I match energy with the music and with my partner.
I seek to confront (be with and chest facing) my partner.
At each step I may: 1) move my weight from one foot to the other over zero or longer distance, forward, backward, or sideways; or 2) pivot forward or backwards on the ball of my supporting foot; or 3) pause. I may step through or around my partner’s space. My partner may do something different.
We create dance sequences by opening space for our partner to flow into, or closing space to send our partner in another direction.
Between steps my body passes directly over my supporting leg, while my free leg wants to swing near and under my body to give me good balance and a small footprint for any possible next step or pivot.
I may test, but not stress, my partner.
I or my partner may intentionally bend or break any rule for special effect.
Not rules in the sense of codigos for behavior at the milonga social, but a framework, a set of principles for a way of being when dancing Argentine tango.
In eight rules and fewer than 150 words we have a complete system to express the rich complexity of Argentine tango. Well . . .
Until dancers reach some stages of unconscious competence, they tend to spend too much time in “System 2” of the mind (Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman), the slower, more deliberative, and more logical one. That’s good for disciplined practice time, but when we dance we want to be in the flow of “System 1,” the fast, instinctive, and emotional one. How to reconcile the complexity of the infinite possibilities of Argentine tango with the limitations of the novice mind-body? Simple rules give us an emotional and instinctive feeling for how we want to be when we are dancing.
Would you expand or reduce this set of rules?
Does any rule strike you as just wrong?
I’d love to hear your comments on how you express the Argentine tango system to the curious and to new dancers.
Inspired by Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by professors Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, about how we all use simple rules, shortcuts to manage the complexities of daily live, and how we can intentionally devise simple rules to help us grasp and manage complex systems, such as the dance of Argentine tango. We have a good example of this in the way that General Motors CEO Mary Barra replaced a 10-page employee dress code with two words, “Dress appropriately.”
This is a derivation of the Tango Lexicon developed by David Lampson and Mitra Martin of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles. I feel grateful for their inspirations: in the method itself, in their teaching style, and in their generous sharing.
What is this good for?
This deals with a single aspect of all that is Argentine tango: the fundamental steps, Open, Front-cross, and Back-cross. By looking at all the possible combinations for two partners, two feet, Parallel and Cross Systems (defined later), and just these three three unique steps, we get 24 combinations that can be strung together in an infinite variety.
These simple, fundamental movements that don’t require memorizing have helpful uses as:
Glue to connect our memorized big figures.
A lens to help us see new possibilities in the movements that make up big figures.
Navigational elements to help us out of a jam.
The fundamental steps
David Lampson describes these this way. My partner is stationary in front of me. Standing with my weight over one leg, I can make a move to step around my partner by opening my legs apart; we call this an Open step. But if I try going around my partner with that same leg in the other direction, I have two choices. I can pivot and move my free leg across in front of me; we call this a Front cross. I can also pivot and move my free leg around behind me; we call this a Back cross.
Open step — a step anywhere in an arc of 180-degrees, ranging through straight forward, forward and slightly side, sideways, back and slightly side, straight back, and anywhere between those.
Front cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line from my middle to my partner’s middle. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)
Back cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line behind me that came from my partner’s middle, through my middle and out the back. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)
Parallel System (PS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on the same side of the embrace. Both partners together move their legs on the hand-side of the embrace, or both move their legs on the arm-side of the embrace.
Cross System (CS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on opposite sides of the embrace. Hand-side to arm-side, and vice-versa. So the leg movement happens diagonally across the embrace.
Now consider that at any time both partners have a choice of making an Open step, Front cross, or Back Cross. Let’s abbreviate those ‘O’, ‘F’, and ‘B’ and put them in a matrix to show all nine possibilities.
| O | F | B |
l o | 1 Oo | 2 Fo | 3 Bo |
a f | 4 Of | 5 Ff | 6 Bf |
e b | 7 Ob | 8 Fb | 9 Bb |
| 0 p/c|
(Later, we introduce the ‘0 p/c’ as a parallel/cross system changer.)
