Sunday Specials #1: notes on energy, connection, milonga and tango vals

For Rachel Lidskog's and my first day of teaching together, we chose topics that we felt needed more coverage in the Portland tango community: energy, connection, milonga and vals.

Class #1: Energy and connection

Many of you in Portland have yet to experience my strange and fun games to make your tango livelier, more balanced, and more connected. We mixed these up with things that Rachel teaches. We focused on four levels of connection: self, partner, music, and entire group/room/space.


Axis drill: breathing deeply, imagine that your breath comes up from below the floor, up into your lungs, and then back down through your bones, through the floor, and pushes a large magnet away below the floor. Repeat several times. Then, imagine that every exhale sends the energy & breath up out the top of your head like a fountain or whale spout. After that, take a few breaths sending energy & breath out the top of the head AND down through the feet. Like a shower curtain rod needs the spring on each end to work, you need to have energy going out both ends to balance your axis for the dance.

Moving through space: Move on each exhale and check axis on each inhale. Find your connection to the floor and the ceiling with each step. Think of the shower curtain rod springs: they don't move much, but energy is constantly going out towards both ends; the same thing happens in your body.


Force field drill: Facing a partner, not touching, and close your eyes. Do the axis drill for several breaths. Now, let each exhale send energy through your partner and towards the wall of the room. Imagine that energy: I like thinking of electricity, but you could picture a color, water, bubbles, fire, whatever--streaming out of you and towards your partner. Take several breaths focusing on a body part, and then enlarge the "force field" of energy you are sending through your partner. I usually follow this pattern: toes; knees; hips; belly button; rib cage; shoulder blades; collar bones (or back of neck); whole body. Then, extend that rectangular force field to a cylinder around yourself, step towards your partner, and dance slow motion, BREATHING and focusing on how the force field keeps your energy towards your partner, even while moving backwards.

I am here drill: Eyes open, standing several feet apart. Say "I am HERE!" as you step vigorously in towards your partner. Stand your ground, eye to eye (or even touching). Then repeat "I am HERE!" as you move back to your original spot. Notice if you step forwards and then shrink back--the point of the exercise is to REALLY be "HERE" and present, ready to dance (Rachel, correct me if I've forgotten something here!).

Follower as the motor of the dance: In open or close embrace, the leader rotates slowly in place, powered by the follower's turn steps. The follower watches his/her right hand while turning towards that hand; focusing on pivoting the feet and hips to allow for a smooth, balanced, RRRRRRRRMMMMM of a turn. When this is really working, the leader can stand on one foot and be turned around! Before you get dizzy, reverse to the other side. The hard part: create a "reverse" embrace so that the leader's right hand is out, with the leader's left arm around the follower so that the follower can watch his/her left hand while turning that way. Leaders: try not to pull or push the follower in this drill. BTW, it's good practice for leading with the chest instead of the arms.

Naughty toddler: Anyone who has led someone who is clearing NOT following can identify with the need to feel confident about leading, no matter what is happening. Naughty toddler is a game in which the follower does ANYTHING his/her little heart desires. Just as when dealing with a real toddler, the leader's job will be easiest if s/he uses the "toddler's" energy and directs it around the dance floor, rather than trying to get the "toddler" to stop!

The second goal of Naughty Toddler to is teach followers to dance with more energy. Too much energy, and you are not following, but leading. Too little energy, and it is very difficult to move the follower anywhere. In between, there is a grey zone, where the leader can be in control, but the follower contributes energy. I find that most followers dance too close to the passive edge of that zone. Whenever I find a lively follower with tons of energy, I enjoy leading more. Even if that person is almost out of control, it is more fun than motivating a comatose dancer! Followers: find "Naughty Toddler" and then tone it down just a hair for optimum following. Leaders: look out! Here come some great dancers!

The music

We are saving the tuning into music for the next set of classes.

The group

Circle community: Rachel says this comes via Alex Krebs. We stood in a circle, touching shoulders. Then, we leaned slightly in and slightly out, feeling how the group could hold up the group. We then moved right and left, feeling how the group compensated for the movement and contributed to it (Rachel, feel free to jump in here!)

Solo-couple: Finding the flow of the entire room adds to the richness of your dance--and helps you to avoid collisions. For Solo-Couple, each person walks in any direction in the room: clockwise, counter-clockwise, straight through the middle of the group, whatever. To avoid collisions, turn in place until you can find a way to move, rather than stopping or backing up. When the teacher hollers COUPLE! grab the closest person and without stopping, move into dancing counter-clockwise in the room, with at least vaguely tango/milonga/vals steps. The point is to keep the flow of the room, tune into that, and use it to make your dance. Because you don't have time to think, as a leader, you must just allow the dance to happen. As the follower, you are in synch with the rest of the room and have a good idea of the space available, which allows you to follow more comfortably.

