If you are not willing to look stupid

If you are not willing to look stupid, nothing great is ever going to happen to you.”
— Gregory House, in House

I have been thinking a lot about learning (and looking/feeling stupid) this week. I took a workshop on preparing wool to spin and started to learn new-to-me movements that I will need to practice. Washing wool and doing something to it make it spinnable? That looks easy! Hmm, apparently watching YouTube videos on how to do it only gave me some of the information! And I am already wondering about the magical twist the teacher gave to her wool cards in the middle to get all the wool on one: how can I forget that quickly what it was?

I also have been reading books about Aspergers for teens that stress how important it is to learn neurotypical rules and expectations in order to thrive in the adult world; and how much practice is needed to be successful at that. As the parent of a gifted kiddo who struggles daily in the neurotypical world, I see how hard it feels to translate your smarts from what you excel in, to what baffles you.

Tango can seem like a different world with unspoken rules and movements that mystify the beginning dancer. The moves also seem very easy, but then cannot be easily mastered. Where is that self-help guide to tango that will explain everything? Aaahhhh!

Use what you know

Remember that you have learned other things in your life, and you know HOW you learn. Maybe it was not dance. Have you learned a sport? Do you have training in how the body is put together? Perhaps you are very good at seeing patterns, or analyzing situations, or flying a plane. Are you a visual learner? A kinesthetic learner? An analyzer? Pretty much every time you have learned something new, you have improved your learning skills. You may not know tango, but you know YOU: apply that knowledge.

Restrain your perfectionist tendencies

Lock your perfectionism in a closet. Give yourself a workable timeline. Remember: You are doing tango for FUN! I know, I know, it’s hard to see that sometimes in the midst of a difficult class; or when you run into someone on the dance floor; or when you cannot make your body do the same move to the left that you can do just fine to the right. The focus is FUN, improving your strength and balance, socializing with nice people, expressing yourself. The focus is NOT doing it perfectly.

Risk looking stupid

Just get out there and do it. YOU are the only person worrying about if you look stupid. The others are worrying about THEMSELVES looking stupid and they don’t care :-)

Babies learn by falling down and messing up. Guess what? Humans learn this way. My computer programmer husband tells me that his job means he messes up daily (or more) and then has to fix it. Making mistakes is the way our brains work: we learn from our past behaviors. Oops, you are normal!

Remember: Sometimes messing up creates colossal, fabulous new creations! You can get mediocre at something without messing up a lot, but to be brilliant, you will need to really fail from time to time. Apparently, Thomas Edison is quoted as saying that he had found 1000 ways NOT to build a light bulb. So get out there and look stupid! It may take 1000 tries—but it may only take a few.

See you on the dance floor!





Colgadas: more tips for off-axis tango moves

A colgada puts the follower off-axis AWAY from the leader. Like the volcada, it is a move that works like a pendulum or a wave. The leader sends the follower away, counterbalances, and then allows the move to resolve to the best exit point available.

The big picture: get the follower feeling safe and on balance, and then tip the follower over, adjusting for free leg motion and rotation; and get the follower safely back on balance.

Upcoming classes

We will be working on volcadas in my 8 PM Thursday classes at Om Studio August 9, 16, 23 & 30, 2018 if you happen to be in Portland.

Tips on colgadas

Following a colgada can be a scary experience: the leader asks you to trust them, and there is nothing behind you to hold you up if the move does not work, except your own behind :-)  I find that leaders scoff at this being scary, but are very nervous about being LED in colgadas. Trust has to be built for two people to do colgadas well.

Leading colgadas

The main important focus of leading a colgada should be making sure the follower feels safe so that s/he will LET you go off-balance with his/her axis.

Regular (with or without a free leg moving):

  1. Put the follower ON-axis, with the supporting foot grounded, first!
  2. Add tilt away from you.
  3. Counter-balance from the same shared axis point.
  4. Feel the pendulum of the follower's movement, and exit with it.
  5. Don't hold the position! It's a pendulum.
  6. Exit the direction that feels the easiest for the follower, barring obstacles.

Colgadas with pivoting:

  1. Not all colgadas have rotation/pivot, so make sure you read the follower's movement.
  2. Do steps 1 & 2 from the previous list (put follower on-axis and then add tilt).
  3. Add the rotation.
  4. Again, there is a pendulum motion to colgadas, so don't hold it; let it keep moving.
  5. Figure out the exit pattern based on tilt AND rotation. You can S-T-R-E-C-H it out.

Following colgadas

Although you can't control the leader, you can make your half of a colgada work better.

Regular colgadas:

  1. Get on/off-axis from the floor up. If the leader can't feel your connection to the floor, they will push/pull harder, which will knock you over. 
  2. Keep yourself ON your foot. If you are rolling off your little toe or the inside of your foot, you are too far off-axis to do a good colgada.
  3. Feet, knees, hips, spine and embrace all work together as a spring to make the colgada work. Tone (but not locking) throughout the system makes colgadas feel easier for you and the leader. Think like a "water spider" that spreads its weight out to all limbs.
  4. Feel the pendulum of the motion through your body, and follow it. The leader can better resolve a colgada by reading where your body wants to go.
  5. Practice, practice, practice to feel safe enough not to clench your body. See the drills below on the video.
  6. If it's not working, step out of the move: Your free leg should be available to put down under you.

Pivoting colgadas:

  1. Focus on how your axis/spring of your body can stay springy first.
  2. If you can let your free leg go free without collapsing your center, do so.
  3. Keep your foot balanced over your metatarsal arch. I find it helps to put a little extra energy into my big toe so that I don't tip onto my little toe.
  4. Pivoting off-axis is much harder than on-axis, so practice (see below) with a door jamb before working up to a human :-)

Solo drills and tips to prepare for colgadas

Follower-friendly volcadas

There are many ways to signal to the follower to do a volcada, but to really lead them and follow them well takes preparation.

What is a volcada?

A volcada is a "dumping" or "tipping" over of the follower, usually with a free leg that can be manipulated by the leader to cross (or uncross) before setting the follower back on axis.

Types of volcadas

I classify volcadas by what happens to the follower's legs. The leader "draws" a shape with the follower's free leg. If you think about what the follower's free leg needs to do (it's a pendulum motion), it's easier to figure out what to do with the follower's axis to make the move work.

  1. V-volcada: The shape of the movement the follower's leg makes is a V, or a skinny U. Often led after a salida, the follower's leg is moved forward, curved around the front of the standing foot, and put into the position of the regular cruzada, albeit off-axis. Then, the leader shifts the follower's weight to the foot that is crossing (the left), and exits the move IN CONTROL OF THE STEP. Both people get to on-axis within two steps, preferably one :-)
  2. C-volcada: The leader leads a boleo, and then tips the follower over while the free leg is rebounding from the boleo. The free legs falls in a circular motion (thus the C-shape), ending in the same cross and exit as the V-shaped volcada.
  3. Wind and unwind: The leader leads a V- (or C-) shaped volcada to the cross, but does NOT lead a weight shift. Instead, the leader unwinds the follower's leg back to where it started, and exits in a walk, putting the follower back on axis.
  4. Multiple volcadas: The leader does a V- or C-shaped volcada, complete with weight shift for the follower, but instead of exiting, suspends the follower a second (and third?) time, leading the same move with the other foot, including the weight shift. This is the trickiest version.
  5. Reverse volcada: This volcada starts in the cross and unwinds to exit in a back walk for the follower. I usually lead it from the "famoso ocho de Tete" and let it pivot slightly to keep the follower feeling safe.

