Notes from Every Trick in the Book

Notes from EVERY TRICK IN THE BOOK by Charlie Dancey, Juggling chapter, Learning How to Learn Tricks, pp. 467-468

You can save yourself a lot of time if you pay attention to the learning process itself.

A trick means a move or sequence of moves that has been rehearsed for so long that it can be done automatically or subconsciously.

Human mind = conscious and subconscious. Conscious mind is not nearly as powerful as the subconscious. You cannot juggle [dance Argentine tango] by will alone, so you (You) have to teach the subconscious to do what you want it to.

It helps to think of your subconscious mind as another person entirely. A person that gets annoyed easily, and when it gets annoyed it will not do what you want.

☆ Ambitiously, we think the more hours we put in, the quicker we will acquire the skills we seek. Sort of, but you can also overdo and find that the more work you put in, the slower you learn.

☆ Make sure your subconscious is having a good time! Practice only as long as it feels like fun.

☆ Always end a practice session on a high note. If you just had a particularly good sequence, end right there, telling yourself out loud how good you are doing, turn off the music and resume work the next day.

☆ Your subconscious is very active while you sleep, and it will often turn over the events of the previous day, trying to make sense of them.

☆ Take a short pause for breath after making a mistake. Don’t reinforce the mistake by trying again right away. Instead, pause for a few moments while thinking about what went wrong. Then try again, changing your style in a small way. The new attempt must not feel like repeating the old one.

Bill Plake on Practice

My underlinings from You’ll Never “Waste” Time Practicing As Long As You Are Doing This, October 14, 2018 by Bill Plake.

[Substitute “Dance” for “Instrument” and apply Bill’s wisdom to your tango practice.]

One of the main reasons you would probably seek out a great teacher of your instrument is to learn how to optimize practice efforts. That’s what a highly skilled teacher can help you with.

Whatever you practice, do with genuine curiosity and inquiry.

So rather than looking at the “absolute best” way you can practice something, ask yourself this question instead:

“How can I optimize my experience with what I’m practicing right now, right in this practice session, right in this moment?”

This question can help you to form to other types of questions: “Why” questions, and “what if” questions.

“Why do I practice this at this tempo?” Why do I practice these arpeggio patterns in this particular sequence?” “Why do I raise/tense my shoulders when I play into the upper register?” etc.

  1. “What is it that I want?” (Your intentions about what you would like to happen, about what you’d like to be able to do on your instrument. Make this as specific and lucid as possible!)

  2. “What seems to stopping me from getting what I want?” (Identify the problem. Is it simply needing more time? Is it something that you’re doing with your body that is taking you away from your skill and coordination? Is it your attitude? Keep asking/experimenting until the answers emerge.)

  3. “What do I need to do differently?” (This is where you take action. Change course, strategize, reflect, assess, redirect efforts, etc.)

Just dance

A good friend (to everyone) and fine tanguero, Gary Horton, Jr. wrote a question on Facebook.

JUST.DANCE. Certainly well-intended advice, as I’ve heard it often from many teachers over the years. Unfortunately, the idea continues to remain meaningless and therefore useless to me. Leaders, would you please offer what you understand about ‘Just dance’? What do you feel like or imagine when you ‘Just dance’? Thanks!

A terrific, important question, Gary.

Short answer: being in the moment, involved only with our partner, the music, and la ronda. Setting aside the fear, worry, doubt, aspirations, classes, agenda. Just (!?) being with our partner.

But how?

Argentine tango can serve as a wonderful exercise in mindfulness, being in the moment, a moving meditation. For me the Argentine tango culture, apart from just dancing, has opened new and expanding awareness of other people’s hopes, fears, drives, dreams, weaknesses, and strengths.

Our dance can also be fraught with manifold distractions. “What was that latest pattern/adorno I learned?” “Why won’t that person dance with me?” “What caused that?” “Why do we feel so disconnected?” Emotional energies that we put into worry, fear, doubt, or agendas; Mental energies that we put into trying to recall classes; Physical energies we put into nonproductive tensions — all take away from being in the flow in the moment.

A key to feeling the flow as we “just dance” is having confidence in our training and practice, AND dancing within our current level of accomplishments, which, paradoxically and wonderfully, can result in our dancing beyond anything we’ve achieved to that point.