Energy bunnies/Energy vampires
: This is a game that helps you add to--or benefit from--the energy of the room when dancing. What we all dream of is a room of dancers that, when we walk in, we can FEEL the crackle of energy and dancing! Those are the times you can dance for hours and hardly notice fatigue. Conversely, on those nights when you are tired and you get a partner who is also low-energy, it's hard to get through a single tanda. You can give energy to a partner or to the room of dancers (or take energy) as needed. This sounds very woo-woo, but I noticed that all of you felt how much more energy was present after energy bunnies. For the game, each time we passed someone, we gave/took a little energy from that person, accompanied by very fun noises :-) After only about thirty seconds, everyone's energy level was higher, and we stopped to dance a dance, as well as to feel the result of the game. Try it when you are dancing: give energy if your partner needs it, or take some if you need it, and see how it works in "real life."

We'll continue working on drills and games during our next round on December, focusing on making the embrace work better and feel sweeter.

Class #2: Milonga lisa (smooth milonga)

We started with Jorge Nel's great follow-the-leader exercise. This consists of walking in a circle to milonga music, while imitating what the leader is doing. I focus on getting comfortable with quarter turns: walking forward and then turning towards/away from the center to do step together patterns; then either turning to face forwards, or turning the other way to face backwards; but always progressing around the room. For me, this drill helps the leaders become more comfortable with the swift pace of milonga, without being tempted to take big steps. Also, it works into a drill I learned from Tete that we did for val class (more on that below).

Side-together steps: We practiced leading those same patterns (moving into and out of side together steps) with a partner. In order to get your partner to step with you, you need to "squeeze the toothpaste" up to get their feet light enough to follow what you do, or "squeeze the toothpaste" down to put their feet on the ground if they tend to pop up (we revisited this for calecitas, see vals class below).

Corridas: Using the "squeeze toothpaste up" approach, we practiced doing quick-quick-slow traveling patterns in milonga: this brings the follower's steps in a bit so that little steps (thus quicker) are executed to aid in timing the corrida. Also, instead of trying to push two quick steps down the room, try applying as much energy as you need at the beginning of the three steps, so that the pattern naturally ends with a slow at the end of the phrase.

Vai-ven (go-come): I learned this step from Daniel Trenner ages ago, and I like to combine it with other walking patterns to make a nice, elegant milonga style. The step has 6 counts and 6 steps: for the leader, forward on the left; in place on the right and the left; back on the right; in place on the left and the right. The follower starts back, in place for two steps, forward and in place for two steps. Ballroom folks: this is NOT a hesitation step, and it doesn't rise and fall like ballroom waltzes :-)

Rotating grapevine (clockwise): This step works nicely in conjunction with the vai-ven step. It is done here in parallel system. The leader steps forward on the left, through on the right (as if going to the cross), open line-of-dance with the left; those are the first three steps. Then, that is repeated by the follower (forward, step through, side step) while the leader steps backwards (but moving line-of-dance) with the right, backwards with the left (while leading the follower through to the leader's right side), and open line-of-dance with the right (facing IN). On the next step, the leader can step forwards line-of-dance. If you do a vai-ven before and after this move, it feels nice and energized without getting swoopy.

Of course, the rotating grapevine can also be done counterclockwise, but we didn't go there--yet. And, of course, you can do this in crossed system, but that is way harder!

Energizer bunny: Although the follower's role in tango or milonga is NOT to be on autopilot, I find that it helps leaders initially if the follower steps on every beat of the music. The follower does not move around: that's the leader's job. So the follower provides the motor/battery and the leader provides the direction for the dance. We practiced doing this, using both simple walks and step together patterns, and later on after we did several more complex patterns of movements.

Know your milongas: We focused on a few Canaro milongas: No Hay Tierra Como La Mia, Mi Buenos Aires, and Milonga Brava. I find that, the more I know a song, the more I can use syncopated rhythms to play (like corridas). Also, if there are any "breaks" in the song, I know when to put in an earth-shaking pause, right on the money!

In December, we'll learn some more moves and start playing with traspie. We'll continue with getting to know Canaro's milongas, as there are tons of them and they are FUN.

Class #3: Vals Musicality & swoopy moves

For vals, we added a few new moves (or improved them) and worked on musicality.

Music games:

Bim-Bam: This game comes from Luciana Valle.

  • All the dancers are responsible for keeping an even paced, steady beat. Everyone makes a noise on the "1" count (like "Bim" or "Bam" if you are Luciana) that differs from any other noises to keep the "2" and "3" counts going; everyone steps ONLY on the "1" beat.
  • Next, the "3" beat is added in, making the rhythm feel a bit like a limp: 1 3 1 3 1 3. The dancers make a different noise on "3" to differentiate it from the "1" (i.e., Bim BAM Bim BAM etc.), stepping only on those two beats.
  • Obviously, the next version is stepping on the "1" and "2" beats, which accentuates the "1" (BIM Bam BIM Bam etc.).
  • There are two other versions, to be used sparingly: stepping on all three counts (perhaps BIM beam bom or something like that?), and pausing for various multiples of three.
  • Then, all dancers put the patterns together, moving through the space (still without a partner). The group needs to keep the "1" (BIM) beat going collectively, but can play around within that. I think of this part like learning to scat sing: bee bopp a beeddeeeddee whatever; I dance what I sing.