Drills to practice going better volcadas

You MUST practice volcadas on your own if you expect them to work with a partner. I cannot stress enough how important it is for the leader to understand how the volcada feels on the part of the follower. I have been led in many volcadas that leaders felt were clear (they were), but which were too scary for me to be willing to let any foot come off the ground! Here are some tips and drills that I feel make the move work better for the follower, and thus better for the leader.

Any questions? Ask!

I am happy to answer questions about volcadas! Just put them in the comments box here or on YouTube. Or ask me in class, if you are in Portland!

Why take more classes with the same visiting teacher?

I have often overheard this on the dance floor, "Oh, I ALREADY studied with that person!" when two dancers are discussing a visiting teacher. As someone with over 20 years of tango experience, here is my two cents.

Booster shots

When I study with someone repeatedly, I get booster shots of technique. Sometimes, it's a reminder of what I have forgotten to do from the last time I took lessons. Sometimes, it's a new detail that I can now master because I have improved. Sometimes, it's a new move/technique/idea that the teacher has incorporated since I last studied with that person.

With Jose Garofalo, I first studied with him in 1999. I learned a ton that summer in his group classes in Buenos Aires, along with some private lessons (I was a very poor graduate student, so there weren't many). Some of the things he taught me that summer are still part of how I teach, especially for milonga. I have returned to work with him over the years, and each time, I have learned more. As my level improves, so does my ability to benefit from his wealth of knowledge.

Don't be in a rush

I need time to calibrate to a new teacher. If I only take one class, or one weekend, or one private lesson, I have only started to figure out how that teacher works. To be fair to them and to myself, I need to dig in a bit more to really benefit my dance.

A good example of this is my husband's West Coast Swing teacher. He wanted to take lessons together, so we chose West Coast Swing, and we went to her. At the first lesson, I didn't like her at all. I have been dancing West Coast Swing on and off since 1990, and her approach was unlike any of my other teachers. But I knew that my husband really liked learning from her, so I shut up and danced. After a few lessons, I began to see how good she was and why he thought I would like her. After a few months of lessons, I took some of the ideas I was learning from her, and put them into my teaching. If I had quit after that first lesson, I would have never reached a new level of fluidity in my dance that I really treasure.

Teachers learn too!

Don't write someone off permanently because you didn't like them once. A good teacher constantly tries to improve as a teacher. That means that a teacher you already liked may be even better a year or two later. Someone who showed promise, but wasn't very good yet, may have become a good teacher in the years between visits.

A great example of that is my favorite Barre 3 instructor, Andrew. When I first took his class, he was a bit like a drill sergeant, but didn't have a great grasp of the body. A year later, I went to Andrew's class again--and he was really improved! He got more out of me than most teachers because he was still pretty intense, but now he understood how the body worked more. Now, three years later, he is my favorite instructor. I can really see how he has grown as a teacher. I can see how passionate he is about what he does. And his class is exhausting in a good way.

Why I will be at Jose's classes

I only organize teacher with whom I have personally studied, and that I feel are really good teachers. I want to offer my students additional opportunities to learn AND I want to learn, too! I am not just organizing Jose's classes, I am studying with him, looking for new ideas, approaches and moves that I can help my students with after he leaves. I hope to see you at his classes too! The list of classes is here, and the registration is here.

New classes starting in Beaverton!

PDX SportsCenter

My new (second location, don't freak out Om Studio dancers!) will be upstairs at PDX SportsCenter, 8785 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Go in the doors, around to the left, up the stairs, and turn left. You can't miss it! You can always check out what's going on at http://tangobeaverton.com/ although it does not yet come up on a Google search. Help me spread the word!

I will be starting beginning tango classes there this summer, as well as a second class TBD. There will eventually be a practica as well. Monday nights, 7-8:30 PM for right now, expanding to 7-9 PM (or something like that) will be my Beaverton schedule, at least to start. Thank you all of you West Side folks who have kept nagging me for years; I would not have gotten around to this without you!

My first class there will be....drumroll....

Tango, Toning and Technique

When I went to PDX Sports Center to look at the dance studio space, I noticed that there was a Pilates studio there--Lavinia Magliocco's new studio. I know Lavinia from the tango community, and several of my friends have studied with her. She recently had to relocate because of a fire in the building where her studio was located.

It seemed like kismet: we need to work together, Lavinia! We met and talked and played around with tango and Pilates, and the result is the first class at my new studio space. There are still 10 more spots open for the session. You can reserve your spot here.

TTT flyer 1 online.jpg

Lavinia's story

I’ve been a ballet dancer all my life and trained in professional schools NYC and NC. Diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 18, I was told I could never dance professionally. My other love is writing, so I got my BA in English and Comparative Lit and Communications, became a dance writer, and helped translate 19th century dance manuals for one of the country’s top Social Dance historians while performing in his troupe, The Flying Cloud Vintage Dance Troupe.
After life-saving surgery, I dove into studying Anatomy/Physiology, and Kinesiology and was introduced to the work of Joe Pilates. I credit Pilates with saving my career and body, and putting me back onstage in New York City at an age when many dancers choose to retire.
I bring 25 years of experience working with many kinds of chronic or acute injuries, and neurological conditions like Cerebral Palsy, CMT, & Guillaume Barre. My students have gone on to dance and perform professionally at high levels in their chosen arts, figure skating, ballet, ballroom, and acro.
It is my personal experience that injuries expose our weaknesses. We can let these setbacks end our careers or curtail our lives, or we can seize the opportunity to come back stronger than before. I’ve worked with clients as young as 8 years old, and currently, my oldest client is 95 years old.
Equipoise means the balance of opposing forces that allows us to move with grace. When we’re out of balance, we have no equipoise.
Enlightened means intelligent and aware. I specialize in empowering clients with knowledge of their bodies and techniques to support their lives, whether they’re performance athletes or dedicated grandfathers.
Sometimes I joke that I’m here to de-condition people - de-condition them from unhelpful and stagnant movement patterns that inhibit freedom. My private sessions with clients are one-to-one and are uniquely tailored to each person, since no two people are the same.
You can schedule an appointment by emailing me at epoiselavinia@comcast.net or calling me at 503.887.3608.

Games help you learn better and faster

Naughty Toddler, Shark and Fishes, Traffic, Touch My Foot: My tango students are invited to play a lot of different games, especially in my beginner and my FUNdamentals classes. Why make up all these games?

Humans learn best by play and experimentation, not rote memorization. Look at kids: they are constantly learning, and incorporating huge amounts of data. They play games themselves, and teachers have kids play games to learn. Adults learn better playing games as well. The only problem: adults are afraid to look stupid, and it gets in the way of their learning!

Here's my question: Are you willing to risk looking silly and maybe making mistakes, in order to learn faster and better? Here are descriptions of two of the games I play in class and WHY we play them.

Game 1: Shark and Fishes

Shark and Fishes is my newest game. It helps everyone on the dance floor pay attention to the flow of the room AND avoid crazy drivers on the dance floor.

When I interviewed dancers in Buenos Aires for my M.A. thesis on tango, I was told that dancers "back in the day" rarely ran into each other. The whole room of dancers would get into a groove, aware of all of the other dancers, and would move as one. If one person messed up, the others would adjust to avoid crashes and return to a group groove. I wanted to help dancers relearn this skill.