I see two aspects to the mindful preparation we want. First, we want an effective program of learning and practicing. Last month Iona May Italia wrote a lengthy guest article on this for Tango Tribe, and I’ve written a number of articles. (Put practice in the Walking About search bar.) The key here, just as for “just dance”, is mindfulness, having an intentional approach to how your work. Planning your work, documenting your progress, noting what you want to accomplish and where you need help, getting help.

Secondly, we can some, many, all of us at some time or another use help in getting “out of our head.” Mental and emotional turmoil large or small can beset even the most talented and gifted. There are a number of mind-body practices and methodologies, and books that have interested and helped me. I’ll conclude by listing several.

NLP – Neurolinguistic Programming. Understanding our own and other people’s maps of reality, and how we can influence those with language and physiology.

Alexander Technique – Mind-body usage. Natural uses of the body. Understanding choices. Avoiding end-gaining.

Feldenkrais – Awareness Through Movement. Gaining body intelligence by observing it during the course of (seemingly) simple exercises.

The Franklin Method – Books: CONDITIONING FOR DANCE, DANCE IMAGERY

MOVING TO HIGHER GROUND by Wynton Marsalis

THE INNER GAME OF MUSIC by Barry Green

A SOPRANO ON HER HEAD by Eloise Ristad

RELAXED AND FORWARD books and blog by Anna Blake

INDIRECT PROCEDURES and INTEGRATED PRACTICE by Pedro De Alcantara

THE MUSIC LESSON by Victor Wooten

Careful, Conscious Practice

Guest article by Iona Italia
8 October 2018
Translator / Editor / Writer
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The key to improving your tango, we’re often told, is practice. But what precisely is the best way to practise: the one most likely to lead to rapid and sure improvement?

Practice versus Social Dancing

The first key thing is that practice is not exactly the same as dancing.

Dancing socially does provide some of the benefits of more structured practice. Done with awareness and care, social dancing enables us to become more deeply familiar with the music—especially if we attend milongas in which the DJs base their choices around a solid repertoire of Golden Age standards. It can help us to gain confidence in both leading and responding to leads. And there is no other really effective way to improve our floorcraft than to go out there onto the pista often and gain a familiarity with the lane system, a sixth sense of the directions in which leaders in front of and behind us are likely to move and when we will have room to stride out and when we need to arrange our dance in a small, tight circle (every leader should learn to enjoy those circular, on-the-spot movements in which the partners chase each other’s tails like playful puppies—don’t get caught up in an urgency to progress around the dance floor, in a deep need for a linear walk: that way frustration lies.)

But, when we’re simply dancing, it’s all too easy to slip into our comfort zones. In fact, when we’re dancing socially, we often should actively seek those comfort zones. Leaders, in particular, should not experiment with new moves at the milonga, followers shouldn’t try wild decorations that they have not yet learned to control: we need to give our social dance partners our most polished performance, our most practised movements. But this also means that we can fall into repetitious sequences that quickly feel as though we are dancing them on autopilot, with sloppy footwork and sagging postures. We can relapse into bad old habits, and find ourselves executing that flopped in front of Netflix, eating Doritos style of dancing, that awkward cuddle shuffle. Comfortable. But baggy.

Practice, then, is of extreme importance. And yet it’s quite an art.

Does Practice Make Permanent?

First though, there’s one fear I’d like to dispel. There’s a myth circulating that practice makes permanent and only perfect practice makes perfect. A lot of dancers are wary of practising because they fear they will be practising the wrong thing and simply acquiring new bad habits to replace the old. This is why conscious practice is so important. What we need is not to automatize movements—so that we can repeat them by rote, without thinking—but to incorporate them into the body, fully conscious at every stage of what and how we are moving. Not overthinking things, but not moving in a kind of trance either. The main thing we need to develop through conscious practice is greater proprioception: i.e. awareness of where our body is in space and how it is moving. We need to listen in extremely carefully.

The process should not feel like someone driving to work, shifting gears and flicking on indicator lights without even knowing she is doing so, listening to NPR perhaps, her conscious mind occupied with the latest news or preparing a mental shopping list for dinner later, her feet on the pedals and hands on the wheel working in the background unnoticed, so that, once she reaches the office, she scarcely knows how she got there.

