Tango mindfulness III: games for exploration, contd.

More games and exercises to tune into tango

Last post, I detailed the games that I use to teach how to tune into your own body and to your partner. In tango, we also need to tune into the whole group of people dancing for maximum enjoyment, as well as to the space and the music.

Tuning into the whole group

One of the things I remember from when I was doing my fieldwork in Buenos Aires for my thesis, was the description one older man gave me of dancing "in the old times" (pre-1990s). He said that there used to be very few crashes on the dance floor. If you watched the dancers, everyone seemed to be in the same flow, dancing together. He added that he didn't see that happening anymore, as new dancers were too focused on themselves.

I was struck by what he said, and constructed some exercises aimed at improving the awareness of the group and of the space around the dancers.

1. Blindfold tango: Just as you can feel that you are near someone or something when you have your eyes closed, you can tune into the group dancing without using your eyes. BOTH dancers in each couple close their eyes or are blindfolded. Using the breathing exercises we worked on before, the couple tunes into each other, and then starts to dance around the room in SLOW MOTION with very soft bodies so that if they collide with another couple, no one will get injured. The point of this exercise is to get both leaders and followers tuned into all the people in the room and the space in the room.

2. Solo-couple: I use this drill more than any other drill, as it helps develop navigation skills as well as tuning-in skills. When I call "Solo!" everyone walks around the room, to the music. I encourage people to walk the "wrong" direction, through the middle of the group, etc., to mix up the dancers. When I call "Couple!" everyone grabs the nearest person, and starts dancing WITHOUT pausing (grab & go). When the movement gets caught or clogged behind someone, I yell "Solo!" again and we repeat.


Tuning into the space

When I dance in a new space, I really pay attention to the shape of the space and how it affects the dancers. For example, El Beso in Buenos Aires is famous for that awful pillar that creates a traffic jam each time you go around the floor. Folks who are used to dancing there usually manage the space, but visitors take awhile to adjust their dance. Here in Portland, there are several spaces used for practicas and milongas with pillars that make dance flow problematic. In other spaces, the tables are set up in such a way as to intrude on the dance space; while other spaces feel easy to navigate.

Although space management is not just a beginner problem, I use this exercise mostly with beginners and intermediates. I recently used it in my advanced class for the first time, and saw a marked improvement in the quality of dance in a small space, so I will probably use it more in the future.

1. Full space: First, I let everyone dance using the whole room. When we are learning new moves, this is how I usually use the space, so everyone knows how big the room is.

2. 1/2 room: Then, I divide the room with furniture or a human wall, and make everyone do "solo-couple" in this new space.

3. 1/4 room: Gradually, I move the "wall" to create smaller and smaller spaces, each time doing "solo-couple" at least once so that all the dancers adjust to the amount of space they have. I stop squeezing the dance space when people start freaking out (not breathing, tightening their bodies, etc.) unless we are near a festival time, when I use this to accustom the dancers to how it will feeling dancing at the festival.


Tuning into the music

For dancers who grew up with rock 'n roll (or more modern versions of North American music), playing with tango music can seem confusing. Several of my students tell me that dancing milonga and vals are easier because they encourage simply dancing to the beat.

However, in order to fully explore tango music, the dancer needs to listen to more than just the beat of the music. Here are some exercises that I have designed to play with the music and get more out of a tanda.

1. Speed drill: sloooooow, pauses, half-time, regular (tiempo), fast (contratiempo)

Most dancers like one or two speeds of movement, but tango can have many different flavors within the dance. By practicing all of the possibilities, dancers can add a flavor or two to their movement, making their dance musically richer (BTW, I do NOT suggest doing this academically while dancing to be "interesting" but rather a way to access deeper listening skills to the partner and the music).

In class, we practice each way of moving to the music, one at a time, before combing them:

  • Almost all dancers can find the tiempo, or regular beat. Those who cannot, can often cheat off of the nearby dancers visually, and more or less move to the rhythm of the dance.
  • Dancing contratiempo, using syncopation, takes a bit more work. While most dancers can understand the concept of dividing the regular beat into two (or in vals, three) parts, many dancers struggle to remain elegant while dancing faster.
  • Many tangos of the rhythmic era function well when danced using just these two ideas. Indeed, this is how most of my students prefer to dance, avoiding the pitfalls of the pausa (pause) :-)
  • Alternating moving and pausing (half-time), or incorporating pauses into the dance, provides a challenge for many dancers. Foremost, if you are not dancing on-balance, pausing is very difficult. Also there is the question of "how long do I pause here?" for folks who don't hear phrasing in the music easily.
  • Adding pauses into the dance, and emphasizing them in the romantic tango music, really brings out a richness that is lost without those pauses.
  • Slow-motion dancing does not fit all tango music, but I like using it when the music is dramatic, or the melody line is slow and drawn-out. I encourage slow-motion dancing as a way to experience the widest range of possibilities for expression in the dance.

2. What's your favorite flavor?

Identify your favorite speed to use for dancing tango, and gradually add more layers of timing. Most dancers understand that more choices means richer dancing, but need some help identifying what they are using, and what could be added.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat: same music three times:

We danced best when we love the tango (or the vals or the milonga) that we are dancing. Finding the soul of a particular tune can be easy or difficult, depending on our level of natural musicality and/or our level of musical training.

First, we listen to the song while NOT dancing. Then, we listen to the song while dancing solo (What adorno would I do? When? Where are the pauses? Where are the "fast" parts--if there are fast parts? Does this song make me dance slo-mo? etc.). Last, we dance the same song, but with a partner.

Three times through won't make that song yours, but it's a good start!

4. Find the adornos and pauses

What I do to work on my own adornos, is to put a song on and dance around my living room, practicing my adornos, and seeing what occurs to my body for each song. I try not to make any plan, but simply practice using adornos to a particular piece of music.

In a class, I have the entire class, men and women, dance around solo, interacting with the other dancers by playing with adornos (and not talking!). Then we dance again, trying to play more, cut loose, and improvise.