, so what about this secret I talked about? Well, in most tango instruction, you’ll see emphasis placed on dissociation where the body parts twist in opposite directions. If I’m going forward pivot, I turn the shoulder away from that, and that’s going to pull the muscles, pull the hip around.

However, I think there are even more important muscles down below: the hip rotator muscles that we exercised at the beginning of our warm-up.

For external rotation which rotates the foot away from our center line, or if we’re standing on the ball of the foot, it rotates the heel to the front. There are six muscles that attach to the top of the thigh bone and then connect to the hip, and they run at a fairly horizontal direction.

For internal rotation which sends the foot towards the center line, or if we’re on the ball of the foot as we would be for pivots, it sends the heel back away from us. There are also six muscles but some of those are shared, and also they don’t run at a horizontal angle, they run more vertically, and attach both to the hips and to the spine. That makes them somewhat less effective.

For external rotation, we can go as much 140 degrees. Internal rotation as much as 110 degrees. It’s not as powerful going internal rotation, which is what we do for back pivots. That’s one of the reasons why back pivots are a little more difficult.

And here’s a tip, a little trick. If we tilt the pelvis forward, it puts those internal rotator muscles at a more advantageous angle. It also serves to send our weight more forward over the ball of the foot, freeing up the heel. So what we want to do is when we’re stepping for a back pivot is leading with that hip and keeping that hip back as we pivot.

But now, there’s more to it. We have external rotators, we have internal rotators. What if we could get the effect of both of those sets of muscles working together? We can!

What I want to do is if I’m going to the front, my heel is going to the front underneath my body. I am going to press it against the other heel. Firmly press the heels together, which in effect recruits the internal rotators of the other hip. So you get the effect of both muscles working synergistically together, the external rotators and the internal rotators.

To illustrate. So from standing still, it could produce almost a 360 degree turn. Going in the other direction, backwards, the heel is moving behind me away from me. In this case, I’m going to take the heel of the light leg, and push it firmly against the heel of the heavy leg. And of course it’s the very same thing on the other side.

Going backwards I press the light leg heel against the heavy leg. Going forward, the heavy leg is coming around, it presses against the light leg.

[Pausing to collect thought.]

Oh, so it takes longer and is more confusing to explain all of this than it is to actually do it. We don’t need to be thinking about okay, which side of the heel is going where if I’m going back? Is it the right one or the left one? Which one is coming?

All we need to think about is if I’m turning in this direction, I can even do it on two feet to figure it out if I don’t know, then this heel is going forward, this heel is going towards the other one. So that heel is going to press into the other one. If I’m going backwards, this heel is going away, so it’s the other, the light leg heel that’s coming towards the other heel. I’m going to press the light leg heel into the heavy leg.

That’s what we need to remember is simply firmly pressing one heel [whichever one is moving toward the other heel] into the other. And it works not only standing still, but as we’re coming through our axis collecting, we get the same effect by pressing those heels strongly together.

So that’s our secret. I hope you give it a try, both for yourself in your own practice, and with your partners or if you’re teaching students. See what it does for you. In our experience with beginning dancers, and even never-ever dancers, the quick warm up, explaining of pressing the heels together as they pivot, it so quickly produces quality pivots.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you. Thank you for your attention.

The Alexander principle of choices

At each and every moment, if we but sense the opportunity, we have three choices. We can do what we’ve always done in that situation, we can do nothing, or we can do something different. The key is recognizing the opportunities to make a choice, and that comes at the moment-before-the-moment.

The BODY LEARNING book cover that shows a man holding a toddler standing upright in the right hand of the man.
BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb

Let’s say that you’ve come to recognize, or you’ve been told, that you do a certain move ALL – THE – TIME. (A cadencia turn, maybe?) You want to introduce variety into that situation. What sort of variety?

  • Do what you’ve always done. But! Can you change the character of the movement? Can you do it at a different cadence, rhythm, or speed? Legato versus Staccato? With styling?
  • Do nothing! Could this be a good time in the music, or in a constant flow of movement, to take a pause? Maybe some rhythmic weight changes in place, or adornos, or simply a quiet gathering of energy for what comes next.
  • Do something different. The cadencia turn makes such an easy change of direction and connector of other figures that we tend to overuse it. What would it take to introduce other creative ways to achieve a similar result with something new? (You might use the Tango Keypad as a tool to analyze existing moves and explore new moves.)