Dancing can feel that way. Sometimes, when I’m really dancing, I feel as though I am in a bubble of stillness and it’s the world which is moving around me. Sometimes, I don’t feel I am even hearing the music: instead, I’m following the miniature tale which is the lyrics, listening to the meanings behind the words, constructing the story of a jilted aging Frenchwoman starving in a porteño garret or a heartbroken bachelor lovingly repairing an abandoned bandoneon in my imagination and I scarcely know what my feet and body have done to express the notes of the song and respond to the leads I’m feeling. This is blissful. But it isn’t practice.

Practice feels more like someone manoeuvring a mountain bike down a narrow path along a mountainside, like someone slaloming down a steep steep Alpine slope. It’s less like driving to work and more like a Formula 1 race—without the speed, but with that sense of intense focus on the actions you are making, intense awareness of your movements. You are learning how to be aware of how you are moving and to control and modify your way of moving, as necessary.

If you can do this, then it is not so important what you learn. The skill you are honing is how to learn. Just as a flautist who can consciously control the movements of his mouth can play legato or staccato at will, so you can correct things of which you are aware. If you are choosing, for example, to twist your hips first in a giro, before turning the upper body, you are (to my mind) choosing wrongly. But if it’s a conscious choice of which you are aware, you can change it. It’s when those hips are swivelling around without your knowledge, when you don’t realise what you are doing that it becomes much harder to alter. So if you practise consciously, even if the movement you are practising is incorrect, you are making it easier for yourself to adjust it later. Always aim to incorporate, but not to automatize.

How can you achieve this? Let’s look at some tools you can use and some concrete things you should focus on.

Slowness

It is important, eventually, to incorporate some speed drills into your dance: to be able to respond quickly and fluidly (you’ll need to push yourself). But, for most dancers, most of the time, one key to practising is slowing movements right down. In tango, the point is not to get from one place to the other: it’s entirely about how you get there.

You’ll need to break your movements down.

A forward ocho isn’t one single motion. In my technique at least (your mileage may differ), it involves first turning the upper body alone in towards your partner, then pivoting your base foot as needed to find the correct direction of travel, then taking a step, landing softly in the middle of your two feet, with weight evenly distributed between front and back feet, then transferring your weight fully onto the front foot as you spiral your upper body more deeply towards your partner. Then, once all your weight has been transferred, pivoting your base foot. Finally, you allow your free foot to come to axis and adjust your upper body at the same time to face your partner again.

Your forward ocho may be different. That’s OK. I’m not trying to teach you a specific forward ocho method here—that’s too cumbersome to do in writing; I would need to show you and, in any case, valid styles and techniques of ochos differ. But however you do your forward ochos, you need to be able to subdivide the movement into this level of detail and monitor how you are moving through every single stage. One of the greatest challenges facing every dancer is dissociation and, by that, I don’t just mean the upper-body-led spiral movements so frequent in tango but every type of movement that requires separating out the different parts of the body: moving the back here, but not the hips; the foot here but not the hip; the toes here but not the knee; the torso here but not the behind.

Connection

One of the main advantages of breaking movements down is to ensure that you are with your partner at every stage of the movement: not just beginning and ending together, but traversing the distance between one step and the next with complete coordination. One example of this which is worth practising for almost everyone is to both giro around a common centre, in practice hold. The idea of the exercise is to coordinate not just your footfalls but each part of each movement. You should arrive at the mid-weight point between steps together, transfer weight at exactly the same speed. Your upper body movements should complement each other so that, as the right hand side of your partner’s upper body (for example) turns in towards you, the right hand side of your upper body turns in towards her an equal amount, at an equal speed. If some imaginary god took a pair of compasses, like the illustration in Blake’s Milton, and traced a line, at lower shoulder blade height, around the outside of your two backs and through the air, the shape created would be a perfect, even oval. Only if you go slowly can you work on and eventually achieve this kind of harmony of motion.

