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!





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.

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!!

Anxiety and tango: getting out on the dance floor

During the past few weeks, I have watched my students and how they approach dancing tango (and other dances). One Thursday night, I am happy to say, several students were out on the dance floor, doing their thing. However, two more were sitting at the dance, not making much eye contact with potential dance partners; one was texting. Another beginning dancer was hiding in the bar and watching from where no one would ask him to dance.

One student told me that he may never go out dancing, but just wanted to learn tango. Several people have told me that their fear of asking someone else to dance has made it almost impossible to dance, although they have reached intermediate and advanced levels of dancing tango by taking lessons.

This is not only about my students. I had the opportunity to talk to other dancers at workshops and milongas during the past few weeks, and asked them about their experiences going dancing. Some told me of crying in their cars after the milonga, or not being able to walk in the door some nights. Only a few people seemed to find my question silly: "What problem? I love this!"

Most of the responses of current dancers were similar to those persons who were too scared to go dancing, but something must have occurred to get them over that initial hump, and out on the dance floor. What could make this experience work better for those of us who are shy, anxious, lacking confidence, or just starting out dancing? How can we get out on the dance floor more easily?

I would love to hear what you have to say about your experience getting out on the dance floor. What advice would YOU give to someone to help them get out there?

 

Access more of your tango knowledge on the dance floor!

Typical tango nightmare

The music begins. Joe Tango asks someone to dance. The floor is a bit crowded, which makes Joe a bit tense. The song is unfamiliar, which makes him more tense. The partner is someone he would like to impress with his tango skills: more pressure! Suddenly, Joe can only remember three moves. His brain freezes, and for a moment, he can't remember even a single move. Freak out time!

If you lead tango, I am sure this has happened to you before. For some dancers, this is how it feels at the beginning. For others, this is how it always feels when the room is crowded. People say to me, "I went to [x] milonga, and it was too crowded to dance, but YOU looked like you were having fun and doing cool moves!" (in an accusing tone of voice). "How did you do that?!"

How I deal with lack of space

The reason I don't freak out in crowded spaces, is that I had the equivalent of learning to drive in Boston as my training for learning to lead tango. Three years into tango, I spent four months over the space of two years, dancing in Buenos Aires. I led a lot at Torquato Tasso, La Viruta, even at El Beso.

My Spanish was eight weeks old when I first visited Bs As, so I had no idea how much negative attention I was attracting by leading. Some of the guys said rude things about "women drivers" and some women refused to dance with me. However, many guys simply tried to get me to run into them so that they could point out how badly I lead. Others just tried to run me off the dance floor.

I learned to protect my partner from other couples and from the tables at the edge of the floor. I saw that everyone else seemed to be leading just fine in small spaces, and copied their moves. I learned that a well-planted axis (an ample butt helps) keeps other leaders from taking your space. I experienced following good leaders with no space to maneuver, and alternated that with leading in the same spaces.

If you can't make it to Buenos Aires, go to crowded practicas. Or, set up chairs in your practice space, and dance around them. Attend classes focused on dancing well in small spaces. Practice is the only way to learn to do this.

How I remember moves easily

I have discussed how I arrange my vocabulary of tango moves in a way that makes it easier to remember more moves than my short-term memory has slots for recall. Here is an example of some moves from a student's lesson:


Apart from that, I practice moves in different combinations. I practice them to the right and left. I practice them as a leader and as a follower. This gives me more ease in recall, as I don't have to follow the same brain path to find a move; there are lots of connections between each move and at least several other moves.

How I deal with unfamiliar songs

At this point, I only hear a new song a few times each year. Very few of the tangos, valses and milongas that DJs play are strange to me, so I rarely have this problem anymore. So, the easy answer is: listen to tango all the time :-)

A more useful answer when you are already on the dance floor: tune into the "flavor" of the music. Explore the music with your partner. The next time you hear that tango, you will dance it better. Approach it as a new adventure, not a roadblock to good dancing!