We all want to use our body in the right way, but due to inactivity, sitting, smartphones, desk work, injuries, and repetitive use, what feels right may be less than effective and even hurtful, and what works best may feel wrong.

Maybe we learn from partner or teacher feedback that at times, especially in certain types of movements, we tilt our shoulders, tilt our whole axis, create tension, push or pull, drop a hip, and on and on. The key to making a change comes from recognizing when the problem happens. But because this is what you have done habitually, it doesn’t feel wrong. So instead, we may more easily recognize the situations that lead up to the problem.

So I say to myself, “Ah! We are about to enter that move where I typically do X. Well now I am going to monitor that body part and do what I know to be right, even if it feels different.” Eventually, the better way comes to feel like the right way.

You could benefit nicely from studying all of the Alexander Technique, but you don’t need to know who F. M. Alexander was or what his discoveries and writings were about to benefit from this principle of choices:

  1. Learn and then recognize the situation that arises just before the thing you want to change; and
  2. Give yourself an instant at that moment-before-the-moment to consider and make a choice with intention.

Another principle in the Alexander Technique, and one highly important in learning and improving Argentine tango, is the avoidance of what he terms end-gaining. I plan to explore that topic in a future article.

Frederick Mathias Alexander was born in Tasmania (an island state of Australia) in 1869. He lived in the same era as the development and worldwide growth in the popularity of Argentine tango. In his twenties he became a professional reciter of dramatic pieces, a popular form of entertainment in those days. After almost completely losing his voice, and with no medical answers or help, he developed a method of use of his body in all positions and movements, and cured his vocal problems. [Adapted from THE USE OF THE SELF by F. M. Alexander.]
Library or Store

In addition to Alexander’s own book, I recommend BODY LEARNING by Michael J. Gelb.
Library or Store

You can also find Alexander Technique practitioners and teachers around the world. Search for alexander technique [and your location].

Argentine tango competitions

The photo shows a stage in the background distance, and portions of a large auditorium filled to capacity with people watching a world competition of Argentine tango.

Human nature encompasses competition and cooperation.

The martial art of Aikido shares much in common with Argentine tango in spirit (with nage “leader” and uke “follower” as partners rather than combatants) and techniques (triangle, circularity, flow), and in generally eschewing competitions.

“The founder of Aikido, O-Sensei was reportedly against the concept of contests and competitions in Aikido. We seek instead “Masakatsu agatsu” or winning over yourself. In other words, the goal of Aikido is the mastery of one’s self to create harmony.” Source

There are a small number of Aikido competitions, mostly in a particular style. There also have been Argentine tango competitions en los barrios from its historical beginnings. Indeed, the dance was a form of substitute for lethal fighting. Even in the social dance today we have a competition for the best partners and attention.

The competition judge Claudio Villagra tells us, “Based on my experience, I considered the most important thing to competitors is to keep in mind that the competition is a big part of personal and professional growth. Competing does not always mean to ‘win’. The true competition is with yourself, every day in practice. Be confident, elegant, have cadence and a good interpretation of musicality.”

Yes, there will be some competitors who see competition as a stepping stone to recognition and professional advancement, and some may look to past competition results to find the secrets to success, and that could distort the individuality, the freshness, the “innocence” of the dance. (For example, breeding to win dog conformation contests has led to genetic weaknesses.)

But think now of all the other purposes competition can serve:

  • as goal and a context in which to pursue personal improvement and achievement;
  • as a means to guide development and bring purpose to practice; and
  • as a form of evaluation (complementing other forms of evaluation: internal, partners, teachers).

Why then do some Argentine tango dancers belittle competitions as “showing off” or somehow not in the spirit of the dance? It’s as if they think competitors are trying to show themselves as better than they are. Well, yes! That’s exactly the point. Dancers want to get better. They want to show what they have achieved in their dance, and they are willing to have it judged.

I see a strange, sad parallel between the “showing off” sentiment and those followers who say, “Oh, I could never do mirada. That would be like putting myself out there, wanting attention.” Well, yes! That’s exactly the point of mirada, of competitions. You are putting yourself out there for others to see and assess.