Notice that, in tango, one side of your body is always further away from your partner’s than the other. Even in a two-tit milonguero embrace, the leader’s right and follower’s left sides are touching more closely than the other respective sides. Be careful of not holding the follower off too far to your right, leaders, and, followers, don’t snuggle into that side of his body, neglecting the more open side of the embrace. In linear movements, actively try to maintain a consistent distance, a consistent relationship between the follower’s right hand side and the leader’s left. In an ocho or other turning movement, you’ll also notice that one side of your body is closer to the partner, one further away. You need to actively seek them with the part of your upper body which is further away, curling your back in towards them on that side—that is the essence of dissociation. It keeps the sensation of connection there, the spiralling in.

Comfort

Every movement needs to be free from any kind of excess tension or discomfort: both for yourself and for your partner. Leaders, in particular, be wary: if you feel uncomfortable in the embrace or obstructed in your movements, it may well be because of something you yourself are doing. Some movements require tone, but none should ever feel like a strain. This can be easier said than done—making your partner feel comfortable is not just about your attitude or desire. It’s also largely technique. He or she will never feel truly at ease if your posture is poor or your balance is weak.

Followers in particular should remember that the embrace should be sensual and snuggly, but it’s not a hammock in which to take a siesta. You need to be holding your own body upright against gravity. Your hands and arms should be touching the leader, but not applying pressure or resting with weight. Your upper back should be lifted, your spine stretched. This will take a little bit of effort, especially at first. Leaders, you need to keep repeating it like a mantra, keep reminding your subconscious mind: you don’t need to do things to the follower’s body: you make movements within your own body and trust her to respond.

A big part of comfort is stability. And, to work on that, you’ll need to do a lot of solo practice. You need to be able to execute almost any movement, confidently, without relying on the embrace for support or using it as a frame to push off against or hang onto (leaders do this as much as followers, though they are usually less conscious of it).

Followers, practise some decorations by standing on a pile of paperback books high enough that your free foot is dangling a couple of inches off the floor. Make sure you can move that free leg without wobbling and check in a mirror to ensure your shoulders and hips remain aligned throughout. (Disclaimer: be careful! Do this only if and when you can do so safely.)

Both partners: make sure you’re not using momentum to complete turning movements, that you’re never falling, but can stop, with control, at any point in a movement. Ensure your feet are firmly, squarely on the floor, especially your big toes and the joint immediately behind those toes. Don’t let them curl up and off the ground or roll outwards. Practice things that are more difficult than the movements you will actually need for the dance: relevé on one foot; overturn ochos through 360 degrees with one foot in the air. Gain mastery and control over your balance: it’s key.

Aesthetics

It’s vital that you record your practice sessions. The video camera isn’t an infallible tool: you do have to train your eye to know what to look for and that is a skill in itself. But it will show you some obvious faults that you must correct. If you’re trying to deal with a stubborn postural problem, if one or both of you feels uncomfortable in the embrace or if you’re preparing for a competition or performance, I recommend filming yourselves and stopping after every song to watch the video. Dance one, watch the film of it, dance another, watch yourselves, etc.—for the entire practice session. It’s extremely effective. Look for slouched postures, jutting heads (very easy to spot) and sloppy footwork.

There is a very strong (though imperfect) correlation between how things look and how they feel. Stiffness and discomfort are usually very visible. And, if something feels good but looks ugly, if you can find a way to improve the way it looks that will almost certainly make it feel even better, too. Don’t neglect appearances, even if you have no intention of ever dancing for an audience. Looks are symptomatic. They are telling. You need to pay attention to what you see as well as what you feel.

Keep at least some of the videos you take, so you can track your progress over months or years.

Musicality

To work on musicality, it makes sense to take a specific track—preferably a musically complex and rewarding one, for obvious reasons—listen to it several times and then begin to work on a musical interpretation. This is not about choreography: you shouldn’t decide which movements you want to do; what you need to identify is which moments in the music you wish to highlight together.

