“Simple” thing to look more like the professionals

What are some simple things or techniques amateurs can learn from professional dancers, or people who are good at dancing, to look a bit more natural and relaxed on the dance floor?

David Phillips, Teaches Argentine tango at Tango Tribe in Austin, Texas Answered just now

Ah, yes, “simple”.

There is a simple (in concept) technique, but it’s not easy nor quick. The professional dancers that people admire combine a strong work ethic with good sources of feedback.

We don’t have to pursue our dance passion like a job, with regular long hours. We do have to pursue it regularly and with specific intentions to improve, not merely to have fun. (I hope our dance practice, even when working hard, can also be fun.)

Regular, for us, means at least several times a week. Intentional means having a plan.

  1. Review our notes, maybe even some specific video points from the last practice. What did we want to remember? What did we want to work on next? Have we had any new thoughts or awareness in the meantime?
  2. Warmup in ways that best support our particular dance, seeking not only to lubricate the joints, wake up the muscles, and groove the movement paths but also to wake up our mind to what and how we are doing it.
  3. Start the video recording. If we don’t have video recording we lose one of the best sources of feedback — seeing for ourselves how we look.
  4. Note problems or looks that we don’t like. Investigate or experiment to see if we can make it look more like what we want. If that doesn’t work out, seek feedback and suggestions from a professional or talented amateur who knows how to explain what they do and what they see in us.
  5. Loop for as long as we have time for or need to: Video, Perform, Review and feedback for ourselves (both what we like and don’t like), then repeat.
  6. Finish with cooldown if needed. Then make notes on what we learned and what we want to work on next time.
  7. Periodically seek outside feedback.
  8. Periodically review older videos to appreciate how we’ve progressed.

That’s the simple advice that can apply to any dance style for any level of dancer.

Have fun with your dance!

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.

Argentine tango competitions

The photo shows a stage in the background distance, and portions of a large auditorium filled to capacity with people watching a world competition of Argentine tango.

Human nature encompasses competition and cooperation.

The martial art of Aikido shares much in common with Argentine tango in spirit (with nage “leader” and uke “follower” as partners rather than combatants) and techniques (triangle, circularity, flow), and in generally eschewing competitions.

“The founder of Aikido, O-Sensei was reportedly against the concept of contests and competitions in Aikido. We seek instead “Masakatsu agatsu” or winning over yourself. In other words, the goal of Aikido is the mastery of one’s self to create harmony.” Source

There are a small number of Aikido competitions, mostly in a particular style. There also have been Argentine tango competitions en los barrios from its historical beginnings. Indeed, the dance was a form of substitute for lethal fighting. Even in the social dance today we have a competition for the best partners and attention.

The competition judge Claudio Villagra tells us, “Based on my experience, I considered the most important thing to competitors is to keep in mind that the competition is a big part of personal and professional growth. Competing does not always mean to ‘win’. The true competition is with yourself, every day in practice. Be confident, elegant, have cadence and a good interpretation of musicality.”

Yes, there will be some competitors who see competition as a stepping stone to recognition and professional advancement, and some may look to past competition results to find the secrets to success, and that could distort the individuality, the freshness, the “innocence” of the dance. (For example, breeding to win dog conformation contests has led to genetic weaknesses.)

But think now of all the other purposes competition can serve:

  • as goal and a context in which to pursue personal improvement and achievement;
  • as a means to guide development and bring purpose to practice; and
  • as a form of evaluation (complementing other forms of evaluation: internal, partners, teachers).

Why then do some Argentine tango dancers belittle competitions as “showing off” or somehow not in the spirit of the dance? It’s as if they think competitors are trying to show themselves as better than they are. Well, yes! That’s exactly the point. Dancers want to get better. They want to show what they have achieved in their dance, and they are willing to have it judged.

I see a strange, sad parallel between the “showing off” sentiment and those followers who say, “Oh, I could never do mirada. That would be like putting myself out there, wanting attention.” Well, yes! That’s exactly the point of mirada, of competitions. You are putting yourself out there for others to see and assess.

Many of us don’t like the uncomfortable feeling of being judged, but that’s how we grow. If you don’t assess your efforts today versus yesterday, how will you improve?