Many of us don’t like the uncomfortable feeling of being judged, but that’s how we grow. If you don’t assess your efforts today versus yesterday, how will you improve?

Many forms of motivation and evaluation exist. We don’t have to pick competitions for ourselves. Yet we can recognize the value of people finding and using lots of different good ways to motivate and improve their art. We grow not by diminishing others or their methods, but by helping others and striving for ourselves.

Links to competitions

Molinete practice with a stick

By using a tall, straight stick, such as from a broom or mop, we can practice in a way that creates strong molinete movement with good partnership.

See the FAULTS notes below the TRANSCRIPT—a good example of the benefits of periodically making and reviewing videos of your practice and dancing.

Transcript

[0:01] Hi! This is David at the Tango Tribe studio in Austin, Texas, and today I have a tip for you about how to practice molinetes.

[0:11] I use a stick from a broom or a mop. You can leave the head attached or not. And we put the smooth end of the stick on the floor. Then there are four things we want to pay attention to.

[0:24] First, by using a two-handed embrace, with one hand over the other, this will enforce a position where we confront our partner all the way around, whether we’re in a front-crossing step, a back-crossing step, or an open step.

[0:45] Secondly, we’re envisioning a circle surrounding our partner, and we’re always working orienting our hips on that circle for proper stepping, either along a radius for either a forward-crossing step or a backward-crossing step, or perpendicular to the radius for an open step.

[1:11] Third, we want to keep our partner vertical, no pushing or pulling.

[1:17] And lastly, as we step around we want to energize our step just as we do in the walking by rolling through the foot to produce a horizontal push along the floor, keeping our head and shoulders level.

[1:35] [Music. “Alma,” Adolfo Carabelli]

[2:13] I hope you find that helpful. Thank you for watching.

Faults

At 0:32, 0:35, and 0:38 — don’t allow your foot to roll to the outside like this. At 2:06 — don’t cross your legs this way; see how the back foot has an unnatural twist because the hips aren’t properly aligned with both legs.

Ways to explore and practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reversals

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

Cadenas

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

Circular/Linear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from Every Trick in the Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Plake on Practice

My underlinings from You’ll Never “Waste” Time Practicing As Long As You Are Doing This, October 14, 2018 by Bill Plake.

[Substitute “Dance” for “Instrument” and apply Bill’s wisdom to your tango practice.]

One of the main reasons you would probably seek out a great teacher of your instrument is to learn how to optimize practice efforts. That’s what a highly skilled teacher can help you with.

Whatever you practice, do with genuine curiosity and inquiry.

So rather than looking at the “absolute best” way you can practice something, ask yourself this question instead:

“How can I optimize my experience with what I’m practicing right now, right in this practice session, right in this moment?”

This question can help you to form to other types of questions: “Why” questions, and “what if” questions.

“Why do I practice this at this tempo?” Why do I practice these arpeggio patterns in this particular sequence?” “Why do I raise/tense my shoulders when I play into the upper register?” etc.

  1. “What is it that I want?” (Your intentions about what you would like to happen, about what you’d like to be able to do on your instrument. Make this as specific and lucid as possible!)

  2. “What seems to stopping me from getting what I want?” (Identify the problem. Is it simply needing more time? Is it something that you’re doing with your body that is taking you away from your skill and coordination? Is it your attitude? Keep asking/experimenting until the answers emerge.)

  3. “What do I need to do differently?” (This is where you take action. Change course, strategize, reflect, assess, redirect efforts, etc.)

Careful, Conscious Practice

Guest article by Iona Italia
8 October 2018
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The key to improving your tango, we’re often told, is practice. But what precisely is the best way to practise: the one most likely to lead to rapid and sure improvement?

Practice versus Social Dancing

The first key thing is that practice is not exactly the same as dancing.

Dancing socially does provide some of the benefits of more structured practice. Done with awareness and care, social dancing enables us to become more deeply familiar with the music—especially if we attend milongas in which the DJs base their choices around a solid repertoire of Golden Age standards. It can help us to gain confidence in both leading and responding to leads. And there is no other really effective way to improve our floorcraft than to go out there onto the pista often and gain a familiarity with the lane system, a sixth sense of the directions in which leaders in front of and behind us are likely to move and when we will have room to stride out and when we need to arrange our dance in a small, tight circle (every leader should learn to enjoy those circular, on-the-spot movements in which the partners chase each other’s tails like playful puppies—don’t get caught up in an urgency to progress around the dance floor, in a deep need for a linear walk: that way frustration lies.)

