Dancing big in small spaces: what makes it work?

The fabulous Redwood Tango Ensemble played at Norse Hall a few weeks ago. Watching Portland dancers and visitors who came for the Tango Music Institute at Reed College, I realized that a lot of dancers were encountering difficulty dancing up to their regular standard because of the increased number of dancers on the floor. I enjoyed the extra energy level created by more people and less space, but I have a lot more experience dancing in small spaces because I learned to lead in Buenos Aires.

Because of that evening, I planned a six-week session focused on dancing with more energy AND in smaller spaces than the weekly milonga scene in Portland requires. As I always say in class, "I don't expect to see this [move] on the dance floor. The point is that everything else will feel easier once you have tried the more difficult thing." What I wanted to see was more expressive dancing, with good navigation, and without the fear factor showing when space got tighter.

What did we work on to challenge the dancers? For the past six weeks, the leaders worked on learning new classic combinations--and then took them apart and reworked them into new combinations. I think this helps the brain chose alternative possibilities more easily when faced with a navigational challenge. (If you stick to the same five moves, that's fine, but put them in a different order, or mix and match parts of them to fit the music and the space better!) To practice, after we had a handle on those new combinations, we danced in 1/2 the room; and then 1/3 of the room; and then 1/4 of the room.

For the followers, I taught a few elegant adornos, as well as working on stellar basic technique. Yes, my advanced dancers worked on turning, pivoting, walking, doing traspies--the basics--but as if each step REALLY counted in the dance. That added precision really helped the leaders know where the follower was, which in turn made it easier to negotiate small spaces.

Next, the followers worked on being the "motor" of the dance. We played a game I created at the University of Oregon that I call "naughty toddler." The follower does not follow when being the naughty toddler. Instead, they do any move they like, in any direction, but with lots of energy. The leader's job is to channel the energy into a dance as closely resembling what the leader had in mind before, but without wrestling the follower into submission. I think that the freedom created by being given permission to mess up, helps take the dance up to a new level of excitement and joy that eludes the cautious dancer sometimes.

Gradually, we combined the precision of stellar technique with the energy of "naughty toddler" into a follower who IS following, but with tons of energy. This gives the leader a lot more energy with which to play, and that creates new possibilities for combinations, without the leader spending a lot of energy thinking about what comes next. The dance becomes more organic, and more enjoyable for both partners.

As the space got smaller, what we found was that everyone danced BETTER. Why? Because everyone was dancing full out, expressing themselves to the hilt, and letting the moves come naturally. That energy spread from person to person, and then to other couples, and ended with a wild energetic tanda at the end of class that would have looked good on stage, without any dangerous flying limbs.

For inspiration, watch my teachers, Oscar and Georgina Mandagaran, in a video that they posted, providing a great example of how to use small spaces without giving up any expressiveness in the dance. You can listen to what they have to say about dancing well in small spaces, or fast forward to the dance example. I have seen them dance in the milonga in Buenos Aires, and the other dancers hang off of their seats to watch because they use space really well, don't hit other dancers, and still dance a strong, BIG dance.

Now, go out there and DANCE!