Tango Christmas tree

Spirals make up the structure of our natural world, from immense galaxies to our own minuscule DNA. Unlike primitive robots with joints attached at right angles and actuators attached in straight lines, our bones, with rounded joints and muscles that wrap around in spirals, move in spirals.

Musculoskeletal diagrams. Anterior view left, posterior view right.
The Spiral Line, from ANATOMY TRAINS

See that figure from the monumental work ANATOMY TRAINS by Thomas Myers? He calls that arrangement of muscles the Spiral Line, where they loop around the body in opposing helices (like our DNA) joining each side of the skull across the back to the opposite shoulder, then around the ribs to cross at the navel to the hip, and so on down to wrap around the foot.

St. Louis Arch

Notice the longer lines of muscles and limbs as you move down the body.
In our Argentine tango embrace the partners connect somewhat like a strong parabolic arch, apart at the ground level, reaching up in a long arc to connect up top.

In my preferred style, Salon Tango, the top connection is quiet and well structured. Part of the magic for me as both observer and dancer is the invisible transmission of information flowing back and forth across that top connection by pressures alone. Then, from our stable “base” up top, our energies spiral downward and outward — tiny movements (secret pressures) up top, large movements down below. Like the shape of a Christmas Tree!

When I am sending the signals of my intention from the pressures of my feet rooted to the floor, spiraling up through my body to my partner connection up top, it accomplishes a couple of things. A sensitive partner can feel my foot placement and pressure distribution, and the mass of the upper body and stable partner connection fine tunes the signal.

Graph of Time (X axis) against Amplitude (Y axis) showing Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release of sound.
ADSR Signal Envelope, from TeachMeAudio.com

The shape of the pressure “envelope” transmits your request for the shape of the response. A slow, light, sustained pressure would call for a cylindrical shape revolving slowly for a sustained time. A fast, sharp pressure would call for flaring out at the bottom. Variations in the Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release pressure, plus up and down pressure modifiers, call for some kind of matching response.

When we receive our partner’s intention pressures we respond by magnifying  the invisible signal we receive up top, with movement growing more powerful and bigger as it moves down the body. We, too, firmly root our standing leg to the floor so that our partner can in turn receive pressure information through our body, telling where our foot is and how we are standing on it.

So! Think of your head as a wonderful shining (huge) ornament atop a Christmas tree strung with spirals of beautiful garlands.

One step only

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

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

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

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

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

A simple rule for a great connection

Match energy. If you can think-feel just one thing in your dancing, I recommend you make that Energy. (By the way, do you agree with me about how it often serves us to focus on a single thing?)

Okay, there it is, the whole “secret” right in the first two words of this article. You’re welcome! I, too, value highly concise, wonderfully helpful advice.

A girl on the left and a boy on the right play tug of war with a rope.
How to Play Tug of War by WikiHow, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

What’s that? You’re not sure what match energy means, and even if you have an idea what it means you’re not sure you agree? Well my guess is that even if you were to guess at some interpretation of match energy and seek to apply it in your dancing, you would find benefits of mindfulness, calm, clear intention, and connection with your partner.

Despite what computers would tell us, we don’t live in a binary, 1s and 0s, yes/no, right/wrong world. We live in a panoply of possibilities, each with a continuum, a range of choices (and non-choices!). Consider, tension in the body (and tension in the mind!), pressures with our partner’s body parts, timing of movement with (or not) the music, size of steps, elevation, etc. How can we begin to comprehend, to be aware of and respond well to such a complex system of interrelated possibilities? We can begin (and sustain) by adhering to a simple rule that feels intuitive to our mind-body: Match energy.

What to do if there is a mismatch — Matching and leading

But, David, what if I can’t exert that much pressure or don’t like it? What if they don’t know how to use their body to step with the same sustained energy I like for this kind of music? What if we each prefer a different degree of closeness or style of embrace?

Do you Lead or Follow? Does it matter? I reject the traditional and widespread notion that the dance is el hombre’s dance, because “he” has so many more responsibilities, then the follower must adapt to the leader. In my dance world,

  1 + 1 + 1 > 3
  The energy of the Music & Me & Thee makes wonderful dance.

Calibration. How can I know if it is me or my partner causing a mismatch? Consider the ballet barre. It makes for a perfect partner in that it pushes (or pulls) against you with exactly the same force as you use on it! (The ballet barre has a bit of give to it, much like a well organized, energy matching body.) That can give you a feeling for matching, and then how can you know if you are matching when you dance? Check that you and your partner’s body parts stay in a well organized, rather fixed relationship to each other (that will vary as dance geometry dictates). If the hand side of the embrace is drifting toward one of the partners, or up or down, then extra force is coming from somewhere.

I’ll start out in my body’s preferred placement and organization of parts. If my partner’s parts placement seems to be asking for or giving something different, then if it’s within my acceptable comfort and operational parameters, I’ll accept and adapt to it. If my partner is hurting me I will say something, perhaps non-verbally at first, with a shake or a shrug of that part, then verbally if I must.

I will seek to match my partner’s energy indications in as many respects and to as great a degree as possible. I will even seek to match intangible qualities, such as style and expressiveness (or not) of dance. Notice! I must remain alert to the possibility that I misread them, or perhaps unawares I gave them some early signal that led them to dance in something other than their naturally preferred manner.

In any case, once we feel we have done a good job matching our partner, we may then begin leading (whether we are leading or following) our partner to our preferred, most resourceful, natural, and powerful place of dance. We do this by shifting our energy at a rate that they can adjust to.

May I reiterate more simply? Match energy to the extent possible and non-injurious. By the way, you do realize that match energy applies to more than just your partner, right? We seek as a couple to match the energy of the music, and even to la ronda–the other couples dancing along with us. And if not match, to at least be aware of these energies so that we can make intentional choices.

All the energy that we can put into sensing what is happening in the music, in the room around us, in our partner, and in ourselves — will give our partner more to work with and against, and help us create a more wonderful dance.