I thought about how I have seen schools of fish whirl almost as one unit, and reassemble. Could I apply this to tango? And what about the occasional "bad driver" who plunges across the dance floor, oblivious to other humans?

Rules of the game

1. Everyone moves on their own, but trying to mimic a school of fish. Fish swirl, curve, flow and clump together for safety. That means the people have to move as close to each other as possible, without hitting, swirling as a close-knit group around the dance floor. No one fish stays fixed in the grouping. Each person needs to be aware of their personal space and work together as a group at the same time.

2. Grabbing a partner, we try to keep flowing in this "school" of fish around the room. Don't worry about traditional rules of staying in front of and behind the same person; focus on rolling with the group. If a crash looks imminent, the leader should ALWAYS protect the follower by putting the follower on the far side of the crash. Do not use your follower as a sacrificial victim to be given up to the shark!

3. Here comes the shark! Someone (usually me) announces, "Here comes the shark!" and just walks straight through the school of fish. All the dancers swirl away from the shark and recombine into one school of fish as soon as possible. As the game continues, the shark stops giving verbal warnings and just walks through the school.

What does Shark and Fishes teach?

  • How to navigate in bad traffic on the dance floor
  • How to protect the follower, no matter what happens
  • You have more room to dance if you tune into the other couples in the room
  • Dancing in community with the other dancers feels better than dancing alone
  • You are all in this together as a community: it's not a competition for space!

Game 2: Touch my foot

Beginning tango dancers (and sometimes more advanced dancers) are afraid to step on their partner's toes. This results in strange sideways leaning as couples try to keep the embrace intact while wandering with their legs.

What if dancers felt comfortable and knew EXACTLY where their partner's feet were? How could I get folks to dance closer and in a more relaxed way? What if I got everyone comfortable with touching feet and legs so that they would stop worrying about it?

What if we knew exactly where the partner's feet were, based on the embrace and what we could feel of the upper body?

Rules of the game

1. Practice walking in a straight line, right in front of your own belly button. The partners are slightly offset, as the follower's middle goes down the middle of the leader's right side; this creates a a slight V, based on the shape of the two people (or a big V if you are have cultivated the beer pansa/belly). For those of you who like to argue that this is walking "outside" you can call this whatever you like as long as you do it!

2. Whoever is currently walking forward (let's say the leader first), will try to touch the side of the follower's foot or ankle that is closest to the leader. The follower is just walking backwards in a straight line. If you are in parallel, that would mean the leader's left foot touches the inside of the follower's left foot; and then the leader's right foot touches the OUTSIDE of the follower's right foot. It will feel like a zigzag to the person going forward. If you are not using correct contrabody, this is much harder to do.

3. When you get to the end of the room, don't turn around; just reverse. Now the FOLLOWER is doing the touch my foot, and the leader is just walking backwards normally.

4. Now, practice finding the OTHER side of the partner's foot: walk three steps in front of yourself (L R L), and use your next right step to step in between the other person's feet, again touching their foot or ankle. Some of my students who have been taught tracks/skis say, "My track, my track, my track, YOUR track" under their breath while doing this.

5. Now walk in front of yourself, not trying to touch feet and notice HOW MUCH ROOM you really have when walking well in close embrace!

What does Touch My Feet teach?

  • How to identify EXACTLY where the inside and outside edges of the partner's foot are
  • How to identify the only place you can't step: on their foot
  • You have better balance for dancing if you dance with your feet right under you
  • Feeling like you have no space in close embrace is just a perception, not reality
  • Followers need to learn to walk forward too!

 

Optimal pelvic alignment and movement for tango

Many people have asked me how to relieve their lower back pain from dancing tango. Part of the answer I addressed in the "Heels up vs. down" post and video last year. Correcting how you use your pelvis and iliofemoral joints (hip joints) will also make your dance pain-free and beautiful at the same time. Efficient movement looks better and feels better!

Walking, pausing and balance

Tango differs from normal walking in that you must be ready to change directions at the end of each step. Yes, you might take a few steps before doing something else, but you need to be prepared at all times to avoid other dancers, deal with your balance and your partner's balance, and to respond to inspiration.

The reinitiation of movement after each step feels like a heartbeat to me. The movement is not continuous, but has a pulse with each new step. The observer may not see the "stop" after each step, but the dancers have a split second at least where they could stop, or simply begin the next step from a more balanced position.

The best way to be prepared, is to train yourself to arrive on balance after each step. Both feet should be able to land under your body, with the free leg relaxed and the support leg strong but not tense. This means that your head, ribs, back, hips and legs need to be stacked up and aligned to avoid using extra muscle wear and tear.

I find it helpful to think about how your inner thighs and gluteal muscles hug UP into your pelvic floor. Then, think about how your abdominals and back muscles hug your body DOWN into your pelvis. You are always in upper-body/lower-body alignment every step you take: this is the ideal. How you line your pelvis up with your feet and legs, helps you maintain this ideal balance.

Side-to-side (pendulum) motion at the sacrum

When you walk normally, your pelvis adjusts from one leg to the other to allow your upper body and head to move smoothly. Put your thumbs on your sacrum, right at the base of your spine where it connects to your pelvis. Now, walk "normally" (which seems to be very hard to do while we are thinking about it!). Can you feel how your pelvis tips slightly side-to-side? This is normal and we want it in tango.

The amount of pendulum will vary depending on the pelvis. Men have narrower hips, so the movement will be slighter. Women with wide hips will tip more than women with narrow hips; but still more than the average guy. We are not trying to add extra movement here: a small amount is efficient and helps with balance. This is NOT the time to drag out your ballroom "Latin motion" hips! What is the smallest movement that works here?

Note: some people have been taught not to move their hips. If the adult who raised you walked with stiff hips, you will probably also do so; we learn from the adults who parent us. Or, a dance teacher might have told you to hold your hips parallel or flat while moving; this is just not good for you! Time to learn/relearn efficient movement.

If you have had any injuries that make you clench your lower spine or pelvic muscles, you may be fighting your own body in an effort to avoid pain. This movement should NOT create any pain: have your doctor/PT/chiropractor check that you are moving well.

Front-to-back hip tip

I've been discussing hip placement with my chiropractor, physical trainer and Pilates teacher recently. Why is the motion for tango different than for strength training? The answer: tango needs the body to be able to rotate at the hips or the torso A LOT more than in daily walking and running. It's about mobility, not stability. Therefore, there is a tiny bit more tip at the hip joints to facilitate that readiness to move, while remaining as stable as possible at the same time. Whew!

Grab your butt

Those of you who have been in lessons with me know what I'm going to say here. In order to find how your hip joint works, grab your sitz bones (your ischial tuberosities if you prefer), and tip yourself over from there (don't arch your back). This should make your lower back feel broad and relaxed, allowing for more rotation when needed.

Another way to find the best position for your hip, is to grab your sitz bone and the front of your hip where it folds, next to your pubic bone. Let your hands tip you forward and backward, feeling for a release of the ligament in the front of the hip. You want to be in the zone between these points, not too far forward and not too far back.

When you get your pelvis out of that tight mode of hanging out on your front ligaments, it recruits your deep abdominals, your psoas, your pelvic floor--all the parts that allow you to suspend your upper body over your lower body, but in a way that allows movement IN ANY DIRECTION.