One outstanding problem: shyness

I don't know the answer to how to deal with the nervousness that accompanies dancing with someone who you are nervous about leading. I get nervous when I dance with someone new who is above my level, even though I have danced tango for twenty years! Being a shy person, I think I will always struggle with this part of couple dancing. I just try to remember that they would like to enjoy themselves, and I try to give them a sensitive, connected, energized dance.

New beginning and intermediate sessions start week!

NEXT THURSDAY, new sessions!

FUNdamentals (7 PM Thursdays)
Tango, milonga, vals:
Making the music work for you
Moves that work in all three dances
Beginner & up

You make me cross! (8 PM Thursdays)
Cross in front, cross behind, lateral crosses...
Tips for leading and following
Combos with different kinds of crosses
Classic moves for the social dance floor
Intermediate & up

Om Movement Studi 14 NE 10th
$70/6 weeks
$105/6 weeks for both classes
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Come play with us!

What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango, Part IV

Below are a few odds and ends from Make It Stick that didn't fit anywhere else, but seemed important to share with you.

Why you need a teacher to master tango

 

We are all hardwired to make errors in judgment. Good judgment is a skill one must acquire, becoming an astute observer of one’s own thinking and performance . . . when we’re incompetent, we tend to overestimate our competence and see little reason to change… (Brown et al. 104)

One more piece of the learning puzzle remains: calibration. Calibration is: “the act of aligning your judgments of what you know and don’t know with objective feedback so as to avoid being carried off by the illusions of mastery. . ." (Brown et al 210).

It's hard to give yourself objective feedback when learning something. Brown et al. point out that many people have a false sense of mastery of information long before they actually know the new material well. Also, because we base our sense of mastery on our own subjective experience, we can be WAY off base about our level of mastery if no one else gives us a reality check (Brown et al. 111).

Taking private lessons, in addition to group lessons, is the only way to become a master of tango. If you don't care what level you reach, and you just want to dance a little for fun, you can get by with group lessons. Watching YouTube will not teach you the sublety of tango :-)


Deliberate practice usually isn’t enjoyable, and for most learners it requires a coach or trainer who can help identify areas of performance that need to be improved, help focus attention on specific aspects, and provide feedback to keep perception and judgment accurate. (Brown et al. 184)

 

It's OK to fail!

I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work. Thomas Edison

Western culture doesn't like failure. Many of us will do just about anything to avoid making mistakes, especially publically (Brown et al 90). Failure has spurred many new discoveries over the eons, and avoiding failure can make us so risk-adverse that we are too afraid to try anything new, to experiment to find new things (Brown et al 92-93). What if we were all too afraid to try learning? There would be no tango moves that had been created in the past 100+ years for us to dance. I think that most moves come from making mistakes while doing moves that already exist. What a boring dance tango would be without mistakes!

…to achieve expertise requires thousands of hours of dedicated practice in which one strives to surpass one’s current level of ability, a process in which failure becomes an essential experience on the path to mastery. . . The qualities of persistence and resiliency, where failure is seen as useful information, underlie successful innovation in every sphere and lie at the core of nearly all successful learning. (Brown et al 93)

 

There is no age limit

There’s virtually no limit to how much learning we can remember as long as we relate it to what we already know.” In fact, because new learning depends on prior learning, the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning. (Brown et al 76)

Humans continue to generate neurons in the hippocampus throughout life. This is the area of the brain where we consolidate learning and memory, so we should be able to learn as long as we make an effort (Brown et al. 172).

 

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right

Many people believe that their intellectual ability is hardwired from birth, and that failure to meet a learning challenge is an indictment of their native ability. But every time you learn something new, you change the brain. . . . “We become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve, and create . . .  the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control. (Brown et al. 23)

According to Brown et al., “Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it (35-6)." In studies of mastery, it has been seen that “ten thousand hours or ten years of practice was the average time the people . . .studied had invested to become expert in their fields" (Brown et al. 185).