Begin this with phrasing. To emphasise the phrasing in a clear, intuitive, satisfying way, leaders, every sequence of walking, every figure needs to begin at the start of a phrase and end either at a mid-phrase pause (if it’s short) or at the end of the phrase. You can’t begin and end a giro, for example, at random. The follower’s final movement, as she curls around to meet you back in close embrace at the end of the movement, needs to coincide with the final note of the phrase. You can’t walk to cross at any moment: you need to ensure that you lead the cross such that the follower changes weight into cross just as the final note of the musical phrase sounds. This is harder than it seems. Try alternating between one phrase of walking and one phrase of giros. Music has a structure: your dance needs to have a structure too. It can’t just be a random series of events. The order in which you do things needs to have a motivation.

It’s really important that the follower is also listening and dancing to the music at every stage. In every single step. The feeling of dancing with someone who is accompanying you in interpreting the music and dancing with someone who is attempting to reproduce the timings you are dictating is qualitatively different by an entire order of magnitude. Followers, the leader needs to be able to trust your musicality: to feel you express what you are hearing. It’s a partnership.

As you practise, look for small details in the song that you want to have expressed in your joint dance. This means that you could lead and follow movements to those moments or the leader could decorate them or the follower could or you both could. Experiment with signalling to each other which choice you are making. Leaders, try to alternate between a looser, relaxed feel to your dance and a tiny touch of urgency that says get ready, there’s something exciting coming up and we are going to pounce upon it together. Followers, try to signal when you want to decorate to a specific moment. Use the natural preparatory movements of your body to show him: wait, I am going to do something here and I need you to be alert and receptive. Try these games with triplets, syncopations, 3-3-2 rhythms, countermelodies, fills and other musical details within the piece you’ve chosen.

Psychology

To be a good practice partner requires a lot of patience. Dance is not primarily an intellectual activity: it’s not about amassing snippets of knowledge which, once memorised, have now been added to your store of information. You can comprehend something perfectly, but not be able to incorporate that information into your body. The journey from neurons to muscles can be a long, arduous and frustrating one. Most of the critiques you’ll have of your partner will be things he or she already knows: think of them not as instructions but as mantras. For the body to understand, we may need to repeat the guidelines many many times. You have to retain a sense of humour and be forgiving of both your partner and yourself. It’s a process.

Give feedback when asked; stay silent when your partner needs that. Think of it as an exploration and try to depersonalise. Be curious and amused by your body and the way it moves, a loving spectator of its occasional grace and frequent clumsy antics. As if you were watching a new-born foal stumbling on endearingly tangled legs, still wet from the womb, knowing that soon it will be a lovely streamlined blur, an elegant, perfectly coordinated collection of bone and muscle.

Don’t forget to dance

Finally, while you should commit to practising regularly (meeting little and often is better than infrequent marathon sessions), you also need to be able to cut loose, leave your inhibitions behind, silence your inner critic and lose yourself in the music, the enjoyment of your partner’s proximity and the joyful inhabiting of your own body. You mustn’t lose touch with the delicious state of flow. Don’t get so caught up in how you are dancing that you forget why.

Good luck!

Partner practice pointers

I have these things going on in my current practice with a partner.

  • Regularly checking in with each other on comfort and clarity.
  • Periodic video review looking for clean footwork, nice lines, good technique, dynamic movement, and flow.
  • Going back through the DVIDA syllabus to identify sequence fragments I particularly like and movements I seldom use (but would like to) in my social and performance dancing.
  • Creating a compendium of movements, where I note performance standards and problems to watch out for, as well as suggested uses. This helps remind me of things to use, and it’s useful in my teaching.
  • Reviewing my performance videos and asking partners about things I do habitually, looking for ways to change up habitual movements (such as with dynamics, elevation, size, speed) and vary entrances/exits.
  • Sometimes identifying musical fragments where we want to explore nice ways to express those thoughts.
  • Sometimes identifying sequences or moves we really like in other dancers’ performance videos, working to making them part of our working syntax.
  • Making notes at every session on what we worked on, what we learned, and what we want to work on next session.

Be a body detective

“Oh, heck! I’ll never get.” “I’m not built right for this.” “I’ve always been too tight.” Versus, “Hm, I wonder why that happened?” “How come it was different that time? How can I do that again.” “How else could I do this to make it easier (or harder!)?”