Share the work

Remember: Let your muscles hug your bones. Let all of your joints share the weight/stress of moving so that no one part is doing all the work. If you have a problem area (knee, ankle, etc.), spread that work out away from the weak spot.

Along with spreading the work out, try to use as little work as possible to maintain correct posture and motion. That way, you always have something left to save you if you fall, protect you from a difficult partner; or to play with when you get a partner where you can really cut loose!

Get your hips in the right position, keep them within the margin of error that allows for adjustment. Let your pelvic floor and deep abs lift. Let those butt muscles work for you. Focus on efficient, beautiful motion, and you will have a powerful tango.

Check out my YouTube channel

I put tango how-to videos up as I have time. I have not had time to put up a walking video, but there are videos on pivoting and turning, as well as milonga drills. There are also exercise, including hip openers. All of them focus on correct movement, and you can watch the hip motion and work on yours. Mine is not perfect, but we are all working on improving!

Esther Gokhale and walking

I also have a playlist about walking and posture from Esther Gokhale's work (she is my hero)! As she says, "If it were not behind you, we would call it something else!" I will add to this playlist as I find new information from her.

BE INSPIRED!

 

Train your brain and your tango at the same time

One of my students cares for his parent who has Alzheimer's. When he called the support hotline for caregivers, he asked what he should be doing to avoid Alzheimer's--and she told him he should dance Argentine Tango! He happily informed her that he already did that.

What makes Argentine Tango especially good for maintaining brain health, compared to, say, ballroom dancing? Instead of memorizing set patterns and dancing them in sequence, tango asks more of the dancer. Improvisation within the dance means constantly playing with the building blocks of tango and recombining them in different ways. This forces your brain to make new connections, reinforcing memory and providing more pathways to find information stored there.

Like LEGO, tango components can be built into all sorts of interesting patterns that weren't on the picture on the box. If you allow yourself to do the same beginning, middle and end of a move, without variation, your dance will be OK; it's OK to build the picture on the box. However, it is NOT building your brain, and it is NOT developing your dance!

When I teach, I encourage students to stretch their mind along with their body. It creates pockets of questions about moves, questions of how you put things together. When your brain has to work a bit to build connections between different bits of information,  that information "sticks" better. You remember it, and have several pathways to accessing the moves while you dance.

Turns (giros)

Let's use turns as an example, since we have been studying them this month in FUNdamentals class. Many of you came into class with your favorite one or two turn combinations. I have spent the month trying to deconstruct your turns into components, so that you can then take the parts and make NEW versions to enhance your dance (and your brain). Yes, this is hard! Yes, this is good for your brain (and your tango).

Entrances

If you look at the dance from what the follower is doing, there are only three ways to begin a turn: front, side and back steps. For a standard giro, the leader needs to be in the center of the turn for the follower to turn around that spot. For right now, let's ignore traveling turns and sacadas turns, where the leader does not stay in one place. How do you start a turn so that followers get different entrances into the turn? Here's what we explored:

  1. A traspie (rebound, rock step, whatever you call it)--usually propels the follower into a front or side step, depending on the direction of the move.
  2. A salida (any side step, really), followed by the leader keeping both feet under and creating torque around the spot. People will argue whether this means the side step is the first step of the turn, or if the next step (usually a back cross) is the beginning.
  3. Back ochos into a turn ensure that the follower's first step is a back step.
  4. Front ochos into a turn ensure that the first step of the turn is a front step if the leader does unaccompanied front ochos; if the leader accompanies the step, we are back to the question of whether that, or the following side step, starts the turn.

Middle of the turn

Here, if you don't add things like sacadas, your only choices have to do with syncopation. The follower is supposed to syncopate by default on the giro: two fast and two slow steps. If the leader wants to slow down, the follower has to feel the deceleration before launching into the back cross step. If the leader wants the follower to speed up, the follower has to feel acceleration that encourages a continuation of the two fast steps. Most people limit themselves to one speed. Let the music and your partner inspire you to try to vary this!

Exits

The option I teach first in turns, is to finish turning, pause, and walk out. This is great, but it doesn't mean you should only do that for your tango career! Start playing with "catching" the follower's front, side and back step, and accompanying them OUT of the turn. If you think of the turn as a lollipop, find the stick!

The options we have explored in class:

  1. Exit with back ochos (lead front, follow back, but with pivots)
  2. Exit with paso americano (both lead and follow do front steps)
  3. Exit with a front ochos (lead side, follow forward)
  4. Exit with a salida (both people take side steps)
  5. The possibilities are endless, but we only had a month!

For some people, two turns are enough, and that is fine. That's good enough for government work. But consider pushing your brain, building those new connections. The more you challenge yourself, the more you improve your brain health! I hope that's worth the extra work for you!

Walking in tango: a look at the possibilities

I spend a LOT of time in my classes trying to explain how to walk naturally. I teach what my tango teachers in Buenos Aires call "normal" tango embrace/walk (follower slightly offset, each person on their own axis, with each person walking their own straight line) that is foreign to students of other teachers in my town (who teach open embrace, leaning-styles of close embrace, and various other things).

When I go to Buenos Aires, I almost never have to argue about "how" I am going to dance with another person. We agree by cabeceo, we adjust to each other's styles, and it works most of the time. What part of this system is not working in the United States?

The right way?

I think that most people here think there is only one right way to dance tango. They listen to their first teacher, and then argue with anyone who suggests alterations to their dance. In Buenos Aires, everyone knows that there are tons of different styles, and there is more of an attempt to find your own dance, rather than "the right dance."

I have chosen the style that I teach because I believe it is the easiest style of tango in terms of body wear and tear. I want to dance tango until I die, not until I need back surgery. I want to dance all night, not until my feet hurt. As a student of anatomy, I constantly try to find the best ways to help people find their own body, feel how it works, and then use that knowledge to make their own dance. It's about ease of movement and body health; if you want to then go do a style that is hard on the body, that is an educated decision that you are free to make.

What village are you from?

As a folk dancer, we have a joke when we learn a new variation of a dance: "What village are you from?!?" We all know that there are tons of variation in the folk tradition, and we accept that for the most part.

In tango, it's a question of what neighborhood your teacher came from; or what teacher formed their dance. I have danced all over Buenos Aires and studied with people from a lot of different neighborhoods. According to reactions from elderly men in Buenos Aires, I appear to have learned styling that places me anywhere from Villa Devoto to Belgrano to Villa Urquiza.

For most of us who did not grow up in Buenos Aires, we have taken what we know of Argentine Tango from whatever sources we could. I am lucky that I spent a lot of time dancing with the old guys twenty years ago, and got the feeling of their dance into my body. What village am I from? From the one where you get a master's in dance and study anatomy and kinesiology AND hang out with old guys in milongas.

My maestros

Here are some of the people I have studied with to give YOU inspiration and help you see how I have built my own dance.

Omar Vega--milonga

Omar was one of my main milonga teachers in Buenos Aires. He was never one to follow the rules, so you will see some crazy things on his videos, but getting to be his assistant in milonga class formed my milonga. I would follow him as he showed moves, and then switch to leading in the class. The guys in class were very open to me leading, and provided a lot of encouragement. The women were willing to dance with another woman and the chance to study weekly gave me homework for going dancing.