 

Suggestions for Gaining Mastery

 

  1. Be the one in charge: “Mastery, especially of complex ideas, skills and processes, is a quest.” Don’t leave it up to the teacher!
  2. Embrace the notion of successful intelligence: Build on your strengths, but push your envelope. Figure out what you want to learn, what you need to do to get there, make a plan, and keep pushing yourself, testing yourself, and working on the areas that are weak.
  3. Adopt active learning strategies: “develop workarounds or compensating skills for impediments or holes in your aptitudes.” Make sure you aren’t just doing what feels easy and safe.
  4. Build the structure: look for the deep fundamental structures of what you want to learn, and build on those. That organizes all the learning, creates connections, and makes for successful learning (Brown et al. 159-160).

Where are you on your ten thousand hours? Get out there and dance!

 

 

 

What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango, Part III

Make It Stick: Why spaced, interleaved practice works

In the spirit of Make It Stick, I am adding details and presenting some review of the material from before, but in a different way here, to "make it stick" in your brain :-)

In this post, I am detailing how to think of the process of learning, and how you can use your practice best to retain information.

Effortful Retrieval

In effect, retrieval---interrupts forgetting. (Brown et al. 37).

Finding or remembering old information is hard because our brain has forgotten the cues or connections to the information stored, not because we have lost information permanently (Brown et al. 77). So how do we help ourselves keep information at our fingertips? Struggling to find old information forces the brain to make new connections, linking old information to new information and/or modifying the information we are retrieving with new details.

For tango, the way we self-test/retrieve information, is to try moves or techniques of moving, at practicas or milongas. If it works, you know it! If it doesn't, that is also clear. In one study that Brown et al. cited, students who didn't get tested at all on information forgot 52% of what they had learned after ONE week, while students who had been tested repeatedly, only forgot 10% (Brown et al. 55). What is the takeaway here? GO DANCING!

 

Repeated retrieval

To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort. (Brown et al. 45)

Once you have it right, don't stop practicing/reviewing! It is easy to misremember material. Often, if you dance with someone doing it wrong, you will change your memory of the move to what they are doing. Or, someone may remember it differently, and you start to form a memory based on the other person's version (Brown et al. 116-7).

Often in tango, we say that you have to learn something at least three times to remember it well. I have heard numerous teachers repeat this information. Why does repeating the learning experience help you remember? Relearning/recalling learning makes material clearer, connects it better into cues/memory and “weakens competing routes” of cues/memory (Brown et al. 83).

 

Elaboration

Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. (Brown et al. 22)

When you learn something new in tango, figure out how it fits into the information you already know. This creates connections in your brain that help you access the new information more readily. Find how the new move or technique fits into the big picture of your tango dancing, and you will remember the information better.

One way I help my students do this, is to present information that is closely related, but different. Each new step is connected into the material we have already learned.

For example, my advanced class is working on back paradas, leader front sacadas through the follower's back step, and single-axis turns from the follower's back step. For these three moves, there is only a slight change in the lead to produce different results (send the follower, but don't go; intersect the middle of the follower's back step; and intersect the follower's back step as close to the new landing spot as possible). When we work on them in the same class, the followers can feel the difference in the leader's moves more clearly, and the leaders can see when they have misjudged the movement (and have a backup plan in place, using one of the other options).

I often have students work together doing peer-teaching, which requires them to be able to explain what they are going in their own words.

 

Generation

As you cast about for a solution, retrieving related knowledge from memory, you strengthen the route to a gap in your learning even before the answer is provided to fill it and, when you do fill it, connections are made to the related material that is fresh in your mind from the effort. (Brown et al. 88)

Generation is "the act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation” (Brown et al. 87). If you have to generate part of the information (fill in the blank for example); you remember the information better because you had to work on retrieval more (Brown et al. 48).

Last week, I taught Tete's "famous ocho" and this week, I taught the reverse volcada that I think developed from Tete's move. I showed the class Tete's ocho, and asked, "What would happen if I moved away from the follower at this point?" Answer: the follower steps forward. "What could I do to prevent the follower from stepping?" Answer: the leader suspends the follower so that s/he can't step. "How do I need to move to get back on balance, moving line-of-dance, to exit?" Answer: [Usually] stepping behind with my left, then sidewises with my right foot, and then walking forward out of the move.