But, when we’re simply dancing, it’s all too easy to slip into our comfort zones. In fact, when we’re dancing socially, we often should actively seek those comfort zones. Leaders, in particular, should not experiment with new moves at the milonga, followers shouldn’t try wild decorations that they have not yet learned to control: we need to give our social dance partners our most polished performance, our most practised movements. But this also means that we can fall into repetitious sequences that quickly feel as though we are dancing them on autopilot, with sloppy footwork and sagging postures. We can relapse into bad old habits, and find ourselves executing that flopped in front of Netflix, eating Doritos style of dancing, that awkward cuddle shuffle. Comfortable. But baggy.

Practice, then, is of extreme importance. And yet it’s quite an art.

Does Practice Make Permanent?

First though, there’s one fear I’d like to dispel. There’s a myth circulating that practice makes permanent and only perfect practice makes perfect. A lot of dancers are wary of practising because they fear they will be practising the wrong thing and simply acquiring new bad habits to replace the old. This is why conscious practice is so important. What we need is not to automatize movements—so that we can repeat them by rote, without thinking—but to incorporate them into the body, fully conscious at every stage of what and how we are moving. Not overthinking things, but not moving in a kind of trance either. The main thing we need to develop through conscious practice is greater proprioception: i.e. awareness of where our body is in space and how it is moving. We need to listen in extremely carefully.

The process should not feel like someone driving to work, shifting gears and flicking on indicator lights without even knowing she is doing so, listening to NPR perhaps, her conscious mind occupied with the latest news or preparing a mental shopping list for dinner later, her feet on the pedals and hands on the wheel working in the background unnoticed, so that, once she reaches the office, she scarcely knows how she got there.

Dancing can feel that way. Sometimes, when I’m really dancing, I feel as though I am in a bubble of stillness and it’s the world which is moving around me. Sometimes, I don’t feel I am even hearing the music: instead, I’m following the miniature tale which is the lyrics, listening to the meanings behind the words, constructing the story of a jilted aging Frenchwoman starving in a porteño garret or a heartbroken bachelor lovingly repairing an abandoned bandoneon in my imagination and I scarcely know what my feet and body have done to express the notes of the song and respond to the leads I’m feeling. This is blissful. But it isn’t practice.

Practice feels more like someone manoeuvring a mountain bike down a narrow path along a mountainside, like someone slaloming down a steep steep Alpine slope. It’s less like driving to work and more like a Formula 1 race—without the speed, but with that sense of intense focus on the actions you are making, intense awareness of your movements. You are learning how to be aware of how you are moving and to control and modify your way of moving, as necessary.

If you can do this, then it is not so important what you learn. The skill you are honing is how to learn. Just as a flautist who can consciously control the movements of his mouth can play legato or staccato at will, so you can correct things of which you are aware. If you are choosing, for example, to twist your hips first in a giro, before turning the upper body, you are (to my mind) choosing wrongly. But if it’s a conscious choice of which you are aware, you can change it. It’s when those hips are swivelling around without your knowledge, when you don’t realise what you are doing that it becomes much harder to alter. So if you practise consciously, even if the movement you are practising is incorrect, you are making it easier for yourself to adjust it later. Always aim to incorporate, but not to automatize.

How can you achieve this? Let’s look at some tools you can use and some concrete things you should focus on.

Slowness

It is important, eventually, to incorporate some speed drills into your dance: to be able to respond quickly and fluidly (you’ll need to push yourself). But, for most dancers, most of the time, one key to practising is slowing movements right down. In tango, the point is not to get from one place to the other: it’s entirely about how you get there.

You’ll need to break your movements down.

A forward ocho isn’t one single motion. In my technique at least (your mileage may differ), it involves first turning the upper body alone in towards your partner, then pivoting your base foot as needed to find the correct direction of travel, then taking a step, landing softly in the middle of your two feet, with weight evenly distributed between front and back feet, then transferring your weight fully onto the front foot as you spiral your upper body more deeply towards your partner. Then, once all your weight has been transferred, pivoting your base foot. Finally, you allow your free foot to come to axis and adjust your upper body at the same time to face your partner again.