 

Jose Garofalo--milonga

I learned a lot about milonga from Jose Garofalo. His classes were relaxed and enjoyable. Private lessons with him were the best: because he is such a fabulous follower, he would take what I did wrong and expand upon it in a hilarious manner--until I fixed it. Because he is an inventive leader, I have to be super-focused when dancing with him: he doesn't just follow a fixed pattern, and I never know what will come out of that incredible 30-year-tango memory! I couldn't find a video of him doing milonga except with me, so here it is:

Tete Rusconi--vals and tango

Tete was my main vals teacher. He gave me a lot of flack for leading in his classes, but I learned a lot from him. Skip the first 1:30 or so of this video where they introduce him if you don't speak Spanish. I like this dance because it is very sweet and balanced, with a lot of poetry in the musicality--and because it shows his tango, not his vals. I enjoyed dancing with him.

Oscar Mandagaran--milonga, tango and vals

Oscar was the teacher of my Argentine boyfriend, who dragged me to a class in an apartment where I was the only foreigner. I studied with him on and off for many years. Watch this video of us dancing on a crowded plywood stage out on the street in Buenos Aires. You can see a lot of what I try to teach people to do! Just skip ahead past all the stuff about the photographer!

 

Julio Balmaceda and Corina de la Rosa--tango and vals

Julio and Corina taught classes in La Galeria where I went to take classes. They are no longer together, but Corina is a powerhouse of a follower who I hope to emulate someday. Check out their vals here, which is one of my favorites to watch and rewatch. Notice they almost never walk in front of each other: when he does step in front of her, he does not invade her space, but is using it to prepare for another movement.

 

OK, there are a BUNCH more people who have inspired and taught me, but that's enough for this week!

Foot-saving tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

Once you have your shoulders relaxed with a good embrace, and your hips in the right position to support your back, Argentine Tango should be a lot easier to manage for people coming to it from ballroom dancing. There's really only one thing more that people complain about: "My feet hurt!"

A lot of ballroom teachers teach dancers to get up on the balls of the feet to dance.  Although I personally would never counsel that having been a student of anatomy and kinesiology, I can see that the "look" of the dance is being stressed over the "feel" of the dance; I understand even if I disagree.

What's different in tango?

Tango requires a constant preparedness to change direction. As it is much more improvisational, neither the leader nor the follower may have a plan further ahead than the current step in many cases. Balance and ability to pivot and change direction take precedence over everything else in terms of the foot.

More surface area improves balance

Get those heels down! Spread out your toes! Yoga talks about the four corners of the foot: use that concept in tango.

Think about elephant feet: elephants have good balance and REALLY big feet. Imagine you have huge feet that hold you up. If you are in heels, pretend that teeny stiletto heel is enormous!

Engage your arch for pivoting

This is especially true for turns. Instead of popping up to remove as much of your foot as possible from the ground, stay more grounded. You need to keep your metatarsal arches as the center of your work, so spread your toes out, rather than scrunching them in. Yes, it takes effort to keep the arches as the focus, not the heads of the metatarsal bones. However, using that arch for support means more hours of dancing before your feet give out.

Build your ankle strength

I inherited very weak ankles from my mother. I was always the kid with an Ace bandage from spraining and straining my ankles. Luckily, seven years of West African dance training coincided with my Argentine Tango beginnings. That helped a lot, but I still didn't have the strength to work correctly in high heels

I have worked hard to correct that, and have used ankle exercises based on the ones that I have learned from physical therapists and trainers to help my students also build their ankles. A lot of power in tango comes from the foot and ankle working together. Once the ankle is strong, the temptation to take all of the work into the toes, ballet-style, can fade :-)

Embrace tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

One challenge that ballroom dancers find when starting Argentine Tango, is the need to change how the partners in the dance are connected to one another. What needs to change?

Change your frame to an embrace

The tango embrace is much less rigid than the ballroom frame. The hands and arms help the leader and follower communicate as helpers to information from the body, rather than as a rudder system to steer the follower around. It's very subtle, and requires attentive listening from both sides; but is also allows many more variations of movement to happen.

The hands and arms are receptor sites

Think about your hands and arms as receptor sites: you are feeling what the other person is doing, and through your embrace, you can get additional information about the other person's balance, axis and direction.

Instead of steering with the frame, FEEL where your partner is now! Is the follower on axis? Are you both headed the same way in the room? Small, subtle adjustments work much better than "driving" the follower around the room. As a follower, I can feel where the leader is by tuning in with my hands and arms.

Hold your partner like a baby

When you hold a baby, you need to constantly adjust your hold to accommodate the baby's movements. You also need to hold with a firm grip that give the baby reassurance that they are safe. However, if you hold too firmly, the baby feels uncomfortable. All of that applies to holding your partner in tango. If you have never held a baby, think about holding an expensive vase.

A good amount of tone in the arms and hands allows the other person to know that you are present and listening. Just like with a baby, it also calms your partner. I often spend my time dancing with beginners (when leading or following) simply getting them to relax enough to dance, usually by adjusting the energy of my embrace until I feel them relax more.

Relax your elbows!

Let your elbows drop towards the ground ("Energy underside" as one of my students says who does aikido and chi work). Anchor your arms and shoulder blades down into the lower center of your back (latissimus dorsi muscles). The lower they are anchored, the better the other person can read where your body is heading.

Anchor your shoulder blades down, not back

Many ballroom dancers squeeze their shoulder blades together to open up their chest. This is not really a position that will work for hours of dancing! Instead, think about anchoring your shoulder blades DOWN your back. If you have ever seen the wine bottle openers that pull the cork up while the sides of the opener fold down, that's an image I often use to remind folks to slide their shoulder blades down and towards the lower spine.

Let your shoulders and shoulder girdle drape over your torso so that they are balanced, but not tense. Think of a coat, draped over a hanger: the coat is not tense! This will help you dance with a lot less muscle tension and neck/shoulder pain.

Do it all the time!

Again, the more you practice, the faster you learn a new skill. What is you practiced keeping your shoulders relaxed, your elbows released, and your shoulder blades actively anchored down the back ALL THE TIME? Then you would not need to think about that while dancing, and could focus on other parts of the dance!

If you try this out while doing ballroom dance, you will find that most of the tips I have given you will also work in ballroom, and will help relieve tightness in your body while dancing. They will also help you lead and follow better: bonus!

 

Back-saving tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

I met a new Argentine Tango dancer this week. She is a ballroom dancer, and I found myself giving her the advice I always give people who start tango with a ballroom background. It occurred to me that it might be helpful for others who are coming over to the tango side of things.

I started teaching ballroom dance in 1986. When I started Argentine Tango in 1995, I had all of the same issues to fix that I work on with other dancers. I have been there myself!

Adjust the pelvis to save the back

Most ballroom dancers come to tango complaining of tight backs and inability to pivot constantly into turns and ochos. The fix: a different hip position to relax and free up the back!

Natural movement at the sacrum

A lot of dancers have been told to hold their hips completely straight. This is not how the body moves! As you shift weight from one foot to the other, the sacrum naturally rocks slightly from side to side, like a seesaw. This allows your head to balance over your feet efficiently.

If you hold your sacrum tight, that extra motion needs to come from somewhere, and other body parts (your back, your feet, your knees) take more pressure and get tired and sore. Let your pelvis move naturally, and you have more graceful movement and less work per step.

