Spirals in the body for turn technique

Last week, we worked on leading right turns, left turns and front ochos after walking to the cross. For both the leader and the follower, these turns and ochos are relatively simple IF the spirals around the body's axis are used efficiently.

Leading turns

Leaders tend to muscle through turns and ochos in an effort to lead the follower "clearly". This often ends in the leader (and follower) being off-balance. Yes, your windup for the turn does INDICATE to the follower what you want, but it does not LEAD. To me, this is like turning on your turn signal at the "one-mile-to-the-exit" sign on the highway, but then not turning the steering wheel at the actual exit. The follower has to try to figure out when and how to execute the turn, rather than follow your lead.

So how do you lead efficiently? (I always prefer a clear but subtle lead to being driven like a Mac truck). Spirals! When I lead a turn, I ground my hips. That is, I try to keep them pointing the same direction as the V of my feet. I rotate my torso more freely, as I am more on balance this way. I focus on my solar plexus vs. my hips, making a SMALL spiral in my body, on axis. Only after I establish this spiral do I allow my feet and hips to also turn. I keep this spiral until I want to end the turn, at which point I catch up with my hips and V of my feet.

Trouble-shooting for your turns:

  • If your partner seems to pause at each step of the turn, or simply moves step together step instead of doing the grapevine step around you, you are probably NOT using a spiral. Make sure that you are continuing the spiral once you have established it. If that still doesn't work, focus on sending energy out your solar plexus and rotating that with a constant speed (at least for now) until you want the turn to end. BREATHE.
  • If you constantly get stuck about two steps into the turn, make sure you take your feet along with you sooner. A lot of folks use their extreme rotation to start a turn and then get stuck. I use most of my rotation, and start rotating in place before I feel torque on my knees or ankles. You will feel like you are making less of a spiral, but your follower will not: they are following the spiral of your torso.
  • If your partner seems to always be ahead of your position, perhaps you are pulling with your embrace. When I studied with Mingo Pugliese in Buenos Aires, he said, "Imagine your chest and your shoulders and your arms are all carved out of the same piece of wood." When you spiral, your elbows and hands don't "help" your partner in the turn. Your chest gives that information, which is relayed by the embrace.
  • If your partner seems to always be behind your position, perhaps you are clamping down too hard on your embrace. Focus on letting the energy and breath of the movement lead, aided by the body. I think that intention (although very woo-woo) is what really moves the follower; the physical lead only helps that.
  • If those suggestions don't fix the problem, see below for follower issues :-). To lead and follow a good turn takes a long time, so be patient with each other!

Following turns

First, I want to emphasize the importance of practicing your turns. The technique you learn here, spiraling your body from your solar plexus to the tips of your toes, applies to all those cool moves you beg me to teach you: boleos, ganchos, etc. Perfect your turns, and leaders will line up to dance with you!

Second, I want to remind you that turn practice is not something you will perfect and move beyond. At least, I haven't. I still work on my turn technique after thirteen years of tango, and it gets better every year. If you are a goal-oriented person, this may sound frustrating. You can set yourself mini-goals to achieve along the way (i.e., a fabulous back cross; a lovely adorno at the end of a turn; etc.).

Third, you can create a beautiful turn regardless of the level of your leader. Although it is not your job to make your leader's dance better, executing gorgeous turns, on balance, with energy, will make both partners' technique look better. Yes, a poor leader can make it harder to turn well, but that is no excuse! I don't "dumb down" my follower technique to follow a beginner or a poor lead: I try to make it the best I can to make the dance feel good for both of us.

OK, now that I've got that off my chest, on to the technique :-) The spiral for the follower differs from the lead spiral. The leader uses grounded feet and hips to stabilize so that the torso can be mobile and rotate. For the follower, the upper torso and solar plexus connect with the leader (whether physically or via breath and energy). That provides the stability to let the hips, legs and feet create the body spiral. I spiral around my own axis in a turn, not around my leader (if you are a tango leaner, there is an aspect of spiral around the leader's axis as well, but we'll leave that for the moment).

I use my body efficiently to get as much spiral as I can. A back cross in a turn is much more than a 180°pivot. When I turn, I use my maximum spiral to make a good, solid back cross in the turn. When my spiral is centered around my own axis, it is easier to create even more spiral. Because my feet are under me, I can then use the floor for stability and balance.

A turn has moments of winding into a spiral and unwinding to neutral for the follower. A front or back cross uses a degree of spiral, while open/side steps return the body to neutral for a moment. Use that constantly changing spiral to make your turns better. If you hold your breath, you cannot unwind as completely, thus taxing your muscles more than necessary. The spiral for turns (and ochos) is very dynamic, which allows you to constantly build your energy, recover balance (if necessary) and tune into the leader. Remember, the leader can choose different speeds for a turn (all slow steps, all quick steps, or the traditional slow slow quick quick), so working on your spiral allows you to respond more subtly to the leader.

When you feel the beginning of a spiral, you know this movement will require pivoting the hips, legs and feet. If you are led in a turn, it is your job to remember which step of the grapevine comes next. It is also your job to keep turning until the leader asks for something different. Hopefully, you will feel the leader's spiral return to neutral, which will return your spiral to neutral, ending a turn. Later on, other moves will come out of the turn, but for right now, you know it's going to be a walk (if you are in my Tango I in Salem :-) ).

Trouble-shooting for your turns:

  • If you seem to get further and further away from the leader, so that you cannot stay connected physically, examine your back cross step. This is the hardest step of the turn. If you tend to swing your leg around the back to create your spiral, you are probably tipping your axis over. Try to spiral all the way down to your feet, only sliding your foot behind for the cross step when your hips and legs/feet are completely in their spiral.
  • If you seem to be off-balance a lot in your turn, focus on your axis and support leg. A lot of dancers reach with their free leg BEFORE using their support leg to begin a step, worried about being behind on a step. If you push off from your support leg (which might feel as if you are waiting too long to project with the free leg), you will actually arrive at the new location faster! Pushing off FIRST allows your leg to project, but in sync with the leader's axis, so that you will arrive at the same time as the leader, with more energy, on balance. Think: push off support leg, project free leg, follow through with your support leg and toes to land (these three parts have to work in this order).
  • If you are having trouble keeping up with the leader's rate of spiral, the only answer is to push off and use ENERGY from the ground up. Think fewer steps and bigger, rather than running around with tiny steps. You are the motor of the turn: rev it up! (This is only possible once you are on balance, so focus on the step above first).
  • If you feel that you are always ahead of the leader, focus on the spiral of their torso, not on what their hands are leading. A lot of leaders give you two or three pieces of information, with the arms and torso moving at different rates. I always focus on what the solar plexus is doing and try to ignore extra information from the arms (like the scarecrow's "He went that-a way!" in The Wizard of Oz, you have to figure out which piece of information is the important one!).
  • Use ocho technique drills to help you with your front and back cross technique outside of turns, and then apply it to your turns. Like turns, ochos take a long time to perfect: your entire tango life. Again, if you apply yourself to your drills in practice, your dancing will improve on the dance floor.

Salem dancers: see you tomorrow!