Opening your solar plexus: energy in tango (and class notes for 23 Sept.)

All dancers bring themselves to the dance floor: personality, mood, energy level, balance, musicality--the list is endless. However, energy tops the list. A partner, approaching you for the first time, feels something about your energy and responds to that initial impression on a conscious and subconscious level. Does this person make you feel secure? Does it feel good to connect with that energy? Does this person feel relaxed/tense/etc.? On some level, no matter what steps are done and what music is danced, that energy hit from your partner flavors the tanda (set of dances) and the experience.

When I lead, I always make sure that my solar plexus (the soft spot right below my sternum) is relaxed. The faster the dance, the more open my solar plexus needs to be. The harder my partner is to move, the more released I need to remain in my center. If my partner is tense, my response is to reduce my own tension by softening my solar plexus.

This seems counterintuitive: all the situations I mentioned above seem to demand MORE pressure, more push, more energy in order to dance well. I get more energy by breathing and releasing my solar plexus. When my center is relaxed, I can achieve more with less effort. I need more focus, more intention as to where and how I want my partner to move, but with less push.

Because I am a small person for leading (5'5" and 144 lbs.), many of the folks I lead are bigger than I am. I cannot MAKE them go where I want through brute force. I have to use intention, breath and focus in order to be able to move them. I don't like pushy leads when I follow, so I try not to be a pushy lead when I lead. The only way I can be clear but not pushy, is to keep my energy open and relaxed: I breathe and open my solar plexus.

Things that make leading easier:

  1. Commit energy to establishing your own axis. My teacher, Oscar Mandagaran, counsels dancers to focus energy on extending up and down (through the earth, up to the ceiling) and then moving that strong axis around the room. In other words, don't take everything you have and shove it forward and backward in the room: stand tall and let your solar plexus open wide, letting your follower feel all that energy pouring out of you, and then just move them!
  2. Send all of your directional energy towards your partner. For example, instead of stepping slightly sideways to avoid your partner's feet, really step TOWARDS them. Focus all of your effort in the direction you want your follower to move. Unless you want a duck waddle, don't do that yourself :-)
  3. Whenever you plan to move quickly, such as a corrida (a quick quick slow move), OPEN your solar plexus right before you initiate the movement. Don't think "push" and don't push. Let energy come out of your center and ride that wave.
  4. Whenever you plan to do a move that you don't feel 100% comfortable leading yet, open your solar plexus. The last thing you need your partner to feel is that "Oh, sh*&%t" tightness from you. Your partner feels that tension, and tenses for a coming crisis, making it harder for you to lead at all, let alone something difficult for you already. Relax, and your follower will relax.

Things that make following easier:

  1. Commit energy to establishing your axis. If you are not on balance, even a good leader has trouble leading you in the dance. Use your breath and energy to create balance and grounding.
  2. Send your directional energy TOWARDS your partner, not away in the direction you are traveling. Keeping the energy focused on your leader means that there is a mini force field between the partners, even in close embrace. This protects you from getting stepped on much more than trying to get your feet out from underneath yourself. Also, this gives the leader more energy to play with, reducing the leader's tendency to drive you like a MAC truck.
  3. If you feel your partner tense, release your solar plexus. There is no need for both people to stop breathing and get tense. You will be able to keep up with either difficult moves or a poor lead if you are balanced and breathing.
  4. Use your breath and relaxed solar plexus as the center of your balance, rather than hanging on the leader. You become a lighter, more responsive follower at the same time that your body is working less. More balance, more fun!

Three levels of energy: self, couple and room

Paying attention to your own breath, axis and energy establishes your own body in the room and the dance. Directing some of that energy towards your partner establishes the connection between the couple, which is the basis of tango. Extending that awareness and energy to the entire room brings the energy of the entire group into play, allowing you to draw from that energy to make your dance.

During my thesis research, several people I interviewed in Buenos Aires told me about how dancing worked when they first started to dance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They told me that, when they first watched tango, the entire room of dancers moved without running into each other, functioning as one entity. I have seen this happening as well as felt it occurring, and the sense is of the flow of the music, embodied in the group.

I developed the games we played this week, Solo-Couple and Energy Bunnies, to teach awareness of the dance floor and all the dancers, in order to cultivate this exquisite feeling of being as one on the dance floor with everyone else dancing. In Solo-Couple, everyone had a chance to find the flow of the music and the amount of space in the room, and then practiced staying in touch with that feeling while dancing as a couple. In Energy Bunnies, we worked on giving energy to other people and couples, so that the energy on the dance floor builds and in turn, feeds the couple and the individual dancing. Stay tuned for Energy Vampires and Navigation!

Salem Beginner Tango class

Our new concept for this week was switching "lanes" from center to outside and from center to inside. Remember that changing lanes requires long diagonal steps (high school math version, more variations coming soon), with a crossing over/through step. The hips and toes define the direction of the couple, while the torso orientation defines the couple's placement on that traveling line (center, outside, inside, depending on the leader's and follower's position). Also, remember that the leader is not trying to get next to the follower, flattening the embrace, but rather is keeping the circle and connection of the embrace while moving to the outside or inside lane. We'll do more exercises to get used to rotating the hips or torso versus moving the entire body as a block.

Next week, we'll learn to walk to the cross, which requires using the center and inside lanes. As I mentioned in class, you can walk quickly (quick quick slow corridas) or pause in center, outside and inside orientations. Some of you found that it was easier to begin a turn from outside or inside orientation, rather than from a center orientation (hang in there, we'll learn "real" turns very soon). We will also start ochos (figure 8s) next week. See you then!

