Bandoneon imagery

[Published simultaneously in Austin Tango Lab on Facebook on 14-April-2016, 9pm.]

The bandoneon as imagery for equal and opposite presence.

michael zisman, bandoneonista
michael zisman, bandoneonista

Some call it ‘tone’, others ‘structure’. Most teachers dislike hearing it called ‘pressure’, and definitely not pushing and pulling. We’re talking about the sensation of your partner’s hand or torso or arm against yours.

At the hand side of the embrace this presence can, depending on our movements, be felt on the palm side of the hand, when we are opening up from each other, and on the back of the hand, when we are closing up with each other. (Think of pivots away and pivots toward one another.)

Even when we are perfectly capable and do power our pivots with our own body instead of needing help from our partner, we still rely on that sensation of equal and opposite ‘presence’ to communicate or sense how fast/slow big/small to make our movements.

Now here’s where a problem arises. When we talk to students who haven’t yet grasped and embodied this concept, they tend to one extreme or the other, too little or too much, or, they don’t modulate that presence as the situation and their partner requires.

Too light and you lose a sense of where your partner is. It also gives one a feeling of psychic as well as physical disengagement. Too much and the arm or hand or body feel stiff and unresponsive. Unmodulated to match your partner and the lead/follow signals become confused.

How to give a sense of this presence without triggering an over response?

Consider the bandoneon (or accordion, or squeezebox). If the player’s hands don’t move toward (or away) from each other with the same speed and the same level of energy, what happens? Well clearly the instrument won’t stay centered. It will go swinging off in the direction of low push energy or high pull energy.

Consider, too, how the instrument can go from silence to soft notes to hard notes. Even in silence the player’s hands are relaxed yet still engaged by holding the instrument between them. With fast notes or loud sounds the player must move the hands together or apart powerfully. Slow and soft notes require only gentle effort.

So, maybe the bandoneon isn’t just to play our beautiful music, but also to help our dancers know how to sense each other.

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.

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

“Fixing” people

Epigram seen in an architect’s office: “There is no greater passion in the heart of man, neither love nor hate, than the desire to edit the work of another.”

Why is it, one wonders, that teachers, instructors, partners, strangers — actually, (most, many?) people in all walks of life — feel that it is their job to find fault with and correct others?

But my interest here is with Argentine tango. Oh, but wait a moment! What am I doing here; am I calling out teachers for doing something wrong? Well that’s not right! I’m saying that as we help others achieve more of their potential in dance, we have better ways of doing that when we can accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.

In my car I’m listening to the book THE ART OF POSSIBILITY by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. “Presenting twelve breakthrough practices for bringing creativity into all human endeavors.” The current chapter is “Giving an A”, about how much more likely we are to have successful, uplifting relationships with others – and ourselves! – when we take a success-minded viewpoint. Like sculptor Michelangelo, not adding on, rather, chipping away only the minimum marble to release the angel inside. We want to see the perfect possibilities in ourselves and in our students, then help to discover how to manifest those possibilities.

Instead of judging the actions of ourselves or others as good or bad, we gain in understanding when we merely observe how well our actions serve us.

I caught myself – too late – saying, “Nice correction,” to a student when they spontaneously improved a performance element we had noted earlier. A correction implies that something was wrong. What they were doing was not wrong; rather, it did not serve them as well as a modification would. So now I am installing in me an anchor (a la Alexander Technique) to recognize – much the way a Leader or Follower wants before an action to take an instant of reflection – when I am about to offer a “correction” OR compliment, to frame it as “better” or conversely “not as useful as, because …”

Fixing, correcting, right, wrong – these terms all imply something broken, something to be *made* right. Versus the old Sears store grades of “Good, Better, Best.” Here is a difficulty with telling someone that what they are doing is wrong, no matter how nicely we try to put it, we are saying that they are broken and we can fix them. It creates a negative, rejection reaction in a person. When you “fix” something, that is a passive activity for the object of your concern. They haven’t done anything internally to understand why and how. Such “fixes” are likely to be frustratingly (for teacher and student) short-lived and requiring frequent reminders.

How much better when a student or partner discovers for themselves how and why a modification to technique might serve them better? Then it becomes not a judgement of “you are doing something bad; you are wrong” but rather a calibration along the scale of okay, good, even better.

So here’s a practical example. Think how often we get told, or we tell others, “Your arm’s too stiff!” Perhaps you can feel, even just reading this, the sting of being corrected. Now imagine your reaction to the question, “How comfortable is your arm?”

Our brains are efficient question-answering machines. They are all the time trying to make meaning out of our experiences. (So, how much more powerful when we can give people good, positive experiences!) When you ask someone a question about how they feel, they immediately go inside themselves, seeking an answer to the question of how they feel, AND an answer to why they were asked the question, AND what effect any changes might have. They are creating meaning for themselves instead of being told how to act and think.

“Catch them doing something right.” That venerable old management advice is about giving everyone an “A” from the beginning, then seeing how we can work together to make it an “A+”!