The Blob: I take complete responsibility for this silly game:

  • The group splits up into little blobs of four to six people. The blob is responsible for keeping a steady "1" beat, as in the Bim-Bam game. However, the small group interacts while moving through space. You can be across the room or touching; moving in dialogue or trying to move together on the same counts; running circles around your group, or sticking to the middle for safety, BUT you must be continuing the last step of Bim-Bam: getting comfortable with mixing up the rhythms.
  • Then, we move into smaller blobs of two couples and do the same. Explore keeping an eye on the rest of your group but moving further away: how does that feel/work? Now try staying really close together, but working with different parts of the rhythm than the others (12 12 12 when someone is doing 1 3 1 3). Now, try to channel them and do exactly what they are doing.
  • Last, break into couples, but still don't touch. Make it a playful conversation of rhythm, where the "follower" doesn't have to stay still or do what the leader wants.

What does the Blob teach? As a follower, I found that I had ideas about rhythm that my partner did not necessarily share. I try to use those moments as adornment, rather than by taking over the lead. If my leader pauses and I hear movement, I can do an adornment with that rhythm. If I hear "1 3" and they lead "12" I can play with the rhythm to make it work for both of us (more on this next time).

As the leader, I realize how much the music helps me make up my pattern of rhythm. Thus, the better I know a song, the better my dance fits with that song and the more my partner likes the dance.

Songs that we worked on:

  • Vibraciones del Alma (Canaro)
  • La Perfumada Flor (d'Arienzo)
  • Mascarita (Laurenz)

We'll work on more songs next time, familiarizing ourselves with tunes that are played a lot in this community. If you have a favorite vals, let us know beforehand, and we'll bring that one to work on. If you want a head start, check out the following:

  • Mariquita Mo Mires (Rodriguez)
  • Mi Romance (Tanturi)
  • Dos Corazones (DeMare)
  • Estrellita Mia (Donato)
  • Desde el alma (Pugliese and others)

Moves that are fun in vals, Part One

Calecita: The main point of a calecita is that the leader moves around the follower in a giro (turn), with the follower as the center of that circle. Calecitas can end in off-axis, leaning positions, but that is not the main idea. Little calecitas (say, 1/2 revolutions, not off-axis) are great for changing directions with little space available. They also feel WONDERFUL as a follower when used in vals as a way to get a swoopy, suspended feel at the end of a phrase. Remember to:

  • Get your follower on axis first.
  • "Squeeze the toothpaste" up to help the follower stay on balance on the support leg.
  • Keep your steps equidistant from the follower's axis in order to stay on balance. For a counterclockwise calecita, I pivot my hips so that my toes are facing the other direction, and back up around the follower. This is much easier than trying to grapevine in a perfect circle.
  • "Squeeze the toothpast" down before asking the follower to travel somewhere else.
  • The easiest version of a calecita: take a side step while leading the follower in a side step; lift, turn, release & exit.

As the follower, remember:

  • Try to arrive on axis to all steps.
  • If "lifted" do not let your heels pop up! Instead, apply active, downward pressure to maintain your balance (using the embrace as a parallel to the ground balance)
  • Do not sag against partner!
  • Upon feeling the release of the lift, be prepared to travel to a new spot.
  • During the calecita, try little adornos that don't knock you off balance: little darts, circles, etc.; or the more dangerous ones like tucking your free heel behind your balance foot.

Traveling turn: I sometimes call this the Dan Turn, as Dan from Alaska used to do these ALL the time (and very well). This traveling turn is done in parallel system, and constantly moves line of dance. Each unit of turn starts with the leader using L foot to travel forward and around the follower, with Follower’s front cross through with the right initiating second half of the turn.The key is make sure that the follower can step through to the leader's left as s/he steps forward line of dance with the right leg each time the turn rotates completely.

For the first turn, the leader walks into the "maybe" position (starting to walk to the cross) with the right; from there on, the leader doesn't really get to that position, but focuses on keeping the dancers turning. The leader's steps: Through to the inside (R), open (L), backwards (R), backwards (L), open & turning (R), forwards and turning (L); when I get started on this turn, it feels like it has four steps: around follower, slightly backwards, follower around, slightly forwards. Hopefully, one of these versions will help you remember the step!

Follower: back (L), open (R), forward (L), through (R), open (L), back (R). The main element is the through step with the right foot. Once the turn gets going, it feels like: leader steps around, follower forward, follower through, follower turning. Like polka, I find this step super-easy, but not easy to describe! Hope this helps.

Next round (December 14th): More vals steps (turning mostly) and more musicality work.