As we worked through each piece of the movement, I tried to ask a question that required thought. I can just show the move over and over, but it won't "stick" the way that requiring students to generate their own answers will. I am still working on this part, as I love to be helpful and provide answers for them :-)

 

Reflection

Take time to think about what you’ve just learned and tie it into what you already know; figure out what you need to know to make it all fit together, or what skill you are still lacking in order to be able to do this thing (Brown et al 209). What is the big picture? What is the overarching larger context for this new information?

People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery. (Brown et al. 22)

After a class, you should think about/note/write down the key ideas or moves that you have learned. This helps with reflection (retrieval of recently learned info), elaboration (connecting it to what you already know) and generation (putting it in your own words as you mentally rehearse it) (Brown et al. 88).

I write detailed notes during and after a class when I study with a new teacher, or if I want to remember a pattern to teach it later. For example, if I hadn't kept a notebook during my studies with Tete in 2000 and 2001, I would never be able to teach a class of his movements from memory in 2015!

 

What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango, Part II

Make It Stick: Why can't I remember moves when I go home after class??

Most people think that repeating information over and over is the best way to learn. In "massed practice," we repeat the same information/moves over and over again, until it feels familiar. Unfortunately, instead of creating long-term memory, when we do this, we are working with our short-term memory. As we loop through our short-term memory, the material begins to feel familiar. We gain confidence and feel good, as if we learned the movement really well. However, when we get home, we can't remember what we did in class (Brown et al. 83).

Just stuffing information into your brain does not help you learn. Think of cramming for an exam: you pass the exam, but is that information really available for later recall? For example, a tango festival, with twenty hours of lessons in a weekend, would be like cramming for an exam. How much of that information is still there a week later?

 

How to learn movement efficiently

Embrace the fact that significant learning is often, or even usually, somewhat difficult. You will experience setbacks. These are signs of effort, not of failure. Setbacks come with striving, and striving builds expertise. (Brown et al. 201)

 

Spaced Practice

Massed practice will not help you to learn tango. Instead, you need to space out your practice time. This helps your brain build the connections between the new information and what you already know, which cannot happen immediately. Also, the fact that you have to work hard to retrieve the information each time you practice, helps you learn more thoroughly (Brown et al. 65).

When people ask me how often they need to practice, or take classes, I tell them that it varies by person. If you want to improve, you need to review the information before you forget it; and then keep reviewing it. Personally, if I wait more than 48 hours to review something, I often can't find the information in my memory. So, for me, I need to practice at least every other day when I am trying to learn something new.

 

Interleaved Practice

The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice. Teachers and students sense the difference . . . and the compensating long-term advantage is not apparent to them. As a result, interleaving is unpopular and seldom used (Brown et al. 66-7)

Interleaving is studying at least two things, rather than just studying one. In an example from the book, a group of people who already were good at baseball were divided in two. One group was given massed practice of hitting several kinds of pitches, but one at a time. They felt good about how they were learning, and continued practicing for six weeks. The other group interleaved all the different kinds of pitches, never knowing what was coming up. They felt frustrated that they weren’t doing very well. At the end of six weeks of practice, they performed much better than the other group (Brown et al. 80-1).

Although I have used some of these techniques for years, some are new to me, or were things that I did not often do. I had felt pressure to make my lessons feel easier from my students, and had drifted towards too much repetition of one thing at a time. However, the changes I have made to class in the past three months have made a believer out of me: I am seeing results that I have not seen in 30 years of teaching! My students agree that class is more challenging and feels more frustrating, but they are learning faster.

 

Varied Practice

If you interleave different skills or moves, you learn better than working on one thing, but you can improve on that with varied practice: mix it up! Do things in different orders! Do different exercises and drills!