Try to find a new natural without exaggeration: with any new movement, you need to be careful not to overdo it.

Build slowly on your body's current abilities

The pelvic motion needed to maintain back health is not extreme. If your body says, "Ow!" pay attention. It may be that you are doing something you THINK is part of tango, but you misunderstood the teacher. Or, it may be that the motion needed is currently not something you can achieve in one leap.

I always encourage dancers coming from ballroom to take at least a few private lessons. A good teacher can evaluate whether or not you might benefit from some myofascial release, or chiropractic adjustment--or maybe just a bit of strength building in muscles that you haven't been using.

Recruit your abdominals for better pivots and less pain

Many people stand with their hips forward and their legs locked. While this may be useful for waiting in line somewhere, it is bad for movement. The back bears the brunt of the weight and the back muscles work a bit too hard.

In tango, it's really important to balance the front and back bodies out, so that pivoting and other movement around the spine is as easy as possible. To get your abdominals in gear, lift your belly button towards your back, adding abdominal tone. Look at some pictures of how your abdominal muscles help you rotate; visualize where they are and how they hug the body.

Make sure that you have a bit of a tip at the hip joint. You need to take pressure off of the ligament at the front of the hip. Yes, that takes more abdominal work than slouching into your hips. However, that little tip onto the point where your hips balance better on the leg, allows your spine and back muscles to get help from the front of the body.

Use these muscles for ballroom too!

By the way (if you haven't guessed already), I am a big fan of using these same muscles for ballroom dancing. I have never had a ballroom dancer come to study with me who did not find that their ballroom dancing also improved from their tango postural work. Once you get used to switching dance styles between ballroom and Argentine Tango, you will find that all the work you are doing in tango will pay off in other dancing.

 

 

Tips for good pivoting in Argentine Tango

Improving your pivots in tango makes a lot of moves easier. Ochos, turns, boleos, . . . the list goes on and on. Pivots are just as important for leading tango, but I have been focusing on making videos for followers to improve their own dance. It seems to me that many classes only focus on how to lead tango, leaving the followers to do the best they can with little information.

Build your body map

If you spend some time working just on the pivots, your moves will improve. Finding what muscles work in your body to make a good pivot, helps you build your own "body map" of how the body works. Then, if something is not working, YOU can detect and fix the problems. Having a good teacher is very important, but that person cannot follow your around the dance floor, pointing out when you have successfully done a move, or when you have made a mistake.

Take the time to work SLOWLY on your pivots. Feel how they work in your body. Focus on your feet, or your hips, or your abs, or whatever part you are working on. Once you have a good feel for that part, add it into your body map until you can see/feel how all the parts work together. For me, when it is working, I feel as if there is a fiber optic cable running through the focus points, lit up like a Christmas tree. When something is not working, one of those connect-the-dot spots fails to light up.

After many years of working on my body map, I can tune into it pretty easily, but it took a lot of work to get to this spot. Don't give up!

Video time!

Turn technique for followers: practice drills

Here is a short video on turn drills to help improve your tango turns. My FUNdamentals class asked me to video some of the exercises that I do, so that they can remember them outside of class :-) Sorry about the sound: I was fighting a cold and sounded horrible the day I shot the footage for the drills, so I gave up talking and just typed the information on the video.

It is much harder to practice by yourself than with a partner. First, it's easier to practice when someone else says, "OK, put on your shoes now and let's go!" Also, when you have a partner, you can hold onto them, and that makes getting around the corners easier than on your own. Lastly, I tend to practice longer when I have someone to talk to; it's hard to make yourself do more than a few songs.

Making the video made me do a lot more practice that day! I kept shooting video, looking at it, and then going back to do it again. I think I did turn drills for almost an hour before I got interrupted by my family! So maybe we should all just turn on the camera and go for it! It never looks good, by the way. I can see every one of the mistakes I made here. I hope that, by leaving them in, you can see that it's not about perfect, it's about practice.

A month of vals: Tete, Ricardo, Pepito et al.

This month, my classes will focus on the vals.

I have studied with many people, but I spent the most time on vals with Tete Rusconi. He was not the best teacher; I don't think swearing at your students is a real motivator. However, if you could withstand the teasing, ridicule and boisterousness, you would come out the other end of classes with new ideas to try on the dance floor. His ability to swirl right and left, spin on a dime, and keep the fluidity of vals going, were all inspiring.

Pepito was reknowned for his mastery of milonga, but his moves work very nicely for vals as well. His students, who taught me, emphasized the ease of his movement; the way he played with syncopation; and his groundedness. We'll pick a few of his moves to add into Tete's.

Although I have studied very little with him, Ricardo Viqueira gave me some lessons a few years ago when I was shopping for a new teacher. We will work on some of the moves he taught me as well. "If you don't teach anything else to your students, you MUST teach them to use contrabody!!" he told me. It will come as no surprise that the secret to these moves is good contrabody. What's funny, is that I learned these from Tete as well, but had forgotten them!

So, groove, spin, syncopate and swirl over to the Om Studio, 14 NE 10h, PDX, for classes on Thursdays this November! The drawing for a free private lesson for this month will happen at 8 PM.

Learning tango the efficient way

The creative, the restless, and the driven are not content with the status quo, and they look for ways to move forward, to do things that others have not. And once a pathfinder shows how something can be done, others can learn the technique and follow.
— p. 206, Peak

I keep up with learning theory to help me learn to teach better. I recently read Anders Ericsson's and Robert Pool's book, Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, Mariner Books, 2017. Their aim is to share research that shows efficient ways to get to a higher level of expertise, without wasting time.  To save you time, I have summarized the book. All the information below is from the book (quotes as noted).

The reason that most people don’t possess . . .extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.” The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in.
— p. 47, Peak

Deliberate practice vs. traditional learning

Traditional learning assumes you have a limit and trains you to (maybe) reach that potential. If you are trying to get "good enough" you don't need to push for peak excellence. You can take a few classes, go to practicas, and eventually feel competent on the dance floor. At that point, your dance is automatic and you don't have to think hard to dance. The only problem with automatic practice, is that it deteriorates over time. Once you reach a level, if you don't maintain it, you will actually get worse at it!

Deliberate practice assumes there is no limit: you can shape your own potential if you have the drive to go beyond good enough. If you apply the ideas in this book to your practice, you will continue to get better and better. The only stopping you, is yourself!

The elements of deliberate practice

Defined goals

Deliberate practice includes having defined goals. What skills do you need to master to become good at tango? What are the steps to building those skills? How can you incorporate practice into your daily life to save time and increase the time you practice?

Pursuing defined goals is not fun. It's difficult to stay focused. Make your list of skills you need in order to become a good tango dancer. Highly focused sessions where you are tuned into your body and focusing on exactly what you need to do to improve, will be exhausting, but they are still the fastest way to get better. You can't space out and just go through the motions if you want to improve.

Feedback

You will not improve without feedback about what you are doing. The most efficient way to get that, is to work with a good teacher, one-on-one. That person already knows what skills you need in order to reach the top. They have already gone through the same process, and have reached a high skill level themselves. They can help you develop a plan for building your skills.

Why does it matter if your teacher is good or not? A good teacher will teach YOU how to provide your own feedback. As you understand your practice and your goals, you can monitor yourself and adjust your practice to achieve those goals. Once you understand the mental representations of what you are doing, you get coached not only when your teacher is around, but when you also can correct your practice.

