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.

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