The evidence favoring variable training has been supported by recent neuroimaging studies that suggest that different kinds of practice engage different parts of the brain. The learning of motor skills from varied practice, which is more cognitively challenging than massed practice, appears to be consolidated in an area of the brain associated with the more difficult process of learning higher-order motor skills. (Brown et al. 67)

My guess is that tango counts as a higher-order motor skill :-) When I teach private lessons, I often write three- to four- moves on the white board, and then have the student dance them in different orders. With the "cheat" of seeing the names of the moves, or pictures of them, the student works through different orders of movement. After that, I ask that they do so without looking at the board.

 

 

 

 

What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango?

Part One: How the brain learns

Make It Stick

I have been reading Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel. This book covers several decades of learning research, aimed at the educated layperson. One of my students brought it to my attention (thanks, Marcia!) because she knows I am interested in ways to learn and to teach.

Expert performance does not usually rise out of some genetic predisposition or IQ advantage. It rises from thousands of hours of . . .sustained deliberate practice . . . slow acquisition of a larger number of increasingly complex patterns,  patterns that are used to store knowledge about which actions to take in a vast vocabulary of different situations. (Brown et al. 183)

Does this sound like tango to you? It does to me.

What have I found out? The way that most people think is the best way to learn is actually the worst way to learn. However, because it feels easier, learners ignore studies that show them how to boost learning and keep employing methods that don't work well.

I have seen a huge jump in retention of both technique and specific steps since I tweaked my teaching style to implement suggestions from Brown et al. in my teaching.

 

How does the brain learn?

Neurogenesis

Neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, actually happens in the brain BEFORE learning begins (Brown et al. 172). So that means that the intention to learn is a trigger for creating an atmosphere in the body that allows for new memories and motor patterns to stick! As a teacher, I find this exciting, because it means that, just by showing up for class, by intending to learn something new, a person is predisposed to learn.

 

Encoding

When you learn new information, dance or otherwise, the brain first encodes it:

...the brain converts your perceptions into chemical and electrical changes that form a mental representation of the patterns you’ve observed. . . we call the new representations within the brain memory traces. Think of notes jotted or sketched on a scratchpad, our short-term memory. (Brown et al. 72)

 

Consolidation

Each time you repeat the new movement or piece of information, the traces in the brain are strengthened. The brain "reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces," allowing for more connections to be made to other memory traces, so that it can be recalled at a later time (Brown et al. 73). The process of creating long-term memory storage is called consolidation.

 

Reconsolidation

In the next step of learning, the brain continues to work on the new material, reconsolidating it, pulling it out of storage, modifying it if necessary, and connecting it to more information to strengthen the memory, each time it is used: “Scientists believe that the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots and making connections to past experiences…” (Brown et al. 73).

 

Myelination

As you continue practicing, or using, the stored information, those neuronal pathways become coated with myelin. It acts like insulation, allowing the signals to move faster along those pathways. Brown et al. note that:

our learning it thought to be recoded in . . . the same area that controls subconscious actions . . . As a part of this process of recoding, the brain is thought to chunk motor and cognitive action sequences together so that they can be performed as a single unit [and they speed up]. (Brown et al 171)

In tango, this is why you can only do a new movement slowly at first. Gradually, you will be able to dance it correctly at higher and higher speeds: the improvement in performance is due to how fast the electrical signals can travel in your body.

Good news for older learners: our "neural circuitry" continues to grow into our sixties (Brown et al. 170)! Watching my older students, I suspect this actually continues longer, because some of the biggest gains I have seen have come from my students in their seventies.

 

So what does this mean for tango?

The next post will cover how to use this information to learn in a way that "makes it stick" so you can really dance!

 

 

 

 

Tango: practical vs. ideal (or, Why I teach Naughty Toddler)

One of my students felt frustrated when her dance partner returned after several months off. She practiced diligently during that time, and brought her dancing up to a good, solid level. However, she told me that, after dancing with me for a few months, she felt upset that her technique didn't feel as good with her partner, who is an intermediate leader. Why couldn't she dance as well as with me? Several other students have also commented that, "It's no use working on good technique when, on the dance floor, I never need it!"