How to find a good teacher

How do you get a good teacher? Find out who the teacher has taught: are those dancers good? Find out if the teacher is a good dancer; most teachers can only teach you up to their level of dance. Find out if s/he is a good TEACHER: a lot of people are good at performing in their field of expertise, but they haven't learned to teach. Can they get you to reach specific goals, provide good mental representations for you to use for practice, and help you over roadblocks? Then that's the right teacher.

[A good teacher] is particularly important . . . where the training is cumulative, with the successful performance of one skill often depending on having previously mastered other skills. A knowledgeable instructor can lead the student to develop a good foundation and then gradually build on that foundation to create the skills . . . no student, no matter how motivated, can expect to figure out such things on his or her own.
— p. 108, Peak

Where there is no teacher

If you can't afford one-on-one lessons, there are things you can do on your own to learn. However, you aren't going to learn as fast. You need to push yourself a little bit further, constantly. You need to stay focused on your goals. You need to give yourself feedback, keeping in mind that often only one or two things are wrong: look for the one thing you need to fix. You need to address that problem, adjust your mental representation, and keep going. You have to stay motivated.

Get out of your comfort zone

You won't improve if you just practice at the same level, but it's hard to make yourself leave your comfort zone. It's not fun! This is one place where having a teacher helps. One of the teacher's jobs is to ask questions/set tasks for the student that are not always easy to complete. They should be just outside the comfort zone of the student so that they are not a huge step forward that looks impossible; just baby steps up the ladder to improvement.

Motivation

The biggest factor that determines how good you will get at something, is your motivation. You can find ways and reasons to keep going; or make it harder to quit :-) It's hard to stay motivated as you pursue a goal. Most of the time, it's a long slog of practicing, and practicing is often not fun. You are pushing out of your comfort zone, trying things that are a bit too hard, and working on improving your technique. SO...figure out what kind of reward makes you keep going, and give yourself little rewards when you accomplish small goals towards your big goal.

Make it harder to quit by putting a time into your schedule where you practice. Don't just say, "oh, I will practice sometime today" and let it slide. Make the sessions short, do the work, and stop. Believe in your ability to reach your goals. Look at someone successful: that's a great example of someone who didn't give up! You can do the same thing.

Get your friends involved

One of the best ways to stay motivated, is to do your practice in a group. You can get feedback from the other people, borrow their training tips, watch them for new ideas, and stay focused on your goals.

Find ways to get through barriers

Everyone hits roadblocks in their training. When you get stuck, look at the problem a different way. Try a different exercise, dance with a different partner, go to a different event, take a private lesson--whatever you need to do to get back on track. There will always be barriers, and it's just a question of overcoming it.

Let your motivation get you through being stuck. Pick what motivates you, and use to so that you don't give up when you hit a roadblock on the way to your goal. For example, if I meet my running goal for the week, I get to buy a gluten-free pastry at the bakery. It keeps me running, and my overall health improves.

Mental representation

This is what I am implementing even more than I did before I read this book. According to the book, "A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about" (p. 58). Mental representations hold a lot of information, but in chunks of data. This helps your brain process/apply information more quickly.

As your skills improve, you refine your mental representation. You try things, fail at them, redraw your mental representation, and try again. You get better at evaluating your performance, comparing it to your representation and giving yourself feedback and corrections.

One of the last things the authors note in their book: we don't know enough about mental representation in training, and that studying how top performers in a field work through their mental representations might allow coaches, researchers and learners, to tailor training to include how to improve these mental models. Verbally building these representations, explaining what you understand, should help your teachers guide the construction of your mental representation, and speed up your learning.

The big take-aways

Talent only helps the process get started

Ericsson's research shows that natural talent is not the THE key to becoming one of the best in the world at something. It helps in the beginning, as kids who seem talented at something may be steered into a path, but that doesn't mean they will be better in the long run: ". . . there is no evidence that any genetically determined abilities play a role in deciding who will be among the best." (p. 235)

Everyone has potential

Hard work, good coaching and focused, deliberate practice make the difference, not talent. The ones who get to the top work harder that other people and have more motivation. They didn't quit when they hit a plateau.

For me, I have always said that everyone is a dancer; some people just don't know it yet. Look for potential, not limits! The only person who won't be good at something, is the one who has given up. That means ALL OF US could be amazing tango dancers, top in the world. Even if we don't aspire to that, we can up our game through deliberate practice. Get inspired!!

Performance anxiety and a good partner

Scared but still performing

I have been performing since the age of five. Until college, that involved singing in choirs and attending a capella singing competitions. I started performing dance three months after I began to dance in college. I performed dance throughout my master's degree in dance. I also continued performing as a singer.

I have been terrified of performing most of that time. I know all of the tricks to calm the body: deep breathing, pretending that everyone not on stage is in their underwear, ignoring the audience, etc. None of them work for me. I get through performing, and then I retreat to a corner and shake for a while.

I try to avoid performing.

Peak experience

I recently performed twice in one week: five dances. That is the first time I have performed in several years, and I was even more nervous than before.

AND...

It was a peak experience. I danced the best I have ever danced in my life one of those nights. Even in video, which takes away something from the real experience, it looks pretty good. Even to me, the perfectionist. It was better than perfect: it was fun.

What made it work for me?

Jose Garofalo

What made me survive performing? A good partner. A partner who said, "Look at me, you are dancing for ME!" and didn't give me time to think about whether people were watching.

I have know Jose for almost 20 years. He was one of my first teachers. When I visit Buenos Aires, we always have a coffee together and chat for a few hours. I trust him. I knew he would not sacrifice me to looking good, to showing off, or to showboating for himself. He took care of me, just as a good leader does on the social dance floor.

100% improvisation

Jose was so busy before we performed that we didn't practice. I didn't get a private lesson fitted in or anything. In other words, I had to wing it 100%.

On the way to the performance, Jose played a song on his phone and asked if I liked it. I asked to perform to it the next performance, as I had never heard that version before. He played a few more, and we agreed on a tango. Three blocks from the venue, he said, "What about this milonga?" and played Azabache. "Fine," I said. That was it except for one tanda to warm up.

Not having a plan and not having practiced (and not having danced together for about ten years at all) meant that I needed to pay attention. I didn't have extra brain space to really freak out about performing.

Twenty-one years of tango training kicked in and. . . it was wonderful.

Tango Berretin, Portland, OR on 1 April 2017
Milonga performance at Tango Berretin, Portland, OR on 1 April 2017

What's the best tango embrace?

Over the 20+ years I have danced tango, I have been taught LOTS of different "best" ways to embrace my partner in tango. Many students have come to me with sore arms, shoulders and backs "caused" by their partners. "What's the best way to dance so I don't get hurt?"

I see a lot of room for improvement in how we dance and how we teach the embrace. For myself, I have found that learning to stabilize my shoulders and arms has helped me dance better with more people, and with fewer injuries. As long as I am using my body correctly, I can do several different styles of tango embrace.

So what is best? Body-based choices. You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?

Anchor your shoulder girdle

You have several layers of muscles at work in your back. You want to make sure that the deepest levels of muscles are strong and aligned, and then stack the outer layers on from there. If you use too much neck and shoulder work for your embrace, you are stressing ALL the layers.