Your forward ocho may be different. That’s OK. I’m not trying to teach you a specific forward ocho method here—that’s too cumbersome to do in writing; I would need to show you and, in any case, valid styles and techniques of ochos differ. But however you do your forward ochos, you need to be able to subdivide the movement into this level of detail and monitor how you are moving through every single stage. One of the greatest challenges facing every dancer is dissociation and, by that, I don’t just mean the upper-body-led spiral movements so frequent in tango but every type of movement that requires separating out the different parts of the body: moving the back here, but not the hips; the foot here but not the hip; the toes here but not the knee; the torso here but not the behind.

Connection

One of the main advantages of breaking movements down is to ensure that you are with your partner at every stage of the movement: not just beginning and ending together, but traversing the distance between one step and the next with complete coordination. One example of this which is worth practising for almost everyone is to both giro around a common centre, in practice hold. The idea of the exercise is to coordinate not just your footfalls but each part of each movement. You should arrive at the mid-weight point between steps together, transfer weight at exactly the same speed. Your upper body movements should complement each other so that, as the right hand side of your partner’s upper body (for example) turns in towards you, the right hand side of your upper body turns in towards her an equal amount, at an equal speed. If some imaginary god took a pair of compasses, like the illustration in Blake’s Milton, and traced a line, at lower shoulder blade height, around the outside of your two backs and through the air, the shape created would be a perfect, even oval. Only if you go slowly can you work on and eventually achieve this kind of harmony of motion.

Notice that, in tango, one side of your body is always further away from your partner’s than the other. Even in a two-tit milonguero embrace, the leader’s right and follower’s left sides are touching more closely than the other respective sides. Be careful of not holding the follower off too far to your right, leaders, and, followers, don’t snuggle into that side of his body, neglecting the more open side of the embrace. In linear movements, actively try to maintain a consistent distance, a consistent relationship between the follower’s right hand side and the leader’s left. In an ocho or other turning movement, you’ll also notice that one side of your body is closer to the partner, one further away. You need to actively seek them with the part of your upper body which is further away, curling your back in towards them on that side—that is the essence of dissociation. It keeps the sensation of connection there, the spiralling in.

Comfort

Every movement needs to be free from any kind of excess tension or discomfort: both for yourself and for your partner. Leaders, in particular, be wary: if you feel uncomfortable in the embrace or obstructed in your movements, it may well be because of something you yourself are doing. Some movements require tone, but none should ever feel like a strain. This can be easier said than done—making your partner feel comfortable is not just about your attitude or desire. It’s also largely technique. He or she will never feel truly at ease if your posture is poor or your balance is weak.

Followers in particular should remember that the embrace should be sensual and snuggly, but it’s not a hammock in which to take a siesta. You need to be holding your own body upright against gravity. Your hands and arms should be touching the leader, but not applying pressure or resting with weight. Your upper back should be lifted, your spine stretched. This will take a little bit of effort, especially at first. Leaders, you need to keep repeating it like a mantra, keep reminding your subconscious mind: you don’t need to do things to the follower’s body: you make movements within your own body and trust her to respond.

A big part of comfort is stability. And, to work on that, you’ll need to do a lot of solo practice. You need to be able to execute almost any movement, confidently, without relying on the embrace for support or using it as a frame to push off against or hang onto (leaders do this as much as followers, though they are usually less conscious of it).

Followers, practise some decorations by standing on a pile of paperback books high enough that your free foot is dangling a couple of inches off the floor. Make sure you can move that free leg without wobbling and check in a mirror to ensure your shoulders and hips remain aligned throughout. (Disclaimer: be careful! Do this only if and when you can do so safely.)

Both partners: make sure you’re not using momentum to complete turning movements, that you’re never falling, but can stop, with control, at any point in a movement. Ensure your feet are firmly, squarely on the floor, especially your big toes and the joint immediately behind those toes. Don’t let them curl up and off the ground or roll outwards. Practice things that are more difficult than the movements you will actually need for the dance: relevé on one foot; overturn ochos through 360 degrees with one foot in the air. Gain mastery and control over your balance: it’s key.