Salem Tango 2 class: paradas and ganchos

We reviewed front paradas and stepovers this week. Last week, we did these steps from a front ocho after walking to the cross. This week, we tried them from a turn. Stopping a turn is a bit harder than stopping an ocho, as there is more momentum usually in a turn.

For those of you who already felt comfortable with the front parada and stepover, remember that you can do the step using the leg/foot nearer your partner (i.e., leading a follower to your right and doing the parada with your right foot) or the leg/foot further from your partner (i.e., leading a follower to your right and doing the parada with your left leg, which requires you to "flip your hip" before the move). Take those two possibilities and try them to the other side as well; that gives you four versions of the move.

Adding the gancho (hook) only happens when your parada and stepover feel comfortable. Just as there are many kinds of paradas, there are tons of different ganchos. We only worked on one gancho this week: a step that rocked back towards the site of the stepover, creating a gancho for the follower through the leader's leg. This gancho then resolved in a forward step for the follower, continuing on in the dance.

Making space for the leading a follower's gancho

When you lead a gancho for the follower, it is always easier to get the follower closer to you, rather than trying to catch the follower's leg further from your own axis. I always try to set up a gancho on the step before the gancho, so that the actual step is near me and easy for me to reach. As I said earlier, because I am short, I can't do a good gancho if I let the follower get away from my center.

A long, narrow window of space works well for a gancho. It might look like a bigger space to make a wide, open-looking window for a gancho, but it does not work as well. For a real, snappy gancho that is led by the leader (rather than the follower taking over), you need height. By the way, that means that a tall follower will not get as dramatic a gancho from a short leader as a tall leader would provide. Still, we short leaders can lead nice snappy (if not dramatic) ganchos for everyone if we prepare the move correctly.

Please do not lean towards the follower to catch a gancho! This knocks the follower off-axis, preventing a gancho from happening. After all, most people can't fall sideways and let you have control over their "free" leg at the same time :-)  Let the follower's axis remain upright. Only intrude into the follower's space with enough of your foot and leg to allow the gancho to hook through your leg. Keep your body out of the way!

Free your leg, and the rest will follow: follower's tips for ganchos

My first tango teacher, Daniel Trenner, told me, "Never fish for ganchos!" As I understand that now, that means that the follower should not try to gancho when a gancho is not being led. In other words, WAIT! For the gancho we learned this week, that means assuming that a forward step is happening when led out of the stepover, rather than preparing for a gancho by stopping forward motion, grabbing in the quads, and crouching like a tennis player ready to change direction!

Stand up tall, balanced on your axis. Keep your center connected (by energy) with your leader. Assume nothing about the next step. Follow the leader's torso and torsion. If you keep your center pointing towards your leader, the leader's rotation around his/her axis will hook your free leg through the leader's leg, creating the gancho. After the gancho, there is usually a rebound. Therefore, if the gancho was a backwards movement, you rebound forward after it, guided by the leader.

The gesture, or free, leg is only about 20% of the effort for this move. 80% of your focus should be on your axis. The free leg is relaxed at the hip joint, but the hips are mostly stable, moving with the axis. In order to get nice, strong ganchos, the leader has to have the correct timing for the move AND you need to release your leg. If one of those things does not happen, the gancho doesn't work correctly. Please try not to "help" the leader by backleading ganchos: a gancho that is led is fabulous, snappy and organic--and the leader can direct it; a gancho that is self-led is heavy, tends to stop after the upswing, and the leader has to wait until it is done in order to find the follower's axis again. DO NOT fish for ganchos.

The other bit of gancho wisdom I have finally internalized comes both from Daniel Trenner and from Luciana Valle. Daniel looked at me one day, about three years into tango, and said, "If you want to get good, you are going to have to get sloppy." I HATED that, but he was right. I was not allowing the leader freedom over my leg; instead, I was controlling it. Once I actually released my leg, it didn't feel good, but it felt RIGHT, and eventually, it worked all the time. After that, I could start to s culpt the move a bit myself, making it more elegant.

Luciana gave the exercises I used to make my ganchos work. Especially, she made me focus on pointing my knee towards the floor, rather than pulling my ankle/knee up to make a hook. Letting the leg be heavy makes it respond with more snap to the leader, even though at first that feels just plain wierd. We'll do some of her drills, as well as some of Oscar and Georgina's drills, as we progress in class.

We'll continue making these moves parts of our dance in the coming weeks. In addition, folks have asked for boleos, volcadas and colgadas. We will do little baby versions of these, as we learn about the theory of each move, and prepare for Tangofest in Portland. After all, it will be too crowded to do big versions of anything!

GO TO TANGOFEST!!!!! I cannot stress how much "I'm going to do this if it kills me!" focus can come out of one weekend of dancing. Even if you forget every step you learned, even if you are so tired you can barely stand for the last tanda, even if your tango completely falls apart, you will learn something from Tangofest. The sheer numbers of new folks to dance with makes it worth going. If you are too intimidated to dance, go to one of the big milongas and watch the dancers. Watching feet is always an informative thing to do: one old milonguera told me, "Look at their feet and if you like what you see, look up. You will see good connection happening!" Go DANCE!!!!!

Also, my teachers Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas, are coming back. They are staying with me, and will probably teach at my house. I encourage you to come take a private lesson. They are inspiring. Although they are fabulous stage dancers, they know more about social dance tango and using energy in the body, than most dance teachers put together. Sign up early so that they have space for you (I think they are setting up their own schedule, but I can connect you with them if you want).

See you next week!