Since it is hard to feel the layers of muscle in your back (for most people), focus on one area: the lower tip of your shoulder blade, and the muscles that help anchor it into the center of your body.

back shot for shoulder girdle video with words.jpg

 

Exercises

Here are the exercises that I am currently for MY shoulder girdle strength!

1. Table top: Get your arms and shoulder girdle in the right position to use as a stable area.

2. Plank: Build your strength and stability by placing more demand on that area.

3. Negative pushups: After your can stabilize, continue to improve by increasing the demand on those muscles.

4. Pushups (and yes, I can't do these yet!). For those of you out there who do pushups: MAKE SURE you are doing them using these muscles, or you won't be training the correct muscles. Have someone watch you to make sure that the focus is back muscles. Yes, there are other muscles being used, but those muscles may not help your tango embrace as much.

 

Want more info?

For more in-depth info, I recommend two fabulous books that I use all the time to show my students how the body works:

  • The Anatomy of Exercise & Movement by Jo Ann Saugaard-Jones
  • Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain (and there is a related Exercises book)

Imagery to help you

Words get in the way. For many people, pictures work better (especially for my visual learners). However I can't transmit the picture in my head to yours without words and the pictures I draw while teaching. Here are some pictures that work for me or some of my students. If they don't work for you, throw them out!

  • Wine corkscrew: Think about opening a bottle of win. Your shoulder blades are the wings that pull down and in. Your neck and spine are the cork sliding straight up!
  • Hanger: Imagine that the back of your neck is the hanger handle, and that your shoulders and arms are following gravity, like a heavy coat drapes on the hanger. The coat does not need to hold itself up.
  • Tree: Your legs and torso are the main strength to hold up the branches. Imagine your head is the top of the tree and that you are REALLY tall. Relax your shoulders: the roots are holding you up. The tree on the right of the picture is the one I think about: it's on my college campus, and I spent a lot of time under it, playing guitar. Don't laugh too hard.
  • Fountain: Water shoots up and out of your head, falls to the basin of the fountain, and comes up the middle again. The shoulders are out of the picture! This can help with breathing as well as energy circulation.

Practice time = all the time you aren't dancing!

I definitely try to "forget" all of my technique and just dance when I am out dancing. In order to do that, my technique needs to be hard-wired into my brain so that it just happens. How do you get to that level as fast as possible? Do your tango homework all the time!

Practicing all the time does not mean carving out an hour or two a day to practice. I certainly do not manage that, and I am a dance teacher. Instead, I try to stay aware of how I move my body whenever I have spare brainpower.

I suggest:

  • Find good posture for your shoulders and middle back when you start work.
  • Set your computer timer so that it gives you a reminder every 30 minutes to find your center back, relax your shoulders, and restart your work with better posture.
  • Standing in line waiting for something? Use those extra brain cells for finding your perfect alignment so that you can use it in tango without thinking!
  • If you have a job where they don't stare if you do stretches, take 5 minutes of your break time and do the exercises above.
  • When you walk the dog, carry groceries, cart your kid around, etc., check in: are you working "smart" or cheating? Fix it!

 

Revisiting the "heels up vs. down" debate: walking backwards

A reader asked me to be more specific about how I have changed my tango walk to remove foot and back pain from following tango. Rather than write a comment on a three-year-old blog entry, I decided to have a fresh look at my technique and why I have chosen the tango style that I dance and teach.

Razan, thank you for the question: "Can you say more about walking backwards, i mean what exactly did u change?"

The short answer: video

More detail: body-based is best

The foot

The foot has a lot of moving parts. For tango, there are two main components: being on balance over your arches when not traveling; and rolling through your feet as you travel. Both take a bit of work to perfect.

The arches of the foot work like a springboard if your body weight is correctly placed on the foot. Placing your weight too far forward, onto the metatarsal bone heads, or onto the toes, makes your body work a lot harder to maintain good balance. It is not impossible to dance on your toes, but it will hurt your body.

As I say to anyone who points out some famous tango dancer prancing around on her toes: "If you are a trained ballerina, you can maintain your balance like that. On the other hand, what age do ballerinas retire? How long do you want to dance tango?" Not to mention that ballet, while pretty, is not tango.

Find your feet

Gently massage one of your feet. Find the part of your arch that is the softest/highest. That is what I call the MAGIC METATARSAL. That is the center of your foot arches. It is the keystone of your foot. It may not touch the floor, but if you keep your weight balanced over that part of your foot, you will be using your arches correctly.

Now, put your feet on the floor and walk around slowly. Roll through your foot like a cat. Feel how all the bones and muscles and ligaments and tendons GENTLY work together to make a fluid, strong step. Feel how taking front, back and side steps changes how your support foot "launches" you (I am still looking for a good word instead of "launch" or "push off" that makes fewer people tense their foot to move!).

When you stop traveling, your balance is not a static thing: there are micro-adjustments happening all the time to help you maintain balance. Close your eyes and feel how much variation there is in "standing still" and then try it on one foot: harder, isn't it? Let yourself feel/learn what your feet do to balance.

The ankle

The ankle's main movement is that of a hinge joint. Your ankle is happiest moving forward and backward. The bones of the lower leg, the tibia and fibula, help hold everything together. The ankle does have some movement side-to-side in the secondary joint of the ankle, which helps to stabilize the body over the joint.

For more than you probably ever want to know about the ankle, here's a clear video about the ankle.

How do you apply that to walking backwards?

Watch this video of people walking backwards. Look at how their heel is the last part of the foot to leave the ground when they push off (except for some of the girls in backless shoes :-).

If you let the foot and ankle move naturally, you get a much better step, every time. You will cause less wear and tear on your body per step, allowing you to both dance longer AND look more elegant.

What happens when you get tired?

When you stand up on your toes, you are constantly using more muscle work than when more at rest with the heel down against the floor (or against the heel of your shoe, as IT rests on the floor). Any time that you are using more muscle and work to stay upright, you are working harder. When you add that to standing/walking in heels AND backwards, for hours on end, you are talking about tiring out your body.

When you get tired, you begin to make mistakes. Your core gets tired, and you let your back start to take the brunt of your balancing act. You let your ankles roll in or out, as most of do not have perfectly balanced muscles to keep us from doing our favorite bad habit. After my broken toe this year, I have one foot that likes to roll in, and one that likes to roll out; not pretty if I get too tired!

However, if you put your heels down and use your feet naturally, you will have a lot longer you can dance before you are tired AND you can protect your body from injury better as well.

Images to help you change to heels down

1. Imagine that there is a thumbtack on the bottom of your heel, that gently pushes down into the floor as you roll over your heel (just as you would gently push a tack in with your thumb, to pin paper to a cork board). The floor is soft, like a cork board, so you don't need to tighten your body. Just let the heel sink into the ground (or your shoe if you are not barefoot).

2. Elephant feet: Let your foot be soft and imagine that it is HUGE and can easily hold you up. Softening your feet will help normal foot/ankle motion to occur.

3. Pouring sand: Imagine you are a mold, and each time you step, sand gets poured into the mold. First, it flows into the shape of your foot, then your leg, then you body, and finally to your head. The sheer weight of the sand holds you firmly to the floor so that you don't have to grip your feet.

4. What works for YOU? Tell me!!

A final thought: walking backwards is beneficial!

Walking backwards may actually be good for you! Check out this article and tell me what YOU think!