So why do we work on having perfect technique? What about focusing on how to deal with dancing with real people, who do not dance perfectly?

Why work on ideal technique?

Yes, it's true that a "perfect" tanda only happens once every few years for me. Most of the time, I dance with beginner and intermediate students, who don't yet have the level of dance that would allow me to dance without effort. HOWEVER, when that unforgettable tanda happens, I want to have the chops to give back what I'm receiving from my partner. I work almost every day at my technique, after 20 years of tango, for those in-body experiences.

As your own technique gets better, you can maintain it under less-than-ideal circumstances. This gives you a better dance with someone than you would have with poor technique. I assume that, when I am dancing with a dancer at a lower level, one of my jobs is to my partner have a better dance experience. How? By dancing my absolute best technique. At Portland Tango Marathon, a long-time friend told me that I made him "look good" on the dance floor. Yes! That should be a given.

Why work on problem-solving, save-your-butt moves?

For me, I think a dancer needs to study both good technique and survival plans in order to dance well and to enjoy social dancing. I try to balance my classes so that we alternate working on ideal technique, flow/energy games, and what I call "Naughty Toddler," a game I made up while teaching at the University of Oregon about ten years ago.

Naughty Toddler is game where the dancers take turns NOT following and NOT leading. The partner needs to adjust in different ways to have a successful dance. This game is about getting out of your head, and into your natural body, letting your dance happen in spite of yourself; finding the flow of the dance.

I originally made up this game so that followers would give more energy to the leaders: how many of us have started tango dancing like robots, scared to do anything "wrong" that the leader didn't ask us to do? I have found that the game also helps leaders: it gives them real-life practice in dealing with unexpected situations. If you can survive Naughty Toddler, you can survive the dance floor!

The rules for naughty follower:

  • Don't follow!
  • Try to get your leader to run into other people/the wall/get flustered
  • Pretend you aren't dancing with someone else! Do your worst imitation of what you see on YouTube if you are out of ideas
  • Play!

What does the leader need to do?

  • Just like when working with a toddler, it's easier to cut off access to the forbidden space instead of saying no; don't wrestle, find a way to reduce the follower's momentum to zero, and re-take the lead.
  • Gentle hands: use your body position to block/redirect the follower. The hands for are preventing accidents if nothing else works.
  • Keep breathing and don't freak out: this is how it feels when you are a beginning lead all the time!!

The rules for naughty leader:

  • Don't lead!
  • Just dance around doing your own thing
  • It is still your job to navigate: make sure you don't run into anyone
  • Don't worry about whether the follower gets what you are doing

What does the follower need to do?

  • Hold onto the leader's shoulders
  • Stay in front of them
  • Don't worry about what foot to use, just stay upright

Naughty Leader helps followers get practice in how to stay on balance and dance as well as possible, even when there is no clear lead. It also helps leaders understand that they can allow themselves to NOT make a plan, and still have a dance.

Not everyone likes Naughty Toddler

If you are teacher, be aware that not everyone likes Naughty Toddler. Some of my elderly students sit down for the game, unless they have a trusted partner. It scares them because they are afraid of falling down. Another student refuses to play the game (although I hope she will eventually try it) because "it just doesn't do it for me" as a perfectionist: it pushes ALL of her buttons. She was shocked when I correctly guessed her motives for avoiding it. As a perfectionist myself, I know how useful this game has been for me as a dancer. Those who are very structured find the exercise emotionally uncomfortable. As a teacher, I am all about coaxing people out of their comfort zone into a stronger dance.

Bringing the ideal and practical together

The aim of working perfect technique and Naughty Toddler/energy games in tandem, is to create a vibrant, energized, joyous dance with good technique. Without energy, the dance is academic and cold. Without technique, it is lacking elegance and power. Put the two together, and ....you've got what I think tango ought to me.

Now go out there and dance!