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!


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.

4 Replies to “The “refrigerator” walking model”

  1. I just read your refrigerator model and here are my thoughts. I like the idea of moving the refrigerator forward. The follower should maintain resistance with us in order to feel us however, in the reverse order. I would propose that she is not the refrigerator on a decline coming toward you with her weight and you are receiving it as a leader but almost just the opposite. Think that if you, as a leader, are taking a back step and you are then pushed into the step and you are having to resist the follower that is coming toward you and even stretching out your back leg as a brace to help resist then you, as a leader, have actually become the follower and the follower has become the leader. Your roles have been perfectly reversed.
    The way I see it is that we don’t want to reverse roles just because we reverse direction. The leader should always lead (at default) and the follower should always follow (at default).
    Here is another piece of imagery, using your refrigerator model, the follower is a refrigerator on wheels, imagine that you are on a flat surface (like a dance floor) and you go to move the refrigerator backward (moving yourself forward), the refrigerator has resistance. Now you go to take a backstep, moving the refrigerator forward, and the refrigerator has resistance. You go to move it sideways and the refrigerator has resistance. In all directions our followers should give us resistance and not become the leader and create motion for us to resist as a follower. An easy way to look at it is that leaders can only move and followers can only resist (of course this is default and we can always change default at the higher levels of our dance). This creates a 100% leader/follower base of dance.
    What goes along with this is that the follower is always at a state of rest and we are the ones who are in charge of motion. Each step her goal is to get back to her resting position. So when you come to a stop and reverse direction she would not engage you by pushing you, that would make her now a completely different dancer that now has movement but only in one direction. We teach that the follower should stand on her whole foot and not the balls of her feet. If she is on the balls she would constantly have a forward motion toward you which would give you the refrigerator model as you describe it. Think about the follower having her weight on her whole foot and not in a state of motion.

    1. First of all, THANK YOU! It is gratifying to have a person of knowledge and understanding give my thoughts some consideration, and beyond that, to reflect on it in a thoughtful way.

      I believe that I understand your points, and point of view, even though I’m not sure I agree. I need to learn more. It also prompts me to review my description of the model to see if I have really communicated my thoughts clearly.

      I don’t regard either the leader or follower as having a fixed “refrigerator” role. Regardless of which role I am dancing, if I am going forward, I want to be activating the refrigerator and using my muscles as if I were “pushing” an easy rolling weight up an incline.

      I said “activating” there because we don’t like to say that the leader moves the follower. We see each partner moving themselves, and using the resistance connection with their partner to gauge how much, how fast, how powerful. (!! That just prompted a new model idea for me! You know how you can “push” a magnet with another, how the same poles resist each other with equal and opposite energy. That’s some of the idea here!)

      Likewise, regardless of which role I am dancing, if I am going backward (whether activated by my partner or by myself to do so), I want to use my muscles as if I were resisting yet allowing a weight to roll down the incline toward me.

      I, too, say that dancers, again regardless of role, want to use their entire foot for stability, releasing the heel only as much as needed to allow pivots, or for special effects, such as the aguja practice of yours that I enjoyed so much. Was your comment in regard to where I said, “reaching first with the big toe”? Perhaps it’s my ballroom background. I know many teachers suggest reaching back with a flat foot. I feel that there’s functional as well as artistic value in rolling through the length of the foot.

      I teach an egalitarian philosophy of dance. I want both dancers in a partnership fully empowered. In my view, whoever is walking forward at any moment has at least some important aspects of the leader role. (I have an anecdote about one of my favorite dance experiences that illustrates this nicely.) This helps motivate my teaching practice that has everyone at least experience and perform both roles for anything I am teaching.

      May I ask a favor? Can I add our discussion to the Comments for that article? If you prefer we can make yours anonymous.

      Again, thank you. I surely do enjoy discussions of how we can teach more effectively.

  2. With regard to the toe first, I also suggest that the follower reach back with the toe and then roll to her whole foot as she is brought back to neutral (an at rest position). Also I agree 100% that we activate the muscles moving forward as if you were pushing something uphill or on a flat surface. We differ in our view of the roles in Tango.
    To us, the leader is the mover and the follower is the resistor. The way that dance communication happens in all the dances I have ever experienced share this aspect. We do view that the leader is creating a good portion of the movement. We ask that the follower not engage her standing leg too much with a push into the back step as this will often cause her to disengage from the leader. If you’ve ever had the chest bumping experience, this is often the cause. The followers have an important role in the dance as they are the ones who create the connection between the couple as they are resisting the movement of the leader in all directions. These two roles are distinct. We often, especially in the US, want the dance to be egalitarian in a way that gives equal power to the leader and follower. We do view the roles equally as important but different in their actions. One retired teacher I know changed his vernacular to call the roles “forward walker and backward walker” which I like in a way because it shows that these roles are both equally as important. We still use leader and follower as these are just the common terms for the roles.

    1. Yes, indeed, I, too, look forward to interesting discussions on dance and teaching when you and Tilly visit Austin for your workshop here.

      Regarding mover/resister, here’s an example that informs my thinking. I’ve danced with women much larger than I am who were dreamy partners, where I felt no limitations. (I’ve also danced with men larger than I am who moved themselves well, although, as inexperienced, less accomplished followers, often moved too soon, too late, or to the wrong place.) These women, some even taller than me and outweighing me considerably, moved themselves in response to the ever so subtle, ever so slight, invisible to outsiders, pressures that say, “Now”, “this much”, “this fast”, “that direction”.

      Conversely, I’ve danced with slight women that I could have easily powered through, but these partners felt so leaden. It was like I actually was having to move them across the floor, and my dancing felt so constrained and unpleasant.

      I do recognize the chest bumping moments you mention, and at least as often as not I have the feeling that it was my problem — my moving too fast or too hard, or falling off in my movement in some circular figure.

      We help Tango Tribe students inform themselves about this by using palm-to-palm exercises, such as we did with Tomás Howlin in Tango Learning. We see how the resistance in both directions can range from almost zero when at rest to high but quite brief levels for movements of high energy – quick, or big size, or high dynamics.

      It’s sort of like the way relays work, where you use a small amount of energy to activate the relay, and then the relay handles the big currents/voltages (i.e., the actual movement of the body). We view the resistance as a pressure-activated potentiometer (think light dimmer, rheostat). The potentiometer magnifies the small energy input to power the whole body. But it is each individual partner that must power their own body.

      I most assuredly do practice egalitarianism in my life and dancing, but it is not my sense of “fairness” that informs my desire to dance with fully empowered, and powered partners regardless of which role I’m dancing. When we are moving “in the flow”, fully energizing ourselves as we respond to pressures back-and-forth (think for example, how your partner in the molinete gives you resistance to act against in your own muscles as you do the aguja), then we become a single dance animal that seems to transcend our individual identities. Magical!

      Postscript. I suspect that the differences in expression may be — as with the dance and life in general — mainly a matter of interpretation and degree. As with all things Argentine tango, and life, there are no absolutes. For example, in a calesita the leader does indeed move the follower. Different models speak to different people. Maybe “leader moving follower” is meant to express “leader activating follower”, or not. Notwithstanding my “refrigerator” model, I feel strongly about not saying that the leader moves the follower. In my experience observing other teachers and new dancers, I feel that it tends to immediately result is less than resourceful, awkward dancing.

      Saludos, and thank you for the discussion!

What do you *you* think?