Aesthetics

It’s vital that you record your practice sessions. The video camera isn’t an infallible tool: you do have to train your eye to know what to look for and that is a skill in itself. But it will show you some obvious faults that you must correct. If you’re trying to deal with a stubborn postural problem, if one or both of you feels uncomfortable in the embrace or if you’re preparing for a competition or performance, I recommend filming yourselves and stopping after every song to watch the video. Dance one, watch the film of it, dance another, watch yourselves, etc.—for the entire practice session. It’s extremely effective. Look for slouched postures, jutting heads (very easy to spot) and sloppy footwork.

There is a very strong (though imperfect) correlation between how things look and how they feel. Stiffness and discomfort are usually very visible. And, if something feels good but looks ugly, if you can find a way to improve the way it looks that will almost certainly make it feel even better, too. Don’t neglect appearances, even if you have no intention of ever dancing for an audience. Looks are symptomatic. They are telling. You need to pay attention to what you see as well as what you feel.

Keep at least some of the videos you take, so you can track your progress over months or years.

Musicality

To work on musicality, it makes sense to take a specific track—preferably a musically complex and rewarding one, for obvious reasons—listen to it several times and then begin to work on a musical interpretation. This is not about choreography: you shouldn’t decide which movements you want to do; what you need to identify is which moments in the music you wish to highlight together.

Begin this with phrasing. To emphasise the phrasing in a clear, intuitive, satisfying way, leaders, every sequence of walking, every figure needs to begin at the start of a phrase and end either at a mid-phrase pause (if it’s short) or at the end of the phrase. You can’t begin and end a giro, for example, at random. The follower’s final movement, as she curls around to meet you back in close embrace at the end of the movement, needs to coincide with the final note of the phrase. You can’t walk to cross at any moment: you need to ensure that you lead the cross such that the follower changes weight into cross just as the final note of the musical phrase sounds. This is harder than it seems. Try alternating between one phrase of walking and one phrase of giros. Music has a structure: your dance needs to have a structure too. It can’t just be a random series of events. The order in which you do things needs to have a motivation.

It’s really important that the follower is also listening and dancing to the music at every stage. In every single step. The feeling of dancing with someone who is accompanying you in interpreting the music and dancing with someone who is attempting to reproduce the timings you are dictating is qualitatively different by an entire order of magnitude. Followers, the leader needs to be able to trust your musicality: to feel you express what you are hearing. It’s a partnership.

As you practise, look for small details in the song that you want to have expressed in your joint dance. This means that you could lead and follow movements to those moments or the leader could decorate them or the follower could or you both could. Experiment with signalling to each other which choice you are making. Leaders, try to alternate between a looser, relaxed feel to your dance and a tiny touch of urgency that says get ready, there’s something exciting coming up and we are going to pounce upon it together. Followers, try to signal when you want to decorate to a specific moment. Use the natural preparatory movements of your body to show him: wait, I am going to do something here and I need you to be alert and receptive. Try these games with triplets, syncopations, 3-3-2 rhythms, countermelodies, fills and other musical details within the piece you’ve chosen.

Psychology

To be a good practice partner requires a lot of patience. Dance is not primarily an intellectual activity: it’s not about amassing snippets of knowledge which, once memorised, have now been added to your store of information. You can comprehend something perfectly, but not be able to incorporate that information into your body. The journey from neurons to muscles can be a long, arduous and frustrating one. Most of the critiques you’ll have of your partner will be things he or she already knows: think of them not as instructions but as mantras. For the body to understand, we may need to repeat the guidelines many many times. You have to retain a sense of humour and be forgiving of both your partner and yourself. It’s a process.

Give feedback when asked; stay silent when your partner needs that. Think of it as an exploration and try to depersonalise. Be curious and amused by your body and the way it moves, a loving spectator of its occasional grace and frequent clumsy antics. As if you were watching a new-born foal stumbling on endearingly tangled legs, still wet from the womb, knowing that soon it will be a lovely streamlined blur, an elegant, perfectly coordinated collection of bone and muscle.

Don’t forget to dance

Finally, while you should commit to practising regularly (meeting little and often is better than infrequent marathon sessions), you also need to be able to cut loose, leave your inhibitions behind, silence your inner critic and lose yourself in the music, the enjoyment of your partner’s proximity and the joyful inhabiting of your own body. You mustn’t lose touch with the delicious state of flow. Don’t get so caught up in how you are dancing that you forget why.

Good luck!