I feel excited about helping to start another Argentine Tango community! When three of us started dancing together and running a practica in 1996 in Eugene, it felt this way, and look at Eugene now: tango every day of the week. Frank Davis is doing a fabulous job setting up classes, running a practica, learning to DJ and encouraging folks to try tango--go Frank! The rest of you who have been dancing tango in other places, get ready to enjoy low-gas-mileage tango!
Before I talk about what we've learned, I want to encourage everyone in the class to attend practicas. A practica is just that, a PRACTICE session. Don't feel intimidated because other folks know more tango: dancing with them will teach you more tango! You can go to a practica after one lesson or after a year or two, but starting immediately will help you learn faster. The hardest way to learn is to dance with other beginners, so go ask some of those more advanced dancers to dance with you!!
I hope that someone in the community has a wood floor in their living room or basement, in order to host dance parties. In Eugene, we found that we became a community quickly because we had no venue for milongas (dances). Instead, we had monthly and weekly parties at various houses. At the time, there were only ten to forty people in the community, and all were welcome. Having parties allowed us time to sit, drink wine and meet each other, rather than just dance and walk away. Those friendships are still in place and hold the community together. So, if YOU have room for a party, consider hosting one.
OK, off my bandwagon (at least for a moment).
So far in class, we have learned:
Walking: In tango, each step counts. There are no throw-away, or unimportant moments of the dance. The walk is not something I teach you until you get to the "cool" moves: walking IS the cool move! The leader uses the entire body to move, pressing into the floor, stretching up to make his/her entire body energized, and sending the signal to move through the solar plexus, into the follower's body. The walk is elastic, full of oomph and yet controlled. The follower grounds and stretches, too, and meets the leader's body elastic energy; this is not a passive role in tango. The follower lets the leader lead, but provides half the energy, half the passion, half the focus of the couple.
Pausing: Again, pauses are not breaks in the dance or moments to relax. Pauses create a foil to the moments in tango when you are moving around the floor. I think of them as opportunities to intensify the dance, to draw energy into the dance. We practiced stopping the follower on one foot so that we could practice adornos. Pauses are part of the phrasing of the dance, so it is important to use different lengths of pauses and movement in order to have a dynamic dance. Listen to the music and let it suggest when to move and when to pause: it's not just for avoiding other couples ;-)
"Porteño" walk (walk of a person who lives by the port, or person from Buenos Aires); this comes from Oscar and Georgina. Often, there is not enough space to walk forward on each step. This walk has one big, energetic step and one softer, but still energized, step in place. The leader leads the large step stepping forward onto the left foot and the small, in place step, with the right foot. There is a strong compression/boost of energy for the big step, with a small lift to keep the second step light and small.
Corrida--Little "runs" use quick, quick, slow patterns to progress around the dance floor. As you noticed in class, these do not have to take enormous amounts of room. What corridas give you is a musical syncopation to your dance. We will have other quick, quick, slow patterns in the dance, but this is your first. Use this, combined with regular speed walks and pauses, to make a dynamic, musical expression.
Abrazo--The tango embrace has as many variations as the steps do. My rule of thumb is to use the body as efficiently as possible. Any embrace that hurts, is wrong. Apart from that, you need to have communication between the partners, without stiffness or tension.
For my embrace, I prefer the leader to encircle my torso as far as is possible without lowering the shoulder or pulling me off balance (or being off-balance as the leader). The leader's left arm has the elbow relaxed and dropping towards the floor, with the palm facing into the center of the couple. There is light pressure meeting the follower's hand and arm, as if completing a circuit; please don't squeeze!
For the follower, I prefer an embrace where the left arm is embracing the leader, not leaning on them. The follower is supposed to provide energy to the leader, not sap it. The follower's right arm has a relaxed elbow pointing to the floor (the angle depends on the follower's body build, as it does for the leader), with the right forearm rotated to face out of the embrace circle to meet the leader's hand.
Basic turn technique (molinete, or grapevine, step: forward cross, open step, back cross, open step): in any turn, there is a center of the turn circle. In most cases in tango, that center is the person leading. The leader rotates in place, and the follower describes a circle around the leader, using the steps of the grapevine.