We put the Follower at top, in capitals, and list that movement first, because typically my intention asks my partner to step before me. (But you are free to reference the matrix by row before column.)
As a shorthand for identifying the matrix combinations we can number the boxes like a telephone keypad.
We assume that any sequence of movements stay in whatever system that we started in, PS or CS, until we change system.
To change from one System to the other it requires that one, and only one partner takes an extra step. They can take that step as an O, F, or B. (Keep in mind that a simple weight change is merely an O step in place!)
The 8-Count Basic figure in PS would be: 11612111.
Forward ochos would be a switch into CS, then 222…
Back ochos would be a switch into CS, then 333…
A choreographed figure could be represented by a specific sequence of numbers 1..9, while a challenge sequence could be some random sequence.
How to denote a System change
In order to allow every step to be represented by single digit numbers we will add ‘0’ to indicate a system change. Then take the digit after the ‘0’ to indicate who does what kind of extra step. 1, 2, 3 for Follower’s O, F, B; and 4, 5, 6 for Leader’s O, F, B. Ignore anything else.
Follower system changer
0 1 2 3
O F B
Leader system changer
0 4 5 6
O F B
So a CS 8-Count Basic would be: 1 1(04) 34(02) 1 1 1.
(The parentheses just make it easier to read.)
From the Leader’s perspective:
1, 1 = Back, Left
04 = Leader’s weight change in place, Follower holds position
3 = Bo
4 = Of
02 = Forward intention invites Follower’s extra, (mini-front) cross step, leader holds position
1, 1, 1 = Forward, Right, Close
Tango practice challenges
For random challenge sequences you could go to a teacher supply store and get a handful of ten-sided dice. Throw them, gather them in a row, then do the indicated moves in order. That way makes for a nice tactile, visual, auditory sensory experience.
Even more simply, there are LOTS of random number generators available for smartphones. Pick a simple one that lets you specify the range of numbers, 0..9, and how many random numbers you want to generate.
For exploring new possibilities in existing figures you know, walk through the figure with your partner and encode each movement. Now dance that code sequence using any of the many possible choices for direction, size, and dynamics of the movement.
Where a figure doesn’t flow as nicely as you’d like, encode the three: Before, trouble movement, and After steps. Try varying foot pivots and geometry of foot placements to discover the nicest flow.
I sought to make useful simplifications in nomenclature. Where Lexicon defines 24 terms with special characteristics to denote 9 possible movements in Parallel System, 9 in Cross System, and 3 possible movements for each partner to switch between systems, I have chosen to merely number the movement matrix with 1..9, then use ‘0’ in a simple convention with the numbers to indicate a system change, who does it, and how.
Additionally, I took the liberty of rearranging the FOB movement order to OFB, with the thought that this goes in order from most simple to least simple movement. Note, this does break the pretty symmetry of sacada opportunities in the original, where the “chasing” steps for PS are the even numbered cells, while for CS they are the odd numbered cells. But I did away with any special consideration for sacadas, as they can be either Leader or Follower sacadas (a distinction the Lexicon doesn’t make either), or no sacada at all (since it is possible, though maybe not as elegant or interesting, or maybe more interesting, to simply step around your partner’s supporting leg). The dancers decide how to make their chasing step; the choice isn’t dictated.
When I am decoding a number I find it easier to place the number on the keypad in my mind’s eye, then look up for partner’s move, then left for my move. When I am encoding a movement I find it easier to get my movement from the row on the left, then look right for the column corresponding to my partner’s movement, to get the number at the intersection of that row and column. With extensive practice I expect for the number-movement association to become automatic.
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?
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 step — the 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.
What a wonderful way to express her understanding and appreciation for one aspect of what we were learning about walking.
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.
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-foottower 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.
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. email@example.com