One of my favorite jobs ever (and I’ve been blessed to enjoy fun and reward in all my jobs, especially Argentine tango), was as a user consultant for The University of Texas Computation Center. We fielded problems from every academic department on campus, helping people solve problems in their programs, often in programming languages we didn’t even know. By careful questioning we would help them explore what they wanted to happen and what was actually happening. Sometimes we’d have to suggest ways to instrument and test program behavior, or how to go about creating a fix. But just as often during this guided questioning they would discover the problem themselves!

It was rewarding detective work, with no messy crime scene (well, some of that spaghetti programming . . . ). It brought a great sense of satisfaction, spending time with a person, learning about their thought processes and intentions, and helping them discover a way through to what they wanted.

That lesson about acting as a detective, exploring, discovering, and applying information, has served me well in my own mind-body work, in business, and in teaching.

You do know that judgments are your way of making excuses for yourself, right? They act as a pass to not do the work, both the mental work of figuring out what is working, what is not working, and what you might change to produce better results, and they act as a pass to not do the physical work of helping your body to learn how to move and use itself.

Here are notes about how real detectives work (and how that can apply to our practice).

  • Some of the work is not exciting, it’s even boring. (Just get going. Getting started each time is the hardest part, from there you can continue with the help of momentum.)
  • Some is hit-and-miss. (Trying different things to see what happens.)
  • Most serious crimes are solved by information from the victim. (The detective can guide, and *you* have the information inside to help yourself.)
  • A lot of detective time is spent reviewing files and making reports. (Do you have a process for documenting the results of your practice? Do you have an objective measure of where you were two months ago versus where you are now in your results?)
  • Despite the image of detectives as having special reasoning skills, much of their results comes from ordinary people doing routine work in a conscientious manner. (In other words, mindful practice.)
  • Some detectives do role-playing as a way to discover possibilities. (I am Gustavo Naveira, I am Noelia Hurtado, I am …, and I am moving to this music!)
  • Detectives develop ‘profiles’ to lead to a result. (What do you know about the characteristics and important points of a specific result you want to achieve. How will you describe those to another person?)
  • Detectives recognize patterns. (What happens routinely that I don’t (or do!) want? What happens just before, just after? What am I feeling, and where in my body? Where am I sending my attention during this time?)
  • Detectives value creativity, coming up with different ideas when old ones aren’t working. (How else could I do or think about this? What would change the outcome?)
  • Good detectives know not to seize upon the first possible solution that arises. (That’s good, now what *else* can I observe?)

We want to ask a better question to get a better answer.

Oftentimes, when we leap to an answer (an excuse?) we short-circuit the possibilities for creating new understanding and awareness, and for seeing new possibilities, and for realizing new capabilities.

Our human minds have evolved and are trained by life to seek and create answers. Our brains automatically respond to questions. We can use that to our advantage! When we pose questions for ourselves our mind begins working to discover the answers for us. When we allow ourselves the time, the breathing, the relaxation, the respect for our body and mind’s need for time to process and assimilate, then we begin to grow beyond our dreams.

Slow and steady wins the race

Aren’t our bodies are the most incredibly wonderful, complex, and interesting systems? Now when we say body we really mean mind-body, because it’s all but impossible to separate the influence of the mind and nervous system on the body, and vice-versa!

Oftentimes we’ll hear a teacher or coach tell us to “Work slower!” Why should we listen to them? How will working slowly help? What if I want the capabilities that I’m working on available at high speeds?

Among the amazing things our mind-body does for us is try to make it easier to accomplish what we “think” is our goal. In Argentine tango, for example, we might think our goal is to balance on one foot, or maybe we’re working to pivot 180 degrees. But our goal in tango is NOT to achieve any particular end position or movement, rather, we seek to use our body is a well structured, smoothly coordinated manner, such that any particular outcome is readily, simply, comfortably, and quietly achieved.

When we work at speed we obscure so much of what is going on. Our mind can’t take in and assess what we are doing, what is working well versus what we might do differently to make it work better. Furthermore, we may be making accommodations that make things easier now, but which will limit us later.

Are we pushing off with the other foot?
Are we using momentum with our free arm or leg?
Are we tilting to use what seem like easier muscles?
Are we turning as a block, limiting our results?