Many forms of motivation and evaluation exist. We don’t have to pick competitions for ourselves. Yet we can recognize the value of people finding and using lots of different good ways to motivate and improve their art. We grow not by diminishing others or their methods, but by helping others and striving for ourselves.

Links to competitions

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.

Transcript

[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.

Faults

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.

Ways to explore and practice

Wooden traffic sign with the words NEW SKILLS pointing to the right
New Skills image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Always work with a notebook and camera. Every time you make a good or interesting discovery, video record it so you don’t lose what happened, then in your notebook record the date and time, who you worked with, whether you recorded it and where, and annotate the sequence for quick reference.

Keep it concise! Whatever you work on and whatever you produce for your video and written log, make it short and sweet. When we combine too much material at once we make it difficult (impossible?) to discern where we need to work and what changes make the greatest improvements.

For any tango element or sequence you work on, identify the key point(s) that make it work or make it interesting.

Take the latest pro performance video that has captured your attention. View it with your partner and make a time log of the sequences or movement dynamics you want to explore. (Use the space bar for an easy stop/start.) Work through them one at a time until you feel a level of mastery. Video record and log what you’ve done.

Taking any tango element or sequences, what are all the various ways you could enter, begin the element or sequence? Which ones seem to work better? Why? Could a slight change be made to make an awkward one work better?

Taking any tango element or sequences, what are all the various ways you could resolve, end the element or sequence? Which ones seem to work better? Why? Could a slight change be made to make an awkward one work better?

Reversals

  • Instead of forward direction, go backward.
  • Instead of leader to follower, do it follower to leader.
  • Instead of to the hand-side (HS) of embrace, do it to the arm-side (AS).

Cadenas

  • Can we made this into a repeating, chain figure?
  • Can we make this travel down the line of dance (LOD)?

Circular/Linear

  • Can we make this circular figure travel in a line?
  • Can we make this linear figure move in a circle?

The Tango Keypad
Using a random number generator or phone numbers from your Contacts list, do the moves dictated by a three-digit (or longer) sequence.

  • Try the sequence starting from each of the four possible starting points: Parallel System (PS) with weight on AS or HS, and Cross System (CS) on AS or HS.
  • Which starting points work best?
  • Does the sequence (or part of it) remind you of anything you already know?
  • Does the sequence work as a good starting or ending point of anything you already know?
  • Where movement seems awkward, how can you make that flow, and can you apply what you learn from that to other, similarly awkward movements?
  • Code a sequence you already know in keypad format. Does this give you ideas to generalize the movement or to make substitutions?
  • By the way, an understanding that every weight change (either in place or over a distance) is an Open, Front-crossing, or Back-crossing step facilitates our ability to create entry/exit steps from any other sequence.

Take any tango element or sequence you know, and at each step explore what would happen if one or the other partner changed weight (such as with a quick cross or step-together).

Take any tango element you know and explore how the result or dynamics change when leader:

  • Directs partner’s step toward themselves, away from themselves, or somewhere in between.
  • Directs their own step toward their partner’s new leg (the one arriving on a new axis) or old leg (the one leaving the old axis) or somewhere in between.
  • Make this analysis with each step.
The word "practice" filled with words about practice, repeated four times and stacked on top of one another
Practice image by John Hain from Pixabay

All of the above seems mostly oriented to learning or discovering new movement patterns, but we should not neglect movement dynamics, movement quality, and musicality!

  • Review videos of yourselves with an eye to clean, clear, crisp, final placement of each step, pivot, or other movement. We tend to focus on ourselves. View again and give your partner feedback on what you feel. Practice and redo the video until you feel satisfied that you have a publication worthy example. (Remember the advice up top to keep it concise.)
  • Similar to how above we explore foot placements, symmetries, and more, we also want to explore movement quality: larger/smaller, faster/slower, strong/weak, regular/irregular timing, higher/lower, I move them/they move me/we move ourselves, changing linearity/circularity.
  • Much as we did for our latest favorite pro video, pick a favorite song and write a time log of musical inventions and fragments that particularly catch your attention or entertain you. Explore (and video/log!) ways to interpret these in your dance.

As a student of not only Argentine tango, but also teaching, coaching, learning, and practicing, I am always looking out for good ideas. Do you have some? Please share.