Turns can begin and end on any step of the grapevine. The context of the turn determines the starting point. For example, if the follower is walking forward before the turn and the turn begins on a side step, the first cross step will be a backward cross. If the follower begins with a side step after walking backwards, the first cross will be forward. There are always moments where the first cross is up for grabs: is this a forward or back cross? Leaders: as beginners, I advocate letting the cross happen and accommodating your turn to that step. Later, you will be able to control whether a step is a front or back cross easily; now, concentrate on being clear with the beginning and end of your turn. The rest will come in time.
As a follower, a turn can have different shapes and sizes. I suggest working to develop a consistent turn, with equally sized steps in a clear circle around the axis of the leader. To do this, the follower needs to pivot the hips without breaking the body's axis, especially on the front and back cross steps. Some tango traditions stipulate that the follower should not pivot in close embrace; I do not agree, as most dancers who do that look wooden and I prefer elegance (that said, the superstars of any style will look good, no matter how bad for the body their style is). In subsequent classes, we will discuss the turn more as we practice the technique more.
Leading turns from side steps: So far, the only specific turn we have done starts after a side step (open step) of both leader and follower. This can be done to either side (left or right). It is a turn that starts with a cross step. For right now, do not worry whether a front or back cross step happens here: you will learn to lead both later. The leader takes a side step, puts both feet together and rotates in place, letting the follower turn around for up to one entire turn. I usually use this turn to get back to facing line of dance.
Adornos: using embellishments to spice up pauses in the dance. Adornos are the flavoring of the dance. A different song, a different partner, a different state of mind--all require different spicing of the movement. You can use a darting, linear motion, a circular motion, or even what we played with to learn the adorno's place in the dance: writing your name in the "sand" on the dance floor. Adornos need to have energy, so don't do wimpy ones with your foot hardly touching the floor: make them count. Try different speeds, one or several iterations of the same movement, etc. Try not to do all the adornos you know whenever you pause: that is like putting all the spices in the kitchen into every dish you make, thus having only one flavor. Main adorno rule: don't switch feet unless you are 1. the leader and decide to do so, or 2. the follower and the leader told you to switch!
Navigation: how to avoid running into people in your way. There are many possibilities apart from stopping. Of course, you can pause and adorn. You can also execute a turn in place, waiting for traffic ahead to clear. You can use some version of a rock step, although stepping backwards more than one step may cause navigational issues behind you for other leaders. Remain aware of open space ahead of you and plan ahead, just as you would for walking down a crowded sidewalk. Remember the "solo-couple" game we played, where everyone changed partners, walked solo in ANY direction, and then received a new partner and danced without pausing. It is possible to get into the flow of the room and thus reduce the potential for crashes!
The cabeceo: inviting a partner to dance by gesturing with the head/eyes. As I mentioned, this was a traditional way of asking someone to dance. It is still used. I find it preferable to being asked to dance by someone approaching my table, but everyone has a different preference.
My main reason for preferring the cabeceo: When someone approaches my table and asks to dance, I feel constrained to say yes, whether I want to dance or not. If someone catches my eye and does a cabeceo, I can say "no" with more freedom, as it is a signal between us, and not a public event. In Buenos Aires, I found that the cabeceo gave me more power to decide with whom to dance than I had ever encountered in North America.
I think that many North Americans do not maintain eye contact quite long enough to actually invite me to dance, so there is more ambiguity with a cabeceo (Was that person trying to get my attention, or just spacing out, looking at the wall behind me?). The downside to the cabeceo is inability to get someone's attention if they are otherwise occupied. For example, I like to talk, and often get caught up in conversations at a milonga, failing to notice a lurking potential partner who is too shy to blatantly position him/herself in a way that I have to look up and communicate :-)
Dance floor etiquette: The traditionally packed dance floor has evolved a precise use of floor space for tango. Couples dance in concentric circles, or lanes, on the crowded dance floor. Often, the middle of the dance floor is filled with beginners who have drifted, interspersed with folks who are doing big, showy moves that don't work in traffic. Obviously, this makes the middle somewhat dangerous. Most good dancers stick to the outside lane, as there is better visibility, traffic only to one side, and the opportunity to be seen by seated folks. Pick a lane, and stay there! This is NOT like rush-hour traffic, and it is not good etiquette to pass or zoom around people.
Whew! We got through a lot in two hours! Please let me know if I have forgotten something, or if you have any questions you would like me to answer. See you in class!