Importantly, we are not *judging* our performance, instead, our mind is like a curious observer, taking in all the dials and gauges, wondering what might happen if we tweak this or that control. Vitally important is what kind of self-talk our mind makes with us. What we *don’t* want is absolutist judgments about our capabilities: “I don’t have good balance,” “I’m not as good as these others,” “I’m a slow learner,” “My body isn’t built for this.” What we DO want is a highly active curiosity about what is going on, what others have called a “Growth Mindset.”

Why am I feeling that muscle?
Should I be feeling this muscle?
What if I activate these muscles?
What if I do this with less, or with more, tension there?
If I do this, will that make it easier or harder?
Who can I observe well and model?
What do I see others doing with less desirable results, that I might also be doing??
How can I get more out of that?
What needs to happen, and where, in my body for this to start?
How did that one feel?
What do I feel in my body when it is working well?

Let’s return for a moment to that concern, “What if I want the ability to actually do this at high speeds?” Right! If you only practice at slow speeds you will actually inhibit your ability to perform at higher speeds. The slow speed work is to groove in your neurophysiology, i.e., the mind-body connections, to perform the movement in a coordinated, well structured way. From that point you can begin adding complicating factors to challenge yourself.

Can I do this on my toes?
Can I do it while my free leg is doing boleos?
Can I do it for one full turn, two full turns?
Can I do it with this preceding or following movement?

Always we will be ready to drop back, taking it more slowly or simply, to regain our solid performance, as we continue pushing for ever more complicated or simple, fast or slow, controlled, dynamic, and beautiful movement.

The Tango Keypad

door keypadThis 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:

  1. Glue to connect our memorized big figures.
  2. A lens to help us see new possibilities in the movements that make up big figures.
  3. Navigational elements to help us out of a jam.

  4. 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.)

    The Systems

    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.

              FOLLOWER
       
            | O    | F    | B    |
          --+------+------+------+
       l  o | 1 Oo | 2 Fo | 3 Bo |
       e  --+------+------+------+
       a  f | 4 Of | 5 Ff | 6 Bf |
       d  --+------+------+------+
       e  b | 7 Ob | 8 Fb | 9 Bb |
       r  --+------+------+------+
                   | 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.

       123
       456
       789
        0
    

    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

    10-Sided Dice
    10-Sided Dice
    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.

    Design notes

    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.

Anticipa-a-tion

Record album cover for ANTICIPATION with Carly Simon standing, legs astride, arms out wide holding onto large gate leaves.

Summary — After presenting the problem we give two exercises to help both leaders and followers discover how to wait in quiet anticipation.

“Anticipation” by Carly Simon could serve as an anthem for Argentine tango dancers. Check out the lyrics at that link. See her perform it here. We’ll wait . . .

A common refrain from leaders and followers has them complaining or wondering, “Why can’t they/I wait for the lead/follow?” Three factors figure into this failure to wait in readiness:

  1. We’re just so darn eager to please. They’ve agreed to dance with us! Now we want to show them that they made a good choice. Leaders rush on to the next great move before their partner has fully finished the last thing. Followers don’t want to keep their partner waiting, so they rush on to what they expect comes next. But, hey, like Carly says, we can never know what comes next. In a fully improvised dance even the leader experiences it moment to moment. The anticipation, wondering what will happen next, can create as much magic as the actual doing.
  2. We fall into habitual, patterned movement. This can particularly arise in classes or practice where a couple drills a movement repeatedly, then when the leader moves on to something else without warning, the follower wonders what happened. Even in our social dance both leader and follower create expectations in their partner from habitual responses. In a class or práctica an alert can come as a verbal, “Okay, how about now we try combining this with the other class material?” At the milonga we can give a non-verbal “warning” by becoming particularly intentional and grounded on the step before the transition. That is, as leader we want to be thinking about doing something different before the last step of the pattern we’ve created. That’s two moments before the actual transition!
  3. We fail to fully seize our axis. A common example arises in the back cross, such as in the molinete. Whether due to lead or follow or both, the step may move away from your partner. If no one makes an adjustment, it leaves possibly both dancers in an unbalanced position, where they will likely “fall” into an open step. Do you remember that Voguing dance from the 1980s? Think of tango like that, where every step is a pose, complete and fully realized in itself, with feet and body set just so, with any and all future possibilities available to flow from there. Note: We don’t want to limit creative possibilities by insisting that our axis must be over one foot with the other foot collected. Our weight could be split between two feet, together or apart; or over one foot with the other leg away; or even outside of our footprint. The key consideration comes from both leader and follower knowing where we intend to place the axis, and what can flow from there.

