Concern: Frustrations, feelings of awkwardness

Do you remember how long it took you to learn to walk? Probably not. If we remembered in detail the struggles to gain past successes, it might keep us from trying new things in the future.

Patience with yourselves and with each other is your greatest asset at this early stage. Curiosity is another big one! Instead of making judgments about what you can do effortlessly or awkwardly right now, how about curiosity about what it means in your mind-body?

If something feels sort of good, what was going on that made it work? Can you recreate that feeling? If something feels awkward, what changes can you try out to see whether they improve the movement or the partnering? How curious can you feel about whatever you are learning at the moment and how it fits into the dance as a whole?

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.


[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.


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.

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.

Voice Lessons for Parents

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

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

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

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

These are some of the lessons I took from it:

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

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

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

Recognizing right

Alexander Technique wooden block doll goes from jumbled to organized

“Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right.”
~F.M. Alexander

Often, problems we feel with a partner arise not because they (or we!) don’t know what to do, or even how to do it. They arise because we don’t know when we are doing the right thing. After lifetimes of misuse and abuse of our bodies — 20,000 hours in school desks, countless more hours sitting at a work desk or watching TV or working a computer, hunched over a smartphone, sports and other injuries — we can in many ways come to a point where what is wrong feels right, and what is right feels wrong!

In our teaching of students and in our practice with partners we can often spark quick and even profound understanding when we guide experiences that help a person discover for themselves a range of possibilities and where they want to work within that range.

Sensitivity calibration game
Using simple movements in place, such as weight change, step and return, rebound, twist to invite partner’s step, etc. Between steps, or a series of steps, the receiving partner silently chooses a “sensitivity setting” between 0 = immediate responses to no inputs, to 6 = heavy force required to move. They will move and react with what they perceive as that level. Then the sending partner will say what they think the setting was.

After a productive session of this, where you each come to understand the other, now you can turn the table and make it a …

Force calibration game, where the leader silently chooses a level of force they will use, from 0 = just thinking about moving, to 6 = Mack truck. The receiving partner guesses their partner’s setting.

Now the two of you can have a pleasant and productive talk about your preferences, and likely come to a comfortable range that suits both of you.

Discussion: If we respond too eagerly to a lead, we likely will cut off possibilities to know what our partner actually intended. We want to be aware, as well, that some partners will have more or less “noise” (unintentional, undirected, or misdirected movements) in their movement system. If we respond slowly to a lead, if it takes significant force to get us to respond, then we will feel uncomfortably heavy to our partner.

If we lead with lots of noise, it makes it harder for our partner to home in on what we really mean; they get confusing, multiple signals. If we lead with too little force we can feel tentative to our partner; too much force and we feel unpleasantly demanding.

Also, some dancers will naturally favor a light, quick, highly responsive partner; while other dancers want their partner to respond or lead in a heavier, more forceful way.

We want to mirror and accommodate our partners, while keeping sure that we are neither too sensitive, responding to things that aren’t really intended, nor too INsensitive, requiring a heavy lead.

[Previously published 2017-08-22 on Facebook.]

Acting as if

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

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

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

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

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

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