Exercises

1. Follower waits on leader.

In a randomness of fundamental movements — movement (step or pivot), not patterns — before making any movement the leader (and follower, of course) takes a moment, that can range from an instant to quite long. Then they invite each movement with varying direction, size, and dynamics. The leader can increase the intensity by moving themselves into “non-standard” orientations with their partner before marking the next movement. Leaders can see this as a challenge to shake up their habitual way of moving. Followers can see this as a challenge to become comfortable with, even coming to enjoy the not knowing; to be quietly listening with their body, and prepared to move anywhere, without feeling the least anxiety or care for where or how or when that might be.

2. Leader waits on follower.

As in exercise #1, the partners move in a randomness of fundamental movements, but this time the follower dictates the duration of the stillness and where their next step goes. The challenge for the leader is to follow their follower, to become comfortable with both giving the follower the time they need or want, and with moving to accommodate whatever happens in the dance. From this exercise the follower discovers a world of possibilities for their movement, where they can control the direction, size, and dynamics of their movement. They can know the power of a follower’s intentional movement, and how such movements can make the dance easier or harder or more interesting for their partner.

Note: Take moments of stillness, not to become inert lumps, but as times for mind and body to continue dancing in that stillness. Energy expanding or contracting, size growing or compressing, gaze intensifying or shrinking.

Two situations might suggest that you use these exercises in your practice time. One, you feel that you are dancing in a habitual or perfunctory way. Use the exercises to shake up your awareness of all the possibilities for movement. Two, you feel that you or your partner aren’t fully connected with each other. Someone’s not listening, or someone’s just going through the motions without considering the power that each pose can bring into the dance.

Final note: Can you bring these exercises to the milonga? I sure hope you realize that yes you can, as either leader or follower, without verbally expressing it, you can bring the exercise intentions into your social dancing when you recognize that you want more from yourself.

Tango Tribe signature block

Rollerbag walking

(We’ve talked about imagery and games/exercises for teaching. This post deals with props. Actually, this prop is more like a test instrument…)

Every tango school should have a rollerbag with a set of noisy wheels.

Leader holding rollerbag
Leader holding rollerbag

You know how, when you wheel your luggage across the pavement on your way to the airport, the rollerbag wheels make that repeating ‘Ruugh’, ‘ruugh, ‘Ruugh’ sound? Maybe the sound varies slightly depending on which of your legs is stepping out?

This game-practice I call Rollerbag Walking. Applied conscientiously and practiced periodically, it can produce a controlled and powerful walk.

The game is to experiment solo until you find the manner of walking that results in a continuous, unaccented sound from the wheels. A ‘Ruuuuu…’ for as long as you want to or can keep it going.

I think you’ll find that it takes a powerful, well modulated extension-push from your standing leg. (Where does that force start? In how many places does your body feel it? Where most powerfully? Where least powerfully?! What happens when you place the origin of energy differently?) Then the swinging leg wants to, NOT land the foot, but find the ground and roll the foot smoothly onto it. There’s a continuous smooth shift of energy, and rolling from foot to leg to other leg to foot to leg.

The practice is to do it until it feels comfortable and natural, and you can recognize yourself using the walk in other settings, such as the dance floor! Note that this is not to say this is a style of stepping/walking that you will favor for the dance floor. As with everything in tango, it depends–on the music, your partner, la ronda. The purpose of this exercise is not to give you a style of walking, but to give you access to energy and control in your walking.

Add variations to the game by experimenting with the size of steps, the speed of steps, the direction of steps (can you do this with a series of side-together side steps?!), going backward–BE CAREFUL; you may need a spotter, walking in circles of different sizes clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Then for the pièce de résistance, walk in tango embrace while you or your partner tows the bag alongside. Does it make a difference which partner holds the bag? In which hand they hold it?
Follower holding rollerbag

So now you have a good excuse not to put your bag away between tango festivals trips!